Job 37-38 and Psalm 85-86
There is an idea called the “retribution principle” that you can find woven into much of scripture. If you think that being good and righteous means that you will be rewarded, and that being wicked means you will be punished, you think that the retribution principle is true on some level. It seems to make sense as a general rule. What goes around comes around; you reap what you sow.
For most of the book of Job, we’ve been immersed in a debate between Job and his friends about whether this principle holds up. Job’s friends insist that Job must have done something wrong to bring on this suffering. Job insists he’s righteous and that his suffering makes no sense, bringing God’s justice into question. Elihu shows up, defending God’s majesty and justice, and condemning Job for being too self-righteous.
Sometimes Job’s friends seem like they have a grasp on the truth, but other times what they say seems misguided, and in the times left over, we just aren’t sure what to think. They all have worthwhile things to say, but at the core are still flawed humans. When reading anything in Job, we have to use some discernment to decide if what is being said is really true. After all, in the last chapter of the book, Job’s friends are criticized by God for not speaking of him what is right.
At this point we have read a large chunk of Job, yet we are not sure who to believe or how to make sense of all the things that are being said. Suddenly in chapter 38, God rejoins the conversation from a whirlwind, signaling that this should be the dramatic moment when all our questions are answered.
We get no answers. In fact, God says he is going to ask the questions now.
If Job is man enough to challenge God, then he’d better be man enough to be challenged back. He’d better brace himself like a warrior. Job, were you there when I put down the foundation of the earth and gave the chaotic waters their boundaries? Do you have intimate knowledge of how all of creation works? Have you explored the highest highs and the deepest and darkest chasms? Do you have control over light, rain, snow, lightning, stars, or animals? Where does wisdom come from?
What would you say back? Really, what could you say back?
Does this frustrate you? It frustrates me. We call out to God in our deepest despair and questions but then feel like we just have more questions. It is not any fun to be humbled and put in our place. It’s disheartening to follow God and still go through hard times; we think it isn’t supposed to work that way. It’s natural to ask why we even bother serving God when we can’t seem to find the benefits, and yet the troubles have no trouble finding us. This all hurls us back to the question posed in Job chapter 1: If all the benefits were stripped away, would Job still serve God? Would you?
Through the story, the author of Job is asking us to question the retribution principle. Apparently, being good doesn’t mean you’ll expect only good things in your life. And being bad doesn’t mean getting a lump of coal. Reality is just more complex than that. It rains on the righteous as well as the wicked, and even in a desert land where nobody lives.
I’ll close with prayers of hope from the other part of our reading today:
“Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” (Psalm 85:8-9)
“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Psalm 86:15)
Some of you may know Jay as the really tall bass player in the FUEL worship band. We welcome his deep thoughts on God’s Scriptures this week.