Return to Sermons
Listening for the Lord
October 22, 2000
by Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to Job chapter 38 and follow along as I read verses 1-7. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).
1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
2 Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.
4 Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
5 Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
6 Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
7 When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
There is such a thing as a Human Suffering Index. It is published by the Population crisis committee in Washington D.C. Its work is quite popular. Estimates are that their US audience is at about 100 million. The Index is presented as a colour poster, with all the countries ranked in order, and showing the close linkage between high suffering and high rates of population increase. Of the countries classified as part of the "extreme human suffering" category, 24 are in Africa, six are in Asia, and none is in the Western Hemisphere. Topping the list is Mozambique, followed by Angola, Afghanistan, Chad, Mali, Ghana, Somalia and Niger. The least suffering country is Switzerland, followed by Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands and the United States. [Kathleen Mazzocco, public affairs officer, Population Crisis Committee, www.GlobalIdeasBank.org.]
Job knew about suffering, perhaps in that sense he had more in common with the people of Mozambique that with Americans. But Job's sufferings were intensified and exacerbated by his inability to understand just what God was up to. We all have that problem. It is not exactly a problem of belief. We believe in God, but we are not at all sure that we know what God is doing or how he is doing it. Because Job could not see God acting in his life, he became a bitter and despairing man, and not until we arrive at today's chapter in the story is there even a glimmer of hope.
You might say that Job's problem is that he does not understand the dominance hierarchy. In nature, dominance hierarchy is a fact of life. Animals live in groups, and within each group, one member is dominant while the others are submissive, and it is in the best interest of the submissives to understand their role quickly. Those at the top of the pecking order have perks: they are given priority when it comes to food, resting places, and mates. Those who are subordinate express submissive behaviors by looking away and lowering head, body or tail. Extreme submission is marked by crouching down, rolling over and exposing the abdomen. To establish dominance, elk, for example, butt heads with rivals, and some species of African fish turn bright colors.
Most species have defense mechanisms to protect themselves against a dominant species or predator. A horned lizard confronts its enemy by inflating its rear end to create the illusion of greater size, and if that doesn't work, it squirts blood from its eyes into the face of the attacker. Cuttlefish spray an inky fluid, creating an opaque screen blocking them from view long enough to escape. The Torpedo electric ray can deliver a shock of up to 200 volts for about a second.
Predators -whether natural or divine - were the last thing Job was thinking about when trouble visited his house like a whirlwind. He never knew what hit him. He didn't have time to run and hide, and when it was clear he was in trouble, he tried puffing himself up, throwing up a smoke screen or two and running to the protection of the chatterboxes he called his friends. Whatever the options, he was not about to submit to the will of God. He was not even sure who his problem was. Was it God or Satan? Or was it simply a case of egregious bad luck? Essentially clueless, he floundered while others tried to help him get out of the mess he was in, though they were of no help at all.
Fact is, all humans have trouble with the dominance hierarchy, yet this hierarchy is present in virtually every social interaction. A drop-dead gorgeous blonde walks into the room and male heads snap with whiplash force, wives at their elbows notwithstanding. These women will later accuse their mates of drooling, cowering, and groveling. The dominance factor also appears in children even before the age of 3. It's more than just a case of "my toy"; it's a yearning, a tendency that transcends gender, implanting itself early in the social landscape.
Research shows that dominant humans typically stand straighter and move more expressively and expansively, like the alpha male of a wolf pack. Our very body language demonstrates the dominant/submissive equation: eyebrows raised, chin up and full eye contact.
Now another scientific study suggests that every time we open our mouths we announce our dominance or submissiveness. Scholars from Kent State University taped 25 interviews of Larry King Live, focusing on vocal frequencies below 500 hertz. Researchers had, in the past, ignored these low-frequency sounds as meaningless noise, a nonverbal hum that carries the verbal message. But they noticed that in all these conversations, these low hums of the two speakers converged, suggesting that the speakers needed on a subconscious level to be on the same wavelength. Larry King modulated his voice to meet that of a high-ranking person, such as the President, while in most cases, his guests modulated their voices to meet that of Larry King.
