‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
‘Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?
‘Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? It is changed like clay under the seal, and it is dyed like a garment. Light is withheld from the wicked, and their uplifted arm is broken.
‘Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.
‘Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!
‘Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
‘Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?
‘Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?
‘Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer? Can you number the months that they fulfil, and do you know the time when they give birth, when they crouch to give birth to their offspring, and are delivered of their young? Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open; they go forth, and do not return to them.
‘Who has let the wild ass go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass, to which I have given the steppe for its home, the salt land for its dwelling-place? It scorns the tumult of the city; it does not hear the shouts of the driver. It ranges the mountains as its pasture, and it searches after every green thing.
‘Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings towards the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high? It lives on the rock and makes its home in the fastness of the rocky crag. From there it spies the prey; its eyes see it from far away. Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is.’
Astonishingly God responds to Job’s demands for an audience and speaks to him. Storm imagery was often associated with theophany in the ancient world; but the translator’s choice of ‘whirlwind’ conveys the idea of God emerging from a calm centre into the storm-tossed chaos of human existence.
However God’s opening words rebuke Job for speaking without knowledge and challenge him to prepare for a robust interrogation. Far from providing any answers to Job’s questions, God launches into a series of questions for Job to answer, questions that rapidly reveal how little Job (or any human being) knows about the world around us. None of God’s questions relate to issues of justice, suffering, innocence and wickedness – the topics that exercised Job and his friends. None of God’s questions focus on humanity at all; they are about creation, the cosmos and the animals. They force Job to expand his focus onto the origins of the world, the depths of the sea, the stars in heaven and the wild creatures that inhabit the land beyond the territories controlled by humans. These poetic chapters are breath taking in their scope and their use of language to enlarge our horizons.
Like Job, we are incapable of answering God’s questions; like Job we understand their implication. God is the one with knowledge, who brought all these things into being and who established order in the world, order that accords to a divine plan beyond human comprehension. It becomes clear that God lavishes attention on aspects of creation that are of no interest, or use, to humans (38:25-27) and God’s loving care extends to wild beasts that humans regard as threatening (38:39-41). The freedom of the wild ass to roam widely, untamed by humans as a beast of burden (39:5-8), delights God. We are forced to recognise that human obsession with our own problems and our perspective on the world is not a major concern of God! ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ and birds that feed on carrion are part of God’s wisdom and deserve God’s final word (39:26-30).
These chapters don’t suggest that humans don’t matter to God – quite the opposite because God has chosen to engage, person to person with Job; but they present a picture of God’s activity and concern far wider than we tend to imagine.
I need to be reminded – I am not at the centre of the universe! Nor are you.
Wondrous God, the universe is filled by your glory and I am humbled when I contemplate how much more you may still have to reveal about your nature and purposes. Forgive me when I behave as though my concerns are the ones that matter most. Forgive us all when we fail to be good stewards of your creation and treat it as a possession to be used for human benefit. Grant us a better understanding of how all things can work together for good for the eternal glory of your name. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.