Audio is available here: When God Shows Up (Job 38-40)
We were with Job when the wheels fell off. We were with him as he gave voice to his complaint. We were with him as he voiced his near-despair at the absence of God and very real fear at the possibility of God’s presence. We were with him when he determined to press on with God no matter the risks or consequences. And this morning, God shows up.
At last, God is going to address Job. You will recall that Job has put God on trial. He has made his case against God—I am righteous, yet I suffer. Job has dismissed God’s “defenders”—his friends who keep telling him that he is mistaken, that he has, in fact sinned, that for his suffering to cease, he must first repent, that Job’s persistent claim of innocence is only compounding his suffering. Words poured over words with the friends defending God and Job refusing to back down. And all the while, in our courtroom, God, who is at once defendant and God, sat silent.
Until now. Now, at the book’s conclusion, God—both defendant and judge—to speaks.
What’s he going to say? What would we like him to say? What would we like him to look like? Perhaps you want him to look a little like Clarence the Angel from the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. After all, Job, just like George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), wishes that he had never been born (Job 3). And it would make sense, after all the suffering that Job has borne, that God would present himself as a small, rumpled man. Gentle. Softspoken. Ready to console and to explain. “Here Job is why all this has happened. Here is how your suffering fits into my wider plan for the well-being of the world. I know it was hard Job, but I promised never to make you bear more than you were able. Now, isn’t it a wonderful life after all?”
But that is not how God presents himself is it? No rumpled Clarence steps forward to declare the wisdom of God. God presents himself to Job, but not in any sort of human form. God enters into the Job story as a whirlwind, a tornado. Something uncontrollable and dangerous and frightening. That is how God appears and the symbol through which God speaks.
In your mind perhaps you can imagine it. We are still sitting on the ash heap with Job and Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar. They have been joined by a fourth friend, Elihu, who is now speaking. And Job is listening. But as Elihu speaks, Job notices over his left shoulder, a stirring in the clouds. It grows. The skies darken. A tornado is heading straight towards them. And just when Job thinks his suffering is about to end in his own ignominious death, a voice booms out of the storm:
“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?”
Uh oh. No kindly pastoral counsel here. No warm fuzzies. Indeed, no answer at all. God refuses to answer Job’s question. God refuses to answer Job’s complaint. His address is altogether different and unfolds in two speeches.
In the first, the introduction to which is our lection for today, God introduces Job to the vastness and wildness of creation by asking Job a series of rhetorical questions: “Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who set the boundaries for the sea? Can you make the sun shine or organize the stars? Can you make it rain?” God begins the first part of his response by highlighting the big things. God points Job to the first day of creation, when the spirit of God hovered over the waters, and light and darkness were created. He points him also to day four, when the sun, moon and stars were set in their places. Obviously, this is not a scientific treatise. It is a pregnant, poetic description of creation’s “largeness” if you will.
What is God doing in describing creation so? We need to be clear here that while this is a rebuke to Job, it is not a “How Dare You?” It’s more like, even if I wanted to answer your question, you wouldn’t understand it! Creation is vast Job. It is beyond your capacity to fathom. It will always outstrip your attempt to know it. And it is striking to me that the more we know about the universe, the vaster it becomes! The more we know about quarks and quasars and neutrinos and supernovas, the more questions are opened up. Sometimes it seems like the more we know, the more we know we don’t know!
Not only is creation vast and beyond your understanding, God goes on, but the creatures that dwell therein are wild and beyond your control. God continues with his questions: “Do you know anything about mountain goats or wild donkeys? Can you tame the wild ox? Does an ostrich even make sense? (That’s my favourite). Look at the horse pawing and galloping and rejoicing in battle. Look at the hawk and the eagle. Do they do your bidding?” Not only is creation too big for Job’s mind to encompass, but it is also utterly untameable. It is wild. It is free. It runs on its own rules, over which Job is not in charge and of which he knows nothing.
So, God shows up—does he ever!—but not to comfort or console. He comes to question. He comes to turn the tables yet again. And he comes to rebuke Job. But not by refuting Job’s questions. He rebukes by reminding Job of his place in creation, of the human race’s place in creation. Creation is vast. And it is wild. That’s the world you live in Job. The world does not revolve around you and your need for an explanation.
Now, if you find God’s first address unsatisfactory, you are not alone. We have been sitting with Job. We have felt his pain. We have seen in his pain and suffering a mirror of our own, of that of our friends and family. And when he called out for an answer last week, when he expressed his anger at God’s silence and terror at the possibility of God’s presence, we were in his corner. Cheering him on. And finally God arrives.
And . . . . And . . . . Well, and how dare God not give Job and us the answer he needs and we want! How dare he tell us that Creation is too vast for us to comprehend, too wild for us to tame, to tell us, in effect, not to be so self-centred! But that’s what God does. His gaze moved away from himself to the vastness of creation and the transcendence of the creator, Job is now looking for a way to get out of this conversation that he had been looking for, for 37 chapters. “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once and I will not answer; twice but will not proceed further.” Job wants this encounter to end!
