God's Answer to Job's Complaint
June 10, 2012 PM
By Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
I want to read some representative paragraphs of these chapters from 38 to the end of the book. I want to begin with one section from 38, several from 39 and the first nine verses from chapter 40. I could have selected other paragraphs from these same chapters and they would have served the purpose just as well.
v. 1 This is the Lord’s first speech. After all of the talking that the men had done now suddenly the Lord speaks from the whirlwind.
v.3 “darkens counsel” means what “darkness” means in 37:19, viz. that he has spoken out of ignorance. Up to this point, Job has been asking all the questions, but he is in the dark. [Anderson, 273-274] Now the shoe will be on the other foot and the Lord challenges him to answer his questions. Job is going to be put in his place, the place all men are objectively and all believers ought always to be subjectively as well: very small, very ignorant, and acutely conscious of how small and how ignorant they are compared to the Almighty.
v.4 Yahweh’s first speech consists of dozens of questions about the cosmos, beginning with creation itself and “advancing in a pattern that approximates the first chapter of Genesis.” [Allen, 369]
v.7 The answer to all these rhetorical questions is, of course, Yahweh himself, as we read elsewhere in the Bible. [cf. Isa. 40:12]
Scientifically oriented moderns might pick at these verses, but they are poetry and imaginatively depict God as the master builder of the great edifice of the universe. The writer knew as we do that the foundations of the earth were not literal, as he speaks in 26:7 of the earth being hung “on nothing.” [Allen, 370] The earth is such a surpassing wonder and God made it all. What genius, what power!
The “sons of God” are, of course, the angels.
39:1 This new section really began at 38:39 where the focus shifts from the cosmic order to the fauna of the world. What follows one commentator has described as a “guided tour of [God’s] menagerie.” [Allen, 381] It is a survey of the wonderful animals God has made and the way in which he has provided for their lives in ways unique to each one. The horse is the only domesticated animal mentioned among what another commentator has described as “God’s pets,” but it is the horse’s majesty and fearlessness that is stressed. [Anderson, 272]
The thought is that these extraordinary creatures obviously do not immediately serve the purpose of man, nor are they dependent upon man. Indeed, in various ways they are greater than man. They are part of the wonderful world God made without consulting man and without man even understanding his plan. God has made each animal to be interesting, powerful, and beautiful in a distinct way; he provides for each in its environment and made each for its own purpose. But man understands nothing of this and certainly had nothing to do with it.
v.5 The answer to all these rhetorical questions is: “well, certainly not you, Job!”
v.8 The “wild ox” mentioned in v. 9 is the immensely strong oryx, extinct since 1627. It was exceeded in size as a land animal only by the hippo and the elephant. [Anderson, 281]
39:13 God now moves from one of the scariest of wild animals to one of the silliest. [Allen, 386]
v.18 The hilarious ostrich is what it is because God made it so. [Anderson, 281God didn’t give the ostrich smarts. She is in her appearance and behavior more entertaining than other animals. But God gave her one serious advantage: speed. He loves to watch her run! Did you know that ostriches were kept in Egyptian zoos prior to 2000 B.C? Everyone loves looking at an ostrich!
v.30 The extraordinary capacities of these birds still excites our wonder today and, of course, we could enlarge the list and speak of those birds that migrate thousands of miles to the same place every year, or monarch butterflies that migrate from one place and back again over several generations with no single generation making the entire trip and still today with all of the study that has been done no one know exactly how they do it. The Lord has made these creatures and given them these extraordinary powers. Job didn’t! Job couldn’t. The world God made is for its greatness and its mystery a commentary on the limitations of human beings.
40:5 There is some debate among the commentators as to whether Job by this point, that is, by v. 5, is yet fully and properly repentant. His expression here may be taken to be repentance, but it is not the word used in 42:6. That may explain why the Lord continues his speech after Job puts his hand over his mouth; the lesson has not yet been fully learned. Or perhaps, and I think perhaps more likely, this is only a literary device. After all, the Lord himself interrupts his own speech, from time to time, to press the issue upon Job to make sure he has not forgotten what these questions are all about and Job seems quite ready to admit that he spoke out of ignorance and thought and said more than he should have. And the Lord’s speech continues in precisely the same vein through chapters 40 and 41.
