Job 48:1-8, 42:1-6 | Matthew 7:7-8
So this week we come to the end of God’s reply to Job.
You’ll recall that last week, God challenged Job – and, even more so, Job’s friends, with the accusation that they were speaking words of apparent wisdom, words of great confidence and understanding, words which were totally at odds with their profound ignorance about the things of God.
The opening of God’s response, I suggested, was a challenge to anyone who is so confident that they understand the world, understand God, understand others, that they can declare with certainty “this is the truth”.
A challenge to anyone who believes that the answers to the problems we face are simple and clear, and that only those who are foolish or wicked would disagree. For, as the 20th century American author H. L. Mencken wisely said, “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. In fact, as we see in our world today, for every complex problem, there are in fact multiple answers, all of which are clear, simple, contradictory, and wrong.
Today, we reach the end of God’s answer.
And if last week was “you know nothing”, then this week is “for you are so small”.
Job demanded an answer of God. He wanted God to justify God’s actions, to explain why Job had suffered as he had.
And after God had criticised all those who had spoken for their pretence of wisdom, now God, in effect, concludes: “you don’t understand, because it is all too big for you.”
And in face of this reply, Job – well, Job backs down. “You are right,” he says, “I’ve spoken without knowledge, I don’t get the big picture, I don’t have the wisdom, I don’t have the information: and now you have spoken, I realise the foolishness of even thinking about challenging you”
Did I mention at all, that at times I find the message of the book of Job to be really negative, really unhelpful?
Is this really the message? Job wants to understand – because, let’s face it, he’s having a really bad time – and God says “you know nothing, who are you to demand answers from me?” – and Job says “you’re right, I’m sorry, I should never have asked.”
Or, as a friend of mine described it “Job is like ‘I want to understand’ and God’s reply is ‘stand down, and no-one gets hurt’”
Is that it? Is that the point?
At this point, it’s probably really important to remember the nature of the book of Job. It’s not biography. It’s not history. It’s not about the real suffering of a real man.
It’s an exploration of ideas. Keep that in mind…
A couple of years ago, someone asked on the website reddit, “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?”. The answer that caught the imagination was “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in to arguments with strangers.”
Or perhaps you know the experience of Wikipedia time – you go to Wikipedia to just check up some factual information, and four hours later you’re reading an article about Monte Irvin, the 1950’s New York Giant’s baseball player.
Or did you know that there are about 100,000 novels published each year – in English alone. So as long as you’re reading 300 books a day, you’re not falling behind.
In the 18th and 19th century it was not entirely ridiculous for a scholar to set out with the ambition of knowing, more or less, all of human knowledge. If there is one thing we’ve learned since then it is that Shakespeare was right: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”
The truth is, we know that we cannot – and probably, with a little more thought, wouldn’t want to – know everything that is to be known. Can you imagine a world without questions, without mystery, without problems remaining to be solved?
We are not made to know all the answers. That actually isn’t part of what it means to be human.
But at the same time, we are made curious, made to ask questions.
Which is why the message I take from God’s response is two-fold.
To ask; to seek knowledge, understanding, wisdom: but to do so with the humility that comes from knowing our limitations, our capacity (or lack thereof), our profound ultimate ignorance.
But at the same time – to be reassured. That our lack of knowledge, our inability to understand, our failure to make sense of the universe and our experiences in it, does not mean that there is no meaning.
For God’s reply to Job is not “you do not, cannot, understand” so much as it is “you do not, cannot, understand, but I do”.
I’m not sure I would want to live in a world in which I knew all the answers. But I also don’t think that I would want to believe that there are no answers, that the world is meaningless, random, soulless.
Job got what he asked for – an answer (of sorts) from God.
It wasn’t an explanation. But it was a reassurance.
“You don’t understand. You can’t. How can one part of creation hope to hold within itself the whole? But it’s ok. I am the creator. I can see the whole. There are answers. Too big for you, but that’s ok. There are answers.”
I have to admit – and I don’t think you’re supposed to say this when you’re preaching – I’m not sold on that answer. But I guess I’ll live with it. As long, at least, as I can add one caveat, one answer I think, I hope, that God would add, which is this:
“so keep asking”
Don’t expect to know, never assume you understand.
But keep asking.