Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 28, 2018
Job 42:1-6, 10-17 Commentary
After surviving a blizzard of words (some from Job, many from his friends, and a few from God), we come to the end of the book of Job with this short chapter which reports on Job’s last words and last days. It is a surprising and, for many readers, controversial ending to a surprising and controversial book.
God has revealed himself to Job in a whirlwind of questions about creation, challenging Job to answer the questions if he can. In our chapter, a stunned and chastened Job replies with the last words we will ever hear from him. He already knew about God’s utter sovereignty; “I know that you can do all things; no plans of yours can be thwarted.” But sovereignty wasn’t Job’s issue with God; it was God’s justice. How could God allow/cause an innocent man to suffer as though he were as guilty as sin? After loudly proclaiming his innocence and pleading for God’s judicial intervention, Job admits his ignorance and confesses his arrogance.
Job thought he knew all about God; so did his friends. But God challenged that knowledge; “who is this that obscures my council without knowledge?” After seeing God, Job readily admits his ignorance. “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” It’s not as though Job could have understood more if he had just gone to a better school and had studied harder, if he had purchased a more advanced computer or used more complex software, if he had consulted more experts in theology. No, the things of God are beyond any human knowledge, “too wonderful to know.” In place of his irate challenges, Job is now filled with humility.
That humility leads him to confess his sin—not just his ignorance, but his arrogance. Job had demanded his day in court so he could plead his case, and God had finally given it to him. But God reversed the roles. “Listen now, and I will speak. I will question you and you shall answer me.” The overwhelming vision of this questioning God has put Job in his proper place before God. Hearing about God all his life had not prepared Job for the reality of God. When he finally saw God in all his glory, Job knew that he had fallen short of the glory of God. “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Above, I said that this is a confession of sin, but that is a controversial reading of verse 6. Some point out that the “worm theology” of despising himself is inconsistent with God’s high opinion of Job in chapters 1 and 2. God isn’t interested in Job despising himself, because God himself has exalted Job. Other scholars say that the word “repent” isn’t the usual word for that act of penitence in the Hebrew; it doesn’t necessarily mean an admission of guilt. Rather, it is an act of turning around, changing the course of one’s life. Still others contend that Job is simply recanting all the words he had spoken. I take it all back. I didn’t know what I was talking about, and I won’t say it anymore.
How one understands these last words of Job will depend on how one interprets Job’s challenges to God’s justice. Were they simply agonized lament, the most painful expression of faith? Were they inappropriate but understandable expressions of doubt, of little faith that is still faith? Or were they borderline blasphemy, a rebellious denigration of God’s holiness? I hear all three of those things in Job’s ranting, so I see why Job would feel the need to repent once he had seen God in all God’s glory. Even though lament is an important aspect of real faith, and even though God does not reject those who doubt in the midst of misery, there was enough arrogance in Job’s calling God to the dock to warrant genuine repentance.
It is important to make these distinctions, because we need to know how we must respond to God in the end. When it’s all said and done, what should be our response to the mysteries of life and the deeper mystery of God? Job suggests that humility and penitence are the proper posture of a child of God.
Indeed, the rest of Job 42 seems to suggest that Job’s response was essential to the restoration of life after all the suffering, both for Job’s friends and for Job himself. And that is deeply troubling to many readers. It’s almost like Satan was right; Job’s relationship with God does depend on God blessing Job fantastically. But, of course, Job hung with God through all his suffering, even if we grant that Job’s faith was not always as strong as it had been. Other readers allege that the end of Job proves that Job’s friends were right; if he would just repent, God would restore his life to its former splendor. But God directly tells Job’s friends that they were all wrong in what they told Job (verse 7). Further, God was angry about their wrong interpretation of God’s ways with humanity. It will take the intercession of Job to restore those know-it-alls to a right relationship with God.
Satan was not vindicated, nor were Job’s friends. God was and so was Job. And so everything is restored to its former state. Job is still a deeply godly man and God blesses Job accordingly. Indeed, God doubles Job’s blessings, almost as though God is rewarding Job for his persistent, though imperfect faith. It’s not that God is buying Job’s allegiance, as Satan alleged. It’s that God “rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6).” Or as Hebrews 6:10 says, “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him….”
