The LORD answers Job (Job 31.35-37; 38.1-11) [Sermon 07-24-2016]


July 8, 2016 by jmar198013

The manuscript of my sermon for Sunday July 24, 2016. I’m posting this quite early because I’ll be out of town the next couple of weeks.

This is part of a series in Job that will go through August 7. The series is titled “theology in the raw.”

The texts are Job 31.35-37 and 38.1-11.

An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.

Job speaks up

Other than Jesus himself, if there’s anyone in the scriptures whose road to heaven had to pass through hell, it was Job.

Job was the most righteous man of his day. He’d even make a point to offer sacrifices to God on his children’s behalf. Just in case one of them had sinned in their heart. But in one day—his oldest son’s birthday—he’d lost everything. His herds stolen. His flocks incinerated. His servants murdered. All ten of his children killed when a windstorm blew a house over on them. Shortly thereafter, Job lost his health, too. Covered from head to toe in painful sores.

When his wife came out and saw this pathetic sight—Job sitting on a heap of ashes, scraping his sores with a shard of pottery—she broke down. Are you still clinging to your integrity? Curse God, and die. After all, Job’s integrity hadn’t saved him. His sacrifices to God hadn’t spared the lives of their children, either.

What Job and his wife didn’t know—and would never know, for all we can tell—was that God hadn’t done these things to him. Job was being targeted by the satan—the Adversary, the accuser—because of his righteousness. The satan had accused God of bribing humans to maintain order—with Job as his textbook example. The satan bet God that if everything were taken from Job, Job would curse God openly.

Job had proven the satan wrong. Job had continued to bless God, in spite of everything.

Job didn’t know the source of his suffering. But neither did his three friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They came from far away, ostensibly to comfort him. But they concluded that Job must have sinned grievously to bring all this down on himself. They believed the terrible things that had happened to Job and his children were signs that Job had provoked God’s wrath.

Job’s friend Eliphaz said: those who plow sin and sow trouble will harvest it. And by those, Eliphaz meant Job. He thought Job had sown sin, and was now reaping the consequences.

Bildad adds that God must have been angrier at Job’s children than Job himself, since they were killed. If your children sinned against him, then he delivered them into the power of their rebellion (Job 8.4). In other words, Your rotten children had it coming!

Zophar, when his turn comes around, tells Job: Listen! God is doubtless punishing you far less than you deserve! (Job 11.6 NLT)

Job and his friends go on arguing like this for chapter after chapter after chapter of the story. Job’s friends accusing him of worse and worse sins; saying that if he’ll only repent, God will stop torturing him. Job protesting that he has not done anything to deserve what has happened to him.

Job’s friends dig in stubbornly, and refuse to listen to his pleas for mercy and understanding.

Oh, that I had someone to hear me!, Job cries out.

Job was speaking for anyone who has ever suffered alone. Who has been abused, exploited, tortured, or bullied in dark corners. Anyone who has had the courage to speak up, but has not been believed when they told the truth. For anyone who has ever been scapegoated. For every victim who has ever been blamed for what happened to them.

Whose side do you think God is on?

Oh, that I had someone to hear me!

Job has been speaking less and less to his accusing friends throughout the story. More and more, he has been speaking at God.

I say speaking at rather than speaking to, because so far God has not responded.  The silence from heaven is thunderous. Ominous. Job’s prayers have all bounced off of the rubber sky, and flown back in his face.

Oh, that I had someone to hear me!, he complains. His friends certainly haven’t listened to him. And as far has he can tell, neither has God. There’s a protest aimed right at God in Job’s wish for a hearing.

Here’s some background on Job’s cry for someone to hear him. It’s not just that Job needs someone to listen. He does need that, for sure. But he’s thinking in legal terms now. He needs someone to vindicate him, and clear his name. To prove that he is in the right, and innocent of all the things his friends are accusing him of doing.

An example of what Job is asking for is found in the story of Absalom’s coup in 2 Samuel. If you recall, Absalom staged a revolt against his father, King David. Absalom believed—in his case, rightly—that his father the king was no longer ruling justly and wisely. So in 2 Sam. 15.1-6, we learn that he sat up a people’s court right in front of the city gate. When people would come with a lawsuit for the king to judge, Absalom would tell them: No doubt your claims are correct and valid, but the king won’t listen to you. If only I were made a judge in the land, then anyone with a lawsuit could come to me, and I would give them justice. When Job asked for someone to hear him, he was thinking of someone like Absalom, who would listen to his case; judge fairly; and vindicate him.

