On Sunday 29th December, I gave a full-length sermon at church for the first time. The sermon was based on Job 38, so you can read the chapter via the link below if you want to know which part of the Bible I’m talking about! You can either read the sermon here, or listen with this link: http://www.elimfamilychurch.com/index.php/services/sermons/sermon/13-ben-garry-job-38
Without further ado, here’s what I said:
Today I want to talk to you about a chapter from Job. I’ll start by giving you a brief overview of what Job is, because it’s perhaps a book that we don’t always look at that much, then I’ll read the chapter, and then I’ll talk about a few things that I find interesting in there. Hopefully you’ll find them interesting to, and hopefully, God will tell us something through this.
So, what is the book of Job? It’s in the books of poetry, within the middle of the Old Testament; after the books of history and before all the prophecy books. It’s also considered to be a wisdom book, like Proverbs, in that there’s lots of stuff in there that you can take out of it and hopefully apply to your life and learn from it. It’s thought to have been written around the 10th century B.C., in the reign of Solomon (scholars cleverer than I am think that because of the way it’s written etc.), but Job himself is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, in Ezekiel 14:20. Not much is said about him there, but it’s enough to know that he’s considered to be a historical figure, so this isn’t someone that’s made up for the sake of the poetry of the book and for the sake of the story.
And the historical figure of Job, according to this book [Job], was probably someone who lived before Abraham. You never hear anything about the Old Testament law in this book, because, when Job lived, the Old Testament didn’t exist. He didn’t live in what would become the Hebrew lands; he lived in a land called Uz, which was probably somewhere in the Middle East, so he was an Arab; he wasn’t a Hebrew. We do know, as the book tells us, that God considered him a righteous man. He was one of God’s strongest followers, he led, as I think God calls it, a ‘blameless’ life [Job 1:8], and yet a lot goes wrong for him.
Around this long section of poetry in the middle, you get a little bit of narrative at the start and the end and that tells us what’s going on. For those of you that don’t know, Satan goes to God, and God asks Satan to consider his most righteous servant on Earth – that’s Job – and allows Satan to test Job to see if he will actually stand up to what God has said. So Satan starts by afflicting Job’s wealth – his wealth is all made up of livestock. He kills off lots of Job’s livestock and afflicts his family with illness and death, though God says he can’t lay a finger on Job. All through that, Job never complains to God, he never says that this is unfair, he never denounces God or anything; he stays strong. Then God allows Satan to test him again, and this time, Job himself was afflicted with illness. So he was in a lot of pain; he’d lost everything. He was about as low as he could go: from a position of great power to a position of nothing.
The large middle section of this book sees Job in a discussion with three of his friends, who offer questionable advice on what he should do and why he’s suffering, and there’s so much in that book. If you haven’t read it, I recommend reading it, because it’s tough going, but it’s worth it, and you can see a lot of misconceptions, as well as truths, about suffering and why we suffer and how, as Christians and followers of God, we can cope with suffering.
But the bit I want to you about now is right near the end of that middle section. It’s Job 38. There are three or four chapters of this; Job 38-41 is all the direct speech of God. This is the longest speech of God in the Old Testament, outside the first five books, which isn’t reported by someone else. In the prophecy books, it’s a prophet reporting what God said, but this is God himself speaking [without a mediator] and so I think that this is something that really needs to be looked at; these are the words of God with nothing else there.
I read out chapter 38
That’s quite a tough set of questions to be asked, I think, especially when it is God speaking to you from out of the storm, but I’ll come to that a little bit more later. The thing that really struck me when I read this passage, and I’ve heard it said before, is that it seems like God is mocking Job for a lot of it. the verse that I picked out is verse 21, where, after God has asked about half of the questions, he says, “Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years!” To me, that reads a lot like sarcasm; it doesn’t seem very sympathetic of God to be saying that to Job, especially given that all Job’s afflictions up to this point had happened, not by God’s actions, as such, because it was Satan afflicting him, but if you read the start of the book, God actually points out Job to Satan in the first place, so you could, quite easily, say that God has allowed all this to happen and it seems very harsh of him to be mocking Job at the end of Job’s suffering.
