(20) I spoke of things I did not understand – Job 42:3

After the action of the opening two acts in the first two chapters, the third chapter opens with a debate that continues for most of the book, through to the end of chapter 37. This debate makes up ‘Act 3’ of Job.

In Act 3 Job is sitting centre stage on an ash heap scraping himself with broken pottery to try and relieve the pain of his sores. He is suffering the awful loss of his family and possessions and he opens with an anguished cry wishing that he had never been born. In response his three friends take it in turns to offer advice. Their view is that his suffering is the result of his sin. So, if he acknowledges his sin and turns from it, all will be well. While he doesn’t claim to be perfect, Job rejects this analysis of his situation and the argument becomes increasingly heated and acrimonious as the friends get frustrated with Job’s refusal to accept their point of view. Job’s comforters, who started out so well in their silent identification with his grief, end up making him feel much worse through their words.

Each friend speaks three times and Job responds. After they give up there are four monologues from Job where he states his innocence. Then a younger man tries to help Job see the error of his ways but Job has had enough of his friends and wants to speak with God. He confidently says that “I know that my redeemer lives, and … in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25-26, made famous through being set to music in Handel’s Messiah) and his desire is finally granted when God does appear.

After listening to Job’s suffering, as well as having the advantage of knowing how it came about, we can now expect words of comfort and sympathy from God. But Act 4 opens with God telling Job to “Brace yourself like a man” (Job 38:3, 40:7) as he starts to address him. God takes a different approach and instead asks Job many questions about the wonders of his creation. He starts with the physical world of the sea, the weather and the stars, before taking Job on a virtual tour of the zoo where he highlights the extraordinary ways of his creatures. The message is simple: if you as a mere man have no understanding of my creation then how can you hope to understand what I am doing in your life?

Job’s response is to recognise that “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3) and he repents in dust and ashes.

God’s only comment on the debate that has gone on between Job and his friends is to rebuke the three friends because they have “not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). This is not an endorsement of every word that Job has uttered but of his constant faithfulness to God throughout the circumstances that he experienced. The final act of Job’s play shows him restored to his former state with twice the wealth he had before and ten new children. Not everyone’s story ends in this way.

It appears that Job remained unaware of the reason for his sufferings – the debate between God and Satan – but he stands as an example of faith in God in times of trouble and his book has an important message for us as we face difficulties in our lives. Jesus promised that “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) and we may well not know whether our troubles come from God, Satan, other people or our own stupidity. (In Jesus’ time, it seems that his disciples still held to the view of Job’s friends that suffering came from sin, a view that Jesus rejected – see John 9:1-3.)

But just as God’s wisdom, as expressed in the intricate details of creation, is way beyond our understanding, so we should not expect to understand his purpose in our lives. All we have to do is to trust in him whatever is happening, as the book of Job teaches us that God remains firmly in control, even if it is behind the scenes.

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