As the horrific tragedy continues to unfold before our disbelieving eyes, perpetrated by men and women claiming to act on behalf of the nation of which we are citizens, my grief and anger continue to mount. We are learning a great deal about the values of our fellow citizens and the commitments of fellow Christians. In shock and disbelief, and growing fear of the future of our nation, indeed our planet, I feel my faith in God begin to waver, certainly my faith that “justice will roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-rolling stream,” is shaken by the growing tide of hatred, injustice, and oppression.
In times like this, the book of Job offers not a comforting, but a challenging read. It’s not a book that comes up often in the lectionary—I went back through my files and discovered that it’s been more than five years since I’ve preached on it, so it’s worth taking the time to take a closer look at it. In the first place, if your only encounter with Job is through a Sunday School class decades ago, or through the still fairly common phrase, “the patience of Job” try to erase from your mind anything you might think you know about the story or the book.
Let me offer a brief overview of the text as a whole as background to the verses that we read today. Job is a complicated text that in its in present form reflects a good bit of editing. It begins and ends with narrative; in between are many chapters of dialogue and poetry. The basic story is quite simple. It begins in heaven, with a member of the divine court, the Satan, the adversary or prosecuting attorney, discussing with God the righteousness of God’s servant Job. The adversary asserts that Job is righteous only because he’s had it easy and is wealthy. God invites the adversary to test Job. Job’s daughters and their husbands are killed, his herds and flocks destroyed. But Job continues to assert his faith in God. Finally, Job himself is beset with boils on his skin. He sits in the middle of the street, scratching the boils with a potsherd, a fragment of pottery.
His wife tells him to curse God and die, but Job refuses. In his terrible distress, three friends come to comfort him, or perhaps gloat over his reduced circumstances. They tell him repeatedly, over several chapters, that Job is punished for some sin he has committed, that he should repent of that sin, and ask God’s forgiveness. But Job persists in claiming his righteousness, refuses to accept his friends’ assessment of his situation.
Finally, in his despair and frustration, Job changes tack and the book becomes something of a trial. Now God is in the dock and Job is the prosecuting attorney. Again, over a series of lengthy speeches, Job demands to know of God why all this has happened to him. Throughout all this, God has been silent since first allowing the Satan, the Adversary, to test Job. As Job presses his case, leveling the charges against God, God remains silent, absent even. This brings us to the end of chapter 37.
After all of that, after all of Job’s suffering and anguish, after chapters of Job’s charges against God, finally God replies:
The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.”
And that’s that.
After all of that suffering, after all of the insufferable comments from his wife and so-called friends, after his anguished speeches appealing to God to explain why all of this was happening, now finally God speaks. And what is God’s answer?
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?”
What kind of an answer is that?
Well, I would like to go back and lay another level of interpretation on this drama. The book of Job is a challenge to our assumptions that our lives and the world make sense. In the biblical tradition, there’s a strong tendency to equate faithfulness to God with material prosperity. You see it in the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs especially. They are faithful, and they are rewarded with land, flocks and herds, abundant wealth, even offspring. The book of Job, although it was written rather late, seems to be set in the patriarchal period, and in the beginning of the story, Job as a righteous man is also wealthy.
In so many ways the worldview, the theology of Job and his friends is not that different from our own. We believe that if we work hard we will be rewarded, that our success is a sign, not only of who we are but is also a sign that God has blessed us. And when we see people less fortunate than ourselves, we often attribute their fates to the decisions they made. We look for rational reasons for personal success and failure, and even something like illness, cancer, can be viewed as punishment—what did I do wrong that caused this? What behavior led to this? What is God punishing me for?
It’s a seductive theology, pervasive not only in the recesses of our minds, but perhaps, like Job’s friends, when we judge the situation of others. It’s a theology, a worldview, as I said, that assumes the universe operates according to laws, that things happen for a reason, that we can make sense of it.
But then something comes along that calls such a rational, well-ordered universe into question. It could be a natural disaster, a profound injustice, or a personal setback. And suddenly none of it makes sense, and we’re with Job, calling God into the dock, trying to bring God to explain why things have gone so wrong for us or the world, or perhaps, our faith is so utterly shaken that we begin to doubt God’s very existence.
We want the world to make sense. We want evil to be punished, good to be rewarded. We want the arc of the universe to bend toward justice. But it may be that all of that is only our fondest hopes, grasping at straws as we’re fleeing a sinking ship. Maybe the universe is chaotic, arbitrary.
But there is a certain faithfulness in questioning God. Job might have taken his wife’s advice early on his ordeal. He could have “cursed God and died.” He might have accepted his friends’ assessment of his situation, sought in his past behavior some key to explaining his plight. But he did neither of those things. He questioned God; he challenged God.
And in response, God came to him in a whirlwind and spoke. Job had a profound, moving, life-changing encounter with God. Later on, Job will say, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5)
The answers that the book of Job offers to the perennial questions of human existence: Why do bad things happen? Why is there injustice and suffering in the world? Does any of it mean anything? May not be particularly satisfying or reassuring, but they also don’t try to candy coat or evade the difficult issues.
God responds to Job in two ways: first by reminding Job of the vast gap between Job and God: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?” God tells again the story of the creation of the universe, and of God’s power in creating it. God is omnipotent, and far beyond our comprehension.
But there’s another response in God’s words. As God describes the act of creation, God uses language and imagery that emphasize its plan and orderliness: “Who determined its measurements, or who stretched the line upon it? … who laid its cornerstone…”
It’s not only that God created the universe in its beauty and mystery, and human beings in it; it is also that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God is in charge, God is working God’s purposes out. Those purposes may be opaque, hidden to us; they may confuse and confound us; they may leave us in despair and doubt.
But they do not leave us alone. God answered Job, and God speaks to us. God is present with us in the midst of suffering and chaos. Job learned that God comes to us in our suffering, doubt, and need. Nothing need shake our faith in that. Thanks be to God!