God Appears (Job 38-42:9)
In the book’s first cycle, Job’s friends’ speeches were halted by the revelation of God’s wisdom. The new element in the second cycle is that Elihu’s speech is interrupted by the dramatic appearance of God himself (Job 38:1). At last, God fulfills Job’s desire for a face-to-face encounter. The reader has been waiting to see if Job will finally break and curse God to his face. Instead, Job holds firm, but gets a further education about how far God’s wisdom is beyond human knowing.
God’s first question to Job sets the tone of their mostly one-way conversation, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). Employing some of the most spectacular creation language in the Bible, God reveals his sole authorship of the wonders of creation. This has strong resonances with work. Our work reflects our creation in the image of God, the great Creator (Genesis 1-2). But here God dwells on work that only he is capable of doing. “Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 38:6–7). “Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb” (Job 38:8). “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?” (Job 39:26–27).
Curiously embedded in the midst of God’s authority over the natural world is a profound insight into the human condition. God asks Job, “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” (Job 38:36). The answer, of course, is God. At once this both affirms our search for understanding and demonstrates its limits. The wisdom God puts in our inward parts makes it possible for us to yearn for an answer to the mystery of suffering. Yet our wisdom comes only from God, so we cannot outsmart God with wisdom of our own. In fact, he has implanted in us only a small fraction of his wisdom, so we will never have the capacity to comprehend all his ways. As we have seen, it may be good for our souls to voice our complaints against God. But it would be foolish to expect him to reply with, “Yes, I can see now that I was in error.”
Further pursuing this unequal encounter, God issues an impossible challenge to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond” (Job 40:2). Given Job’s previous recognition that “I don’t know” is often the wisest answer, his humble response is not surprising. “I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4).
Most commentators suggest that God is giving Job a larger picture of Job’s circumstances. Much like someone who stands too close to a painting and cannot appreciate the artist’s perspective, Job needs to step back a few steps so that he can glimpse — if not fully understand — God’s larger purposes with greater clarity.
God continues with a frontal assault on those who accuse God of wrongdoing in the administration of His creation. God repudiates Job’s attempts at self-justification. “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified”? (Job 40:8) Job’s attempt to shift the blame hearkens back to Adam’s response when God asked whether he ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12).
Bringing our complaints to God is a good thing if we take the books of Job, Psalms and Habakkuk as inspired models for how to approach God in times of trouble. However, accusing God for the sake of covering our own failures is the height of hubris (Job 40:11-12). God repudiates Job for doing so. Yet even so, God does not condemn Job for voicing his complaint against God. Job’s accusation against God is wrong beyond reason, but not beyond forgiveness.
Job gets the audience with God that he has been asking for. It does not answer his question whether he deserved the suffering he experienced. Job realizes the fault is his for expecting to know the answer, not God’s for failing to provide it. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful to me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). Perhaps it is just that he is so awed by the presence of God that he no longer needs an answer.
If we are looking for a reason for Job’s suffering, we will not find it either. On the one hand, Job’s ordeal has given him an even greater appreciation for God’s goodness. “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Job’s relationship with God seems to have deepened, and he has become wiser as a result. He appreciates more than ever that his former prosperity was not due to his own strength and power. But the difference is only a matter of degree. Was the incremental improvement worth the unutterable loss? We don’t get an answer to that question from Job or from God.
God denounces the three friends whose arrogant proclamation of false wisdom had so tormented Job. In a satisfying and ironic twist, he declares that if Job prays on their behalf he will not punish them for their ignorant speeches in God’s stead (Job 42:7-8). They, who wrongly urged Job to repent, must now depend on him to accept their repentance, and on God to fulfill Job’s entreaty on their behalf. Job’s act of praying on their behalf reminds us of the first chapter where Job prays for his children’s protection. Job is a praying man, in season and out.
As part of our recovery from failure, we would do well to pray for those who have tormented or doubted us during our grief. Jesus later called us to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27-36), and this teaching is seen in both contexts as more than simply therapeutic. If we can pray for those who have persecuted us, we can transcend the fleeting circumstances of life and begin to appreciate the picture from God’s perspective.