Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” (Job 38:1–3)
Easily one of the most bracing passages in Scripture, God’s words to Job are exhilarating in their majestically aggressive grandeur. After 36 chapters of divine silence in the face of Job’s comforters and Job’s passionate self-defense—indeed, his prosecution of God’s justice and character—the Holy One opens his mouth and reduces Job to stunned, repentant silence.
At first glance it’s easy to see these speeches simply as magnificent assertions of the Lord’s raw power over human puniness. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements—surely you know! What were you doing when I was pinning up the stars like twinkle lights, little fella?” It sounds like an old man putting a young buck in his place: “I was working this job before you were in your mama’s womb.”
God seems downright salty here.
Part of the point of God’s speeches is to assert that power and distinction. There’s something gloriously ferocious about it—like standing on the rocks before the ocean, awed at the force of the waves crashing upon them. But surely that can’t be all. Otherwise, it seems God shows up, flexes, and puts Job in his place for whining since God is God and that’s the end of that.
But is that all that God does?
In her magisterial work Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford, 2012), Eleonore Stump calls attention to the benevolent, parental character of God’s acts of power described to Job (187–90). His creative activity causes the sons of God to sing for joy (Job 38:7). He treats the sea like a mother would, wrapping it up in swaddling clothes, telling it where to go and no further (Job 38:8–11). In stanza after stanza, the Lord depicts his personal, parental, and powerful care for all of creation, both animate and inanimate, in realms and times beyond Job’s imagining.
On this read, God isn’t simply overwhelming Job with raw power, but inviting him into an expanded point of view. God is displaying before Job a world in which his power is exercised with wisdom, care, and loving discernment for the good of his creatures. God, quite boldly, shows Job the perspective from which he views and governs his world.
So what of God’s opening lines? Is he not dealing forcefully with Job? Is he not angry? Even indignant and sarcastic? Yes, but none of this means he’s acting with anything less than merciful lovingkindness.
In one of the early passages in The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf tries to persuade Bilbo to leave the one ring behind, but, having fallen under its spell, Bilbo hesistates. As Gandalf pushes, Bilbo becomes belligerent, even angry, at Gandalf:
“Well, if you want my ring yourself, say so!” cried Bilbo. “But you won’t get it. I won’t give my precious away, I tell you.” His hand strayed to the hilt of his small sword.
Gandalf’s eyes flashed, “It will be my turn to get angry soon,” he said. “If you say that again, I shall. Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.” He took a step towards the hobbit, and he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow filled the little room.
At this point, Bilbo is fearful. He backs away, trembling, wondering aloud what’s come over the old wizard. Then he defends himself against the charge of theft. Gandalf responds, “I am not trying to rob you, but to help you. I wish you would trust me, as you used.”
Bilbo has mistaken Gandalf’s aggressive, forceful stance as a raw assertion of power. In his blindness over the ring, he makes accusations against Gandalf and impugns his character, his care, and his concern. But the indignation of love elicits Gandalf’s fire. He’s angry, yes, because of the foolishness of Bilbo in thinking he could challenge him, but even more for thinking he had to—for thinking he couldn’t trust him. Gandalf’s anger at the hobbit’s accusation demonstrates his indignant love.
This is Stump’s insight into God’s challenge of Job. God is on Job’s side and does take his miserable “comforters” to task. In a real way, Job is the only one who’s spoken truly of God. But the Lord’s comfort isn’t the comfort of a gentle consolation, it’s the fiery comfort of counter-charge. Sometimes the only way to correct a person who believes nobody cares about him is to be indignant at the insulting suggestion, causing him to see and know how misguided that belief really is.
Job is never given a direct answer to his questions. He’s not told of God’s dealings with Satan, nor of God’s ultimate purpose in permitting what he does.
Instead, he’s given the one thing he needs—God himself. God himself comes to confront him. God himself comes to console him. God himself comes to reveal some of his own heart, a view of his providence and governance. And this is the dignifying tenderness of God’s forceful rebuke—he deals with Job as someone who merits his care and attention, as someone who, though small and confused, is deeply loved by the Lord of heaven and earth.