God answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge.” Job 38:1 – the beginning of our reading from today’s lectionary, that marks the beginning of the end of the book of Job.
We’ve been plowing our way through the book of Job for quite a few Sundays now without going near it during the sermon time. Perhaps the book itself, like the dark, shadowy monsters that it talks about, poses too much of a threat to us small-time preacher persons. Who are we to think that we can grapple with the mighty issues addressed in the book of Job, when all the people who do grapple with them in the book do such a dismal job of it, and when the wisest of them all – Job – is summed up as someone who ‘darkens counsel by words without knowledge’?
And yet there’s something unavoidable about the book of Job, just as the fundamental question that the man addresses – ‘why do the innocent suffer?’ is one that we religious people especially find ourselves inevitably returning to time and time again.
Job is a long book – 42 chapters in all – and it’s mainly composed of a series of speeches that come in cycles between Job and his three friends. They are structured along the lines of a traditional debate where Job and each of his friends speak in turn to put their case, and eventually an adjudicator comes in (by the name of Elihu) to sum up the debate. This is then followed by the appearance of another adjudicator who surprises everybody by appearing out of a whirlwind, and He offers some more authoritative perspectives of His own on the debate.
The topic of debate though is clear from the outset: ‘why does God allow the innocent to suffer?’This is Job’s question. It is also our question. It is perhaps the religious question.
I remember when I was at University, getting very excited about Christian missions taking place on the campus. We would have a variety of different speakers, sharing the gospel from a variety of different perspectives, but the first question that would be put to the speaker from the unbelieving audience would always be the same: ‘why does God allow the innocent to suffer?’
Over my years of studying philosophy, the greatest intellectual challenge, in my view, put to persons of faith was that put by the ‘Logical Positivists’ and their successors during the early part of the last century. They wanted to know whether, even in theory, there was any way of disproving the Christian faith. Just tell us, they asked, whether anything, even in theory, could show your beliefs to be false. And the answer that came back was, well, that the suffering of the innocent issomething that seems to threaten to disprove what we believe about God!
Why do the innocent suffer? This is not just an intellectual question. It’s commonly a heartfelt emotional reaction we have when we’re trying to come to terms with another rank injustice.
A week ago I was listening to a man tell me about how his father was recently kicked to death by the border he had living in his house. Then the young assailant tried to hide the body in the closet and cover it with his clothes, so that it wasn’t found for ages. Why do these things happen?
I mourn daily for the terrible things calamities taking place through the continent of Africa. In Zimbabwe, I believe, millions of people are facing starvation. In other countries there, I am told, the AIDS crisis has become so serious that foreign supporting countries have actually given up. I’m told that in some areas, HIV infection rates are over the 90% mark, which includes children and babies and all sorts of persons that would never have brought this curse upon themselves.
Why do the innocent suffer? Why does God allow it? This is our question. It was Job’s question. I want to read to you part of the book of Job where Job raises this question very powerfully and very beautifully, in the chapter that I understand to be the actual centre-point of the book of Job – chapter 28, where Job asks the question, ‘where is wisdom to be found?’
I note that chapter 28 is a chapter that our lectionary compilers chose to overlook altogether, even though, in my understanding, it’s not only the centre of the book of Job, but is also central to the whole of the wisdom tradition in the Old Testament.
If you’ll forgive me extending my prelude to this reading a little more, this is part of the problem of reading Job. Not only is the book itself long, but it really only makes sense when you read alongside the other pieces of wisdom literature in the Old Testament.
Wisdom literature is the classification that academics have given to a number of unique books in the Old Testament that deal more in reflections on everyday life than they do with the history of the people of Israel or of God’s great dealings with anybody in particular.
The book of Proverbs is the most obvious example of wisdom literature in the Old Testament – a collection of wise sayings that are passed on from parent to child in order to instruct the child in how to live well.
The book of James, in the New Testament might likewise be classified ‘wisdom literature’, at least in part, in that it counsels us about the danger of loose talk and how it damages relationships, amongst other things.
To understand Biblical wisdom literature though, you need to understand that wisdom, from a Biblical point of view, is not simply about being clever in knowing how to get ahead. To havewisdom is to have an understanding of the way the world works – indeed, to have an understanding of the way in which God created things to work.
If you go around taunting wild bears, you’re likely to get yourself killed. This is wisdom. Likewise, if you go around saying nasty things about the king, you’re likely to get yourself killed. This is the way the world works. To understand it, this is wisdom.
If you are lazy, the writer of Proverbs warns us, you will end up going hungry. If you are truthful in your dealings with people, these people will end up trusting you. To understand this, this is wisdom.
And let me make two final quick points about the traditional Biblical understanding of wisdom:
Firstly, wisdom is ‘holistic‘ or ‘comprehensive‘. By that I mean that it incorporates the way things work at every level. There is no ‘scientific wisdom’ referring to the way things work in nature and then ‘relationship wisdom’ referring to the way relationships work. These are all part of the one ‘dao‘ as it’s understood in traditional Chinese philosophy. There is a way God made creation to work, and the way human beings relate to each other and the way in which the stars relate to each other in the heavens are all part of that same unified divine pattern.
Secondly, wisdom, according to the writer of the Proverbs, is not difficult to find. Indeed, in chapter 1 of Proverbs, Wisdom is depicted as a woman crying out from the street corner to whoever cares to listen.
“give heed to my reproof; behold, I will pour out my thoughts to you” (vs. 23).
Indeed, in the book of Proverbs, Wisdom stands on one street corner and she competes with the harlot who stands of the opposite corner, and they’re both crying to those who pass by ‘come to me, come to me’ – reflecting the fact that wisdom teachings were fundamentally being taught to young men rather than young women (though not exclusively so).
