Job and God’s Presence

By Anja Renkes, University of Notre Dame

What does the whirlwind speech, and Job’s response to it, reveal about Job’s relationship with God? The Book of Job contests a common belief that “the wicked fall, and the upright and good are protected.” On a macro level, the Book of Job disputes this point, while maintaining a mysterious veil over the question, “why do innocent and good people suffer?” Scholarly approaches to this difficult text vary, from approaching the text with a great attention to its poetics, like Robert Alter, to focusing on scrupulously analyzing the words exchanged between God and Job for the workings of faith, grace, and intention, like Franz Delitzsch. A careful reading of the whirlwind speech and Job’s response to it, in conversation with verses 37: 17-20 from Job’s lamentation, reveals God’s tender presence. Assisted by translations and commentary primarily from Alter, Delitzsch, and Michael Legaspi, it is clear how the real relationship between Job and God reveals the preciousness of Job’s authentic surrender to the mystery of God’s plan. The role of Job’s awareness of God’s presence before and after the whirlwind speech can be seen to enable his surrender to the mystery of God’s plans. Focusing on details regarding relationship between Job and God within the text, one may examine God’s speech from the whirlwind, Job’s response to it, and Job’s surrender as indicative of Job’s special awareness of God’s presence throughout. 

It is useful to explore first how Job’s relationship with God is different than that of his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. The primary difference between Job and his friends is their conception of God’s identity and what can confidently be said about the workings of God’s justice. Job’s friends think that God can be understood to defend the righteous, while striking down the wicked, perpetuating the destructive belief that if someone is suffering, it is punishment due to their sin. Antonio M. Gotto Jr. notes, “The second friend, Bildad, proceeds to argue that God is never unjust, so Job must repent for his sins; he accuses Job of not knowing God and of being rejected by him.” This accusation from Bildad is especially ironic, as God ultimately commends Job for ‘speaking rightly’ about God, indicating that Job knew God better than Bildad even in his distress. In the pursuit of identifying what is special and revealing about Job’s unique relationship with God, we will attempt to “probe” further, using an approach employed by Michael Legaspi in his chapter, “Job the True Sage” in his book, Wisdom in Classical and Biblical Tradition. Legaspi writes, “Both God and Job’s friends call him a God-fearer (1:1, 8, 4:6), and he does not sin against God when the blessings…are suddenly and violently stripped from him. His catastrophic downfall, however, does not merely serve to show the great extent of his piety; it becomes, rather, an opportunity to probe the nature of his piety.” Here, Legaspi describes the story, reframing it as an opportunity for probing Job’s piety, or one element of his relationship with God and awareness of His presence. 

The mystery of Job’s suffering requires one to examine it from a vantage point that is not apparently intuitive, demonstrated by the error of Job’s friends, yet even also for the modern reader. Legaspi writes,

“The dialogues show piety in an unusual light, connecting it with Job’s sense of self and, in a new and dramatic way, with conformity to cosmic (dis)order. When Job’s fortunes change, his conventional, self-effacing rectitude gives way to defiant self-assertion. Far from being an abandonment of piety, this defiance emerges in the book as the basis for piety. And when God appears at the end of the book to address Job, he speaks of a strange cosmos, in which Job, surprisingly, has been made to fit.” 