While there may be an element of mockery in this, and I don’t think you can disregard that, because that’s the easiest thing to read out of it and I don’t think you should ignore that, I also think that there is a point to this that goes far beyond that. I think that to read this as God making fun of Job because he can doesn’t fit with the rest of the book at all; it doesn’t fit with the way that God holds Job in high regard in the first chapter and it doesn’t fit with the character of God in the rest of the Bible, to mock someone who’s suffering when he’s done no wrong.
We have to then think, why would God want us to read this? These are the direct words of God, so why has God presented himself in that way? What’s he trying to achieve by asking Job these questions, and, indirectly, asking us these questions millennia later when we come to read this?
I think one of the things that this really emphasises is how much greater than us God is. He’s asking all these questions to Job that Job can’t possible answer, because Job is just a man (a very righteous man), but just a man, and he doesn’t know more than we know as humans. God is implying, I feel, from reading this chapter, that he [God] does know all these things. Every question he asks Job, every natural phenomenon he lists, every creature, every detail in that chapter and the chapters that follow; I feel that’s God saying to us that he does know. He does know how they work; he was there when they were created, and I think that’s something really important to bear in mind, because it’s very easy to forget how powerful God is, especially if, like me, you’ve been brought up as a Christian.
I’ve never had the experience of suddenly realising that God exists, or of working towards that realisation, because, for me, I was brought up believing it. Although, later in life, I’ve researched it to make sure of what I believe, I haven’t had that realisation and I wonder if sometimes, because of that, it makes it easier for me to almost take God for granted, because he’s always there, he’s a thing, you think, ‘Oh yeah, God saved us and he made the world, all that’. It’s very easy, in day to day life, to forget how important it all is, and forget how amazing he is, especially compared to us. Because, speaking for myself, I’m not that great, and, compared to God, there’s just not a scale you can put a man and God on, really.
So this chapter really encourages humility, I think. I don’t want to read too much into what the intentions of God might be, because they’re far beyond what we can comprehend, but I think that, by speaking to Job in that way, he’s also encouraging humility in Job. That’s not necessarily because Job was an arrogant person – he was a righteous person – but I think it’s because, when coming to a place to really learn from God, you have to be humbled first. If you go into a conversation with God thinking that you know it all, assuming that you’re not going to learn anything new, taking for granted the knowledge that you already have, then it’s going to be very difficult for you to take on board anything that God says. You have to be willing to listen, and to be willing to listen you have to willing to say, ‘I don’t know it all’. And I think that this chapter leaves us in no doubt that we don’t know it all. Nowadays, there might be scientists who might be able to answer some of those questions, but I don’t think there’ll be many people in the world that can answer every single one of those questions with 100% accuracy…and as an English student I can’t answer many of those sciency questions at all.
I think that once we get this humility, once we realise what we are in comparison to God, we are then in a position to trust him more. Because I know I’m much happier trusting someone who knows all these things and can do all these things than I would be trusting someone who might let me down at any point. It’s said loads – you’ve probably heard this before – but I think it’s so important to remember that God doesn’t let us down. In this chapter, he goes through details of creation; he talks about space, the weather, animals (he goes on to talk about animals in a lot more detail in the later chapters) and it makes me think that this is a God that cares so much about this creation, this is a God that knows his creation in so much detail. This isn’t a God who sort of set it in motion and then retreated to the background to let us do our own thing, this is a God who is intimately involved with every aspect of his creation, no matter how big, from the starts right down to the baby animals, which are mentioned quite a lot actually. I think that’s someone that I can trust, and I hope that’s someone that you can learn to trust as well.
I think, if you are someone that has trouble trusting God, for whatever reason, then there are chapters like this, and also in the gospels, where we see Jesus, that really encourage us that God is someone that can be trusted, because he’s someone that knows everything, and can do all these incredible things. If he cares about the animals, then I’m sure he cares about us, whom he set over that creation.
