Today’s reading is the third of four readings from the book of Job, an extended exploration of human suffering through the story of one man and his family. In the chapters following last week’s reading, Job continues his complaint at length, with just a brief response from one of the friends, Bildad.
Bildad asks how a mortal can be righteous before God, implying that Job’s pride has blinded him to his sins. The readers know, however, having read the prologue, that it is not Job’s sin but rather the heavenly wager that has brought about Job’s suffering.
In chapter 32, Elihu, a fourth and previously unseen friend, enters the fray. He argues along the same lines as the other three, emphasizing that suffering may serve to bring people back to God. In 37:2, Elihu sets up the divine speeches which are to come in the lectionary reading for today, ‘Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth.’ He emphasizes God’s provision for the world, which is beyond human comprehension, a similar picture to that which is painted in chapter 38. Some commentators see Elihu as a dramatic device used by the author to heighten the tension before the inbreaking presence of God.
In the dramatic passage of chapter 38, God at last answers Job out of the whirlwind. That God answers at all is a vindication of Job, and an answer to his prayer for God to appear. It is uncertain who is the implied object in 38:2 ‘Who is this who darkens counsel by words without counsel?’ It may be Elihu who is intended, as his rhetoric had become rather disdainful of Job, ‘Hear this, O Job,’ in 37:14, for instance. Alternatively, God may have Job in mind here, as the following verses imply.
God, however, seems more to thunder than to listen, turning the tables on Job, saying, ‘I will question you.’ God asks a series of rhetorical questions, asking Job where he (Job) was at the creation of the world. God uses sarcasm, ‘surely you know,’ to undercut Job, who has spoken rashly and questioned boldly in frustration at his situation and the abuse of his friends. While the irony and sarcasm are biting in these verses, we will find in next week’s reading in the epilogue that God vindicates Job, and says he has spoken rightly of him. God does not imply that Job has sinned (as the friends would have him believe), but only that Job is creature and not creator.
There is yet a harsh beauty in the poetry in the divine speeches, as God asks where Job was ‘when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy.’ The painter William Blake has a beautiful depiction of this verse, with the various strata of creation unfolding under God’s guidance.
In vv. 39-41, God softens the rhetoric a bit (though still using the rhetorical questions), reminding Job of God’s providential provision for all creatures. This passage has similarities with the wisdom Psalm 104, the psalm set for this week, celebrating God’s sustenance of the complex web of creation, though with the underlying message that Job is not able to comprehend or approach God’s majesty.
This is not the answer Job expected with any clarity as to why bad things happen to good people. Nor is it the hearing in a court that Job had envisioned in last week’s reading from chapter 23, where God would not contend with him out of power, but would hear him and vindicate his cause. Instead, God takes the focus away from the close-up questions of Job’s life and suffering to a wide angle picture of the whole of creation where God’s sustaining spirit under-girds everything.
In preaching this passage, one might reflect on any comfort there may be for Job in being reminded of God’s providential care at the heart of all creation. There are connections that might be drawn here with eco-theology, seeing humanity as but one of the creatures in a web of inter-connected creations.
In preaching this passage in the context of Christian worship, one might tie in the reading for today from Hebrews 5:1-10, in which Christ is seen as the great high priest who offers up ‘prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears…[who] learned obedience through what he suffered’ (Heb. 5: 7-8). The God who appears in Job does not hold out the comfort Job had hoped for, preferring instead to expound the majesty and otherness of God. On the other hand, the God who comes in the incarnation in Jesus Christ is a priest who can hear the cries of the heart, and intercede before the majesty of the creator. This God who is overwhelming and distant in the face of Job’s personal concerns, is yet one who in Jesus Christ overcomes that distance and takes human struggles into the heart of the creator.
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