A voice from the storm - Job 38
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A Voice from the Storm
In 1949 the Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, wrote an essay entitled, God in the Dock. In this essay, Lewis points out that one of the massive differences between an earlier generation of seekers of God and those of the present day is that there used to be a fair degree of humility because people had a sense of approaching someone infinitely greater than themselves. That has all changed. He said, “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles have been reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being God who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.”
In many respects what Lewis said is true. But interestingly enough the Book of Job provides an exception, because here, at around the time of the patriarchs like Abraham, we see God, as it were, being put in the dock by Job himself no less.
As one writer puts it: ‘At the beginning of the book it looks as though Job is on trial…But in terms of the development of the book, it is clear that it is God who is on trial; suffering and evil are merely pointers to towards the greatest problem of all, namely, God!’
It is obvious that Job is more than indignant about his situation of misery and the accusations of his friends that somehow he is the guilty one. He wants God to vindicate him and if that is at the expense of God’s righteousness then so be it. And you can understand that. Just listen to these cries of three women: ‘I am falsely accused.’ ‘If it was the last moment to live, God knows I am innocent.’ ‘I am wronged. It is a shameful thing that you should mind these folks that are out of their wits.’ Those were the anguished appeals of Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, and Martha Carrier which fell on deaf hears before they were hanged at the Salem witch trials in New England in 1692. And as such they stand as a haunting reminder that few things in life are more terrible than to feel we are falsely accused. Well, that was Job’s feeling too.
We have seen that the drama in the book is set out like a courtroom which can be thought of as a triangle made up of three protagonists. There are Job’s friends who are accusing Job of wrongdoing which is why he is suffering. There is God who is being accused by Satan for setting up a faulty system of rewards and punishments and there is Job who also feels that God is not behaving as he should.
So, if God is in the dock, as he is in the minds of many people today and in the mind of Job and the Satan, then what must happen for God to lose his case that he has not set up a flawed system of morality, that it is possible for people to do good for its own sake without any thought of personal gain? The quickest way would be for Job to take the advice of his wife, ‘Curse God and die’ (2:9), for then the Satan would have been right; Job was in the ‘God business’ only for what he could get out of it. It is sad to say that there are those who profess to be Christian believers who take that same attitude. They are only committed to their religion so long as they have a good job, good health, nice family and a thousand and one other things which make life pleasant. Dare God take away any of these, then he touches the apple of their eye and soon becomes an object of disdain. Of course, what they have been worshipping is a false god, a sugar-daddy god, who is no god at all. And maybe the sooner that is exposed the better.
The second way God could be shown to be failing is by Job following the advice of his friends in trying to appease God. This springs from a false view that God is unprincipled and capricious like some drunken, abusive father; you just never know when he is going to blow up so you are walking on eggshells all the time, forever anxiously trying to placate him. But had Job gone along with this, the Satan’s charge would have held, Job was only interested in himself and not truth or justice. Those are Satan’s charges which don’t stick, because Job doesn’t give in; he really is righteous and God is vindicated in his choice of his man.
But what of Job’s charge against God that he is being unjust? This would hold if the retribution principle were to remain unmodified. This is where the argument of Elihu comes into its own that some hard things come our way not in order to punish us but to instruct us, perhaps getting us to change our priorities and checking our spiritual drift. It is obvious that the world doesn’t operate in a strict cause-and-effect kind of way because we can see that many a good person has suffered terribly while many a tyrant has died peacefully in their sleep. So might it not be that things are a little more complicated in the world: bad things do happen to good people?
But Job is still insistent that God appears and defends himself, and seems to take God’s silence as a sign that he has surrendered to Job’s accusations for example 31:35, “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defence—let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing.’ With the possible implication he hasn’t because he can’t.
However, God eventually does appear and speaks but not quite as Job had hoped, he speaks out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? (38:2–3). As G K Chesterton writes, ‘[God] is quite willing to be prosecuted. He only asks for the right which every prosecuted person possesses; He asks to be allowed to cross-examine the witness for the prosecution.’ In fact God bombards Job with some eighty rhetorical questions. There are three types of questions: first, who questions, which point to God’s power, for example 38:28. ‘Who father’s the dew? Secondly what questions, which emphasises Job’s complete inability- 39:27, ‘Does the eagle soar at your command and build its nest on high?’, and thirdly, have you ever questions reinforcing the limits of human power and knowledge- ‘Can you bring forth the constellations?’ (38:32).
It is right at the outset of this close encounter of the Divine kind that we see a massive change of pace as the poetry of God outstrips everyone one else’s, showing that God is taking things on to a whole new level: ‘Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me, if you understand. . . . Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place . . . ? Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble . . . ? Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons . . . ? (38:4–5, 12, 22, 31–32).
