Question: "What does it mean that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away in Job 1:21?"
Answer: Despite Job’s immense loss and suffering in losing everything, including his children and livestock, he rightly praised God as “he fell to the ground in worship” (Job 1:20). He then said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, And naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (verse 21, NASB). Basically, Job is saying that he came into the world with nothing and will leave the same way when he dies (cf. Ecclesiastes 5:15). All that he ever had was a gift, and God is sovereign over those gifts.
There are different ways to translate Job 1:21. Some versions have translated it as directly referring to what happened to Job, such as the ESV, which says, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away.” Other versions translate the verse as a more universal statement about what the Lord always does, such as “The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away” (NET). Both translations are possible. Many people focus only on the second part of Job’s statement: “The LORD has taken away.” In so doing, they miss the godly perspective that Job had; even in his extreme sorrow, Job recognized God’s gifts: “The LORD gave,” he says.
Job’s statement that “the LORD gave me what I had, and the LORD has taken it away” (NLT) is full of good theology. All good things come from God (see James 1:17). And God is the ruler in the lives of men, sovereign over what comes to us and what is taken away. There is great comfort and hope in Job’s perspective that it was the Lord who had taken away his family and possessions. Job could have pointed to the wicked men who killed his servants (Job 1:13–15, 17) or to the natural disasters that killed his sheep and his children (verses 16, 18–19). But railing against human wickedness and natural phenomena does nothing to allay sorrow. Job chose to look higher, to the ultimate source of all things—he chose to look to the Sovereign Lord of the universe and to put his trust in God’s goodness. At times, God allows suffering in the lives of His loved ones, and during those times God’s loved ones must cling to the truth that God is good:
“I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD”
Despite Job’s statement that “the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” Scripture does not teach that God is the author of pain and suffering. Scripture is clear that suffering and death are ultimately the result of sin (see Genesis 3). In Job’s case, Satan was behind the tragedies, masterminding the pain (Job 1:6–12). God divinely allows suffering to happen and, in His sovereignty, even uses suffering for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). We, like Job, may not be able to fully understand why God allows certain things to happen, but we, like Job, can trust Him as good and holy (Isaiah 55:8–9; Psalm 34:8). As Job mourned, he “did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (Job 1:22). Later, he told God, “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:2–3). Job did not understand the reasons for God’s allowance of the suffering, but he accepted the fact that he did not understand everything.
Mankind should be amazed that the Lord gives good things to sinful humans. All people freely choose to sin and rebel against God in their hearts (Romans 3:9–18). But God continues to bless undeserving man with good things (Psalm 145:9; Acts 14:17). Most significantly, He gave His Son, Jesus Christ, to die in place of sinful man and offer the free gift of salvation (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8–9). “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
Job teaches us that, in all events, God is sovereign. “The LORD gave”—and we praise Him for His good and undeserved blessings. “The LORD has taken away”—and we praise Him that our loss is for our good and that He still has our best interests at heart. In all things, then, we say, “Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21, ESV).