In the way Job reacts to his suffering, honestly calling upon God as a real force to be reckoned with in relationship, he distinguishes himself from his friends, who defend their idea of God which holds their neat, predictable, pridefully controlled world view together. Job’s defiant self-assertion of his innocence described by Legaspi can be understood as a sign of Job’s implicit respect for God as the author of reality, honoring the truth and raising hell because the truth of Job’s suffering is egregious. The image of a husband and wife comes to mind, one upset with the other. This is possible because they see and experience the presence of each other, having an implicit hope of reconciliation and change when they express their distress. Alter explains, “Though the LORD from the whirlwind roundly rebuked Job for his presumption, Job in the debate, unlike his three companions, had remained honest to his own observation of reality and his awareness of his own acts; so, even in his presumption, he had spoken ‘rightly’ about God, had clung to his integrity.” Job’s speaking truthfully is not only indicative of the preservation of his integrity, but the preservation of a sacred part of Job’s relationship with God, honoring God’s real presence. This is explored further by Legaspi as he discusses how through this honesty about God’s action, Job’s perspective is open to a reframing that occurs by God’s intervention. Job’s eyes remain open to receiving God in this mystery beyond human anticipation or comprehension later in the whirlwind speech. In and through the tracing of Job’s allusion to and recognition of God’s real presence in the reality of Job’s miserable life, it is possible to understand one part of his relationship with God that ultimately prepares Job for receiving God’s direct intervention in his consciousness, enabling him to ‘know God more fully than the others’ in the end. Job’s awareness of God’s presence and his recognition of His presence, even in his anger, predisposes him to be humbled and enlightened in the whirlwind speech. 

During part of his lament, Job makes explicit, begrudging reference to God’s constant presence. The Job poet (to use Alter’s term) writes, “What is man that You make him great and that You pay heed to him? You single him out every morning, every moment examine him. How long till You turn away from me? You don’t let me go while I swallow my spit. What is my offense that I have done to You, O Watcher of man? Why did You make me Your target, and I became a burden to You?” (37: 17- 20) Alter provides a reading of these verses that suggests they are a reversal of the celebration of “man’s pre-eminence in creation” articulated in Psalm 8: 5-6, indicating that Job instead complains that God has no reason to single out man for “unblinking scrutiny” since he is an inconsequential creature. The literal words of Job in these verses reveals an awareness in his heart that comes to play a more significant role in his real time conversation with God later in the whirlwind speech. Job is aware of God’s presence. He is not yet able to experience this awareness in a way that helps him to bear his burden, as he is presuming God’s malintent and placing himself above God in the process. He is angered and embittered, yet aware nonetheless. Delitzsch expands this point as he describes the nature of Job’s sin, and what must happen for him to once again relate rightly to God. He notes that Job must be humbled before he can receive the gift of God’s presence in a way that may bring him any consolation in his affliction. Delitzsch describes, “God would be encouraging self-righteousness if He should give Job the testimony of his innocence, before the sin of vain glory, into which Job has fallen in the consciousness of his innocence, is changed to humility, by which all uprightness that is acceptable with God is tested.” As God comes to Job in the whirlwind, he proceeds to humble him so that he might be able to see reality from a different vantage point, realizing his suffering in the greater context of reality as God reminds him of the reality in which his honest perception functions, as Legaspi discusses.

In the whirlwind speech, the Job poet gives us the gift of knowing that God is listening to Job, particularly in his desolation and pain. God mercifully answers Job’s request to be responded to in his lamentation, and in God’s response, one can identify elements of the relationship between God and Job that help to see this story from a different vantage point while  Job’s own vantage point shifts, the shifting of which to fit the cosmic (dis)order is discussed by Legaspi. The Job poet writes,

“And the LORD answered Job from the whirlwind and He said: Who is this who darkens counsel in words without knowledge? Gird your loins like a man, that I may ask you, and you can inform Me. Where were you when I founded earth? Tell, if you know understanding.”   (38: 1-4) 

