And so, after enduring the long-winded words of Elihu (Job 32-37), God himself speaks up and responds to Job in a series of speeches that form the climax of the book so far (Job 38-41). God offers two responses. The first offers a “virtual tour” of the cosmos (Job 38-39). God asks Job all of these impossible questions, like:
“Where were you when I Iaid the foundations of the earth?” (38:4).
“Have you ever in your days commanded the morning light?” (38:12).
“Where does light live, or where does darkness reside?” (38:19).
“Can you lead out a constellation in its season?” (38:32).
And, of course, the correct response to all these questions is for Job to say, “No I don’t command the universe. I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. No, I’ve only lived a short time…”
God’s First Point
The point seems to be this: Job claimed that God has fallen asleep at the wheel in running the universe, and because of this divine neglect he’s had to endure unjust suffering. God’s response is indirect, and it shows how his attention is actually on every single detail of the operations of the universe. In fact, God is privy to all kinds of perspectives and details that Job has never even imagined and never will.
Following the cosmic tour, God takes Job on a corresponding virtual tour of part of the world he actually does inhabit, the earth (Job 38:39-39:30). He asks Job if he’s ever provided food for lions, or seen an isolated mountain goat give birth? No? Well, perhaps Job understands the feeding patterns of wild donkeys that roam the hills, or ostriches and their strange ways of caring for their young. Maybe Job and God can have a stimulating conversation about Job’s knowledge of war horses, and the aerodynamics of an eagle soaring on thermal air currents. As it turns out, Job doesn’t know as much as he thought, even about the world he lives in and should be familiar with. At the end of God’s invitations to dialogue, Job comes up short in his first response: Then Job answered the Lord and said,
“Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Once I have spoken, and I will not answer;
Even twice, and I will add nothing more.” – Job 40:3-5
God has made his first point. Job’s many accusations of divine neglect or incompetence have failed. As it turns out, God is intimately familiar with every molecule and creature in his world and knows more about them than Job can comprehend. This is an important moment in the story so far. Whatever reasons God has for having allowed Job’s suffering, neglect is not a viable option. Job never does find out why he suffered, and neither does the reader of the book of Job. The goal of the book was never to offer us that information. Rather, the first divine speech makes clear that God does know everything that transpires in his world, and his perspective on the universe has a wider range than any human will ever have.
When Job critiqued God’s knowledge and ability, it was based on the limited horizons of his life experience. His brain has only a finite capacity to understand cause and effect from his point of view. God’s perspective is infinitely broader, which means he may allow or orchestrate events that from one perspective look morally suspicious, or just plain wrong. However, from a wider perspective, those same events look entirely different. It’s similar to a child observing their parent throw a chair at a window to shatter it. From a six-year-old’s point of view, this is precisely the kind of behavior that would earn a time-out, grounding, or worse. But, if the parent knows there’s smoke coming from the adjacent room and that this window was the only way out, all of a sudden the broken window becomes a life-saving escape route. The parent has a wider range of available information that makes the same action (throwing a chair out the window) become the morally necessary thing to do.
This seems to be the point of God’s first speech. There may be evil and suffering in God’s good world that from one perspective may seem needless, tragic, and unjust. But, from a wider vantage point, there may be a vast network of factors that make the same tragedy fit into a larger cause-effect pattern that brings about the saving of many lives. It’s impossible for any human to know such things or have such a perspective. This means all of our claims to evaluate God’s rule over human history are always limited, and will therefore fall short. I don’t have a wide enough vantage point to accuse God of incompetence, and I never will.
This isn’t a particularly pleasant fact to realize, for Job or any of us. It’s an inescapable reality of being human. We are finite, and our brains and sensory abilities are not designed to take in the information necessary to make evaluations of God’s choices. We’re not God. We’re human.