There’s a C. S. Lewis quote which I’ve seen, actually, it’s come up on Twitter quite a lot recently (the wonders of Twitter). I don’t know which book it’s from (it might not even be a C. S. Lewis quote, to be honest, but I quite like it); it says, “Humility is not thinking less of ourselves, it’s thinking of ourselves less.” I really like that, because, up to that point in the book [Job], Job is in a conversation with his friend and, although God is mentioned, the focus is very much on Job’s suffering. That’s what they’re talking about, that’s the problem. Job is wondering why he’s suffering and his friends are saying, ‘Maybe you’ve sinned and you didn’t realise it; you must be such a horrible man to have all that suffering…’ but the focus is on Job. And yet, in these last few chapters, God appears in a storm (which must be a pretty impressive thing in the first place) and not only that, he then speaks to Job out of the storm, saying, ‘Hang on, this is what I am, maybe you should learn to consider me, and from that, wisdom will come.’
This leads me on to the next thing I want to talk about, which is how God presents himself in this chapter. As I’ve said before, in other books we have the prophets presenting God, and it is the words of God, but it’s for a very specific purpose, normally to do with the future of Israel or the current situation in Israel, and obviously, in the New Testament, we have Jesus, which is a presentation of God, but it’s much later on than this one. Here is God, speaking by asking all these questions, and by talking about things that Job can’t do, he’s talking about things that he [God] can do. And he is building us an image of a powerful creator God.
I want to talk about that image a bit more, and also talk a bit about what it means to consider the image that God gives us of himself. Let’s face it, we like to make God in our image. At home group the other week, Dave was talking about how the things that come to mind when we think of God. If I asked you to describe God, the first few things that you said would probably reflect more about you, and the way you see God, than about who God actually is. Even if we think about attributes of God which are in the Bible, as I’m sure many of us would – if I asked you to describe God, I’m sure you would come up with loads of things in the Bible – we don’t often consider the whole picture in one go, because the whole picture of God is too much for us to consider.
I think that on an unconscious level we have an idea of God that’s very much suited to us. For me, personally, I find it very easy to imagine the military, disciplinary, almost stereotypically masculine images of God. So passages in Revelation, passages in the Old Testament don’t bother me so much because I can understand God as a military king, which is in the Bible, is something logical; it fits with ideas of God’s justice and power and that makes sense to me. But then there are other people who would focus more on the caring aspects of God. They would focus more on his love and grace and yet they perhaps wouldn’t consider so much the more military, in some ways more violent, aspects of God. I think I haven’t got the whole picture, and they haven’t got the whole picture, because the whole picture is too big for us to grasp.
Here we have God presenting that whole picture to us, if we can try and comprehend it. And just in this chapter alone, we see the stars and we see animals. For me, that represents two different parts of God; you have, when it talks about binding the Pleiades and the chains of Orion and the bear and its cubs (referring to the constellation), there we see this God of immense, almost unknowable power who controls the heavens, who set the laws of physics in place, who created all these incredible, incredible things that are way out there and very, very big. And yet, in the same chapter, just a few lines later, we then see the God who provides for the lioness and her cubs, who creates the natural world in such a way that everything should work if it’s left to work. He’s a God who cares for the needs of individual creatures, who knows exactly what each creature needs, and will provide for it.
Jesus talks about this as well, when he talks about the swallows, and if God provides for the swallows, how much more will he care about you? [I don’t know where I got swallows from, but the verse is Matthew 6:26] I’m struggling to find words to talk about this, because it’s just so mind-blowing and amazing, how good God is and how much he cares. I know I’ve said that before, but it’s just so important.
This image of God, the one he presents in Job; he’s in the storm; he’s so much more powerful than Job can comprehend. Job is driven to his knees by the presence of God and yet this is a God who cares for us. And if we read further on in the Bible, we then go to the gospels. Job didn’t have the gospels but we can go there, we can read the life of Jesus and we can see in a practical way, in a way unparalleled in history, how God has provided for the whole human race. He provided for us in an eternal way. This isn’t just providing us with food or shelter, because, at the end of the day, if you have food and shelter, but you don’t have God, then you still don’t really have anything. We’re thinking on an eternal scale here. Jesus is the ultimate eternal provision for us, done out of God’s care for creation, done out of God’s intimate knowledge of exactly what we need, because Jesus on the cross was exactly what we all need. No matter what we’ve done, Jesus is what we need and he is the ultimate demonstration of God’s care for us, which is seen foreshadowed in these poems; not just in Job, but all through the Old Testament – this idea of God caring for his creation is shown in the gospel.