God asks Job to humble himself by this question. The reframing of Job’s perception of his suffering has begun, which may seem harsh at first, given the utter destruction Job has endured up to this point. However, Delitzsch helps us to keep the reality of God’s presence involved in this encounter at the forefront of our understanding of the words that God speaks. Delitzsch writes, “Jehova yields to Job’s longing…in as far as He really answers Job; and even that this takes place, and that, although out of the storm, it nevertheless takes place, not in a way to crush and destroy, but to instruct and convince, and displaying a loving condescension…” Here, the very intervention of God is described as a sign that a reversal of understanding is at hand for Job. It is being communicated to Job’s heart that in God’s eyes, he is more than an inconsequential creature, as he mistakenly insinuates in 37:17-20. Delitzsch’s use of the term, “loving condescension” falls harshly on modern, millennial ears, who have always been instructed to avoid both being subject to condescension and acting with condescension. However, this term successfully describes the reality of God’s presence with Job in his suffering. As a parent minimizes the complexity of their words to speak to their child, who has limited understanding, God descends to be with Job. The Job poet writes, “Who placed in the hidden parts wisdom, or who gave the mind understanding?” (38: 36) Again, God reminds Job of the truth of His absolute agency, even in the thoughts Job wills in response to his own suffering. Along with this descent of God’s presence, which, as we have seen, can be interpreted as a loving descent, Delitzsch has reminded us that Job’s sin of vain glory required humbling by God. This humbling of Job by God so that he can experience the reality beyond his sin of vain-glory in his righteous self-assertion as a challenge to God, can be read as a merciful act. Delitzsch writes, “When a man who, moreover, like Job, is a servant of God, fails in one point, or sins, men at once condemn him altogether, and admit nothing good in him; God, however, discerns between good and evil, and makes the good a means of freeing the man from evil.” In this baffling scenario where human understanding is characteristically insufficient for providing answers, Job has God’s presence as an element of stability that allows him comfort beyond human comprehension.

Job’s recognition of God’s real presence in 37:17-20 of his lament is answered by God’s description of his fantastic punctiliousness with regards to the rest of creation. The Job poet writes, “Do you know the mountain goats’ birth time, do you mark the calving of the gazelles? Do you number the months till they come to term and know their birthing time? They crouch, burst forth with their babes, their young they push out to the world.” (39: 1-3) God emphasizes his control over time, life and death with this imagery. Alter provides that “Continuing the images of a creation teeming with births that is a thematic rejoinder to Job’s language longing for death, the poet offers a vivid vignette of the birthing of a mountain goat and gazelle.” God is intimately present even to the birthing of mountain goats, so, the question is begged, how much more attentive and present is God with Job in his suffering? The Job poet presents Job’s response to God’s awe-inspiring presentation of images from creation,

“And the LORD answered Job and He said: Will he who disputes with Shaddai be reproved? Who argues with God, let him answer! And Job answered the LORD and he said: Look, I am worthless. What can I say back to You? My hand I put over my mouth. Once I have spoken and I will not answer, twice and I will not go on. And the LORD answered Job…Gird your loins like a man. Let me ask you, and you will inform Me. Will you indeed thwart my case, hold me guilty, so you can be right?” (40: 1-8)

Job admits his smallness before the Lord. The mystery of Job’s suffering remains, yet it is becoming reframed by God’s participation in conversation and being present with Job as he discovers that intellectual human understanding was not created for this kind of answer. As has been articulated by Delitszch and Legaspi’s notion of the reframing that occurs in this encounter (allowing for Job’s absorption of a new kind of wisdom), Job’s recognition of his smallness enables him to receive the gift of God’s presence as the answer to his suffering. 

God proceeds to present another round of awe-inspiring images that communicate His absolute authority and magnificence, and Job responds to God for a second time. The Job poet writes,

“I know You can do anything, and no devising is beyond You. ‘Who is this obscuring counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I told but did not understand, wonders beyond me that I did not know. ‘Hear, pray, and I will speak. Let me ask you, that you may inform me.’ By the ear’s rumor I hear of You, and now my eye has seen You. Therefore do I recant, And I repent in dust and ashes.” (42: 1-6)

Delitzsch beautifully and succinctly articulates about Job, “From the marvelous in nature he divines that which is marvelous in his affliction… only now, when he penitently reveres the mystery he has hitherto censured, is the time that its inner glory should be unveiled to him.” This inner glory that Delitzsch speaks of could be understood to be this mysterious awareness that the answer to the question of Job’s affliction is God’s presence. The inner glory of creation lay in its Creator. Job gives all authorship and glory to God for the wonders that Job did not know. Gustavo Gutiérrez provides an insight into the important nuance of the shift that is occurring in Job, writing, “A change has begun, for Job now realizes that there are ‘marvels that are beyond my grasp.’ The important thing here, it should be noted, is not Job’s admiration for the magnificence of creation but rather his recognition of the plan…of God.” Now, as Job has begun to see that God has a plan, he can be shaped to reevaluate his suffering within the context of God’s plan. Gutiérrez continues, “God is present to him as an abiding newness.”