But God doesn’t. He continues as he began. “Gird up your loins like a man and I will question you,” he says. He challenges Job to take on the attributes of divinity. To clothe himself in glory, and to tread down the wicked. If you can do that, God says, then, I’ll acknowledge your victory.
Then he describes the two enemies Job will have to face. The first is a mighty land beast known as Behemoth. It is massive and powerful, with bones like bronze and limbs like iron. Some have wondered whether it’s a real creature—a hippo or perhaps an elephant. I don’t think so. I think it is a literary device. It wraps up and embodies the wildness of creation that God has just been speaking about. But more than that, it casts that wildness as enmity, both to Job and to God. If you would win, if you would govern creation and so speak to me as my equal, Job, this is the enemy you must subdue. Can you? I made him, Job. The enemy who makes you cower, I made him. I can approach him with my sword. Can you?
The second beast is even worse than the first. The second beast lurks in the sea. He is the symbol of the watery chaos that hovers at the edges of creation always threatening to undo it. This second beast is Leviathan. Leviathan rules the seas. He is covered in overlapping armour. His heart is hard as stone. He breathes fire. He is impervious to every human weapon, laughing at all attempts to bring him down. Leviathan is so vast, so powerful, so threatening that when he raises himself up, even the gods fail and flounder in terror before him. The gods—the very angelic beings who presented themselves to God at the book’s outset—even these cannot stand before the mighty Leviathan. On earth, God says, Leviathan has no equal. Can you lay hands on Leviathan, Job? Can you capture him, Job? Can you make him a pet for your daughters, Job?
You will recall that when “the satan” presented himself before God to bring an accusation against Job, we said that character was not “Satan,” or the devil in any Christian sense. And yet, we cannot say that Satan is absent from this troubling book. For God makes plain that he has enemies—even if they are his own creations, they are still in some way resistant to his reign, opposed to his rule. If Satan is to be found in the book of Job, it is here in the description of Leviathan. Certainly, when the devil is described in the book of Revelation as a mighty dragon and named, “that ancient serpent,” echoes of Leviathan are in the writer’s mind. Leviathan is chaos brought to life. Here is the power of chaos to undo the vast and wild yet orderly and good creation of God. Here is God’s great enemy.
What’s the point here? What is God doing by bringing these ancient monsters into his picture? Is not a vast and wild creation enough? It looks like the answer is no. Creation is wild and creation is vast. And in some way, creation is also fallen and even if created by God, is in some profound way at odds with God. And if Job would hear and understand an answer to his complaint , not only would he have to govern a creation that is vast and wild, but also the creatures who are opposed to his reign.
And Job knows he cannot do these things. When God has finally finished his panoramic description, Job says “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” The prosecution, in other words, withdraws its case.
So it is that God speaks. So it is that God does not answer Job’s complaint. Instead, God’s speech discloses to us a vast creation in which humans are not that big a deal. A wild creation which thrives regardless of what humans think about it. A creation that even contains mighty enemies who would rebel against their Creator and undo his creation and humans too were it possible.
And then what? Well, part of that question we have to defer to next week. But for now, we can note that Job simply collapses in silence. He says, in effect, “I will say no more.”
But is it the intent of God in the Job story to silence Job? Is it the intent of the writer as he gives this story to us? I don’t think so. Remember the writer’s assessment of Job’s complaint—in saying all these things, Job did not sin. I think there is something much more subtle going on.
There is, it seems to me, a question implied in God’s description, a question implied in God’s straightforward assertion that Job cannot goveJob, and to us who echo his complaint, “Do you trust me?”
The world that you live in, Job, that we live in, is one that is vast and wild and at times opposed to the reign of God. It is such that we humans are not its center. It is one in which suffering visits both the righteous and the unrighteous. It is one in which, often, things are not “fair.” It is all those things, says God. Now, do you trust me? If I gave you the full answer of why the world is this way, you would not comprehend it, says God. It is too vast for you. So I must ask you another question: in the absence of that answer, will you trust me?
And that it seems to me is the question that is posed by the entire canon of Scripture, if we are to take it seriously. Even as it calls the people of God, whether we are talking about Israel or the Gentiles grafted into the covenant, even as it calls them to live as holy people, Scripture is not one extended virtue and vice list. Even the command to obey is couched in the act of love: “If you love me,” says Jesus, “you will obey my commandments.” Scripture does not disclose the secrets of the universe—indeed, we have seen that it sometimes does just the opposite. Scripture does not tell us how to live a happy life, for the lives of believers will be marked by the same highs and lows, joys and pain that are common to all humanity. Instead, it gives us a picture of creation—vast and wild and rebellious. It gives us a Creator who says he knows what he’s doing, a Redeemer who conquers creation’s enemies and cares for his people. And then Scripture poses the question. Will you trust him?
So, will you?