Last time we considered in a general way what is customarily referred to as the “problem of evil,” or the “problem of human suffering.” As a book Job deals with human suffering as a problem, as a challenge to faith, as a reason for questioning the righteousness of God, and so it made sense to deal with the problem in general before descending to the particulars of the teaching of this great book of the Bible.
But, as you know, Job provides only a partial answer to the problem of evil. It is not, by any means the whole answer such as we are given in Holy Scripture in its entirety. But it is a very important part of the whole answer. An illustration of how the teaching of the Book of Job relates to the entire question of human suffering is furnished by Paul’s answer to the question raised by the “problem” of divine sovereignty in Romans 9. Obviously sovereignty is a problem. It challenges people’s notions, even Christians’ notions of fairness, justice, and goodness. Paul admits as much in Romans 9. He anticipates the objections people will have. If God is in charge, if everything happens according to his will, how come so many terrible things happen? What about human sin? Doesn’t the doctrine of divine sovereignty make God the author of sin? If everything happens according to his plan then my sins must be part of his plan. Doesn’t that make him responsible for them and not me? How can man be held responsible for what God has determined must come to pass? Am I not then only a puppet or a robot if God’s will determines everything I do? Doesn’t that accountability for everything impugn God’s character given how much wrong, how much injustice, and how much sin there is with the world? Still today there are many devout Christians who deny the doctrine of divine sovereignty for precisely these reasons.
In Romans 9 Paul answers this particular objection by saying,
“Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable?”
Which is to say, “As a mere creature, you have no right to pass judgment on the plans and purposes of the Creator or his way of ordering the life of the world. You are very little; he is very great. Put your hand over your mouth where it belongs and take care not to blaspheme by asking questions far above your pay grade!”
Now that is an entirely fair and true answer to the question posed by God’s sovereignty; in fact, that same answer is found in a number of other places in the Bible. But it is very definitely not the whole answer. The Bible has much more to say in defense of God’s sovereignty than that it is impertinent for men to question God’s ways. For example, the Bible teaches us again and again never to imagine that human beings are not free and responsible agents who deserve to be held accountable for what they do. It insists on our believing that while God is sovereign, he has made the world in such a way, and human beings in such a way, that without the free action of human beings his will would not come to pass. True as it is that all whom the father has given to the son will come to him (John 6:37) so it is true that no one shall believe unless someone be sent to preach to them (Rom. 10:14) and that “whoever desires it may take the water of life” (Rev. 22:17). The Bible further reminds us that God’s actions are always just and always true to his character. It assures us that no one will ever be turned away who comes to Jesus with an honest heart. And so on. To provide a complete answer to the question posed by the assertion of an absolute divine sovereignty, one needs all of that teaching and more. But each part of that teaching is true in itself.
Well, in the same way, Job’s answer to the problem posed by human suffering is not the whole answer. Job doesn’t elaborate the fact that this world stands under a curse because of human sin and that all suffering is related in some way to that curse and the sin that is its cause. Job doesn’t reflect on the Lord’s sharing in our sufferings and his undertaking them himself on our behalf. Job doesn’t tell us about his perfect sympathy for us in our trials and sorrows. It doesn’t reflect on the use of suffering to bring conviction of sin or to deepen faith or to test character. Here is John Bunyan in Grace Abounding speaking about his imprisonment and separation from his loved ones:
“I never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as now; those Scriptures that I saw nothing in before, are made in this place and state to shine upon me; Jesus Christ also was never more real and apparent than now; here I have seen him and felt him indeed… I never knew what it was for God to stand by me at all turns, and at every offer of Satan ‘to afflict me’…as I have found him since I came in hither….insomuch that I have often said, were it lawful, I could pray for greater trouble, for the greater comfort’s sake.” [Paragraphs 321, 323, 327]
In other words suffering can and often does bring great advances in the life of a godly man or woman.
