The Revelation of God in Suffering: He is greater than we can imagine!
Text: Job 36:24–33 and Job 37:21–24 ESV
“Remember to extol his work, of which men have sung. All mankind has looked on it; man beholds it from afar. Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable. For he draws up the drops of water; they distill his mist in rain, which the skies pour down and drop on mankind abundantly. Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunderings of his pavilion? Behold, he scatters his lightning about him and covers the roots of the sea. For by these he judges peoples; he gives food in abundance. He covers his hands with the lightning and commands it to strike the mark. Its crashing declares his presence; the cattle also declare that he rises.” (Job 36: 24–33 ESV)
“And now no one looks on the lights when it is bright in the skies, when the wind has passed and cleared them. Out of the north comes golden splendor; God is clothed with awesome majesty. The Almighty - we cannot find him; he is great in power; justice and abundant righteousness he will not violate. Therefore men fear him; he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit.” (Job 37:21–24 ESV)
My dad is an astronomer. As long as I can remember, he’s been fascinated by the cosmos. He has subscribed to astronomy magazines and loves reading about what scientists are finding in deep space. When we went camping growing up, we would look forward not only to the fish that we hoped to catch, but we would always joyfully anticipate the stars that we would get to see. I have many memories of gazing up at the heavens with him, and we still get to enjoy the night sky when we go camping together even now. As we sit in our camping chairs with our necks tilted way back, he points out the constellations and tells me what planets are currently visible and the latest thing that he’s been reading about. I grew up with a basic understanding of the universe because he was so passionate about it.
Most of us, when the light pollution is low and we can view the stars, are awestruck by their beauty. Some of you even got to live through the first exploration of space and probably remember it well. This is one of my favorite space photos.
This was taken on Christmas Eve in 1964 on the Apollo 8 mission. Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to leave Earth’s low orbit, and the first to reach the moon. They didn’t land on it, but they orbited around the dark side of the moon, which had never been seen before, and then returned. When they came around the dark side, they saw this incredible site and astronaut William Anders snapped this photo from 240,000 miles away. As they weightlessly floated at the windows, they extended their arms in front of them and covered the earth with their thumb. They later shared the heaviness of that moment as they reflected on the fact that all of human history had occurred on that little blue and white orb. Every war, every marriage, every life and every death. All they knew and loved was far away, and they could cover its expanse with the width of their thumb. Rather than making them feel like giants, this perspective left them feeling very, very small.
Another amazing photo I want to share is known as “Pale Blue Dot.” This photo, while not as immediately breathtaking as the last, is equally impactful.
It was taken from Voyager 1 on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, 1990. Its mission was to launch out of our solar system and snap photos of everything it passed as it drifted further and further from Earth. When it was nearing the edges of our solar system, a famous astronomer named Carl Sagan convinced NASA to turn the camera back toward Earth. This picture is the result. Voyager 1 was 3.7 million miles away from Earth when it took this. Earth is the small, pale blue speck in that bright, nearly vertical orange band. Carl Sagan was an atheist, so it’s strange to quote him in a sermon, but about this photo, he famously said, “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived their lives. Every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” This was again a new perspective for much of mankind.
There seems to be a nearly universal response to photos like these. Those astronauts experienced for the first time a unique perspective that illuminated the frailty of our existence that is exposed by the perspective from space. They contemplated how insignificant they felt, and because they took some pictures, we can experience that vicariously as well. It’s perspective-altering. When confronted with how vast and magnificent the universe is, it alters our perspective that we’re at the center of things and leaves us feeling deeply humbled.
This experience of being confronted by something so vast and spectacular and awe inducing is similar to what Job experiences in the last few chapters of the book of Job. As we’ve studied over the past few weeks, he has had the life he knew and loved stripped from him. His family, his wealth, his possessions, his health, were all taken away without warning. We’ve been studying how Job and his friends respond to these circumstances. In the final chapters, Job is corrected by Elihu and then God shows up and enters the dialogue. In our passage today, Elihu speaks to the incomprehensible nature of God. He says in Job 36:26,
“Behold, God is great, and we know him not” (Job 36:26 ESV)
and then in Job 37:23,
“The Almighty—we cannot find him, he is great in power.” (Job 37:23 ESV)
Elihu is reminding Job that God holds a very different place than mankind. This isn’t an office or role that God is just occupying or was elevated to. No, God is completely other, and because he’s all powerful, all knowing, and all present, he is unsearchable by men—too vast, too brilliant, too magnificent, too deep, too other for men to ever plumb his depths.