Thus, it should not be surprising that Job’s life ends well. Actually, it is surprising to many readers of Job. As one said, “How is that by ‘despising myself’ and ‘repenting in dust and ashes’ I get ‘twice as much as I had before’?” That seems a bit cynical to me, as though Job is the recipient of a tit for tat legal contract. If you do this, I will do that.
What we actually have here at the end of Job is one more outworking of the covenant between God and his people, in which God sovereignly came to sinners, called them to walk with him, promised them amazing blessings, and then spelled out the exact terms of their walk with him. In his covenantal love, God promises to bless those who will trust and obey him. It’s not that their relationship with him depends on their complete trust and absolute obedience; it depends on his grace to them. But in his grace, he predicts what will happen if they don’t trust and obey, and he promises to bless them if they humble themselves and repent of their sins and return to him. To put it in the words of an old hymn, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”
But even if we can accept Job’s happy ending as another sign that God is kind and merciful to his children in the end, we are left with lingering questions that are deeply unsettling. What about this business of Satan having access to heaven and accusing us to God’s face? How could God bite on Satan’s bet and put Job through all this trouble? And, even though Job got 10 new children and they were really special, what about his sorrow over the 10 who died as a result of the contest between God and Satan? What about the theology espoused by Job’s friends that linked suffering and sin? Isn’t there something to that? Do Job’s tirades about the absence and apparent apathy of God give us permission to lodge the same complaints in our suffering?
I tried to deal with some of these questions in my Sermon Commentary for Job 1 and 2 several weeks ago, but the interesting thing about the end of this troubling book is that Job doesn’t seem to be troubled by these questions anymore. Not because God has blessed him into submission (verses 10-17), but because God’s self-revelation has made all the questions moot (verses 1-6). The enormity of God’s power, the complexity of God’s will, the goodness of God’s dealing with his creation, and the reminder that God has made himself known as Yahweh—all of that communicated in a vision was enough to silence Job’s mouth and change his heart.
Of course, that still leaves us with those profound questions. After all, we have not had such a face to face encounter with the living God. We have had no theophany; all we have is our theology. But, wait. If the Gospel is true, we have had an encounter with the living God. It was a theophany not of God’s glory to Job, but of God’s suffering like Job. “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, had made him known (John 1:18).” “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8 and 9) God has “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (II Corinthians 4:6)
True, we have not “seen” God as Job did. We have only read about the Word made flesh; as Job said, “my ears had heard of you.”. So we aren’t as overwhelmed as Job was. But the theophany of God in Jesus Christ shows us that the God who is such a mystery to us loves us beyond our understanding. That is finally the point of the book of Job, according to James 5:10-11. “Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”
That is the message that cuts through all our questions. “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” It may not seem that way to us in the middle of the mess. That’s why we need a prophet like Job to voice our troubles and then to demonstrate that our mysterious God is loving, compassionate and merciful. That’s what the last words of Job (verses 10-17) are designed to show. Job’s last days are a picture of the glory we will receive after we have suffered a little while (I Peter 1:6, 7).
We may shrink back from such an overtly eschatological message. Indeed, some scholars express outrage that such a message may silence the lamentations and complaints of those who suffer. But that’s precisely what Job doesn’t do. It gives full voice to our pain and confusion without giving easy answers. Then, thank God, it assures us that this moment of pain is not all there is. What comes after for those who will humble themselves and repent and believe is immeasurably better than what we’ve been through.
We must be careful not to minimize suffering, but we must be more careful not to minimize the glorious hope of the Gospel. Job is finally a call to patience in the face of suffering, because of the glory that will come later. II Corinthians 4:16-18 is a fine summary of that glorious hope. “Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (cf. Romans 8:17-18, 28-32, Romans 5:3-5 with James 1:2-4).
Two objects will help you preach the Gospel from Job—a Rubik’s Cube and a Cross. Is Job like a Rubik’s Cube, a puzzle that we must solve? Or does Job finally point us to the Cross where the Unseen God became visible as the One who suffered for us and our salvation? Questions are important and we should ask them passionately. But the ultimate answer is not a bunch of words that explain, but the Incarnate Word exhibiting God’s compassion and mercy by hanging on the cross.
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