By Oliver O’Donovan
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind (Job 38:1)
So began our Old Testament lesson — in the wrong place, of course. It is like playing the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony without the great buildup that leads into it. This climax does not spring out of nothing, but crashes in upon the wild, mantic invocations of Elihu’s speech: At this my heart pounds and leaps from its place. Listen! Listen to the roar of his voice, to the rumbling that comes from his mouth! (37:1f.) Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.
And once we have begun, where are we to stop? Even Job cannot interrupt that wild, foaming nature-poetry. The Lord goes on and on. And so should we, to the dawning of the day, the springs of the ocean, the storehouses of snow and hail, the rain, the stars, the clouds, until we come to the animal kingdom, the lion, the mountain goat, the wild ass and ox, the desert ostrich, who provides the moment of comedy, the high-strung horse, the soaring hawk and finally ferocious Behemoth and Leviathan, hippopotamus and crocodile. Behemoth will not be led by the nose, Leviathan will not be played with, as with a bird. And the Book of Job will not be drawn out by the lectionary maker’s fishhook into little round-games of 20 verses apiece, suitable for an afternoon Eucharist. There is nowhere to begin, nowhere to end the Book of Job, except the beginning and the end.
But there is a center point, a moment at which everything comes together. And here it is: the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind. Here is God, the Lord answered; here is man, the Lord answered Job; and here is nature, The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind. Let us take nature first. Why the whirlwind? Well, we need to go back.
The author has set his drama within the framework of a simple morality tale. That framework story tells of a righteous and patient man, whom God permits to be tested, to prove the sincerity of his devotion. He responds to his miseries with serenity, and reproves his wife when in her despair she tempts him to despair, too. Three friends visit him, and sit struck dumb before the sight of his humiliations.
And in the end he receives the reward of his patience. Into that shell our author has poured his poetry, the exchanges between Job and his friends, and the contrast between the narrative shell and the poetic filling is one of the things his book is about. The narrative looks at the sufferer from outside. The poetry takes us inside. Read through from chapter one to chapter three in one sitting, in order to feel the shuddering jolt as this exemplary model of patience opens his mouth: Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night which said “A man-child is conceived.” Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, nor light shine upon it! The flood of self-loathing and resentment bursts from its prison, that turmoil of pathos which is the underside of all suffering.
From then on everything happens the way we did not expect. The first friend replies with great patience and understanding. He encourages Job to believe that God will yet be good to him, if he can only wait and trust. In response Job turns on the three of them angrily, and accuses them of taunting him. And as the speeches proceed and the friends’ answers move from encouragement to reproof, and finally to outrage, it is Job who makes the running. He drags them into the maelstrom of his own unquenchable fury.
The pathos of suffering is very unreasonable. It pits Job against the universe. He demands that everyone takes sides, and when they try to reconcile him with the way things happen in God’s universe, he takes it as a direct affront. He can bear nobody near him but sworn partisans. And his friends are shocked, and rightly so, at the demand that God should maintain the right of a man with God, like that of a man with his neighbor (16:21).
Now, there is a touch of Prometheus about Job, and our culture has its moments of sympathy for Prometheus. We are tempted to approve of the demand that God should be dragged into court. And sometimes Christians have approved this in their enthusiasm to see Job as a prophet of Christ: I know that my redeemer lives! But the author does not approve. He does not see the problem of suffering in the light that Job sees it: why is God allowed to get away with it? He sees the problem as why the sufferer is imprisoned in contradiction.
Job, who is all of us when we suffer, thinks of the world as a forum where everyone should get their rights; he wants to hammer on the doors of the universe, like the woman in Jesus’ parable, and force the authorities to do their job. The very reasonable perspectives, from which his comforters can see the place of suffering in human affairs, are not open to him. How, our author wonders, can the sufferer be brought back to reality?
He must be freed from his anthropocentric framework, from weighing the universe on human scales, asking it human questions instead of taking it as God made it. But for that to happen the Lord must answer Job out of the whirlwind! He must confront Job as creator. Not as Job’s creator but as creator of a universe that is largely non-human. This is not nature “hominized,” nature as we like to study it and enjoy it, in a comfortable cohabitation with mankind.
God does not talk about farming and gardening and fishing, and all the pleasant things that give us topics for harvest festival, but about the wild. But not, again, about “wilderness,” in that protective, ecologically conscious way we have of taking wild things under our wings and protecting them, but about the purely remote, the strange, the barely known, the geological and astronomical limits, the oceanographical and meteorological horizons, the behavior of undomesticable animal and bird life, often bizarre, always dangerous.
