June 8, 2003

God’s Interrogation: Admitting Our Limitations
Job 38:1-42:6

There are any number of things that, when we move closer to them, can alter our entire outlook on life. A light, for example, enables us to see both ourselves and the world around us with greater clarity and understanding. When a light pushes away the darkness, our surroundings look altogether different than they did before. Or picture a stove on a cold and frosty day. If you have been outside sledding or shoveling snow too long and feel frozen down to your bones, a warm stove in the family room can readjust your perspective. Perhaps you can recall a time when you were lost or feeling helpless, and the sight of another person invigorated you. Just moments before my daughter was born in Zambia, the midwife disappeared and never returned—I think he was a bit nervous about delivering an American baby! As Deb and I grew increasingly concerned, Dr. Worman walked in the room. Immediately, our anxiety subsided. Moving closer to something or someone can drastically alter our view of what is going on around us. Job is about to discover that as well.

This is the moment that Job and all of us have been waiting for. Job and his friends have been arguing for a seeming eternity about Job’s condition, and they have both defended God and blamed God for Job’s suffering, depending upon who happened to be speaking at the time. As the debate finally wound down, Job openly challenged God to a courtroom type of dual, longing for God to show his face and speak. Just then, at the height of Job’s desperation, a young eavesdropper named Elihu stepped out onto the stage and told Job that he had a word for him from God. Fortunately, Job recognized Elihu for what he was—an imposter. Now, finally, God himself takes the stand.

It might be interesting to pause for a moment and imagine how we would anticipate God responding in such a situation. He has been vigorously defended, whether correctly or not, by Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and now Elihu. He has also been accused of everything from disinterest to murder by Job, an accusation that culminated in Job’s stunning challenge to appear in court. How will God now respond? How would your God respond? With intense anger? An iron fist? An understanding ear? Simple indifference? Or perhaps your God would not respond at all.

Job’s God responds, interestingly enough, as a caring but forceful teacher posing as a tour guide. After instructing Job to put his seat belt on in 38:3—“Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me”—God takes his struggling and no doubt intimidated subject on an all-expenses paid tour of the universe, past and present. As Job glances out of his window and sees the sights, God repeatedly nudges him and asks, “Job, can you do that? Could you do this?” Follow their itinerary with me briefly.

Job, first of all, witnesses the very creation of the physical world (38:4-38). He watches as the earth’s foundations are set in place, boundaries are established to control the ragging seas, and the sun is placed in perpetual motion. Job next encounters the netherworld, and he is similarly transported to the very ends of the earth. While in route, Job hears about the storehouses of the snow, channels for the rain, and factories that manufacture all of the ice. He gazes at various constellations dotting the sky, and shakes in the midst of crashing thunder and lightening. “Did you help make all of this?” his divine tour guide inquires. “Do the elements of nature respond to your voice?” God wonders.

Next, Job goes on a grand safari, viewing the wild inhabitants that live in the physical world that he has just seen created (38:39-40:30). He watches the lions crouched near their dens, mountain goats giving birth to their young, wild donkeys and oxen roaming the fields, ostriches burying their heads in the ground, horses stampeding, and hawks and eagles soaring overhead. “Did you make them?” God asks. “Can you take care of them? Do you enable them to reproduce? Is it by your command that they run and jump and fly?” “Speak up, Job” God encourages his once out-spoken guest. “Anyone who argues with me must respond,” God concludes.

Suddenly, Job’s words are few. The lengthy speeches delivered to his earthly friends have now given way to but a few lines. Job had feared that this would happen way back in 9:14, when he assumed that, if he were ever given the opportunity to stand before God, God would beat him down and shut him up. Job is quiet now, alright, but for an entirely different reason. Rather than being silenced by an angry God, Job stands virtually speechless before an overwhelming God.

Job, however, is apparently not totally convinced yet, so God interrogates him a second time. You might recall that God came to a weary and discouraged Elijah twice, offering him nourishment for his difficult journey. Now, he comes to a struggling and helpless Job again, offering additional insight for his troubled mind. In this second leg of Job’s tour of the universe, God first addresses one of Job’s chief concerns. Job, as you know, has been deeply troubled by the apparent lack of causal connections between deeds and rewards. Now, God asks him if he is capable of righting all of the inconsistencies and injustices that so deeply offend him. God, in short, tells Job to deal with the proud and wicked people himself if he sees so clearly how the world should be run (40:9-14).

