Job 38–39: God’s Understanding & Wisdom

Read the Bible in 2023 ◊ Week 19: Thursday

Then Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind and said,
“Who is this that darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now gird up your loins like a man,
And I will ask you, and you make Me know!
Job 38:1–3 LSB

Today’s Bible reading is Job 38—39. Before you read these chapters, pray and ask God to teach you. If you’re having a difficult time or suffering right now, ask Him to give you understanding that will help and comfort you as you read.

It’s important to notice that for the first time since the first two chapters in Job, God is referred to as Yahweh. David Atkinson explains:

“God had been given his personal covenant name, Yahweh, in the prologue to the book of Job. There we were introduced to Job, and were invited to reflect on God’s personal relationship with him. Throughout chapters 3 to 37, the name Yahweh is not used; God is called El Shaddai, God the Almighty. In the book of Job this has become a way of speaking of God as detached and distant. The basic revelation of God as ‘Shaddai’ was given in Genesis, and there it was the picture of a God who took over when all hope was gone and all strength exhausted. It was to the care of ‘Shaddai’, for example, that Jacob committed Benjamin when the brothers asked to take him back with them to Egypt. It was ‘Shaddai’ who took care of Joseph. But with Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, ‘Shaddai’ has become a God not of personal grace and security, but of distance, detachment and impersonal almighty power. They had got used to using a name of God which originally spoke of grace in a way that denied grace. How barren theology can become when it loses touch with the gracious heart of God! The personal closeness of the covenant Lord has given way to the distance of God’s majesty and might.

“But now, in chapter 38 our author wants us to be in no doubt. God is called ‘Yahweh’ once again. Now the gracious Lord of the covenant promise to Abraham is speaking to this man from Uz. Now the God whose name ‘Yahweh’ is associated with his personal presence of care, steadfast love and faithfulness to the people of his covenant, this God speaks to Job.”1

God speaks to Job and immediately begins with questions. E. S. P. Heavenor has an insightful comment about the Hebrew word for man in Job 38:3:

“The silence of heaven in face of Job’s challenging cries is broken… An interesting word is used for man: geber. ‘It denotes man, not in frailty but in his strength, man as a combatant’ (Strahan). Repeatedly Job had used language (e.g. 31:35–37; 13:22) which seemed to suggest that in him God would find a worthy combatant. Ironically God takes him at his own valuation.”2

These opening verses of Job 38 set the stage. “I will ask you, and you instruct Me!” That’s exactly what God does. His questions to Job are rhetorical—Job knows the obvious answer. (In some instances the obvious answer is that Job cannot know the answer!). All of the questions drive home obvious truths to Job.

The questions in Job 38–39 are about Creation and track with Genesis 1.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Me, if you know understanding,
Who set its measurements? Since you know.
Or who stretched the line on it?
On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
Job 38:4–7 LSB
Pleiades Star Cluster
“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
Or loose the cords of Orion?
Can you lead forth a constellation in its season,
And guide the Bear with her satellites?
Do you know the statutes of the heavens,
Or fix their rule over the earth?”
Job 38:31–33 LSB

God begins with the cosmos, and at the end of Job 38 goes on to questions about animals.

Why is God answering Job’s questions about suffering with questions about Creation? Francis Andersen describes what is happening:

“God’s two lengthy recitals [in Job 38–41] are not replies to the questions that have tormented Job and which his friends have failed to answer. At least, on first inspection, they do not seem to have anything to do with the central issue of why Job has suffered so severely when he is done everything humanly possible to maintain a good relationship with God. The Lord apparently says nothing about this. Indeed, he makes very few positive state­ments or affirmations. His speeches are not oracles; he answers Job’s questions with a deluge of counter-questions.”3

This is obvious. At first glance, it’s also frustrating, however, look at Andersen’s explanation as to what God is doing.

