God’s Answer in Questions
Don’t you hate it when someone answers your question with another question? The dialogue might go something like this. You ask, “What do you mean by that statement?” And the reply you receive is, “What do you mean?”
At first reading it appears that God answers Job’s questions with a series of questions of his own. For chapter after chapter, Job has been asking the age-old question, “Why?” Why have my children died? Why have I lost all my possessions? Why has my health been destroyed? Why is God so far from me? Throughout his ordeal, Job has maintained his innocence and integrity. He never curses God to his face as Satan had predicted. He really was a blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil. He was not sinless, but he was remarkably sanctified. Over and over, Job pleads with God to grant him an audience, to explain why all of this has befallen him.
In Chapter 31, Job makes his final appeal. “O that I had one to hear me! I would give him an account of all my steps; like a prince I would approach him" (vs. 35a and 37). Job demands a hearing. He promises to give a full account of his life. He boldly declares he would approach God with his head held high. The narrator concludes Chapter 31, “The words of Job are ended.”
After a long and deafening silence, after a painful and protracted absence of God, the Lord finally appears and speaks. God appears in the narrative suddenly and dramatically. A tornado materializes before Job, and God speaks to him from it. A great wind that claimed the lives of his seven sons and three daughters was the climax of Job’s loss and sorrow. Now another great wind appears, and with it God finally utters his voice. “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind" (Job 38:1a).
God begins by rebuking Job for his lack of counsel and knowledge. "'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?'" (Job 38:1b). But notice carefully that God does not deride Job. Ignorance is not a sin. Job is simply in the dark. He had no knowledge of what transpired between Satan and Yahweh (Chapters 1 and 2).
As God says through the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8-9). Job, like all the rest of us, could see in a mirror only dimly. He knew only in part (1 Cor. 13:12).
And so, God answers Job with a series of rhetorical questions all of which call for an answer in the negative. God is not being obtuse or flippant or ornery, as a person is when he or she answers a question with another question. God is calling Job out of himself into a wider world. God is inviting Job to see life with a new and clearer vision.
First, God likens himself to a builder. "'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?'" (vs. 4-6). God laid the foundation of the universe. The Lord determined its measurements. God stretched out the plumb line to make it straight. Yahweh sunk the bases and laid the cornerstone of the cosmos.
The angelic beings witnessed the Lord’s creation and sang together, lifting shouts of joy at the work of God’s hands: “The morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy" (vs. 7). Human beings were the last creatures to inhabit God’s good world. The universe was already populated with innumerable hosts of heavenly beings and intimate objects, fauna, and flora. God seems to invite Job to join his tiny voice with the great angelic song of creation.
Next, God likens the divine self to a woman who gives birth. The Lord birthed the ocean, clothed it with clouds, and swaddled it in thick darkness. God also established the boundaries of the oceans. "'Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?" (vs. 8-11). One cannot help but think of the opening words of Genesis. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep" (Gen. 1:1-2).
God goes on to lead Job on a whirlwind tour of creation. God asks him about the morning, the underworld, the light, the snow, the storm, the rain, the constellations, the clouds, the lion, the raven, the ibex, the wild ass, the wild ox, the ostrich, the horse, the hawk, and the falcon. Why does God question Job about all these wonderful works of creation?
Frances Anderson has been a most helpful guide to the book of Job. He makes these poignant observations about God’s questions. “Their initial effect of driving home to Job his ignorance is not intended to humiliate him. On the contrary the highest nobility of every person is to be thus enrolled by God himself in his school of Wisdom. And the schoolroom is the world. […] Their aim is not to crush Job with an awareness of his minuteness contrasted with the limitless power of God, not to mock him when he puts his tiny mind beside God’s vast intellect. On the contrary, the mere fact that God converses with him gives him a dignity above all the birds and the beasts, assuring him that it is a splendid thing to be a human being.” That is beautifully said.
God invites Job to enter a world that is wild, unpredictable, risky, free, and dangerous. It is a non-human centered world. God invites Job to look around, breathe, and live. God does not answer any of Job’s questions. In fact, there is no mention of his experiences or problems. Instead the Almighty gives him a new perspective on human life. Instead of Job's being curved in on himself, folded in two by grief and tragedy, God invites Job to gird up his loins like a man and stand upright before Almighty God and live again.
And perhaps most important of all, God is present with Job and breaks the long silence. God speaks directly to Job. He does not address Job's friends. He speaks only to Job. As one commentator observes, “That God speaks at all is enough for Job. All he needs to know is that everything is still all right between himself and God […] It is this assurance that is restored by the Lord’s speeches.”
It strikes me that the times we are living through make us a lot like Job. This wretched pandemic continues to rage. Economic hardship is all around us. The nation is divided against itself politically, ideologically, racially, economically, and socially. Social unrest continues to swirl around issues of social justice, policing, and the monuments of our nation’s past. The national debt continues to pile up. The presidential election is four months away and promises to very, very ugly.
Why has all this befallen the land of the free and the home of the brave? Why are our leaders so inept? How long can all of this go on? Will there ever be some form of resolution? Will we eventually know peace, justice, and social cohesion? Or will things continue to spiral out of control?
Like Job, we wonder, “Why?” And like Job we are largely in the dark. We lack counsel and knowledge. Like Job we live in a wild, risky, free, unpredictable, dangerous, and non-human centered world.
But also, like Job, God has spoken to us, not from a whirlwind, but by sending Jesus Christ, the speech of God made flesh. As Hebrews says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by the Son" (Heb.1:1-2a). God’s speech to us in Christ is a word of life and hope.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Ex. 34:6). Our sins are forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice. God is for us, not against us. Death, our last enemy, has been overcome through Christ’s resurrection. Even if we die, we will live again. And though the wrong seems oft so strong, God will overthrow evil when Christ comes to judge the cosmos in righteousness. This is the message we have received from God amid the whirlwind of this fallen world. Despite the chaos of our times, this is still our Father’s world. We can rest ourselves in this thought. Tragedy and suffering and sorrow will come, but they will not be the final shape of our reality.
So, let us live in hope. Let us walk by faith and not by sight in this vale of tears. God has spoken to us, not from a tornado or in questions, but in his Son. Everything is still all right between us and our blessed Lord and only Savior, Jesus Christ, the King of all creation.
Thanks be to God who does not remain silent but speaks, inviting us to join him and live in this mysterious and marvelous world. Amen.