The book of Job is generally held to be the oldest book in the Bible. It was circulated orally in the second millennium B.C. and written down in Hebrew at roughly the time of David and Solomon. For a depiction of God’s exuberant creative force, it took the story of long-suffering Job to make the hair stand on the back of my neck.
Throughout his many trials, Job steadfastly refuses to curse God. However, his sense of injury and outrage build up to a furious climax in which he demands to see God and question him face to face about the justice of his actions. He concludes with a ringing demand for justice: “Oh, that I had one to hear me! (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)” (31:35). “Signature” literally means “taw”, the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. This is Job saying: “This is my last word. Answer me!” “Signature” literally means “taw”, the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. This is Job saying: “This is my last word. Answer me!”
And the Almighty does respond to this audacious demand, in a sublime poem that lasts five chapters (38-41). In sweeping verse, he presents a series of questions to Job, asking where he was when God created the earth, the tumultuous sea, dawn grasping the earth by its skirts, the gates of night, the elements and the constellations, all animals and living things. The language is magnificent, conveying a sense of beauty, majesty, mystery and power that has hardly been equalled in the thousands of years since it was written. The first time I really experienced Scripture as inspired writing was when I first encountered the Book of Job.
“Where were you”, God asks Job, “when I laid the foundation of the earth? …When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” “Who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band?” “Have the gates of death been revealed to you?” “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?” “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?”
And so it goes on, this extraordinary journey through the created universe, question after question, with the refrain: “I will question you and you will declare to me. Will you put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?”
God gives no verbal answer to Job’s question as to why the innocent are permitted to suffer, nor does he see why he should. He does not “owe” Job an explanation: “Who has given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (Job 41:11).
The notes to Job, Chapter 42, in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (1971) offer this commentary: God has not justified Job, but he has come to him personally; the upholder of the universe cares for a lonely man so deeply that he offers him the fullness of his communion. Job is not vindicated but he has obtained far more than a recognition of his innocence: he has been accepted by the ever-present master-worker, and intimacy with the Creator makes vindication superfluous. The philosophical problem is not solved, but it is transfigured by the theological reality of the divine-human rapport.
All that is left is for Job to accept the inscrutable grace of the God “whose thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways” (Isa 55:8,9).
The conclusion of the story is told briefly and in prose, as Job’s fortunes are restored and he dies “an old man, and full of days”.
It was Job’s plain speaking and determination which wrested that mighty response from God. Job did not hesitate to engage honestly with God. He spoke what was on his mind and God honoured him for it.
It seems a relatively simple thing to do, to tell God what you are thinking, but it isn’t. Which of us has not been haunted at some time or other by the fear that everything we believe is a delusion – the stuff of a fable told to a child to allay his fear of the dark? How often have we acknowledged that fear to ourselves, let alone to God? Or the many other terrors, resentments, hatred and guilt that drain our lives of joy and hope? If we are to mend something that is broken, we must first be able to look at the break.
Job described his own wretchedness pitilessly, in words that resonate with us four thousand years later. It is all here, the absence and the silence of God, the prosperity of the wicked, the broken spirit, the raging against fate. But underlying it all is the refusal to give up, the refusal to be silent – the same capacity of endurance that marked even the most flawed of the biblical protagonists. Even before God succumbs to this relentless battering at his door, Job can express hope. In this, the Bible’s oldest book, the gloom and desolation of Sheol is displaced by the first expression of belief in life after death:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God. (Job 19:25, 26)