Job never explains suffering, as C.S. Lewis famously did, as God’s megaphone to force his truth upon an otherwise distracted and disinterested human heart and mind. Job doesn’t explain how virtually everything genuinely worthy in human life depends in some way upon the experience of suffering or how the lack of suffering would almost inevitably inoculate people against the need to put their trust in God and Christ. Wise men have always admitted this. Here is Archbishop Trench:
“The receiving of this world’s good with no admixture of its evil, the course of an unbroken prosperity, is ever a sign and augury of ultimate reprobation.” [Parables, 465]
Or, in other words, no one ever goes to heaven on a carpet of ease. You can go to hell that way; never to heaven. And here is a more modern take, this by Malcolm Muggeridge.
“Supposing you eliminated suffering, what a dreadful place the world would be! … because everything that corrects the tendency of…man to feel over-important and over-pleased with himself would disappear. He’s bad enough now, but he would be absolutely intolerable if he never suffered.” [In Brian Moore, in Pulpit and People, 147]
And then in a letter to William F. Buckley Muggeridge wrote:
“As an old man, Bill, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strikes you most forcibly -- that the only thing that’s taught one anything is suffering. Not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about -- the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies -- is suffering, affliction.” [Happy Days were Here Again, 411]
I had a conversation with one of your elders this past week and he was reflecting with me on how profoundly his life had been changed for the better by a tremendously difficult period through which he had passed some years before.
Job does not explain to us how so often suffering is the context in which God reveals himself to us in his tender love and terrible majesty. And, supremely, Job says nothing about how Christ’s sufferings have opened for us the way to eternal life and that sharing in his sufferings is both the Christian’s great privilege and the means of his or her becoming all a Christian should want to become. Taking all the Bible says about suffering -- and it says a great deal -- it is not too much to say, as in this famous poem of Aubrey de Vere:
Count each affliction, whether light or grave,
God’s messenger sent down to thee; do thou
With courtesy receive him; rise and bow;
And, ere his shadow cross thy threshold, crave
Permission first his heavenly feet to lave;
Then lay before him all thou hast.
Or less beautifully but no less plainly, Robert Browning Hamilton’s two verses:
I walked a mile with Pleasure
She chatted all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh, the things I learned from her,
When sorrow walked with me.
But I am very well aware, from both your experience and my own, that none of these facts about the usefulness of suffering, its being the path to so many important, valuable, necessary things, are fully adequate to alleviate the deep heart pain and spiritual confusion that suffering can bring. You know very well, as I do, that God doesn’t kill babies or destroy a marriage or consign a man to years of unemployment simply to teach us some lesson. There is more here than we can grasp.
What Job had asked for, repeatedly, and most recently in 31:35, was an answer from the Lord to his question: why was he suffering so? Why had these things happened to him? Why the death of his children; why his own physical misery; and why had it lasted as long as it had? He expected the Lord either to tell him what he had done wrong (“the indictment” he refers to in 31:35) or to acquit him of all charges and end the suffering as if it were some kind of mistake. But the Lord never says anything about that in his reply. He doesn’t say that Job had sinned or that he had not, though we have already been told that Job’s suffering was not punishment for his sin; it occurred rather because he was such a righteous man that Satan targeted him for a test and the Lord for some reason had permitted Satan to have a go.
The Lord talked to Job about other things entirely and never actually answered any of his questions, but nevertheless satisfied Job’s need entirely. He didn’t tell Job about Satan’s attack and the reason for it. He didn’t tell Job that his personal history was going to be written up and would encourage the faith of believers until the end of the world or that Job would forever be known as a righteous man and an example for others. He didn’t even tell Job that very soon all would be wonderfully put right. He spoke instead about the wonder of the world that God had made and how Job not only had had nothing to do with its creation but knew virtually nothing about the hows and whys of God’s mighty work and perfect design. Think of this world and the Maker of heaven and earth and then ask whether you are supposed to understand what happens from day to day on this earth. And this satisfied Job. None of his questions was answered and all of his questions were answered! God was there, he was speaking to his son, and Job was reminded of God’s greatness and Job’s corresponding insignificance. A man can rejoice in his insignificance and find tremendous comfort in it if he sees it in comparison to the greatness of a God he loves and worships! And a man can grasp when face to face with the majesty of God that there is much he does not and cannot know and that he has no right to expect God to explain his ways to him.