The scientists concluded that it is this sublanguage, this low frequency hum, that allows someone, when listening to a friend on the phone to interpret, by tone alone, whether that person is talking to a boss, an employee or a friend.
And herein lies Job's problem. He had his tone all wrong. He did not realize who he was talking to. He apparently thought that God is just another human being, maybe more powerful than himself, but much like himself.
He had lost his sons and daughters, his house, his flocks, his health and was estranged from his wife. Undeterred, and convinced of the rectitude of his position, Job kept up appearances as best he could, chin up, body straight, and full eye contact, beating his chest in the face of God.
Perhaps we should not blame Job. Nothing suggests that he deserved the treatment he was getting. By all accounts, he was a righteous man. In Job 1:8, God says, "Have you considered my servant Job?. There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil." Is not this all that God asks of anyone, to be a blameless, upright God-fearing person who turns away from evil?
Yet, Satan cast aspersions on his piety by suggesting that Job was serving God merely out of selfishness, that his faithfulness was merely the product of his prosperity. Take away the one, and you remove the other.
Both God and Satan had a point. Job was certainly the man God said he was, a good man who obeyed God, but Job was also someone whose experience of God was completely framed by his perception that God's favor was contingent upon his good behavior. In other words Job thought, God is good to me, because I am good to God. His consistent defense throughout his ordeal is that he does not deserve what happened to him. He says, "I have done nothing wrong, and in fact have done everything right." In 29:12 he says, "I delivered the poor who cried and the orphan who had no helper." In his unhappiness at the bad things that have happened to him, Job makes himself sound like an early version of Mother Teresa. Thus he says in 29: 13-16."I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger"
And Job is not exaggerating. These facts are not in dispute. What Job did not understand is that it was not his concept of himself that was faulty; it was his concept of God that needed revision. In the face of inconsolable grief, Job, like us, could do no more than ask the questions, "Why?" and "Why me?" Although he had all around him evidence of the greatness and dominance of God, he could not grasp the dominance hierarchy as it related to him. He understood his relationship with God as nothing more than a contract. To Job's mind all theology and all religion comes down to this. He obeyed God and God helped him. Unfortunately, Job's situation indicates that though he was obeying God, God was not helping him.
Then we come to our text today, when God speaks to the problem.
If the scholars of Kent State had taped God's voice, they would have immediately recognized--what Job apparently did not--that this is the top of the dominance hierarchy speaking.
That God's way of speaking is different from our way of speaking is nowhere better illustrated than in God's speech in Job 38. One can see this, especially, when one analyzes the way Job is written. We do not know who the author of Job was, but the author has made special efforts to give all of the speakers in the book their own voice. Each of Job's "friends" speaks with his own distinctive vocabulary, and when it is God's turn to speak, God's speeches have an inordinately high percentage of "hapax legomena," words that only occur once in the Bible. In fact, the speeches of God at the end of Job contain more unique words than any other passages in the Hebrew Bible. Not only does God speak of topics too grand for full human comprehension, God also uses a most sophisticated and exotic vocabulary. For example, later on in the chapter, in verse 36, there are two unusual words, which although they can be translated as does the AV, as "inward parts" and "heart," they could also be translated as the names of two types of birds who give warning of approaching weather phenomena, or as the Egyptian and Greek divinities of wisdom respectively, Thoth and Hermes. Such unusual vocabulary makes the translation of these speeches difficult. Perhaps the lesson here is the human inability to fathom the mind of God!
But Job does not understand this; In 38:2, we read, "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" Job is utterly incapable of modulating his tone, his life, to match that of the Almighty. God then lashes at Job saying that for all his righteous behavior, he's been acting like a wuss: "Gird up your loins like a man" (38:3) Quit whining.
God is direct: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (38:4). The subsequent interrogation is utterly withering. And when God is through, Job is kneeling in submission. In 40:4 Job says. "See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?"