And then in chapters 38–42, God speaks to Job. What we see in God’s response to Job and in Job’s response back is a total change in perspective for Job. His attitude shifts from one of confidence and confrontation to one of total humility. God rightly reminds Job of both God’s place in the universe and our place as his creation. Just as the astronauts caught a glimpse of their insignificance and were confronted with their frailty and humanity, Job is reminded by Elihu and then forced by God to face his incomplete understanding of God and how the Lord is incomprehensible to us flawed humans.
In the verses immediately preceding our text today, Elihu says,
“Behold, God is exalted in his power; who is a teacher like him? Who has prescribed for him his way, or who can say, “You have done wrong.”” (Job 36:22–23 ESV)
Elihu is trying to point out for Job his error in challenging God, and then in the text Andrew read for us, he reminds Job that God is so great, and so mighty, and so powerful that not only is it not right for us to challenge him, but in fact we cannot even know him because he is beyond human comprehension! Elihu sets the stage for God to then speak in chapters 38–42, and the Lord himself perfectly drives home Elihu’s points.
God speaks to Job in two big chunks. At the beginning of each of those chunks, he ominously tells Job,
“Dress for action like a man. I will question you, and you make it known to me.” (Job 38:3 ESV)
I read that and am immediately trembling for Job. He is basically saying, “put on your pants like a man, because I’m about to put you in your place.” Picture a hard core Navy SEAL standing in front of you in full battle armor and telling you to prepare for a battle with him. He’s fully equipped with all of his gear: multiple weapons, kevlar helmet, flak jacket with impenetrable armor plates inserted, grenades, night vision goggles, laser sights. You’ve got nothing except the street clothes you are wearing today. Immediately, and very clearly, you see you are far less equipped and trained, so much so that you surrender without hesitation. When God speaks here, he is speaking to Job from a whirlwind, similarly illuminating how much different he is and better suited than is Job.
God proceeds to ask over 70 questions. These questions have no human response—
Where were you, Job, when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, since you see fit to question me, how do you cause the sun to rise in the morning, not just once, but every day since you very first created it to burn? Do you have any clue what lurks in the depths of the sea or what happens way out in the night skies? How did you decide where to place the light and the dark, Job? How do you decide what and how to feed the wild animals? Do you control when every single living thing gives birth and when those same animals will die, and where and how their life will end? Can you control the very largest and most frightening of creatures?
God asks question after question. God knows that Job has been boldly calling for, even demanding, that God provide an answer to why he is suffering. God is calling out and reminding him of his place as one created and of God’s place as the creator and sustainer.
The way God phrases his questions to Job is so humbling. It’s like if I went to my daughter, Ellie, who is in Kindergarten, and asked her to explain differential equations, or asked her how she would nuance the complexities of foreign relations with China. She’s only learning to read her letters, so it’s absolutely ridiculous and unreasonable to expect her to explain complex mathematics or national relationships. She’s not capable of understanding it! God’s incomprehensible nature and ways go even further than this analogy, however. You may have felt an imperfection in this analogy because, if you’re an optimist like I am, you recognize that maybe someday, given the proper education, Ellie will be capable of explaining each of those tasks. Maybe a better analogy for our understanding of God’s ways is to compare a dog trying to understand his master. The dog cannot possibly comprehend a human. The dog wants her master home, playing fetch, petting and playing with her, and feeding her. But we have to go to work and prepare a meal for dinner. Think of a dog trying to comprehend the complexities of a job. It’s simply ridiculous to think a canine could grasp where we go and why. The distance between a dog’s ability to understand a human’s ways is analogous to us trying to understand God’s ways. The dog has not the ability to understand a master, just as we have not the ability to comprehend the Lord.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9 ESV)
God highlights for Job that as humans, our perspective is so infinitely small compared to His. Let’s be honest, on a daily basis we do things like forget where we parked our car in the parking lot, and in fact I did that just this week! It was embarrassing and humbling and made me smile because I already had written this when I did it. We forget the name of a person we met just an hour before. We don’t remember the lesson that we learned yesterday at school. I regularly misplace my keys and sunglasses, and I know I’m not the only one in this room who does that! I don’t have any clue whatsoever how my iPhone is able to do what it does, and even if you’re incredibly studied in something, like how an iPhone works, that kind of depth of knowledge is limited to very few subject matters. Nobody is an expert in everything. The wisest and most knowledgeable among us are still ridiculously limited.
