A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

In 2007, a Nebraskan state senator, Ernie Chambers, filed a lawsuit against God charging him with being responsible for: [1]

fearsome floods… horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes… widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.

In doing this, Chambers sought an injunction that God desist from such actions. A year later the case made it into the courtroom. However, Judge Marlon Polk dismissed it on the grounds that God couldn’t be served the papers ‘because of his unlisted home address’. Chambers argued against this ruling stating that:

The court itself acknowledges the existence of God. A consequence of that acknowledgment is a recognition of God’s omniscience. Since God knows everything, God has notice of this lawsuit.

There is some resonance in our reading from Job this morning, for a legal motif runs through this oldest of biblical books. On the one hand, there is a sense of Job cross-examining God in the box, such as in the tenth chapter of the book:

Tell me what charges you have against me. Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the plans of the wicked? [10:2b-3]

Then, in chapter 13, the legal context changes to Job pleading his case before the judge:

But I desired to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God [13:3]

And likewise, verse four from our reading this morning:

I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments [23:4]

Then, in verse 7, Job turns to the jury, us the readers, and says:

… an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge. [23:7]

That there should be such a legal resonance to Job in these early chapters of the book is underscored by the attitude of his supposed comforters. Our reading from chapter 23 this morning, follows and responds to the previous chapter where Eliphaz the Temanite, believing Job’s trials to be the result of a judging God, had said:

If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored:    If you remove wickedness far from your tent. [22:23]

In other words, there had been a presumption that Job’s sufferings had been a consequence of his sinfulness. The contributor to the entry on the Book of Job in the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, noting this legalistic presumption – namely that sinful behaviour brings judgment – has made the point that there is significant irony in this.  

(There) is the irony of orthodoxy represented by Job’s counsellors. They express orthodox religious belief (God is just, he punishes evildoers, human suffering is therefore punitive, Job should repent), often in the form of conventional wisdom sayings for which biblical parallels can be adduced. The irony of all this orthodoxy is that it does not apply to Job’s situation. [2]

The evidence in the opening chapter of the book asserts that Job was not a sinful person, as even God is reported to attest:

Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. [1:8]

The task then for us in reading this book is to consider how we see the trials of Job, a person who by all appearances was the innocent victim of caprice.  

Last Sunday, locum Dean Adrian Stephens had this to say about the impact of Job and his story:

The bottom line for Job is that through all of his difficulties and problems; even though he has spent seven days sitting in ashes and dressed in sackcloth; his faith in God never fails. His constant cry is “Why?” In crying out the “Why?” it is evident that he is asking the question of God. A God in whom Job has great faith.

This great faith of Job is affirmed in the apocryphal book the Testament of Job, a work considered to be either Essene in origin or of Christian authorship sometime in the first two centuries of the Common Era. In this text there is a record of a cross-examination between Job and Bildad, one of his supposed comforters: [3]

Bildad: Are you Job?

Job: Yes.

Bildad: Are you in your right mind?

Job: My mind is not set on earthly things … (it is) set on heavenly things.

Bildad: in whom do you put your trust?

Job: In the living God.

Bildad: Who took away your possessions?

Job: God.

Bildad: So you put your trust in God? Was he not unjust? … If you are in your right mind, show me

Job: I do have understanding, and my mind is sane enough. Why then should I not speak of the Lord’s mighty works? Should my mouth fail altogether in its duty to my Master? [XXXVI:1-3; XXXVII: 1-3,8; XXXVIII:1]

Returning to the legal motif in the canonical Book of Job, chapters 38-41 find the cross-examination reversed with God now questioning Job and saying:

Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me. [38:3]

The interrogation which follows is tough, finishing with Job saying:

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. [42:5-6]

A TV courtroom drama would have the scene played with the character of Job cracking, humiliated before a power greater than himself. Yet that is not what we should take from the ending. Nor should we focus on what almost comes across as the feel-good ‘happy ever after’ ending of the Epilogue where:

The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. [42:12]

To my mind, the key statement from the Epilogue are the words of God to Job’s supposed friends:

I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. [42:7]