Job continues with his request for a day in court:

Here’s my signature;

    let the Almighty respond,

    and let my accuser write an indictment.

Surely I would bear it on my shoulder,

    tie it around me like a wreath.

I would give him an account of my steps,

    approach him like a prince.

Before our reading picked up today, Job has named off a list of sins that would deserve the harsh punishment he thinks he has gotten. And he has declared his innocence of them all! He hasn’t raped any virgins. He hasn’t cheated his neighbors. He hasn’t committed adultery. He hasn’t taken advantage of his employees. He hasn’t been stingy toward the poor. He hasn’t denied justice to widows or orphans. He hasn’t trusted in riches. He’s never gloated over someone else’s misfortunes—not even his enemies! And unlike Adam, the first human, he’s never sinned and then hid himself. His life has been an open book.

Job offers to hand God a signed declaration of his own innocence. And he challenges God—whom he still believes has done all these terrible things to him—to hand down an indictment. List the charges against him. Job is so confident of his innocence that he would tie the charges around me like a wreath. One understanding of the wreath is a victor’s crown. That’s why other translations say: I would bind it on me like a crown (NRSV).

Sort of like the crown of thorns another innocent sufferer would wear many years later.

Everything you know is wrong!

He was left out of our readings today, but we need to talk about the young man, Elihu, who shows up in chapter 32. He has apparently been lurking for a while. Overhearing the conversation between Job and his three friends. He has kept his silence for a long while. But when he finally begins to speak, he doesn’t shut up for six chapters. And what he has to say to Job and his friends is basically this: You’re all wrong! Everything you know is wrong!

Elihu is an angry young man. And the Job storyteller explains why Elihu is so angry. First, he was angry with Job because he considered himself more righteous than God. He was also angry with his three friends because they hadn’t found an answer but nevertheless thought Job wicked.

Elihu, the angry young man, thinks of himself as God’s champion—an upholder of justice and righteousness. Angry young men often think of themselves in this way. But Elihu turns it up a notch. Elihu claims divine inspiration.

I’m young and you’re old,

    so I held back, afraid to express my opinion to you.

I thought, Let days speak;

    let multiple years make wisdom known.

But the spirit in a person,

    the Almighty’s breath, gives understanding.

Elihu believes that the Holy Spirit—the Almighty’s breath, he calls it—has revealed wisdom to him that will accomplish what all the wise old teachers have failed to do. Elihu says he will be able to justify God, and prove that Job is in the wrong. To do this, he uses Job’s own words against him.

For instance, in Job 33.8-11, Elihu says this to Job:

You certainly said in my hearing;

    I heard the sound of your words:

    “I’m pure, without sin;

        I’m innocent, without offense.

    Notice that he invents arguments against me;

        he considers me his enemy,

        ties up my feet,

        watches all my paths.”

Elihu returns to the well of Job’s own words several more times during his tirade. He accuses Job of justifying himself at God’s expense. But is Elihu rightly dividing Job’s words? Did Job ever claim to be without sin? But didn’t God say that there is no one like him on earth, a man who is honest, who is of absolute integrity, who reveres God and avoids evil (Job 1.8)? If Elihu were truly inspired, wouldn’t God have revealed that to him?

Elihu’s inspired wisdom is sounding less and less inspired, isn’t it? But he just won’t shut up! Not only has Elihu decided that he possesses inspired insight into the ways of God; but that the Holy Spirit has made him all-knowing, too! In 36.1-4, he boasts:

Wait a little while so I can demonstrate for you

    that there is still something more to say about God.

I will draw from my broad knowledge,

    attribute justice to my maker.

My words are certainly truthful;

    one with total knowledge is present with you.

In other words, God is just, and I know more about it than you! I know all about it!

Here’s an insight from your preacher. And I don’t even need to claim divine inspiration for it. If Elihu was so inspired and all-knowing, why didn’t he know about the satan? Why didn’t he know the Adversary had afflicted Job—not God?

