James Reitman 21st Century Press 2008-02-08

Unjust suffering often results in frustration and confusion. Reitman, a specialist in internal medicine and retired from the U.S. Air Force, has produced an outstanding study of Job and Ecclesiastes, important wisdom books whose messages are urgently needed for today’s sufferer. In the foreword William Klein states, “In Dr. Reitman’s self-conscious and meticulous hermeneutical rigor . . . he explains his rationale for the format that he employs in the commentary—one that is both idiosyncratic and effective. In the commentary’s organization, his careful and analytical mind excels. . . . Beyond his attention to methodological precision, Reitman’s conclusions ring true to life—always the test of a commentary’s effectiveness” (p. 9).

In his preface, “Hermeneutics and the ‘Window of Suffering,’ ” Reitman outlines his hermeneutical boundaries for dealing with the existential crisis of unjust suffering. Beginning with a quotation of Job 6:22–25, he states that “chronically suffering patients at some point begin to look for some meaning in their suffering” (p. 12). However, unjust suffering usually elicits great dread and often leads to false responses and erroneous explanations, because “people seek a plausible explanation for innocent suffering that can relieve the terror of apparent meaninglessness” (p. 13, italics his).

Undeserved suffering raises some of the most intense questions about God and one’s purpose in His plan. Like Job, sufferers are confronted with the issue of God’s justice and sovereign will, especially if suffering continues beyond what they feel is a reasonable time frame. Many people today assume, as did Job’s friends, that all suffering is related to the sufferer’s personal sin. While John 9:1–5 and the suffering endured by Christ speak against this presumption, it is often the first explanation given by well-meaning “comforters.” Interestingly Elihu is seen as “the only one of Job’s friends who was able to restore insight after introducing himself as Job’s ‘advocate’ or ‘mediator.’ ” He is the “role model for the bedside ethicist” (p. 12).

Reitman feels that both Job and Ecclesiastes have similar approaches to dealing with the issue of unjust suffering. “Job and Qoheleth may thus be viewed as complementary protagonists in their disillusionment: Job reacts to the futility of unjust suffering from the perspective of maligned victim; Qoheleth reflects on the futility of all his achievements from the viewpoint of ambitious oppressor. Both dispositions are rooted in a natural human self-sufficient disposition toward life” (p. 13, italics his). Herein is one of Reitman’s greatest contributions: He skillfully deals with the issue of self-sufficiency when unjust suffering occurs. “This entails facing disillusionment in adversity with authentic mourning, forsaking self-sufficiency, and enlisting wisdom’s advantage in the fear of God in order to accomplish God’s preordained purpose” (p. 25).

Of special interest is the useful and practical literary and thematic overview of the argument of each book and the summary statements at the beginning of each division. Each summary paragraph includes a “so that” statement that is particularly applicable. For instance, in the summary paragraph regarding God’s speeches (Job 38:1–42:6) Reitman states, “With YHWH’s deeply sarcastic reaffirmation of His all-inclusive awareness and control over both inanimate and animate creation, the author discredits any attempt to indict God for ignoring unjust suffering, so that readers might confide in God’s infinitely wise government and His care and concern for them and then reflect on their own role in God’s creative purposes” (p. 154, italics his).

Reitman’s personal accounts of his struggles with unjust suffering during his military and medical service add to the legitimacy of his approach. Unlocking Wisdom is a remarkably practical and informative book. Pastors will appreciate its applicable principles, and it will be useful supplemental reading in courses that include Job or Ecclesiastes.

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