Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 21, 2018
Job 38 Commentary
Job is a book full of long speeches by people who are absolutely sure of themselves. Job’s erstwhile friends have turned into prosecutors for the state, pressing their case that Job is guilty of great crimes. Otherwise he wouldn’t be suffering the way he is. And Job gives long passionate defenses of his innocence and even dares to challenge God to appear in court to vindicate him. In Job 31:35 Job says one last time, “let the Almighty answer me….”
But before God can answer, the youngest of Job’s friends breaks in with an impassioned, impertinent speech in which he doubles down on his older comrades’ accusations. Elihu has listened patiently, deferring to the age of both Job and his friends. Now he opens his mouth to school all of them and he goes on for 6 excruciatingly self-assured, self-righteous chapters. In his conclusion, he inadvertently anticipates what is about to happen when he refers to the “wind” and God’s coming in “golden splendor” in Job 37:21,22. Then he closes his mouth.
That’s when God opens his mouth “out of the storm,” which some interpret as whirlwind, while others read simply “wind or storm.” Given the weather events of late summer and early fall in America, maybe “hurricane” gives the best sense. Above the roar of the storm comes the immeasurably louder and more frightening voice of God. At last Job gets what he was begging for, a clear vision of God and a conclusive answer to his complaints and questions.
Except that God doesn’t seem to answer Job’s questions at all. God’s response does not explain his ways with Job; it challenges Job’s knowledge. Specifically, the format of God’s response is to ply Job with rhetorical questions to each of which Job must plead ignorance or powerlessness. God says nothing about Job’s suffering, nor does he address Job’s problem with divine justice. Job gets neither a bill of indictment nor a verdict of innocence. But, more important, God does not condemn or humiliate him—which surely would have been the case if the friends had been right. So, by implication Job is vindicated, and later his vindication is directly affirmed. This divine discourse, then, succeeds in bringing Job to complete faith in God’s goodness without his receiving a direct answer to his questions. (For these summary comments I am indebted to the NIV Study Bible.)
All of which raises an existential question for modern day readers. What would bring you to faith? What would be enough to convince you to trust God completely, even in your suffering? The book of Job gives a surprisingly post-modern answer—not a set of arguments explaining the ways of God with us, but a set of questions confronting us with the reality of God’s inscrutability; not reason, but revelation; not theodicy, but theophany. As the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Or as Job himself says in Job 42:5, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” That was enough for Job.
That won’t be enough for many of our listeners. After all, we have moved a long way past the ancient world in knowledge and technology and science. We have learned how to tame nature in many ways. We are the masters of our own fate. At least that seems to be the reigning mentality in advanced nations. I suspect that many of our “sovereign selves” will reply to Job’s God with a proud retort, “That’s not good enough. I demand more from God, if there is one. I won’t be bullied into silence as Job was. I demand an answer to the suffering of the world. I will continue to press my case against God until he explains himself and his ways to me.”
In your sermon, you could try to explain God, as Job and his friends did, to no good end. Or you could simply show people the picture of God painted by God in the words of Job 37-41. It will be hard to paint as well as God did, but you can at least show people the substance and structure of God’s portrait.
The substance of God’s answer is found in verses 2 and 3, where God says, in effect, “Who are you? Who do you think you are? In your exhausting attempt to come to grips with me and your situation, you have ‘darkened my counsel (my plans and designs and purpose) with words without knowledge.’” With all of his words (and by extension, the words of his friends), Job has confused matters rather than clarifying them. Job is being put in his place because he has not given God his proper place.
Then the God who has been the subject of much debate summons Job to a battle. “Brace yourself like a man (literally, gird up your loins).” But rather than assault Job with brute force and thus destroy him, God attacks Job with the same weapon Job has been using against God—questions. Stop for a moment there. That is a gracious thing. The Bible often says that we cannot see God and live. The reality of God is so overwhelming that, were we to be confronted by God as God is in himself, we would be, as Isaiah put it, “undone.” So, in his grace, God comes at Job by the side door, so to speak. Or to paraphrase Exodus 33:23, God will come in by the back door, using something with which Job is very familiar. But now the tables are turned. “I will question you, and you shall answer me.”
The first questions in our reading for today have to do with the origins and dimensions of the universe, questions that ought to be very familiar to our modern listeners. God’s questions to Job remind us that however much progress we might make scientifically on such matters, the fact is that none of us were there when it all began. And we remain infinitesimally small parts of the whole. That is the point of God’s questions in verses 4-7. Where were you when it all began? Tell me if you know the answer to these major cosmic questions.