In stark contrast, God isn’t limited in any of this. Were he to answer, he would be able to immediately show us our car’s location, point out that my keys are in the pocket of the jacket I wore yesterday, that my glasses are actually resting on the top of my head, and he could even dumb down the intricacies of the iPhone into a language I could understand because he knows it in absolute detail. On top of that, he could tell me exactly what I thought about at any given point in my life, explain exactly why he ordained any given thing in my life, and expound on anything I could ask. And he’s not just an expert in every detail of my life, he is an expert for every life that has ever lived or ever will live. He’s an expert on black holes because he designed them. He’s an expert in the biology of a living cell and how it magnificently functions just the way he imagined it and created it. He holds together the micro and the macro perfectly, according to his will. That kind of power is incomprehensible to us!
Throughout the book of Job, we’ve seen Job defending his innocence and demanding from God an audience so he can understand why he has been suffering. In chapter 10, Job says,
“I will say to God, do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me. Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the designs of the wicked?” (Job 10:2–3 ESV)
In chapter 23, he says,
“Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat! I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know what he would answer me and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No, he would pay attention to me.” (Job 23:3–6 ESV)
God hears Job’s request but doesn’t actually provide an answer to his questions. And Job doesn’t stand up to God quite like he imagined he would. He’s humbled to the point of despising himself and repenting in dust and ashes. Since he cannot answer all of the questions God asked him, he instead extols God. In 42:2, Job says,
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2 ESV)
Job’s perspective is corrected by Elihu and God, and he is finally able to see that the Lord’s ways are too other, too big, too wonderful, for Job to grasp. When Job hears from God, when his perspective is snapped into focus, he can do nothing but realize how small and insignificant he is compared to this God.
We see similar responses from others who encounter God in the Old Testament. Both Moses and Abraham immediately fall on their faces when the Lord speaks to them, and even the angels cannot fully stand in the glory of God. I love the picture in Isaiah chapter 6, when Isaiah has a vision of the Lord. Above the Lord, who is on his throne, is a Seraphim. These angelic beings have six wings, and it says,
“with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:2–3 ESV)
God is so other-ly glorious that the Seraphim dare not look at him, so he covers his face. The ground near the Lord is so holy that he covers his feet. I picture this flying angel crying out as he tries to cover himself and he cowers at the power and glory of God and can only cry out, “holy, holy, holy!”
When we’re confronted with this aspect of God, a tension arises. If God is so incomprehensible, so holy and perfect and other, who then can approach him? What can our relationship with God possibly be if he’s so far beyond us? Who is worthy to be in relationship with God, and why would he care to be in relationship with us? Questions like these are asked throughout the old testament as people come to the conclusion that there must be a God. I think people throughout the world still wrestle with these questions. People I know and love dearly recognize when they take in the world around them that there must be a creator, a God who designed and then made all that is. But if there is a God powerful enough to create, how can we possibly approach him?
Psalm 24 says,
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:1–3 ESV)
Doesn’t that capture the tension? Everything is the Lord’s, so who can approach this God? Verses 4–5 continue:
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:4–5 ESV)
Friends, none of us can attain this. We all have been deceitful and given ourselves to false endeavors and pursuits. We all fall woefully short.