There are many lessons one can draw from nature. One can find divinity there, like Wordsworth, or indifference and emptiness, like Sibelius. In Job nature is neither divine nor empty. It is simply quite independent of us and of our concerns. I am all in favor of responsible ecological stewardship; but it is bad faith, all this talk of “defending creation,” as though it were non-human nature that stood in need of defense. It is our own tight little ecosystem that is on the line. Nature can shrug it off and develop others as easily as a sleeper turns in bed and rearranges the blanket. The question is whether among the infinite possibilities for nature’s regeneration there is even one that counts us humans in. A world teeming with energies and purposes, but not our energies and purposes! To understand what God is up to, you must understand that he is up to a great deal more than making us comfortable!
We find nature, for the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind. Nature is the Creator’s domain, where man and his concerns are dwarfed, and put in their place. But man is not absent. The Lord answered Job.
Yes, he answered him. Job had this idea of maintaining the right of a man with God, and that was no good. It made the universe too small, and poured all the wealth of creation into the thimble of injured human dignity. A Promethean culture like ours will always end up with the taste of the trivial in its mouth, because it has closed itself off against enlargement. Before we can demand that God answer for himself, we have to become big enough in our imaginations, open to the scope on which God works.
But the Lord answered Job. And so the drama, which from one point of view is about the overcoming of Job, the breaking open of his self-enclosed perspective, is, from another point of view, about the vindication of Job in his quest for personal accounting. Gird up your loins, says God, like a man, and I shall question you! But it is by no means like a man to gird up his loins before God, to be put on the spot by the author of his nature! It is by no means what man’s small purchase on the life of this wild universe would suggest! Here is a privilege given neither to Behemoth nor to Leviathan. The planets which circle impassively around above our heads and watch the coming and the going of a thousand generations of men have not exchanged a single word with the one who put them there. Man is dwarfed; yet man is spoken to. Man may hear a word more final than the dread silence or inarticulate roar of the universe.
And so it was that generations of Christian men and women, facing death, have been able to say that they went to meet their maker and be judged. In that simple phrase, which sounds so flat to the ear, there is wrapped a deep mystery, a mystery far deeper than the mystery of the universe, that God has destined humankind to speak with him. He will not let us be, to return as clay to clay, but will summon us to answer. And that is what makes men and women what they are. We bear the image, the face-to-face reflection, of one who speaks to us and demands that we speak back.
Job in his prison of resentment wanted a transparent justification of man before God. He could only be denied. Resentment never put anybody in the right. But what God could give was a transparent justification of God to man. And here is the startling twist the author gives to his morality tale: when Job confessed that all the right lay with God, and that he had none, that was the true answer to his demand for a legal process. He thought he wanted an advocate to plead his innocence, but what he needed was to plead guilty and confess God’s right out of the depth of his suffering.
Job’s friends did not confess God’s right in that way. They, too, measured God’s right by his service to the human race. So it was Job in the end who was justified. For he had learned something of God’s ways that they had not learned. Job spoke right about God, we are told. When did he speak right? Not in those long tirades and bitter reproaches, but in those last faltering words of contrition; yet that was enough! Doth Job fear God for nought? Satan had asked. The answer had certainly been No, but now became Yes. The legendary patience of Job, the integrity for which he was rewarded, was not displayed in his sufferings, but won out of them.
“Won,” we say, looking at it from the human point of view again. But then, thirdly and supremely, in this climax we find God himself. The Lord answered.
Those who devised our lectionary conceived that we should read of Job today because it could prepare us nine weeks from now to consider the coming of Jesus, the high priest who, though he was a Son, learned obedience through suffering.
It was the Lord’s answer! Job could not answer unless the Lord answered first. Job could not confess God’s right, unless God first confessed his own right. Nothing could have broken that vicious circle of resentment and misery if the Lord had not beheld his creature and answered his utter and unmeasurable need.
I know that my redeemer liveth! Are we wrong to see, in that coming at Bethlehem and that breaking forth from the tomb in Old Jerusalem, the very answer to the hope Job choked out in his passion and rage? No, we are not wrong, for the Lordanswered. He did not merely summon Job to answer. He picked up all those protests and reproaches that were hurled at his throne, and accepted them as a cry to which, in his gracious kindness, he would pay heed. And how far the answer went beyond the cry!
That coming at Bethlehem, too, was God’s answer to Job. It is God’s answer to us when we are Job. It is God’s answer to the question of our very being, the question we do not know how to ask, and it turns that question on its head by pleading God’s right with man rather than man’s right with God. Through that answer we may answer in our turn. He came as the Word through whom all things were made, the very voice of the creator, coming, we are told, to his own, for that same divine rationality we find so terrifyingly indifferent to us when we see it in the mirror of creation now meets us as our fellow human.
He came as the Son of Man, whose life was given up for many, the high priest who made confession of God’s right and out of the depth of his most unearned suffering in cries and tears accomplished the obedience which patience must work. He can free us from our numbing preoccupation with the unfairness and injustice of our lot. He can open our eyes on the Creator’s right, and make that right our right, too.The Rev. Dr. Oliver O’Donovan is professor emeritus of Christian ethics and practical theology at the University of Edinburgh.