“This sustained interrogation is not a formal peculiarity. The functions of the questions needs to be properly understood… For Job the questions in the Lord’s speeches are not such roundabout statements of fact; they are invitations, suggestions about discoveries he will make as he tries to find his own answers. They are not catechetical, as if Job’s knowledge is being tested. They are educative, in the true and original meaning of that term. Job is led out into the world. The questions are rhetorical only in the sense that none of them has any answer ventured by Job. But this is not because the questions have no answers. Their initial effect of driving home to Job his ignorance is not intended to humiliate him. On the contrary the highest nobility of any person is to be thus enrolled in by God Himself in his school of Wisdom. And the schoolroom is the World!”4

Derek Kidner has this to say:

“First — and of immense significance — God has changed the subject. All the obsessive talk about Job’s plight as punitive is left completely on one side. The inference could hardly be plainer: that Job and his friends have not only found the wrong answers; they have been asking the wrong questions…

“Secondly, God is enlarging Job’s horizon. The superb poetry, which brings before him the majesty, beauty and exuberance of the creation, invites him to explore in his mind the great context of his being. It will — or should — reassure him that his Maker is unimaginably wise and of infinite resource; but it will also bring it home to him that his ash-heap is not the centre or circumference of the world, and that his perplexing role is intertwined with that of innumerable others.

“For, thirdly, there is nothing soothing or explanatory about these chapters [38–41]. The argumentative Job must do some better thinking, the princely challenger must listen to a counter-challenge.”5

What is God teaching Job here? What does He want Job to learn? What does Job need to think about as he considers all of these questions about Creation in Job 38–39? There are two words used in these chapters: understanding (38:4, 18, 20 [discern], 36; 39:17, 26) and wisdom (38:36, 37; 39:17) that I want to look at.

Louis Goldberg explains what the Hebrew word translated as understanding means:

“It’s main English usage is “understanding” or “insight.” The background idea of the verb is to “discern,” and this lies behind the derivative nouns…

“The verb refers to knowledge which is superior to the mere gathering of data. It is necessary to know how to use the knowledge one possesses… a power of judgment and perceptive insight and is demonstrated in the use of knowledge.”6

Goldberg writes this about the Hebrew words for be wise, act wise(ly), and wisdom.

“The essential idea of ḥākam represents a manner of thinking and attitude concerning life’s experiences; including matters of general interest and basic morality. These concerns relate to prudence in secular affairs, skill in the arts, moral sensitivity, and experience in the ways of the Lord.7

“The source of all wisdom is a personal God who is holy, righteous, and just. His wisdom is expressed against the background of his omnipotence and omniscience. By his wisdom God numbered the clouds (Job 38:37), founded the earth (Prov 3:19), and made the world (Jer 10:12). Wisdom, being found in God, is regarded as a divine attribute (Job 12:13). He alone knows wisdom in its truest sense (Job 28:20, 23). The wisdom of God is not found in man’s speculation. He alone must provide this wisdom for man’s guidance so that man can live the best possible moral and ethical life (Prov 2:6; Job 11:6).”8

Job needs to know God: to realize God is Creator and sovereign over His Creation—God made every detail of His Creation as He desires, God rules every detail of His Creation, God directs every detail of His Creation, and God sustains every detail of His Creation. All of Creation is God’s, and His understanding and wisdom are far beyond what Job is able to comprehend.

Andersen comments:

“The very fact that God does not come forward (as the friends did) with a list of Job’s sins is itself sufficient proof that this was not needed. That God speaks at all is enough for Job. All he needs to know is that everything is still all right between himself and God…

“There is no hint that God despises Job as unworthy of divine companionship; far from it. He invites Job to meet him almost as an equal, standing up ‘like a man’ (38:3). There is no hint of that irritating cant that silences the honest seeker with the reminder that it is not from us to question the ways of the Almighty…

“There is a kindly playfulness in the Lord’s speeches which is quite relaxing. Their aim is not to crush Job with an awareness of his minuteness contrasted with the limitless power of God, not to mock him when he puts his tiny mind beside God’s vast intellect. On the contrary, the mere fact that God converses with him gives him a dignity above all the birds and beasts, assuring him that it is a splendid thing to be a man.”9