I also want to just quickly look at the idea of God as a teacher, because this is a wisdom book, as I said, and the idea of wisdom books is that we can learn something from them. We aren’t as wise as God (I definitely speak for myself in that) and can learn all sorts of things from these books. Job is perhaps more specific than something like Proverbs, which covers most areas of life, in that Job focuses more on suffering, but essentially, God is trying to teach us things through this book. He’s teaching Job and he’s teaching us. He’s using a very simple teaching method, that I’ve had to take on board, as I’m volunteering at a secondary school up in Nottingham and it’s a very simple thing: rather than giving everybody all the answers, you ask them questions to make them realise things for themselves. Instead of asking those questions, God could’ve given Job a lecture on how the universe works, but what would that have achieved? Job’s situation would not have been helped by that; he might have been overawed for a bit – he probably would’ve been if God had explained some of those scientific principles in there, several thousand years ago – but ultimately, that wouldn’t have helped Job with his suffering, really.
What God is doing by asking all these questions is getting Job to think about his position in relation to God and the universe. He’s encouraging Job to see who he is in relation to God, he’s also making him think about all these incredible things, and thinking about those things, I’d imagine, was a big reason why Job came to humility and could come before God. God presented himself in such a way that encouraged him to do that.
I think that that is also something we can take from this. We consider that here, God is not asking questions because he wants to toy with us, or mock us, he’s asking questions because he wants us to think about the answers, answers which often are far out of our reach. But by thinking about the answers, we then start thinking about God’s role in those answers. We start thinking about God more, and this comes back to this whole thing about thinking about God less and that’s really, I think, one of the things God does in here.
Also, he doesn’t respond to Job in the way Job expected. Well, I don’t know what Job expected, Job might not have been expected anything; up to that point, God had been silent in his life really, from the point where Satan started afflicting him. God appears in the first chapter, and he appears now. Between this he’s only been mentioned by Job and his friends; he doesn’t appear as a figure in the book. So Job might not have been expecting anything from God. If he was expecting anything, I don’t think he would have expected this: this sudden, powerful revelation of everything that God is.
I think this really tells us something about God’s character. It really tells us, I think, that God knows exactly what we need, even when we don’t know what we need. I don’t think Job would have known what he needed in that situation; he probably didn’t think there was anything he could do, because everything was going wrong. It reminds us now that God knows what we need, and that points us to Jesus, because Jesus is what we need.
I want to just talk about the end of Job. Once God has spoken to Job and brought him to this humility, he then builds Job back up. He doesn’t leave Job where he was, after speaking to him; he gives him back his livestock, he gives him a new family, and everything Job had before was increased. Now I’m not saying that God is going to give us loads of material things if we come to him, because I think we’re in a very different situation now to many of the people in the Old Testament – the covenants are different – but I think there is something we can take from this in that we do not stay the same if we really speak to God.
If we take the time to humble ourselves and come to God, then he will bless us and he will change us and it will be for the better. You might not find 100 sheep on your doorstep the next day, I’m not sure how much of a blessing that would really be for many people anyway, but I think you will leave feeling you know God more. I think you will leave more at peace with yourself, and even if you get further questions from hearing from God, I think the experience of knowing you have spoken to God, and the experience of being with the creator of the universe in such an intimate way has got to change you for the better. I believe [and you can disagree in the comments if you want] that if you meet with God in that way, it’s got to do some good.
I just want to finish by encouraging you that no matter what we’re going through, no matter how far we seem to have fallen, if there’s been a reversal of fortunes like Job had, or whatever it is that might be going on in your life, God is not ignoring us. Even when Job, in the depths of his misery, might have thought that Job was ignoring him, he wasn’t! God was just waiting for the right time to appear to him out of the storm. God has the power to make things right in the end. We know that because he’s already made them right in Jesus, and if we just come to him, humbly, he will help us to know him more, and he’ll sort it out. That’s me done.