‘No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you. But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you. Who does not know such things as these? I am a laughing-stock to my friends; I, who called upon God and he answered me, a just and blameless man, I am a laughing-stock.
‘With God are wisdom and strength; he has counsel and understanding. If he tears down, no one can rebuild; if he shuts someone in, no one can open up. If he withholds the waters, they dry up; if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land. With him are strength and wisdom; the deceived and the deceiver are his. He leads counsellors away stripped, and makes fools of judges. He looses the sash of kings, and binds a waistcloth on their loins. He leads priests away stripped, and overthrows the mighty. He deprives of speech those who are trusted, and takes away the discernment of the elders. He pours contempt on princes, and looses the belt of the strong. He uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings deep darkness to light. He makes nations great, then destroys them; he enlarges nations, then leads them away. He strips understanding from the leaders of the earth, and makes them wander in a pathless waste. They grope in the dark without light; he makes them stagger like a drunkard.
‘Let me have silence, and I will speak, and let come on me what may. I will take my flesh in my teeth, and put my life in my hand. See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face. This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him. Listen carefully to my words, and let my declaration be in your ears. I have indeed prepared my case; I know that I shall be vindicated. Who is there that will contend with me? For then I would be silent and die.
Job responds at length; in fact his speech fills three chapters of text (to 14:22 if you want to read it all) but it will suffice to focus on selected verses today and tomorrow. He addresses the friends as a group with contempt accusing them of speaking as if they were the sole possessors of wisdom. Job laments that he – and everyone else – already ‘knew’ what they have been saying and therefore he, an upright worshipper of God, has become a laughingstock.
He returns again to ideas that God’s wisdom and power can result in the ‘un-doing’ of creation, in the turning upside down of all accepted understandings of justice and proper order in the world. He is arguing that his recent experience, real life, does not accord with the doctrine of divine retribution that his friends held on to. For Job it had become impossible to accept any longer that God behaved justly. Or more accurately Job is admitting that human understandings of ‘justice’ simply don’t apply to God and his theology is being turned upside down.
Job has reached a turning point. He rejects his friends as being useless and demands a day in court face to face with God, even though he no longer has any faith in God’s justice (13:13). He doesn’t think he has any hope but is determined to present his case as he has nothing to lose. He is confident that no-one, not even God, can prove him guilty.
As the chapter ends Job pleads with God to let him know how he has sinned – why is God treating him as an enemy? Job won’t turn away from God; he won’t abandon faith in God’s sovereignty; he can’t quite let go of the idea that God behaves ‘justly’ – if only humans could understand how divine justice operates.
Grappling with difficult theological questions as they relate to lived experience is part of the discipline of Lent; and it can often lead to a deepening of our faith. But Job reminds us that we will not always get answers to our questions. Jesus has revealed much about God to us; but faith demands that we put our trust in the invisible God who is ultimately beyond all human understanding.
Eternal God, your wisdom surpasses our understanding and your sovereignty encompasses all time and space; and yet in Jesus you have shown us your love and compassion for each and every one of us. Help us to trust you always. Help us keep on striving to know you better, to wrestle with the challenges that life brings to faith. Grant us an ability to accept our ‘unknowing’ when there are no easy answers; and to continue walking the way of Jesus until journey’s end. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.