Andersen goes on to say:

“In this sharing of a common life in the same world, God and Job both find vindication that neither received in the discourses of the friends. The whole story became a test of both God and Job. Here is the answer to the Satan’s cynicism. Here is the proof that Job has clung to God when stripped of all else. Here is the proof that a man can love God simply for being God, not for reward. Here the lack of a formal answer to the moral question, indeed the narrowing of the spotlight of the book to one individual, is positively instructive. Job is vindicated in a faith in God’s goodness that has survived a terrible deprivation and, indeed, grown in scope, unsupported by Israel’s historical creed of the mighty acts of God, unsupported by life in the covenant community, unsupported by cult institutions, unsupported by revealed knowledge from the prophets, unsupported by tradition and contradicted by experience. Next to Jesus, Job must surely be the greatest believer in the whole Bible.

“But Job’s faith is not exercised blindly, in a vacuum. He still finds God in the world. This is very important, indeed it is vital for understanding the Lord’s speeches. These charming poems about goats and ostriches are not at a tangent with the rest of the book. It is as a man in the world, as one among all the creatures, that Job stands before God. He is not called to a flight of pure thought into the transcendent Beyond. He is not called to plunge into the depths of his own being to find the Ground of all. It is by looking at the common things with God that Job is able to exclaim in the end: ‘Now I’m satisfied; I’ve seen You with my own eyes’ (42:5). This is more than enough to answer his questions, or rather it liberates him to live with joy even when the questions are not answered.”10

Atkinson has some thoughts on how being outside can help us in out times of suffering.

“There is a simple, but not unimportant, pastoral appli­cation to be made here. God, we are told in Genesis, made the man and put him in a garden that was ‘pleasant to the sight’. The context in which we live our lives contributes significantly to our sense of well-being. The ash heap may be an appropriate place on which to sit if we are in mourning, but it is no place to stay if we wish to feel better. Sometimes we will most help distressed people…by walking with them round the garden, by taking them to see a waterfall or a sunset, by helping them recover an enjoyment in the world. Such steps are not always practicable, of course. But in so far as we can enable depressed people to see themselves in a new setting, and to recover a place of security and belonging with the rich panorama of God’s creation, we are helping them. They need to know that they, too, belong. It is by enjoying the Creator’s handiwork that we often begin to feel again the touch of the Creator’s hand.”11

This reminded me of Corrie ten Boom’s work after World War II. A woman in Haarlem had opened her mansion set in beautiful grounds for prisoners released from concentration camps to have a place to recover. She told Corrie, “Don’t you think released prisoners might find therapy in growing things?”12 Corrie later saw:

“…in their own time and their own way, people worked out the deep pain within them. It most often started, as Betsie had known it would, in the garden. As flowers bloomed or vegetables ripened, talk was less of the bitter past, more of tomorrow’s weather.”13

Andersen includes Job 40:1–5 in God’s “first round” with Job.14 Round two begins in Job 40:6 with God again speaking to Job out of the whirlwind as He did in Job 39:1.

Remember at this point Job has not been healed, and nothing has been restored to Job, either of children or his livelihood. Job is still diseased, bereft, and impoverished.

Then Yahweh answered Job and said,
“Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
Let him who reproves God answer it.”
Then Job answered Yahweh and said,
“Behold, I am insignificant; what can I respond to You?
I place my hand over my mouth.
Once I have spoken, and I will not answer;
Even twice, and I will add nothing more.”
Job 40:1–5 LSB

After the torrent of questions, Job has come to a new depth of realization that God is God. Heavenor writes:

“In Job’s reply we are rather in touch with an advance to a more adequate view of God, and to at least something of what Paul called the ‘secret and hidden wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 2:7). Man is not in a position to comprehend every aspect of the meaning of the human situation. Job came to the realization that what had been, and still was, a puzzle to him was no puzzle to God…