Job is barraged with question after question (38:39 – 39:30): ‘What about the animals? Do you provide for them, Job? Have you got so great a mind that out of nothing you could come up with such a strange looking bird as an ostrich? You think you are so wise, Job, and I am so useless!’ Job had wanted an interview with the Almighty, and that is precisely what he got. It’s as if God is saying: ‘Just who do you think you are Job? To protest your innocence is one thing, but to act so high and mighty that you accuse me of injustice is another. In order to make the right judgment upon me and what I am doing you have to have a lot more wisdom and knowledge than you do have. You have not been able to answer any single one of my questions Job, questions to which I have all the answers. Does it not therefore occur to you that I might, just might, have the answer as to why I have permitted you to suffer? If you cannot comprehend the intricacies of the creation which you can see, then can you honestly expect to grasp the mysteries of the spiritual realm which you can’t see? Only I, God, can do that and that includes the mystery of suffering’
God’s defence wasn’t quite as Job expected. At the first pause Job answers: ‘I am unworthy (literally, I am humbled) – how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth’ (40:4). The way litigation was carried out in an ancient Jewish court was not for someone involved in a lawsuit to convince the judge or jury of his innocence, but his accuser, so that the plaintiff would withdraw his accusation and acknowledge defeat by placing his hand over his mouth. That is what happened to Job, his case for the prosecution against God collapses like a stack of cards.
We might also ask: why should we presume that God owes us an explanation as to why he allows suffering, any more than he owes us an explanation as to why he made the ostrich the way he did? It may be true that whilst we can’t see why he should design so peculiar a bird, no doubt God had plenty of good reasons for doing so, if only known to himself. So could not the same be said for suffering? In other words, if there is a fair degree of mystery when it comes to trying to understand the workings of an ordered universe, how much more so when it comes to trying to understand suffering in a broken universe?
More to the point, is it not reasonable to trust a God who has both the wisdom and the power to create so mind-boggling a universe, even if we may not be able to understand all the whys and wherefores of what happens in it?
Job finally realized his mistake, which is often ours, namely, to think that we are privy to all the facts, when we are not; we are under the illusion that we can ‘out god God’ as it were, and maybe secretly think that if I were God I would do a much better job of running things. No, our response should be that of Job’s, not to rise up in arrogance and demand that God explain everything to us, but to repent of our presumption and fall down in worship before him- 42:1-6, ‘Then Job replied to the Lord: ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, “Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?” Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. ’ You said, “Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’
Isn’t it interesting that the book which starts out with our questions for God ends up with God’s questions for us? That is one of the risky things about reading the Bible, you can end up with the Bible reading you and that can make you pretty uncomfortable!
Someone has put it like this: ‘While the divine speeches make Job’s finitude clear, their focus is on Yahweh’s power and wisdom in creating and ruling his world. Job is as much rebuked as, together with the characters and the audience, called to a new wisdom of trust and even wonder- a discipline of humility and faith in the midst of mystery and suffering that returns again and again to God’s ability to rule his world justly and lovingly.’ That’s about right. There comes a time when intense questioning has to be replaced by humble worship
Suffering and evil are problems to us, as they were to Job, not because God is too small and struggling like the rest of us, but because he is so great that we cannot fathom what he is doing. An old Portuguese proverb puts it like this, ‘God writes straight with crooked lines’. There is meaning in it all somewhere (God is writing) but with crooked lines (and so we find it difficult to read).
You see, at the end of it all there are only two corners of the ‘triangle’ left. God is just and Job is righteous and the retribution principle does not hold true in every situation and certainly not here. His friends were wrong about God and Job and it is they who are in the dock, as we shall see in a couple of weeks’ time. So this is what we are left with:
But you may still be feeling somewhat sceptical, whether having gone through all the trials and questioning, a humble worshipful submission is really possible. You may think that while such a posture can be concocted at the literary level with a book like Job, real life it isn’t like that. I sympathise with you if you think that, I really do. But God has furnished us with examples of people whose faith having been forged upon the anvil of pain have come to know God as almighty, all loving and all wise, whilst resting content with what they didn’t know. One such man was George Mueller.
Together with his wife, Mary, he set up the Ashley Down orphanage in Bristol and during the course of their lives cared for over 10,000 children. They also established 117 schools which offered Christian education to more than 120,000 children, many of whom were orphans.
It is almost beyond our comprehension to think of how God used such a couple for the benefit of so many as they exercised their simple faith in him. It was a faith tested many times, but the greatest test came with the death of Mueller’s wife of thirty four years to rheumatic fever. Having been through so much together with so much more yet to do, was it possible for Mueller to rest in God’s wisdom?
Mueller preached at her funeral laying out three points, his third being, ‘The Lord was good and did good in taking her from me’. Under this point he related how he had prayed for her during her illness, ‘Yes, my Father, the times of my darling wife are in Thy hands. Thou wilt do the very best thing for her and for me, whether life or death. If it may be, raise up yet again my precious wife, Thou art able to do it, though she is so ill; but whatsoever Thou dealest with me, only help me to continue to be perfectly satisfied with thy Holy will.’ Then looking back on the way God responded to this prayer he said, ‘Every day I see more and more how great is her loss to the orphans. Yet, without an effort, my inmost soul habitually joys in the joy of that loved departed one. Her happiness gives joy to me. My dear daughter and I would not have her back, were it possible to produce it by the turn of a hand. God himself has done it; we are satisfied with Him.’
Like Job, George Mueller came to be satisfied with nothing less than God himself.
 P. C. Craigie. ‘Biblical Wisdom in the Modern World; III. Job’, Crux, 16 (1980), p 8
 See John Walton and Andrew Hill, Old Testament Today (Zondervan, 2004), p. 307.
 G K Chesterton, ‘The Book of Job’ in Selected Essays (Wilco, India, 2009), p 93
 Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’ Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction (IVP Apollos, 2013), p 148
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