While the little know-it-all Elihu is droning on, a whirlwind is forming on the horizon. So Elihu decides to make it a prop for his sermon. Here’s a smattering of what he says in chapters 36-37.

Look, God is exalted and unknowable—but I thought you knew everything about God, Elihu?

Listen closely to the rumble of his voice,

    the roar issuing from his mouth.

He looses it under the whole sky,

    his lightning on earth’s edges …

God roars with his wondrous voice;

    he does great things we can’t know …

He also fills clouds with moisture;

    his lightning scatters clouds.

He overturns the circling clouds;

    by his guidance they do their work …

As for the Almighty, we can’t find him—

    he is powerful and just, abundantly righteous—

    he won’t respond.

No sooner had Elihu finished speaking those words—about how God can’t be found, and how he won’t respond to Job’s protest—the narrator breaks in and tells us: Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind.

Obviously, Elihu the inspired didn’t see that one coming!

We don’t hear anything more from or about Elihu once God appears in the whirlwind. He vanishes from the scene as quickly as he appeared. I wonder where he went? I bet when the whirlwind started talking, Elihu scampered home to change his pants.

Elihu was a know-it-all. And there’s nothing quite so insufferable as a know-it-all who thinks they have the inside track with God.

The Sea and the satan

God answered Job from the whirlwind. The technical term for a divine appearance is a theophany. They’re usually accompanied by strange and eerie phenomena: fire, earthquakes, thunder—even oppressive silence. Actual theophanies were quite rare in the scriptures. Job stands in a small company with the likes of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah.

Earlier—much earlier—Job had challenged God to speak to him in person: call and I’ll answer, or I’ll speak and you can reply (Job 13.22). Now, God finally arrives. God is at no one’s beck and call—not even righteous Job’s.

It’s interesting that God answers Job from a whirlwind. It was, after all, a whirlwind that had killed Job’s children. I wonder if Job’s friends thought the whirlwind was coming in judgment of Job? That the hidden sins, and the arrogance, they had accused him of had finally caught up with him? Did they think God had come to blow Job away?

The Lord’s voice calls from the whirlwind:

Who is this darkening counsel

    with words lacking knowledge?

After everything else we’ve heard, we might expect these words to be aimed at the know-it-all Elihu. Or at Job’s three friends. But no, it’s Job God is talking to. Job insisted on this meeting to hash it out, so God speaks to Job. Who is this darkening counsel? is God’s way of asking, Why are you blaming me, Job?

God tells Job: Prepare yourself like a man; I will interrogate you, and you will respond to me. Well, that’s exactly what Job wanted, wasn’t it?

Let’s listen again to the questions God asks Job. But let’s do something else. Let’s also imagine what Job’s answers might have been.

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Nowhere, Lord.

Tell me if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. You alone, Lord.

Who stretched a measuring tape on it? You alone, Lord.

On what were its footings sunk—I don’t know, Lord.

    who laid its cornerstone,

    while the morning stars sang in unison

        and all the divine beings shouted? You alone, Lord.

Who enclosed the Sea behind doors

    when it burst forth from the womb,

    when I made the clouds its garment,

        the dense clouds its wrap,

    when I imposed my limit for it,

        put on a bar and doors

    and said, “You may come this far, no farther;

        here your proud waves stop”? You alone, Lord. Only you can hold back the Sea. You and you alone.

Some people think God is simply trying to put Job in his place—remind him of how insignificant he and his suffering are in the grand scheme of things. I don’t think that’s quite it.

Do you recall how, in the prologue, the satan had accused Job? How God had allowed the satan to put Job to the test, but also placed firm limits on how far the satan could go? I strongly suspect that God is dropping hints, and he’s using the Sea as an analogy. In the biblical world, the Sea was seen as chaotic and threatening. This is why, for instance, Isaiah 17.12-13 compares the nations that threaten Israel to the Sea:

Doom to the raging of many peoples;

    like the thundering seas they thunder.

    Doom to the roar of nations,

        like the roaring of mighty waters.

    Nations roar like the roaring of rushing waters.

But God will rebuke them.

