The glory of God is more important than your or my comfort. That is a statement with which all Christians will readily agree in theory. A Puritan prayer begins:
Lord of all being,
There is one thing that deserves my greatest care,
that calls forth my ardent desires,
That is, that I may answer the great end for which I am made—
to glorify thee who hast given me being….1
That is a fine and noble prayer. But it has awesome consequences from which we naturally shy away. Of course, we say, there can be nothing more important than the glory of God. What Christian could possibly disagree with that expression of correct piety? And yet before long we find ourselves recoiling from the implications of this statement.
The introduction of the book of Job in 1:1–5 portrays a world with which Disney would by and large be happy. It is a world in which the right people come out on top. We are ready, as it were, to go home happy, knowing it is all working out as it should. But then the action begins, with four alternating scenes in Heaven and on earth. The story is told sparingly and brilliantly, as a cartoonist might, as a few well-chosen lines on the page conjure up whole worlds of drama. In this drama we shall see that it is necessary for it publicly to be seen that there is in God’s world a great man who is great because he is good, and yet who will continue to be a good man when he ceases to be a great man. Ultimately, in the greatest fulfillment of Job’s story, we will need to see a man who does not count equality with God (greatness) as something to be grasped but makes himself nothing for the glory of God (Philippians 2:6–11).
Scene 1: Heaven (Job 1:6–12)
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and the Satan2 also came among them. The LORD said to the Satan, “From where have you come?” The Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the LORD said to the Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then the Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to the Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So the Satan went out from the presence of the LORD. (Job 1:6–12)
After the timeless introduction, which describes who Job was and what he habitually did, we read, “there was a day” (v. 6). And what a day! On this particular day something happened in Heaven that would change Job’s life forever.
The day began in what seems to have been a routine way: “the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD” (v. 6). The expression “the sons of God” speaks here of beings whose existence is derivative from God (hence “sons”) but whose rank is superhuman.3 The expression literally translated “sons of God” by the ESV is often translated “angels” (e.g., NIV). We meet them again in Psalm 29 (“Ascribe to the LORD, O sons of God,” Psalm 29:1, ESV footnote) and in Genesis 6:2.4 They form a “divine council” or heavenly cabinet, and we see reference to this in Psalms 82 and 89.
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment….
I said, “You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you.” (Psalm 82:1, 6)
For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD?
Who among the sons of God (ESV footnote) is like the LORD…
a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
and awesome above all who are around him? (Psalm 89:6, 7)
As members of God’s heavenly cabinet, they come “to present themselves” before him (v. 6). The expression “to present oneself” or “to stand before” means something like “to attend a meeting to which one is summoned” or “to come before a superior ready to do his will.”5 It is the expression used of the wise man in Proverbs: “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men” (Proverbs 22:29). That is to say, he will be a senior civil servant or a government minister rather than just a local council employee. The same expression is used with apocalyptic imagery in Zechariah when the four chariots go out to all the world “after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth” (Zechariah 6:5). First they present themselves for duty, and then they go out to do what they have been told to do.
This “day” that turns out to be so devastating for Job begins with a normal heavenly cabinet meeting. God summons his ministers rather as an American President might call his senior staff to an early-morning meeting in the Oval Office before sending them out for action.
Only one member of the heavenly cabinet is mentioned individually: “… and the Satan also came among them” (v. 6). The expression “the Satan” suggests that here “Satan” is a title, which tells us something about his role. The word “Satan” means something like “adversary, opponent, enemy.” The noun is used to mean an adversary in other contexts as well. When the Lord stops Balaam in his tracks, he does so “as his adversary [satan]” (Numbers 22:22). When the Philistine commanders tell the Philistine king Achish they don’t want David fighting with them against Israel, they say, “He shall not go down with us to battle, lest in the battle he become an adversary [satan] to us” (1 Samuel 29:4). Here in Job 1, it is not yet clear whose adversary the Satan is. It will soon become apparent that he is Job’s adversary.6
We are not told explicitly whether or not the Satan is present as a member of the heavenly council or whether he is in some way a gatecrasher. It is sometimes assumed that because the Satan is evil he cannot be a member of the council and must have barged in uninvited. So the Lord’s question, “From where have you come?” (v. 7) is read in a hostile voice (“What do you think you are doing here?”). But this is unlikely. The word “among” (v. 6) probably suggests that he is a member of the group.7 There need be no hostility or implied rebuke in the question, “From where have you come?” Probably it represents something like a President asking a Cabinet secretary for his report: “Secretary of War, it is time for your report. Tell us where you have been and what you have seen.”