Alter specifically treats the line describing Job’s ‘seeing God,’ writing,

“The seeing of the eye is a testimony to the persuasive power of the poetry that God has spoken to Job out of the whirlwind. Through that long chain of vividly arresting images, from the swaddling bands of mist drifting over the primordial sea at creation to the fearsomely armored Leviathan…Job has been led to see the multifarious character of God’s vast creation, its unfathomable fusion of beauty and cruelty, and through this he has come to understand the incommensurability between his human notions of right and wrong and the structure of reality.”

 Both Delitzsch and Alter articulate the encounter of God’s presence that has changed Job’s understanding of his affliction, and of God’s presence itself. Job has graciously been provided a context in which to surrender entirely to the presence of God, and to take comfort in this surrender as the only thing one can truly know and trust, given that God is the Creator with a plan. Job gets no answer; however, he receives God’s presence and is given the ability to surrender to Him. According to D. A. Carson, Job “teaches us to exercise faith—not blind, thoughtless submission to an impersonal status quo, but faith in the God who has graciously revealed himself to us.” Ultimately, God reveals even more of himself as He provides a confirmation of the goodness of what has occurred. God speaks to Eliphaz, as He orders him to offer a sacrifice with Job praying on his behalf: “To him only shall I show favor, not to do a vile thing to you, for you have not spoken rightly of Me as did my servant Job.” (42: 8) Job has spoken rightly in his surrender, repenting in dust and ashes for his anger and challenge of God, who answered with His presence, the life and essence of Creation. 

Job receives nothing comprehensible without the gift of God’s presence. He does not get the satisfaction of having his righteousness confirmed by God, nor does he receive answers regarding the suffering he was made to endure. When God exalts Job above the others at the end, he indicates that Job has related rightly to God, indicating that Job’s unique awareness of God’s presence through the challenging of God in relationship reveals God’s care and loving presence, Job is dependent on God in that he shares his misery through his blunt self-assertion before God. Much like when we share our misery or tough experiences with close friends, even when we know they do not have the answer. There is a desire to be heard and know that one is simply not alone. In this experience of heartbreak and grief, this emotion is magnified and this simple presence offered by friendship and familiarity is a precious gift. In true confusion and desolate suffering, Job’s relationship with God in spite of inadequate human understanding, is incredibly comforting. Legaspi believes, through the whirlwind speeches, “God reclaims Job as one of his own. He causes Job to see that the cosmos—and therefore wisdom itself—are ordered by a God beyond knowledge. Though Job’s ordeal has radically dislocated him and left others wondering about his sanity, let alone his righteousness, the whirlwind speeches reassure him that his ‘situation is fully within the purview of what is real.’” Not only is Job’s experience within the purview of what is real—more specifically it is under God’s loving control, working for an end that is inconceivable yet tenderly complete in God’s plan for creation, and this strikes awe into Job and reader alike. 

Bibliography:

Alter, Robert. The Wisdom Books : Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes : A Translation with 

Commentary. New York: WW Norton, & co. 2010.

Buttenwieser, Moses. The Book of Job. New York: Macmillan Press, 1922.

Carson, D. A. “Mystery and Faith in Job 38:1-42:16” in Sitting With Job: Selected Studies on the 

Book of Job, ed. Roy B. Zuck, 373-379. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992.

Delitzsch, F. Biblical Commentary on the Book of Job. Vol. 2, Second Part—The Entanglement. 

Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1866.

Gotto Jr, Antonio M. “Suffering, Medicine, and the Book of Job.” Journal of Religion, Disability 

& Health, 16:4 (2012): 425, DOI: 10.1080/15228967.2012.731877.  

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. “Chapter 10: My Eyes Have Seen You” in On Job. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 

Books, 1987.

Legaspi, Michael C. “Job the True Sage,” in Wisdom in Classical and Biblical Tradition. Oxford 

Scholarship Online: 2018. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190885120.001.0001.

Edited by Christopher Centrella

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s