The Power of the Word
Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
The Book of Job. You’ve all heard of it. But I’ll bet few of you have read it. Maybe a few of you have started it. But chances are you didn’t find the experience very satisfying, and you left off reading sooner than you want to admit.
I have read it. I’m a pastor, after all. But I doubt I found it any more satisfying than you did. And probably almost as confusing.
We all have questions about suffering. And we all ask the question, Why do bad things happen to good people? This, we understand, is what Job is supposed to be about. Job was a righteous man. And bad things happened to him. If we want an answer to that question, then Job’s the place to look, right?
Wrong. Don’t get me wrong. Job does supply an answer. But it’s the sort of answer that raises even more questions. That’s because the bad things that happen to Job happen because the satan notices him and says to God, I bet I can make Job, the most righteous man in all the world, curse you. And God says, bet you you can’t! And so it begins. Job is put through the wringer by the satan, but remains loyal to God.
Before we get to the content of this message, let’s talk about something I just said. Twice. Notice that I referred to the satan. I didn’t use Satan as a proper name, like Louie or Cecil. I put a definite article—the—in front of the name, as though the satan were a thing, or maybe some sort of title… like the salesman, or the carpenter.
I am doing this in order to be true to scripture. Throughout the Hebrew Bible (that is, throughout the entire Old Testament), the satan is referred to not as a name, but with the word the in front of the word. Believe it or not, the term isn’t limited to one particular entity. The word שָׂטָן means accuser, and sometimes it refers to an ordinary human being. It’s also sometimes used without the word the in front of it. But then, it’s still not a name, but it means not the accuser, but an accuser. That’s because Hebrew doesn’t have an indefinite article, which in English is a or an. And don’t worry—most of the world’s languages don’t have indefinite articles and don’t even miss them.
The devil, as Christians think of him, is curiously absent from the Old Testament. In fact, the one reference in the Bible to somebody possibly called Lucifer (morning star in Hebrew) actually seems to be about the human King of Babylon, and not about the entity we call the devil.
I’m talking about this rather unpleasant subject today because there’s probably nowhere in all the Bible that we find more talk of the satan than in the Book of Job. And the story of the deal between God and the accuser—using Job as a pawn—reflects a theology that most of us just cannot accept.
If we want to understand why bad things happen to good people, the only place I know of to look is at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The crucifixion may not explain why people suffer. But it does assure us that God understands suffering, and that God is present in human suffering. In fact, this is one of the most beautiful aspects of Christianity. God’s love is present with us even in the worst of times, and God’s power is made perfect in human weakness.
The Book of Job does have another important message, though. Do you remember a few weeks ago when I talked about Wisdom Literature in the Hebrew Bible? Wisdom literature includes all the books between Job and the Song of Solomon. And, to my mind at least, the best way to understand biblical wisdom is order. In wisdom, God ordered the universe: creating stars out of molecular clouds, separating light from darkness, forming atoms into cells, combining cells into plants and animals. In wisdom, God created humankind with a capacity for thought and speech and civilization. And so it’s this aspect of Job that I want to talk about. The wisdom of God.
The story itself is ancient. We don’t know how old it is, but we see the original story at the beginning and end of the book. In between, most of Job consists of poetry written long after the original story. And this poetry tells of Job’s friends telling Job why they think all this bad stuff is happening to him. This happens three times, and each time, Job responds. And then God gives the final answer. And I think the purpose of all this is to show us that as wise as we think we are, God is wiser.
The climax of all this is found in the passage Roz read from earlier, when God speaks from the whirlwind. God’s speech goes on for quite some time, but in the first seven verses, we get the gist. We first hear God asking who’s darkening counsel by speaking words without knowledge. A couple of other ways we might hear that is, Who is muddying the waters of understanding by speaking nonsense? or Who thinks their human wisdom is superior to divine wisdom?
And then we get to the meat of the message, which is basically, Where were you when I created the universe? This is a question that requires no answer, of course. But beyond the question is the beauty of the poetry. Just in this little section that we heard today, we can imagine our world being compared to the entire universe. And if the universe is a world, then its temple is our planet. And that’s almost exactly the way it’s described here. It was measured, its foundation was laid, its footings were set, its cornerstone was laid. And at its dedication, the stars and angels joined together in songs of praise, just as God’s people did at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem.
I’ve come to read Job not to look for answers that are best found nailed to the cross, but to experience what’s called creation spirituality. It’s a spirituality that’s found throughout the Bible—including the 104th Psalm which we used for our call to worship this morning. It was also the kind of spirituality experienced by many of the saints and mystics throughout history. And it’s the kind of spirituality found in all three of our hymns today. Certainly, it’s a way of finding God in nature. But beyond that, it’s a way of understanding God’s wisdom through experiencing God’s world.
When we imagine God as Creator, what do we think about? We might picture God weaving a tapestry or sewing a quilt. We might imagine an engineer or an architect or a master carpenter. We might even think of a gardener. But the most scriptural image is also the one that’s probably hardest to conjure in our minds. It’s found in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, and again in the first chapter of the Gospel According to John. It’s the image of the Speaker and the Word. God is both so pure and so powerful, that there is no word that God will speak that will not come into being, for all that God says is truth.
Compare this to God’s question at the beginning of Job 38, which was, Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? When we speak, our words may or may not be true. Yes, sometimes we intentionally tell an untruth. But more often than not, we are simply muddying the waters by speaking on a subject we don’t completely understand. Our intentions may be the best. But because our knowledge is incomplete, we are sometimes less than helpful with our advice or our storytelling.
If Job teaches us anything, it’s how to compare words to the Word. Job and his friends think they have all the answers. But their words are just squeaks and rattles when compared to the One whose Word created the cosmos. This is the same Word that became flesh two thousand years ago—the One whose teachings created a new way of life, whose blood put an end to all other sacrifices, and whose resurrection defeated death itself.
May our own words not be without knowledge—words which cast a shadow on the truth, and create confusion or blame or doubt. But may our words be spoken in the Spirit of the God whose Word became flesh, building up rather than tearing down, healing rather than causing division, and forgiving without expecting anything in return.
—©2021 Sam Greening, Pilgrim Christian Church