In 1 Kings 22 the prophet Micaiah vividly describes the same heavenly council: “I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him.” Then as Micaiah describes the conversation in the council, “a lying spirit” speaks up and is sent out by the Lord to do his will (1 Kings 22:19–22). So there is apparently no inconsistency in “a lying spirit” being present in God’s council. In the same way, it will become clear that the Satan is present at the council because he belongs there. His presence (and indeed that of other lying spirits and evil spirits) has been described as being analogous to the expression in British governance, “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.”8 They oppose the government, but they do so in ultimate and unquestioned subservience to the Crown. Their opposition is a necessary and good part of British governance. They in themselves are devoted to trying to bring the government down; and yet in spite of themselves their opposition serves a purpose in making the government better than it would be in the absence of opposition (as tyrannies attest). In the same way the Satan will oppose Job and yet will do so in a way that strangely and paradoxically will eventually be seen to serve the purposes of the Lord. As Luther put it, the Satan is “God’s Satan.”
How the World Is Governed This description of the Lord and “the sons of God” gives us an important insight into the way the world is governed. Presumably this language of God sitting surrounded by a heavenly council is anthropomorphic language. God does not literally sit at the head of a council any more than he literally has hands or feet. This kind of language is used of God because we can understand it, to accommodate to our limitations. But what does it mean?
Broadly speaking there are three models for understanding the spiritual government of the world.
The first is polytheism or animism, in which the universe is governed (if that is not too strong a word) by a multiplicity of gods, goddesses, and spirits, none of whom is perfect and some of which are exceedingly evil. There is no absolutely supreme god or goddess, although some are generally more powerful than others. The end result is a universe filled with anxiety, in which we may never know in advance which spiritual power will come out on top in a particular situation, in which different deities have to be appeased and kept friendly, much as a citizen in a corrupt society may offer bribes to different officials, hoping he or she gets the bribes right in their amounts and their recipients. This is the world of animism and of Hinduism. In a strange way, it is also the world of Buddhism, where the “gods and goddesses” are within ourselves. Each person is his or her own god or goddess. Who knows who will win?
At its simplest this view becomes a dualism in which the world is governed by the outcome of an ongoing contest between God and the devil, who are thought of as pretty much equal and opposite powers battling it out for supremacy, like the Empire and the Federation in Star Wars. The devil is perceived as having an autonomy and agency independent of God. Some Christians are practical dualists in this way.
The second is a kind of absolute monism, in which the world is governed absolutely and simply by one God. What this God says goes, end of story. Above the visible and material universe there is one, and only one, supernatural power, the absolute power of the Creator of Heaven and earth. This model underlies the classic objection to the goodness of God: “If God is God He is not good. If God is good He is not God.”9
As I understand it, this is the model of Islam, and many Christians think it is the Biblical model. It is not.
Christian people can veer toward either of these, a dualism or a monism. Neither does justice to the Bible’s picture, which is more nuanced and complex. The Bible portrays for us a world that lies under the absolute supremacy and sovereignty of the Creator, who has no rivals, who is unique, such that there is no god like him. And yet he does not govern the world as the sole supernatural power. He governs the world by the means of and through the agency of a multiplicity of supernatural powers, some of whom are evil. That is to say, “the sons of God” represent powers that are greater than human powers and yet are less than God’s power. They include among their number the Satan and his lying and evil spirits.
Above the visible and measurable material world of human senses lies a world in which is the one Jesus calls “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31) and whom Paul will later call “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). “The air” here speaks of a region higher than earth (hence supernatural) but lower than the dwelling-place of God himself (Heaven). Our battle does not just take place at the human level (“against flesh and blood”) but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
This model is not dualist; the sovereignty of God is not compromised one iota in this model. But the nature of the government of the world is significantly different than in the monist model. We need to take account of these supernatural agencies, “the sons of God” in the language of Job and other Old Testament passages. And we need to grasp that the evil agencies, the devil and all his angels, while being supernatural and superhuman, are sub-divine. Satan is, to again quote Luther’s famous phrase, “God’s Satan.”
Some will object that since God cannot look at or have fellowship with evil (Habakkuk 1:13), he cannot allow the Satan to be in his presence. But this is to confuse fellowship with government. God can have no fellowship with evil, because he is pure light, and “in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5, 6). But he can use evil in his government of the world, and he does. His having business dealings, so to speak, with the Satan in the government of the world is not the same as suggesting that the Satan enjoys God’s presence in the sense of his blessing