The book of Job, as we’ve seen in the previous couple of weeks, is a lot more about asking questions than it is about giving answers. Questions of good and evil, of providence and suffering, of hope and despair, of life and death and life beyond.
Job and his friends have argued themselves in circles, until finally Job cries out his questions to God: asking – no, demanding – that God hear his complaint, and give him an answer. That God explain why it is that Job, a good, upright, honourable man – not perfect, no, but no worse than anyone and better than most – has had to suffer in this way.
Now if you remember, the actual reason given in the book for Job’s suffering is that God was trying to prove to Satan that Job would remain faithful, however much he suffered. But for some reason, God doesn’t choose to give that explanation to Job. To be honest, if I had been God, I’d have been a bit embarrassed to admit that Job’s sufferings had no meaning other than a supernatural bragging contest.
But of course, as we’ve recognised before, the book really isn’t a biographical account, but an enacted parable, a morality play, an exploration of ideas.
So it’s in that sort of light that we need to hear God’s response to Job’s demand for an explanation. And finally, here in Chapter 38 (90% of the way through the book), God finally responds with a monologue that can be boiled down, for any Game of Thrones fans out there, to “you know nothing”.
God speaks to Job – and his friends – out of the whirlwind. That image itself is quite striking; an image of power, but a power which is chaotic, destructive, uncontrollable.
It’s wild power that characterises this image of the manifestation of God; Aslan is not a tame lion.
And God’s opening words to Job and his friends are a cutting accusation of their ignorance – or rather, not so much their ignorance, but their willingness to speak as if they were wise, or profound, despite their ignorance. To “darken counsel by words without knowledge”.
And actually, that’s a pretty important distinction.
God doesn’t criticise Job and his friends for being ignorant; for there is, of course, nothing wrong with ignorance, no shame in simply not knowing.
And God doesn’t criticise them for wondering, or for asking, either. In fact, come the final chapter of the book of Job, God will praise Job for, by contrast with his friends, “speaking the truth about God”.
God’s criticism, dripping with sarcasm as it is, is not that they don’t know, but for their pretence of wisdom; their speaking and acting and arguing as if they understood all that there was to know about God, about the world, about good and evil, suffering and providence.
It’s a challenging critique, especially for those who would dare stand up and speak about God before others…
“You know nothing” is not the condemnation. It’s “you talk as if you knew everything. You make profound declarations with such confidence, as if you actually understood what you were talking about”. The ignorance of Job and his friends is understandable. It’s their arrogance that drives God to confront them.
I don’t know if you saw much of the Republican convention this last week, but I couldn’t help seeing it as the most dramatic example of arrogance despite ignorance, that one could imagine.
But it’s a characteristic, sadly, all too visible on all sides of the political spectrum; neither left nor right are immune from speaking as if they understood all our problems and knew all the answers, and if people would just listen to them, and to their simple solutions, all our problems could be solved.
Nor, let me just add, lest I just play into the cynicism about our political system that seems to beset us the moment, are either left or right lacking people of honestly, humility and good will: people who may often disagree with one another, but still manage to respect the other. And since, I’m sometimes, with some justification, accused of leaning to the left in the pulpit, let me just mention that the politician I was most inspired by this week was Barnaby Joyce. Not often I say that.
But it seems to me that this phenomenon, of leaders, or those who would lead, standing up and offering us absolute confidence in a particular view of the world is actually exactly what is going on in the book of Job. Each of Job’s friends believes that he understands precisely what the problem is, and exactly how it can be solved.
And that’s a really attractive message, especially when the world seems like a unpredictable, unsafe, ever changing place. When we are threatened – whether by too rapid cultural change, or the threat of violence, or the fear of catastrophic climate change – we reach out for solid certainties.
And this section of the story of Job seems to me to have two incredibly important things to say to us as we find ourselves in that place.
Firstly; that God declares that God is in charge. That it is God who laid the foundations, God and only God, who actually understands what is going on.
It is God who “shut in the sea with doors… and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther””. The sea, for the people of ancient Israel, represented chaos, unpredictability, destruction. In the story of creation, it was when the sea of chaotic disorder was bound that land and life appeared. In this passage of Job God declares “I draw the line for chaos. I declare ‘that’s enough. No more. No further.’”.
We need to hear that. We need to hear that in all the uncertainty of our world, we are still in the hands of the creator God. We do not need to give in to fear or despair.
And at the same time, we need to hear that God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. Isaiah heard God speak in the still small voice the followed the destructive storm: but Job heard God’s voice out the chaos itself. If we truly wish to hear God speak, if we wish to understand our times, to find God’s way, we may need to listen to the chaos outside of our comfort zone. We may need to hear the voice outside of our bubble – whether our bubble be that of lefty environmentalists, or of social conservatives, we may need to listen outside. To the stranger. To those we disagree with. To those we fear.
We may need to put aside our arrogance, our assumption that we know how the world works, what the real dangers are, what needs to be done. To stop “darkening counsel with our words of ignorance”, and listen to the whirlwind.
For God answered Job out of the whirlwind. And spoke to him of creation. Spoke to him of the power of God. Spoke to him of the limits of chaos.
Words we probably want to hear.