The answer Job got to his question was, as Rabbi Abraham Hershel put it, was “God is not nice. God is not an uncle. God is an earthquake.” We may, you and I, prefer God to be a kindly uncle rather than an earthquake, but our wants or likes do not change reality. As Peter Kreeft puts it, “If we cannot take the God of Job (and the rest of the Bible), that is skin off our noses but not off God’s. We do not make the universe hold its breath by holding ours.” [Three Religious Philosophies, 61]
There are, Kreeft, reminds us, only four possible answers to the problem of evil or human suffering for someone who believes in the existence of God. Last time we pointed out that if someone does not believe in God there can be no problem of evil because there can be no evil. What we call evil is simply different behavior, neither wrong, nor unjust, nor worthy of punishment, nor particularly mysterious. Lions kill wildebeests. It’s just the way things are. It doesn’t violate moral standards because lions and wildebeests have no morality. And without God we humans are just another form of lion or wildebeest.
But if you believe in God as most people do, you have four options for explaining both the evil that men do and the harm that befalls them. The first is the one proposed by Job’s three friends. We suffer because we are being punished. If bad things happen to us, either naturally or as a result of the cruelty of others, it is our own fault. Of course, we learn in the Bible that much suffering is precisely the punishment of our sins. So Job’s friends were not unreasonable in proposing that solution to Job’s problem. They happened, however, to be wrong in this case.
The second answer is that God himself is not good. Job comes dangerously near to proposing this as his explanation of his suffering: that God is treating him unjustly and unfairly. In the pagan pantheon gods were often mean-spirited, spiteful, jealous, unreasonable, and cruel. But in Holy Scripture we are never permitted to entertain this option. The true and living God is holy, loving, just, and good in every way. Infinite power and infinite goodness are joined together in the divine life. And we know this is so -- all men do, no matter their sometimes impressive efforts to suppress this truth -- because we know God made the great and wonderful creation and everything in it and because he has imprinted his moral nature, an indelible sense of what is good, right, and just upon our conscience. It is precisely our knowledge of this fact of God’s perfect goodness that can make our suffering, as it did Job’s long before us, such a problem. It is precisely the fact that the living and true God caused or allowed this to happen that confuses us and dismays us.
The third explanation is to deny God’s sovereignty and power. This conception of a god of limited power was also commonplace in ancient times and is unwittingly perhaps the view of a great many people in our time. This was the option proposed by the celebrated Rabbi Harold Kushner in his unfortunately well regarded book of several years back: Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. In effect, according to Rabbi Kushner, God is doing the best he can. This is also the solution approached by the much more powerful thinker, the celebrated Reformed philosopher Nicolas Wolsterstorff who teaches at Yale and who wrote a beautiful book, Lament for a Son, about the death of his son in a climbing accident in Germany. His whole comfort consisted in his knowledge that God was suffering with him in his loss. It was not found in the confession that God had a purpose in the death of his son, however ignorant of that purpose his father might be, and that this tragic loss too was the divine will. Rabbi Kushner’s book was born as well in the aftermath of the death of his teenaged son. He could not bear to part with the conviction that God is love and felt the only recourse, in view of events, was therefore to surrender God’s sovereignty and power. God is not in total control of things. It isn’t God’s fault; he couldn’t help it.
The Bible very plainly does not permit this solution either. God never asks to be taken off the hook for things, even for the most tragic things that happen in this world. He is the sovereign Lord and nothing, absolutely nothing happens apart from his will and purpose. “All our days were ordered for us before there was a one of them.” The day of our birth and the day of our death are both fixed by God. To deny this is to surrender the Christian faith and our hope in the certainty of victory and salvation. To his credit, Job never flirts with this solution to the problem.
That leaves only the fourth possibility: that God has purposes of which we are ignorant. His plans remain just, holy, and loving even when they include terrible suffering for us, but we do not know those plans and are unable to decipher how they are good and loving and just. We see but through a glass darkly, not yet face to face. God is hidden from us and his ways are hidden from us as well. How many times, after all, do we read such statements in the Bible?
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” [Isa. 55:8-9]
Is this not the main point the Lord was after in his question to Job: “Where were you when I made the heavens and the earth? What you know is very little; what I know is immense!”
