Eliphaz, early in his first speech, sets the tone for much of the following dialogues by introducing the theory that suffering is the result of sin.
When persons disobey God and do wicked things, they will have to pay the consequences. Many texts in the biblical history and the prophets have laid out this formula for making sense of the ups and downs in the history of Israel. It may work in a general way as an overview of the nation’s history. When it is applied to individual lives, it becomes very problematic. It is, of course, often true that misdeeds lead to bad outcomes. People do bring suffering on themselves through self-destructive behavior. That does not mean, however, that one can look at a sufferer and assume that the reason for the suffering can be traced back to some sinful action on the part of the sufferer.
This doctrine of suffering as retribution for sin lies in the background of the lengthy conversations between Job and his friends. Job’s is a tough case because he looks like a good man who does not deserve such a fate. Job believes in this doctrine as much as the others. His problem is that he does not think it is working, because he is innocent. For him, the problem is with God who is not acting justly. On the other hand, the counselors look for some sin in Job that would justify his terrible experience. Their idea of suffering as retribution can be upheld if they can demonstrate that Job, outward evidence to the contrary, really is a sinner worthy of his fate.