But fawning and groveling is not what God wants either. God again says, "Gird up your loins like a man" (40:7) and goes after him. When the dust settles, Job understands the dominance hierarchy, and has a different response: "I know ... that no purpose of yours can be thwarted ... I have uttered what I did not understand ... I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I ... repent in dust and ashes" (42:2-6).
Job has come to some understanding of God. He sees God as God--not as an employer who rewards his employees with stock options, car toys and a cattle ranch. And he sees himself as a faithful servant who renders his service not to place God in his debt, but because it is right and fitting to do so.
The lesson is about living by faith, not by works - not to mention that in our conversations with God, it is always best to watch our tone of voice.
Another key aspect of the book of Job is the way God changes character between chapter 1 and chapter 38. In chapter 1, God delights in Job's complete faithfulness, his exemplary character, and sounds every bit like a doting parent singing the praises of a favorite child. How different from this image is the fierce rebuke with which Job is greeted in chapter 38. Why the change in God's attitude. Is it merely Job's very human desire to know and to understand what he has done wrong that turns God from his defender to his accuser? This seems unlikely, given the fact that many characters, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jonah, argue with God and question God's intentions without receiving such a devastating response.
It seems more likely that the book of Job is intentionally portraying God in two different guises, both of which are to be found elsewhere in the Bible.
In Job 1-2, God wears the face of the Daniel's Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9). This image portrays God, the initiator of covenant law, as an elder whose primary role is to sit in judgment of those bound together by this law, with its predictable rules of reward and punishment. It is this face that God wears at the beginning of Job, leading Job to assume, wrongly, that God the judge will always act in a manner that can be rationally deduced from the laws of the covenant governing the divine/human relationship. If that were true, we could pretty much know God and know how God will act and not act.
Job assumes that he can use the mechanisms of a court, whose prosecutor, or Satan, has accused him, to defend himself against any charge. He believes that he has a defense attorney. In Hebrew, the word is go'el. It is often translated as "redeemer." Job assumes that his goel/redeemer will plead his case for him. In covenant law, the go'el is your nearest kin who has the covenant right and obligation to ransom you if you are taken captive, revenge your death if you are murdered - in short, to defend you from wrong under the law, as Boaz does for Ruth and Naomi. Job feels that he is dealing with the God who founded this system of justice and can be expected to act accordingly.
However, when God speaks in Job 38, God is wearing another face. Here he is the Divine Warrior King, Creator of the Universe. This is not an aspect of God which responds to appeals to law. This is the face of God which is more like the God of the Storm, who vanquishes his enemies, creates the world out of chaos, brings order from disorder, and is to be worshiped by all. In Job 38, God does not speak not as someone that we can deal with in human terms at all. This is not a God who rules by judgments and decrees that we can understand.
So Job began in the presence of God the kindly elder. He soon finds himself, however, at the mercy of God the Divine Warrior. Now you might say, how can God be both of these? The short answer is because he is God. The longer answer is that whenever we talk about God in human language, we talk in paradoxes and impossibilities. This paradox between God the divine warrior and God the kindly elder is found throughout the OT. It is found even in the chapter before us. If we read the words of God in chapter 38, we might conclude that God is so far beyond any kind of being that we can imagine that God would never even communicate with us. God is the force that permeates the universe and brings about the ever ascending complexities of life as we see them all around us. God is in all things doing all things. This is the level of being of God, if you can call it a level of being. It is really beyond being, since God ultimately is the creator of all being.
Having said so much then, what has this God got to do with us? And there is an answer from this chapter in Job. This God does communicate with us. That is the ultimate paradox of God. The source and future of the universe communicates with us and works through us. The ultimate expression of this is found in the NT in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christ demonstrates the source and future of the universe working in our lives. Christ is the god of all come to us, and when we give our lives to Christ, we allow this god of all to work is us even as this same God works in the whole universe. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, October 20, 2000