Luther spoke of God as Deus Absconditus, the hidden God, and he wasn’t making that up. “Truly you are a God who hides himself,” we read in Isa. 45:15. The fact is you and I every day of our lives are living in the middle of a mystery. [Kreeft, 65] That is what Job is taught here by the Lord and that is what the Bible teaches us a thousand times. The secret things belong to God -- the secret things are all those things we do not know: what is to happen tomorrow, why things have happened as they have -- the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children that we might keep all the words of this Law. [Deut. 29:29]
There is no doubt that God suffers with us in our suffering. The cross is proof of that as well as the many assurances that God gives us that it is so. We do not suffer without his sympathy and without his feeling our sorrow and pain. He is the God of love! But it is also true that our suffering is not beyond his control or counsel or purpose, as if it were something that God could only observe in pain but could not prevent. The resurrection is proof of that. God has power over all sorrow, all death, and all loss in this world. But that leaves us having to say that, however little we may understand it, God has a reason for bringing to pass what he does in our lives and the lives of our loved ones.
When Paul wrote,
“For we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…” [Rom. 8:28]
he wasn’t talking about the good and happy things of life. You don’t need to be persuaded that the good things work together for good. He was speaking of all the worst things that happen in life. He goes on to enumerate them in a general way: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, and the hateful and cruel slaughter of God’s people. Hear me now: the conviction that God is in control of what happens in this world, the conviction that all of human history and all our personal history down to its smallest details is a divine plot is so fundamental to the teaching of the Bible that to deny it, even to minimize it, would be utterly to overturn the philosophy of life we are taught in Holy Scripture.
God has reasons for what happens, good reasons -- for all his reasons are always good -- but you and I do not know what those reasons are. It is all a mystery to us what is perfectly clear and obvious to him. Our worst suffering, our cruelest heartbreak, our deepest disappointment in life is measured out to us through the fingers of a God who loves us with an everlasting love. We suffer -- it must be, the facts being what they are -- we suffer because he loves us as much as he does. We just do not know why his love demands that we suffer as we do. According to Samuel Rutherford we have to suffer the way we suffer because in some way that is opaque and unknown to us we wouldn’t get to heaven if we didn’t suffer in just that way. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I suspect it’s quite close to the truth. It offends our pride, but it explains a great deal.
Job’s solution was not to discover why he suffered, for he did not. Job was brought to his senses by the realization that he spoke as if he understood the course of life in this world when, in fact, he did not. He was in the dark. God knew all about his suffering; knew the reasons for it and when and how it would end. But Job did not. The recognition of how little we see, how little we understand, and how little we can explain is absolutely fundamental to that humility which is a chief part of true wisdom. And it is an essential ingredient in the faithful response to suffering on the part of the people of God. Why God has allowed this I do not know. I must put my hand over my mouth because I cannot explain God’s ways. And why should anyone think that I could; he being so great and I being so small? But, because, like all things, it comes from God, there must be an excellent reason, however hidden that reason may be!
Why did this hard or terrible thing happen to you or to your loved one? I don’t know. You don’t either. You may someday know part of the reason, but you will probably even in heaven never know all of the reason. To know that, you would have to have a mind as large as God’s.
This is why the whole teaching of the Bible is so crucial, so essential. It is one thing to know that God knows what he is doing and why in the sorrows and trials of our lives. But it is another thing altogether to know that when trials come they too are the evidence of God’s eternal and almighty love for you. As Robert Murray McCheyne beautifully put it:
“Your afflictions may only prove that you are more immediately under the Father’s hand. There is no time that the patient is such an object of tender interest to the surgeon, as when he is bleeding beneath his knife. So you may be sure if you are suffering from the land of a reconciled God, that his eye is all the more bent on you.”
How do we know that to be true? The Lord Christ on his cross for us is the proof of how mighty God’s love for his people is and how unwilling he is for them to suffer for any reason but for their good and their salvation. The cross is the proof of how personally, affectionately, and unalterably committed to their welfare our heavenly Father actually is and our Savior is. “Who loved me and gave himself for me.”
We know great sorrows are necessary because God has told us they are and because we have ourselves seen at least some of what good and holy things they produce in human hearts, as they produced Job’s wonderful humility and repentance at the end. But it is not required that we understand our sorrows, only that we know that God does. And for Job and for us that is enough. Enough for now.