In this oldest book of the Bible, written before the Torah, we hear God saying that he has been defamed by Job’s friends and only truly understood by Job himself. In the irony I referred to before, Job’s friends had taken a heavily Deuteronomic view of God, a God defined by Deuteronomy’s seemingly unending list of laws of dos and don’ts; to this God had said ‘No’. On the other hand, through all his earthly trials, Job had come to the point of truly understanding an omniscient divinity who is greater than any capacity for human comprehension or limitation. In his final summing up, Job had said:

God, you asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me know. [42:3]

For a portion of the time while preparing this sermon, I listened to R Vaughan Williams’ stirring composition for the ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing which was first performed in 1931. You might enjoy listening to it; there are a number of recordings of it on YouTube. Interestingly, that work is the only completed musical treatment I have come across based on the Book of Job, a text which I would have thought was ripe for use by composers; just imagine what memorable operatic arias could have been written by any of the greats. Our own Hamish Madden has told me that he has indeed been working on some sketches for an oratorio based on the Book of Job, and said this about his motivation for doing so:

I was struck by the sense of eternal longing for something Job full well knew would only be granted him after death, and it’s this eternal quality I wish to capture.

I very much look forward to hearing Hamish’s oratorio when it is completed. The idea of Job’s comprehending something eternal way beyond this life reminded me of something Michael Leunig had written to me back in October 2015 when I had asked him about his thoughts on Job as I prepared for a sermon I was then about to give on Job 3. This, in part, is what he wrote to me: [4]

There is a quality of self-crucifixion in (Job’s) despair – a sense of spiritual death from which he may rise up and by which he may be redeemed or refreshed and re-invigorated. There is divine courage in owning up with equanimity to an inner darkness that all would recognise but few would dare face or confess to. In so doing he deepens and expands the human sense of God. He discovers and illuminates a great spiritual spaciousness. He illuminates darkness and thus becomes divine.

‘Darkness’ – our reading this morning from mid-stream through Job’s book-long trial has this to say about the subject:

If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face! [23:17]

The thick darkness of suffering exists as a type of dark matter around all human existence. Faith does not offer us explanations of this thick darkness, but it does guide us through those dark valleys that all of us to one depth or another have or will traverse in this life. Job does not lie about the darkness he faced in justifying God. The next book in the Old Testament after the Book of Job is Psalms. There too, in 150 psalms, we find no lying about the darkness the psalmists faced at times. Take for example the opening verse of our psalm this morning:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me: why are you so far from helping me and from the words of my groaning. [22:1]

Faith does not promise us freedom from these times and places of darkness; instead, it offers us sanctuary along the journey and hope at journey’s end. Verse 19 of that psalm, which we did not hear brings us to the illumination that may come in the dark place of suffering:

You are my strength, come quickly to help me.

But there is another kind of darkness referred to in Job; and this is the absence of the light of truth. The Book of Job is not a text of Aristotelian logic – it is not proposing that God’s ticket to His Grace is through suffering. Job did suffer and his faith did deepen; but God’s chiding of his friends intends us to know that their faith should have deepened regardless of circumstance. Their belief rested on the darkness of a lie about God. God told them that they had lied in order to justify their view of God.

Moshe Greenberg believes that the Book of Job challenges this ‘simple equation of suffering with punishment’, he writes: [5]

For Job is a paradigm (“He never was or existed,” says a talmudic rabbi, “except as an example” [Baba Batra 15a]). He personifies every pious man who, when confronted with an absurd disaster, is too honest to lie in order to justify God. 

In not falling for a lie about God due to circumstance, the apostle Paul puts it beautifully in Philippians:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty, I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation … I can do all this through him who gives me strength. [4:12-13]

Job discovered this, his friends did not, will we?

[1] Ernie Chambers Literally Sued God And Actually Got His Day In Court (

[2] L Ryken et al (ed), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, IVP Academic, Downers Grove ILL, 1998, p453

[3] H F D Sparks (ed), The Apocryphal Old Testament, Clarendon Press, 1987, pp639-40

[4] Quoted in my sermon on 4/10/2015, Will the real Job stand up?

[5] The Book of Job | My Jewish Learning