Isaiah 33 has parallel language.
“Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings? He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, he will dwell on the heights; his place of defense will be the fortress of rocks; his bread will be given him; his water will be sure.” (Isaiah 33:14–16 ESV)
Elihu and the Lord highlight for Job the vast difference between us and God. And if those differences are true, who can claim an argument against him or stand in his presence? The answer is nobody. Not one of us. Romans 3:23 reminds us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Our minds are feeble and unable to understand him, and our hands are dirty with sin and we cannot be in his presence. Where then is our hope?
Oh friends, what an incredible answer we have! God himself provides the answer. When we were without hope, God entered in. Jesus came down and provided the answer to both knowing God and standing in his presence. The very God who created, the very God who spoke to Job and showcased how incomprehensible he is to us then entered in to make himself known. God, who called Job to, “dress for action like a man,” saw how incapable we are to contend with him or climb our way up his mountain, to stand in his presence, which is like a consuming fire. He who laid the foundation of the earth, who imagined and designed the universe and then spoke it into existence, entered in and provided a rescue. God, whose perspective is so great that he can cover not just the earth with his thumb but can cover the universe with his thumb, became like us so we could better understand and trust him. God, who has the power to keep every star burning and every cell churning, became like us so that we could know him. The incomprehensible God became comprehensible. If you want to understand God, look at Jesus. While we still can’t fully understand why he does things sometimes, we can trust him based on the characteristics of Jesus: goodness, love, mercy, justice, peace.
Ephesians 2 says,
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4–7 ESV)
God not only made himself known, he provided a way for us to be in right relationship with him. You see, we’re not left feeling as those astronauts and Carl Sagan did. While a perspective altering event like viewing the earth from space or catching a glimpse of the glory of God leaves us feeling small and insignificant, God enters and says, “No! You matter! You are significant to me. I love you. You’re significant enough that I, the God that created you, would give up my place in heaven to bring you life and give you joy and secure for you a hope.” You matter, you’re important, you’re loved! God cares about you and wants to be in relationship with you, and he made a way to make himself known through Christ Jesus.
It’s interesting to note that Job, as far as we can tell, never gets to know why he has to go through the suffering that he does. God doesn’t provide answers to Job’s questions when he speaks. Job isn’t privy to the knowledge that we have from the book; what happened behind-the-scenes between God and Satan. He doesn’t get to know that his suffering was a result of Satan contesting with God that Job only loved and served God because he was blessed with family, with wealth and prosperity, with health. We know that God ordained this suffering to prove Job’s faithfulness and provide a lesson for all mankind, but Job doesn’t get to know any of this! Christian, can you go where Job does? Can you see God as mighty and his ways as completely other, to not get an answer and yet still humble yourself and trust in his goodness? Can you trust even when you don’t get an answer you feel you deserve? Can you hear the Lord say to you that you matter and that he’s working out all things, wasting not a drop of your suffering and difficulty, for your good and His glory and trust that as true? I hope so. I hope we can, like Job, bow before a God who holds all of creation in the palm of his hand, incomprehensible in our human condition and yet fully known and trustworthy.
My hope is that in walking away today, you feel the otherness of God and have glimpsed his glory, grandness, and holiness. I pray we all have a healthy fear of God in his awesome power and might and ability. But this fear isn’t one like standing before a Navy SEAL who seeks to destroy you. No, God gives us a picture of both a mighty lion and a humble lamb. The ferocious Lion laid down his life so you could live. God is unknowable because he is beyond our capacity to fully grasp, but yet immediately knowable in Christ Jesus, the lamb.
And as we come to communion, that’s what we celebrate. We proclaim our faith in an incomprehensible God made known. God, who created the universe, who is beyond our ability to understand, made himself known in Christ. Jesus, being fully God, came down and lived as a man so that we could know his heart, so that we could feel his inconceivable love for us. If you’re a believer that Jesus is God and that he took on your sin and gave you his righteous standing before God, then please celebrate with us by taking communion. We’re remembering that Christ is God and that he knows us and loves us, and that he died so would can live.