Then in verses 34-41, God talks about controlling the weather and doling out wisdom. From Job’s impotence before the forces of nature and his cluelessness about the origin of wisdom, God turns to animate nature and spends the rest of his speech surveying the wonders of the animal world, including the monsters that so terrified ancient man, Behemoth and Leviathan. Again and again, God asks Job if he knows certain facts of nature or if he can provide for animal life or if he can control the monsters. Here God is showing Job his ignorance as well as his powerlessness, as a way of highlighting that God is God and Job is not.
With his 70 some questions, God subtly (or not so subtly) paints a picture of himself as a God so immense, so wise, so eternal, so sovereign, so utterly other that, in the end, Job can only stop his questions and repent of his sin. No, his questions about his suffering and God’s justice have not been answered, but he did get what he wanted most of all (as we heard in Job 23). He got to meet God. And that was enough for him.
But it may not be enough for us, because we only get to read of this encounter. None of us has had such a face to face meeting with God in the same way as Job did. So, we remain skeptics and doubters and complainers and accusers of God. How does God’s self-revelation here answer our questions about human suffering, divine justice, the existence of evil, and the sovereignty of God? As C.J. Williams says, “Job is a book that invites yet defeats every attempt at a tidy, conclusive explanation of those questions.”
But that hasn’t stopped scholars from trying. Here are a few of the major explanations of Job’s conundrums. First, Job discovers that there is order in the world. God reminds Job that there is order in the physical world, even if Job can’t answer God’s profound questions about that world. In the same way, there is order in the moral world, even if we can’t understand it. What may seem like irrational chaos is, in fact, ruled by a wise, just, and good God. That is true, even if we cannot grasp the shape of that moral order.
Second, Job shows us that God is sovereign over all things—inanimate nature, animate nature, and the affairs of humanity. God is so utterly sovereign that, once we meet him, all of our questions will melt away before his majesty. In other words, the answer to all our questions is, simply, God. Job understood this much better than we do, because, as I Peter 5:6 says, “He humbled himself under the mighty hand of God.”
But those explanations of the book of Job leave us with a picture of God as ineffable mystery or as abhorrent bully. That’s why I like the third explanation that focuses on one word in Job 38:1. “Then the Lord answered Job….” The word “Lord” there is that ancient, classic, essential name of God, Yahweh. It is the covenant name of God, the name that identifies the mysterious Almighty as the God who has taken his people by the hand in order to lead them to blessing beyond imagination. And that makes all the difference.
We have not heard that name since chapters 1 and 2, except one mention in chapter 12. When Job entered into his prolonged suffering and the exhausting debates it spawned, Yahweh became simply “he” or “the Almighty” or “my judge,” or “God.” That is, of course, exactly what happens when we suffer. God becomes more distant, or feels so. Our relationship with God is blurred by our pain, our worship turns into complaint, and our prayers of gratitude are transformed into agonized questions.
So, thank God that God reappears as Yahweh. Job couldn’t recover his sense of God’s love on his own. God had to break through his pain with a reminder. I am Yahweh, the God who spoke to Abraham and Moses face to face. Now I speak to you as Yahweh, as the God whose love will not let you go.
That brings us to the ultimate answer to the questions and challenges of Job, namely, Yahweh in the flesh. God doesn’t explain his ways in a reasonable argument. Rather, his reason, his Word, the divine Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. In Job 23, we heard that Job’s deepest desire was for God to appear to him, but he couldn’t find God anywhere. Now God has found us in Jesus, Immanuel, God with us in his own suffering and dereliction. God’s final answer to all our questions is Jesus.
That may not satisfy the questions of our minds, but it does satisfy the needs of our lives in ways too real for words. After explaining the Gospel of Jesus Christ in words that challenge the brightest minds, Paul ends the doctrinal section of Romans with words that might have come directly from Job. “Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths are beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor? Who has ever given to God that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36)
The indignant modern response to the message of God’s absolute sovereignty in the book of Job reminded me of a poem by Judith Viorst, in which a child dreams of being in charge of the world and making it a very different place.
If I were in charge of the world
I’d cancel oatmeal,
Allergy shots, and also Sara Steinberg.
If I were in charge of the world
There’d be brighter night lights,
Healthier hamsters, and
Basketball baskets forty eight inches lower.
If I were in charge of the world
You wouldn’t have lonely
You wouldn’t have clean
You wouldn’t have bedtime
Or, ‘Don’t punch your sister.”
You wouldn’t even have sisters.
If I were in charge of the world
A chocolate sundae with whipped cream would be a vegetable
All 007 movies would be G,
And a person who sometimes forgot to brush,
And sometimes forgot to flush
Would still be allowed to be
In charge of the world.
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