Job hits the limits of human knowledge when trying to understand the righteousness of God. Can we know the unknowable?
The first two verses of the chapter wrap up Job’s defense to his friends. After showing he is not being irrational like a donkey, he moves us to his true concern: why is God acting so unjustly?
Job has a profound sense of right and wrong and it can be seen in his response to his friends. He feels as if his friends are lying to protect God from accusations of injustice, because their theology does not correspond with observable reality (Job 13:4, 5, 7, 8). Job correctly anticipates, perhaps hoping deep down (Heb 11:2) that God is righteous, that they will be punished for their lies (Job 13:9-11).
As we have touched on previously, Job believes God is acting outside of some sort of idea of justice that He is compelled to abide by at the risk of being unjust Himself. The concept of justice in the Scripture, we should be reminded, is not like the preceding at all. It is something decreed by God Himself:
[L]et the clouds pour down righteousness;
Let the earth open up and salvation bear fruit,
And righteousness spring up with it.
I, the Lord, have created it (Is 45:8).
Though Job begrudgingly accepts that because of His brute strength God is always in the right (Job 9:3-4), he apparently is starting to consider the idea that righteousness is not entirely consistent with His nature.
Obviously, as we have also touched on before, the Scripture unequivocally speaks against such an idea. Concerning God the Scripture says, “And all His work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord” (Ps 33:4-5). Further, “The sum of Your word is truth and every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting” (Ps 119:160). Yet again, “As for God, His way is blameless” (Ps 18:30).
However, because Job does not yet appreciate this and presently interprets the existence of suffering as inconsistent with a god who loves justice, he again reiterates his desire for an arbitrator between him and God. Job obviously feels wronged: “I desire to argue with God” (Job 13:3). Yet, he pleads his case willing to deal with the consequences if he is found in the wrong (Job 13:13).
Job is confident: “Behold now, I have prepared my case; I know that I will be vindicated” (Job 13:18). Why is he so confident that he is right and won’t be punished, like his friends? Our interpretation is that deep down, Job is a man of faith. We can see this in Job 13:15-16, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him. This also will be my salvation, for a godless man may not come before His presence.”
His Godliness is proven by the fact that like Jacob, he is wrestling with God in faith (Gen 32:28). God does not wrestle with unbelievers, because they are not allowed into the presence of God anymore than someone is in the presence of the Persian king apart from being summoned (Esther 4:16). Those not imputed Christ’s righteousness cannot even be looked upon by God who, “Purer of eyes than to behold evil, to look on perverseness Thou art not able” (Hab 1:13, YLT).
As David prayed in his Psalm, even when brought low he was confident in God’s faithfulness:
For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning…O Lord, by Your favor You have made my mountain to stand strong; You hid Your face, I was dismayed…You have turned for me my mourning into dancing, You have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness, that my soul may sing praise to You and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever (Ps 30:5, 7, 11, 12).
So, why shouldn’t Job hope in the one who slays him, for His anger is but for a moment while His favor is assured forever? Again, the doctrine of assurance gives the believer real comfort in times of trial. Without assurance, there is positively no reason to hope that God’s anger will ever cease. Thus, rhe doctrine gives the believer confidence in God’s righteousness, even when suffering is present.
God does not forsake His people, because it is His promise He will lose none of them (John 6:39). “For the Lord loves justice and does not forsake His godly ones. They are preserved forever, but the descendants of the wicked will be cut off” (Ps 37:28).
Further, “For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from him. But when he cried to Him for help, He heard” (Ps 22:4).
Job might have been aware that though God tests his faithful ones, He will not forsake them if they are faithful in their ways: “You have tried my heart, You have visited me by night, You have tested me and You find nothing. I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress” (Ps 17:3).
Hence, confident in God’s promises, he issues a challenge to his friends to prove him wrong (Job 13:19) and then begs for God to relent. Job says that he will “no longer hide from Your face” (Job 13:20) on the condition that God will both end the suffering and the unhealthy fear of Him that it causes (Job 13:21).
We always hear of the importance of “fearing the Lord.” In fact, Job himself makes it explicit that he finds it important too. However, we are not to fear God because He is more powerful than us and at a whim may seek to destroy us. We are not to live in fear of an all-powerful sadist, because this would be fear of a lie. Instead, man should fear God because of a knowledge of his own sin and knowing that apart from God’s unmerited grace, he could do nothing to make himself right with a completely righteous God that cannot bear to cast His eyes upon wickedness.
Job appears to understand this idea, because when asking God to remove His hand he asks in his confusion, “How many are my iniquities and sins” (Job 13:23)? Job knows that God has been gracious to him and he had not done anything to hide His face (Job 13:24). He knows that the true God does not hold “the iniquities of my youth” (Job 13:26) against him.
The god he is experiencing now is a terrifying phantom. It is totally inconsistent with God’s self-revealed nature, the God he knew his whole life, for the Almighty turn His face away for any other reason other than sinning against Him. As Isaiah makes clear, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear” (Is 59:2).
Yet, God is silent to Job and does not reveal Himself to him. He appears to have withdrawn all of His grace, though from chapter two we know that even in all of this suffering God still protects Job’s very life, knowingly sustaining his faith.