According to Proverbs, wisdom is comprehensive, and it is readily available. There is a way that God has created the world to work, and if you use your brain then you should be able to grasp it and to get in step with it.
It’s on this question of the availability of wisdom that Job takes the writer of Proverbs to task.
Job 28 – a poem that seems to be a reflection on ancient mining practices, but turns out to have a more serious point.
- Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold to be refined.
- Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from ore.
- Miners put an end to darkness,
and search out to the farthest bound the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
- They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;
they are forgotten by travelers, they sway suspended, remote from people.
- As for the earth, out of it comes bread; but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
- Its stones are the place of sapphires, and its dust contains gold.
- That path no bird of prey knows, and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
- The proud wild animals have not trodden it; the lion has not passed over it.
- They put their hand to the flinty rock, and overturn mountains by the roots.
- They cut out channels in the rocks, and their eyes see every precious thing.
- The sources of the rivers they probe; hidden things they bring to light.
- But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?
- Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living.
- The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
- It cannot be gotten for gold, and silver cannot be weighed out as its price�
- Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding?
- It is hidden from the eyes of all living, and concealed from the birds of the air.
- Abaddon and Death say, ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’
Can you pick up where Job is coming from? Job and the writer of the book of Proverbs would no doubt agree that there is a logic in the way that God has ordered the world. There is a rationale built into the created order. But according to the writer of the Proverbs, this rationale is readily available. Indeed, it can be encapsulated in simple equations. People who do the right thing do well in this world and are respected by their fellows. People who are lazy or dishonest don’t do so well. If you listen to wisdom you get ahead, whereas if you listen to the harlot your life will end up falling apart. It’s all very straightforward. Job says ‘it isn’t that simple’!
Job says that he’s seen good people suffer. Job says that’s he’s a reasonably good guy himself, and that he’s suffered terribly. Maybe there is a wisdom and a good explanation for it all somewhere, but it isn’t screaming out at him from the street corner. Indeed, you can dig your way through to the centre of the earth and you won’t find it.
Human beings, Job reflects, have had an amazing capacity to discover things that are hidden in seemingly inaccessible regions deep within the earth, but we still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer to some of the most basic questions.
I heard Mike Robbins reflecting yesterday on how is it that we worked out how to put a man on the moon before we worked out that we should put wheels on luggage?
Human beings have an amazing capacity to uncover secrets about how the world works, such that we’re able to build amazing computers and come up with unbelievable technology, but we still have trouble with the basic things, like working out how to stop killing each other!
There is a wisdom, Job would probably agree. There is an explanation to it all somewhere, I’m sure there is, but where that explanation is, God knows!
How do you come up with explanations for things like the holocaust? How do we explain to the people of Zimbabwe, why it is that they have to starve? We can come up with our own trite explanations of it all, but in the end they do not satisfy. In the end we find ourselves standing there with Job, asking ‘where is wisdom to be found?’
Now Job gets an answer of course, and not just from his three friends, who each take up the same position as the writer of the book of Proverbs. Job gets an answer from God Himself, who tells Job’s friends that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Of course God also tells Job that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about either.
Mind you, Job turns out to be satisfied with that. He doesn’t get the explanation he was looking for, but he does get a sense of God’s presence, and he does leave his encounter with God with a new sense of assurance that the big guy can indeed be trusted to take care of the big picture, and that ultimately, one day, we will see that it all makes sense.
This scenario is played out in the final chapters of the book of Job, but it is anticipated for us back here in chapter 28 – in the concluding verses that I didn’t read to you before.
23 God understands the way to [wisdom], and he knows its place.
24 For he looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens..
28 And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.'”
Can you see again what Job, or rather, what the Bible as a whole is saying to us about wisdom? For the book of Job is not just Job arguing with his friends, it’s different Biblical traditions arguing with each other. It’s the people of God at different times in their history, calling their own God-given wisdom into question and pushing themselves to come up with a better answer!
And whereas the Proverbs writer had said ‘wisdom stands on the street corner, readily available to all’, Job says ‘No’! Wisdom is not that easy to find. The answers to the big questions in life are not readily available to us, but this is available: ‘Fear the Lord’. That is wisdom. ‘Depart from evil’. That is understanding. We may never come to terms with the questions that bother us most deeply. God has not given us to understand the big picture of the way things work. But He has given us this: ‘Fear the Lord. Depart from evil.’ And yes, we can all grasp that.
In the end, the book of Job comes to the same conclusion as did Moses, as recorded in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
We do not stand in the same position in history as did Job and we certainly don’t stand in the same place in history as did Moses. We may justifiably feel that standing on this side of the cross, that a good number of things have been ‘revealed’ since Job took up his debate on the question of why the innocent suffer. Even so, we would not want to pretend that even the revelation of Jesus Himself gave us an answer to all of life’s questions. Indeed, the question of why the innocent suffer is as difficult for us today as it was for Job back then.
If this is so, then we can learn something from Job, and what we can learn is ‘humility’. People speak of the patience of Job, but what Job really learns through his pain is not patience but humility. He learns that there are a lot of things that he’s never going to understand in this life and that he has to accept this. He also recognises though that there are some things that he has been given to understand, and so the greatness of Job is that he keeps his integrity by standing fast by what he does know and not slipping into godlessness or immorality.
And this is the position that we, as Christian people, find ourselves in today. We don’t know everything, and we don’t do anybody a favour by pretending that we have an insight into all of the mysteries of life such as has been denied to the rest of the population. But we do know somethings. Some things have been revealed to us. We know of Christ. We know of His sacrificial death for us and of His forgiveness of our sins. We know of the resurrection and of the hope of the new and better world that this anticipates. And we certainly know what Job knew: that the fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to depart from evil – that is understanding.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 19th, 2003.