I think the Sea and the satan represent parallel realities. They are both part of God’s creation. God did not create the satan to attack the righteous—as he did Job. Or to destroy people, as he did Job’s children. Just like God did not create the Sea to unleash tsunamis that inflict death and destruction. But that does happen. God created the cosmos good, but some of God’s creation—both on the earth and in the heavenlies—is in open rebellion. And that brings cosmic consequences. Living in a universe where God’s will is not always done involves a certain amount of randomness and chaos. And randomness and chaos in the cosmos means living with risk and danger and suffering. The Sea—like the satan—is one example of that.

But God—in his sovereignty—can and does say to the satan what he says to the Sea: You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop.

God asks Job, Who made the Sea; and who restrains it from swallowing everything? And the only answer to that question is: You alone, Lord.

I strongly suspect that is the way God is leading Job with all these questions. He’s acknowledging—along with Job—that the world is not always neat, orderly, or predictable. Sometimes, stuff just happens. There is real evil. There is injustice. There is suffering. But God will keep on doing what he has done from the beginning. He will bring order to the chaos, light into the darkness. And God will keep fighting until he has put all of his enemies—and ours—under his feet.

Gird up your loins!

Job suffered unjustly, through no fault of his own. And that turned his world upside-down. Until he lost everything, he experienced life in the universe as predictable, orderly, and most of all, fair. Job finds himself poor, grieving, and sick—an outcast on an ash heap, with even his friends blaming him for his misery. Now Job understands that the world is not so neat and orderly, nor is it always just. His suffering was unjust; he had done nothing to deserve it.

Now that Job has suffered injustice, his eyes are open. He sees that so much suffering in the world—like his own—isn’t just. It isn’t deserved. It’s just senseless. So in chapter 24, we hear Job lament:

Why doesn’t the Almighty establish times for punishment?

    Why can’t those who know him see his days?

People move boundary stones,

        herd flocks they’ve stolen,

   drive off an orphan’s donkey,

        take a widow’s ox as collateral,

   thrust the poor out of the way,

        make the land’s needy hide together.

He goes on like this for the entire chapter. And even though Job is learning that much of the suffering he sees is caused by people freely choosing to do wrong to others, did you notice whom he holds accountable? He asked: Why doesn’t the Almighty establish times for punishment? He wanted to know, Why doesn’t God do something about this?

That’s why I find it fitting that, when God confronts Job from the whirlwind, he tells him to prepare yourself like a man. Literally, God tells Job to gird up your loins like a man (NRSV). In a time when everyone wore flowing tunics, girding up your loins was what you did before you ran or fought or did hard labor. It’s bringing up the hem of your tunic, pulling it between your legs, and then tying it back around the front. Now your tunic is shorts, and you can move freely. And God was calling Job to do hard work. And to fight.

God helped Job to see that God is not the author of evil or chaos. God has been fighting against chaos and disorder—represented by the Sea in the speech we heard today—from the very beginning. And God has been working to restrain evil and chaos ever since they were unleashed in his creation by the first humans, at the serpent’s instigation. By challenging Job to gird up his loins like a man, God is inviting him to get off the ash heap and fight with God to reestablish goodness and justice and mercy and peace in a world where there is chaos and evil and injustice.

And if you read your Bibles closely, God put humans on earth in the first place to work against chaos. Gen. 2.15 says that: The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. The phrase to farm it and to take care of it; means literally, to serve and to protect. God put humans on earth to keep chaos from overwhelming the garden—by trimming and pruning and fertilizing and all the other things you do to keep a garden in order. God’s first purpose for humans is to fight back chaos. To work with God in establishing order and goodness and beauty and kindness and peace.

Job wants to know why God allows such a chaotic world. God reminds Job that it’s Job’s world, too. And God calls him off his ash heap. Gird up your loins, Job! Fight with me! Work with me!

God calls Job back to life. He calls Job to come and do what God made humans to do.

And guess what? God is calling you and me and all of us to do the same.


One thought on “The LORD answers Job (Job 31.35-37; 38.1-11) [Sermon 07-24-2016]

  1. […] Last week, we watched in astonishment as the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind (Job 38.1). Not long ago, a whirlwind had killed all ten of Job’s children. Now a whirlwind has come for Job! […]

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