“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2)
Yes, I’m quoting God from the book of Job, chapter 38, second verse – a book that I’ve finally decided, reluctantly, needs to be looked at.
I say reluctantly because it’s a depressing book, and depressing not only because it deals with the series of depressing events that befall the story’s main character, but depressing too because the man’s search for an answer to his problems never gets a result that I find satisfying.
I’m assuming that you are at least a little familiar the book of Job, but in case you’ve never read it let me give you a quick outline:
The book of Job is about a called Job (no surprises there) – a character who we are told at the beginning of the book was “a blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil”.
If you didn’t get to meet the historical Job, you’ve no doubt met his modern equivalents, and quite possibly in church. He’s the sort of guy who is so pristine and respectable that he probably makes you squirm a bit.
He’s the guy Winston Churchill described as having “all the virtues I despise and none of the vices I admire”. He’s just a little too clean and upright and Peter Perfect when we first meet him, but then everything falls apart for him.
All at once his children die, his livestock are killed, all his belongings are destroyed and he gets a terrible case of boils on his skin, and from this desperate position of physical and emotional desperation, Job begins his quest to get answers from God as to why such evil should befall a good man.
It’s a story that, up to this point, resonates with us on a number of levels. Job suffers. We too have suffered. We might not have suffered to the same extent that Job suffered and yet we would like to have answers just as Job wanted to have answers.
And so as Job goes on his quest – searching for answers to the things that don’t make sense in life, his quest becomes our quest, his questions are our questions, and if his God is our God, we look for his answer to become our answer.
Which is why it is so unsatisfying when we reach the climax of the story (some 38 chapters later) only to find that the answer God gives Job to his unjust suffering is some sort of riddle!
“Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (38.1-7)
For thirty-eight chapters we hear Job pleading his case with God:
“I would speak to the Almighty” he says, “to argue my case with God.” (13:3)
And in Job’s pain his prose degenerates into poetry (as indeed poetry has been described as prose with violence done to it) as he laments his inability to get an answer to life’s questions:
“Where is wisdom to be found and where is the place of understanding? Humanity does not know the way to it. It is not found in the land of the living – it cannot be gotten for gold!” (28:12-13,15)
Job rails, depressed and yearning for death:
“Why is light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death but it comes not, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures” (3:20-21)
Job cries the cry of the human condition, without papering over the cracks in life with any glib cliches: And it’s that experience that I suspect we have all had, where the whole of creation seems to have gone into reverse – where instead of light appearing in the darkness, the light that we have been living in seems to be being increasingly eclipsed and enveloped by the darkness:
“When I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came” (30:265)
And so Job cries out to God, not so much for relief, let alone a reversal of fortune, but simply for some way of making sense of it all, such that he can see that his pain is not meaningless.
And then God finally replies – out of the whirlwind God replies – but it’s not to be the reply we were hoping for:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! “
God’s tone seems cynical and aggressive, and God seems to completely fail to address the questions Job has raised. God resembles, in Job 38, a domineering school-teacher, giving a solid dressing-down to an errant schoolchild for having the temerity to ask too many questions.
“Who do you think you are, Job?” God asks. “Are you really the man to take me on over this”, God taunts!
And then over the succeeding two chapters, God parades in front of Job a whole series of weird and wonderful animals – hippopotami, ostriches and crocodiles, and a whole array of things in the created order that also don’t seem to make any sense, and it all seems to be designed to belittle Job.
It’s a passage that brings back to me one of my most disheartening memories of University, where a friend of mine asked (what was deemed to be) an inappropriate question to one of our lecturers.
It was Psychology I, and the lecturer had been lecturing us on Freud for a number of weeks, and on that particular day he had been going on for some hours, if I remember, on the subject of dream interpretation – telling us how whenever we dream, all the elements in the dream, no matter how innocent they might appear, are really all just symbols for sexual activity of one sort or another.
And my friend asked what I thought to be a quite legitimate question. She asked, “if all our dreams are really about sex, what about when we’re dreaming about sex? Are those dreams really symbolic of something else?”
And the lecturer went very silent, took his glasses off, stared directly at my friend and said, “Girly, you’re never going to get anywhere in this University asking questions like that!” And he then proceeded to dress her down with a series of statements that had nothing to do with the question she’d asked, such that I’m still not sure what his answer to that question really was?
It wasn’t much of an answer, I felt, and when I listen to God’s answer in the book of Job I find myself making the same response: It isn’t much of an answer! And yet I can almost hear God speaking to me through the pages of this book saying, “Well – you’ve heard a lot worse!”
And indeed, I have heard worse, and so have you – glib, cliched, superficial answers that pass themselves off as wisdom:
“Don’t you cry now. God obviously needed your dad in Heaven”; to which the obvious answer is,”well, why would He when I need him down here?”
“Oh but God obviously had a good reason for taking your grandma/your mother/your child/your puppy “
“And don’t you doubt that because doubting God’s wisdom in these matters is a sin and you mustn’t question the wisdom of the almighty.”
We’ve all heard that sort of dribble and (dare we confess it) we’ve probably sprouted some of it ourselves at some point in our Christian walk.
And yes, the answers God gives to Job might not be what we were looking for, but certainly we’ve heard worse and certainly we hear a lot worse in the book of Job itself.
Indeed, if you trudge your way through the entire book of Job you’ll find that the vast bulk of it is made up of three cycles of dialogue between Job and his three ‘friends’ who are full of answers to life’s troubles.
The friends of Job are well drilled in Biblical theology. They know their Bibles and they know that the only reason you get punished is because you sin, and so they plead God’s case very eloquently, pointing out to Job that he is a sinner and that if he is suffering, it must be something he has brought upon himself, and that even if he isn’t aware of the particular sin that brought about his misfortune, he should stop living in denial and confess his faults in the hope that God might forgive him..
And it’s all very simple and it’s all very logical and it all makes sense, and it’s all a great load of rubbish so far as Job is concerned (and, it seems, so far as God is concerned)
God’s response to Job might not answer all our questions but it’s certainly a step up from the glib and simplistic responses of Job’s friends, and the other interesting thing about it, of course, is that while God’s response to Job might not satisfy us, it did satisfy Job!
This in itself is significant, I think, and scholars do like to theorise as to why Job finds God’s riddles so gratifying.
The general thought is that while Job doesn’t get an intellectually thorough response, he is nonetheless spiritually and emotionally satisfied through the experience of God’s presence. And this is as may be, but if we stand back and leave aside any psychological analysis of Job, it may be sufficient in itself to recognise that Job does get a response from God, regardless of the content of that response. For while the three friends see it as their role to speak in defense of God, it seems in the end that God is quite capable of speaking for Himself!
Job has his day in court, so to speak, and maybe that was all he needed. And maybe that’s the real word of hope for us in all of this – that even though God’s response to Job might not exactly work for us, there is assurance for us here that God does take our questions seriously – that God is not deaf to our questions, let alone to our suffering. God does take us seriously and God will ultimately engage with us, even if it be in God’s own way, in God’s own time.
So why does God allow us to go through the things that we go through? Well, the book of Job suggests to me that I can confidently leave God to answer that one for you for Himself!
That might not be the solution you were looking for, of course, any more than God’s response to Job was exactly the answer you were looking for, yet we have to deal with life as it is and with God as God is, or as Job would put it:
“shall we accept good from the hand of the Lord and not evil?” (2:10) “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21)
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 2009.