“From chs. 3 to 37 we have one long commentary on the inadequacy of the word of man, and the wisdom of man, to explain the mystery of suffering. Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu had all poured out words, without speaking a single word which brought conviction or comfort to Job. Job’s replies had also failed to interpret the mystery; they had also darkened God’s ‘counsel by words without knowledge’ (38:2). The Word of God came and the strife of words was over. It did not come through a carefully reasoned argument dealing a death blow to Job’s intellectual difficulties by its inexorable logic; it did not come through a cut-and-dried explanation of the strands of suffering in Job’s experience. There is silence on such issues; silence about the question of retribution, which had bulked so large in speech after speech; silence about the disciplinary aspect of suffering. The Word came through a fresh vision of God—of the mighty, majestic God behind the marvels of animate and inanimate nature, painstakingly attentive to the unexpected and the insignificant (see especially 38:26, 27, 39; 39:30) towering above human might and wisdom.

“The Word in the vision convinced Job that he could trust such a God. It brought home to his heart the realization that providence was a much more involved and pain­staking affair than he had imagined it to be. He had been like a man living in a stuffy room, whose close windows had been shutting out God’s clean sweet air, and whose drawn blinds had been excluding God’s sunshine. With the appearance of God, the windows had been thrown open and the blinds had gone up. God did not answer the problems of his mind, but he did answer Job; He healed the wound of his heart and brought quiet resignation flooding back into his heart. This was not a man who was ‘cowed’ or ‘bludgeoned’, but a man who was convinced that all was well with the world because the everlasting arms would not fail.”15

Elisabeth Elliot, the well-known author and speaker, knew intense, inexplicable suffering. Her first husband, Jim Elliot, was speared to death by members of the Auca/Waodani tribe. She lost her second husband to cancer. For the last decade of her life, she endured dementia. For thirteen years she introduced her program, “Gateway to Joy,” with these words,

“‘You are loved with an everlasting love,’ that’s what the Bible says, and ‘underneath are the everlasting arms.’ This is your friend, Elisabeth Elliot.”

As you pray and think about these chapters from today, think also about God’s everlasting love and everlasting arms.

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
Therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness.”
Jeremiah 31:3b LSB
“The eternal God is a dwelling place,
And underneath are the everlasting arms.”
Deuteronomy 33:27a LSB

May God use His Word to heal your heart and to entrust the whys of your suffering to Him.

Silvesterzug Laterne: Bk muc. (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Pleiades Star Cluster: NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory: Public Domain.
Oudtshoorn Ostrich Farm: Ad Meskens. (CC BY-SA 4.0).
1,11David Atkinson, The Message of Job: Suffering and grace (Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, England; Downers Grove IL: 1991) 139–140, 147
2,15E. S. P. Heavenor, “Job,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, third ed., D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds. (Inter-Varsity Press, London 1970) 441, 442–443.
3,4,9,10,14Francis Andersen, Job (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1976) 289–290, 290, 290–292, 292–293, 293
5Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1985) 70–71.
6Louis Goldberg, “239 bîn” vol. I, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, eds. (The Moody Bible Institute, Chicago IL: 1980) 103.
7Louis Goldberg, “647 ḥākam,” vol. I, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, eds. (The Moody Bible Institute, Chicago IL: 1980) 282.
8Louis Goldberg, “647a ḥokmâ,” vol. I, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, eds. (The Moody Bible Institute, Chicago IL: 1980) 283.
12,13Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, The Hiding Place (Fleming H. Revell Company, Old Tappan NJ: 1971) 213, 214.

I’m using Michael Coley’s Bible reading plan (one page PDF to print) to read through the Bible in 2023. Each day my posts are on different books because he divides Bible readings into seven categories, one for each day of the week: Epistles, The Law, History, Psalms, Poetry, Prophecy and Gospels. There’s more information on his plan and other ones at Read the Bible in 2023.

Copyright ©2011–2023 Iwana Carpenter

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