God’s line of questioning here calls to mind a scene from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. On one occasion, Frodo believes that Gollum is deserving of death, and Gandalf responds:
Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the wise cannot see all ends.
It sounds like God speaking to Job.

God concludes his interrogation of Job by shifting from the physical world and its inhabitants to the mythical world. Two famed creatures troubled the ancient near eastern mind: Behemoth, a primeval land monster who symbolized evil and chaos, and Leviathan, a great sea creature who scared people away from the waters. “Can you control these frightening monsters?” God asks Job. “Have you any more power and influence in the mythical world than you do in the real world?” God wants to know.

Following this second round of questioning, Job responds a final time, and what he says is short and to the point. Job first comments about God: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” Job next draws a conclusion about himself: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Job must have read the poster on the inside of my office door: “Two foundation facts of human enlightenment: (1) There is a God, and (2) I am not him.”

One wonders, however, about the overall impressions that God’s rather unusual and long-awaited response might have had on Job. At one level, the response is frustrating, for it fails to provide the kind of neat and tidy answers that we humans tend to prefer. On another level, I suspect that something profound can be found here.

To begin with, it is important to note that God takes the time to come to Job in the midst of his pain and suffering. The very nature of God’s questions implies that he, not Job, oversees the running of the world. It is God who laid the foundation of the earth and harnessed the raging seas. It is God who set the sun in motion and sends the rain to water the earth. It is God who cares for the lions, protects the ostrich, empowers the horse, and suspends the eagle in the sky. It is God, not Job, who holds the keys to life and death, and it is God alone who stands head over heals above even the scariest creatures that the human mind can invent.

Yet, God bothers with Job. God, who one might suspect has enough to do tending to everything else going on in the world and beyond, bothers with Job. You criticize the president, question the policies of the governor, and talk behind the mayor’s back. Chances are, however, that none of them will ever show up at your door. God takes the time to respond to Job.

Not only does God come to Job, but he was in fact already with Job throughout his difficult journey. Once again, the questions that God repeatedly asks Job indicate that he was listening from the start. Job had obviously concluded otherwise—“God is far removed from my affairs”—but he had concluded falsely. God, who was close to Job in his earlier successes, never left him when the walls came crashing down.

It is, as Eamon Tobin points out, one of the paradoxes of the spiritual life. “The closer we come to God,” Tobin writes, “the further it seems to us that we are away from him.” Job’s circumstances created for him a sense of distance, an overwhelming feeling of separation, but in reality, God was right there with him.

Finally, we see an alteration in Job’s perspective through this fresh encounter with God. Job, if you look carefully at 42:6, repents, and we all know that that is precisely what Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu wanted him to do. Unfortunately for them, however, Job does not repent for any previous crime or wrongdoing that caused his ordeal in the first place, but for something that he had falsely come to believe when buried in grief. In 30:19, Job suggested that he was but a worthless speck of dust and ashes in God’s sight, fit only to be thrown away. Now, after listening to God again and being overwhelmed by his presence, Job realizes otherwise. “God actually cares deeply about me,” one can easily imagine him saying. “I am sorry for what I said about dust and ashes,” Job concludes. “I am sorry for assuming that my pain and suffering meant that I was worthless in your sight.”

When Job encounters God again, his entire view of life in general and his own predicament in particular is altered. While his problems do not become unimportant—God cares—they do become far less important. When Job listens to God’s voice, his pain becomes less intense, his doubts less troubling, and his frustrations less acute. When Job gazes at the wonder of God’s handiwork, the ups and downs of his own life can be placed in a more balanced perspective. The entire world isn’t out of whack. Lions still sleep 22 hours a day. The sun still shines. Ostriches continue to bury their heads in the ground. The rain still falls. God still reigns. And alarmingly, God continues to care about me. Whereas Job had learned earlier to recognize the voice of God during times of plenty, he had now learned that God still speaks and still cares during times of loss. Job had learned, to quote one of Jay McDermond’s favorite phrases, “that it’s all about God.”

Getting closer to various things and people can alter your perspective—a light in the darkness, a stove on a freezing day, and a familiar face during times of duress. Getting closer to God can transform your entire life.