As for Job, he feels trapped. His feet are “in the stocks” so he cannot escape God’s terrifying watch (Job 13:27). It is as if the phantom is waiting just for the right moment to crush him. In the meantime, Job is wasting away in fear (Job 13:28).
Before we conclude our commentary on this chapter, let’s take some time to consider Job 13:12 which states, “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay.”
It is easy to read this line and simply interpret it to mean that Job’s friends have made some good sounding arguments, but they are shallow and incorrect. This may be true, but it is worth reflecting on the nature of wisdom.
The Scripture admonishes us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov 3:5).
Why? Isn’t man made in the image of God? If God has wisdom, why can’t the image of God independently, through scientific and philosophical endeavors, discern truth on his own?
Man is a finite being unlike God and finitude means that we cannot grasp the infinite. However, this has not stopped men from trying to do so. For example, all men have the ability to contemplate their own existence (i.e. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.”) It is our conjecture that this gives many of us the illusion that we truly understand the entirety of our own existence, which includes issues such as right and wrong. So, Job’s friends would think that they have a firm grasp of how God deals with issues of justice, but as he observes their proverbs are meaningless.
How about Job himself? He questions God, because he thinks that what is occurring to him is wrong for God to do. Therefore, his assumption is that he has a firm grasp of what is right and what is wrong, and clearly God is not abiding by it. Does this make Job a lot like his friends in the sense that he believes he correctly understands the nature of righteousness in its infinite reality?
It is in this where Job and his friends are being foolish. But, this is common to men, especially children. In reality, none of us are any different than a five-year-old who thinks he knows it all and that his mommy and daddy are unfair. The five-year-old does not know better, because he is simply too stupid to understand his parents’ purposes. Likewise, man when he questions the Almighty is too finite to understand the purposes of God, because he is not God. Man, if we are to believe in evolution, is in many respects just a very sophisticated animal. So, we believe that even the most sophisticated animal existing on a material plain is simply not made to understand the full material and immaterial nature of reality.
There is a real danger in taking our narrow human experience, limited by our history of ideas and an inherently finite ability to comprehend our reality, and seeing it as the be-all end-all. Reality is bigger than man and man on his own can only see the shadows of the forms of truth and not grasp truth on his own. Apart from the Holy Spirit, man cannot know God. Only by faith in Christ we can, to the “measure” God has allotted us (Rom 12:3), know Him. For:
Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:11-16).
How can we question God’s righteousness if He is so far above us and His ways are not our ways? For the Scripture states: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways” (Is 55:8). Again, “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Hear now, O house of Israel! Is My way not right? Is it not your ways that are not right” (Ezek 18:25)? As Paul put it:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Rom 11:33-36).
Eliphaz is partially correct. Indeed men “die, yet without wisdom” (Job 4:21). But, this is only when man is left to his own devices. A man, with his own inherent natural ability, cannot know things that are spiritually discerned. The human mind and intellect is not built for the task. As Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldun observed in his superb work, The Muqaddimah:
Now, it might be assumed that there exists another kind of perception different from ours, since our sense perceptions are created and brought into existence [i.e. they are finite for man’s lifespan is finite]. God’s creation extends beyond the creation of man. Complete knowledge does not exist (in man). The world of existence is too vast for him.
“God has comprehension beyond theirs” (Qu’ran, Surah 85:20). Therefore, everyone should be suspicious of the comprehensiveness of his perceptions and the results of his perception, and should follow what the Lawgiver [God in His revelation] commanded him to believe and to do. He [God] is more desirous of his happiness (than man himself) and He knows better what is good for him. His level (of perception) is higher than that of human perception.
The territory He covers (in his mind) is wider than that of human intelligence. This does not speak against the intellect and intellectual perceptions [of man]. The intellect, indeed, is a correct scale. Its indications are completely certain and in no way wrong.
However, the intellect should not be used to weigh such matters as the oneness of God, the other world [heaven], the truth of prophecy, the real character of the divine attributes, or anything else that lies beyond the level of the intellect [of man]. That would mean to desire the impossible.
One might compare it [human intellect] with a man who sees a scale in which gold is being weighed, and wants to weigh mountains in it. The (fact that this is impossible) does not prove that the indications of the scale are not true (when it is used for its proper purpose). However, there is a limit at which the intellect must stop. It cannot go beyond its own level (Chapter 6 “Methods of Instruction,” Section 14; parenthesis are translator’s interpretations, brackets are our own).
Ibn Khaldun asserts that humanity’s intellect is not totally meaningless. It works at doing what it is suited for, just as the gold scale works for weighing things smaller than mountains. So, the intellect alone can be used to verify our own existence. However, it cannot peer into every nature of an infinite reality, because man himself is not infinite. In these matters, we defer to God’s revelation, which is the Scripture and direct revelation from the Holy Spirit, which will not contradict the Scripture because God does not contradict Himself (2 Tim 2:13).
We must not be like Job’s friends or Job before his repentance in the later chapters. We cannot presume on our own that we know what is right and wrong, so that if God makes us suffer not as a consequence of punishment He can be charged with wrongdoing. Instead we must stand in awe of God and cling to Him in faith, know that His revelation is true, that He is just, and that we can trust Him in all things and in all situations, even our suffering.