I like reading the texts before I’ve read the lesson material so that I can see what I can learn from them without the direction of the lesson topic. So why do I call this text “out of context” when I haven’t even seen how it will be used by the lesson material.
The reason is simply that the text trims out the material that would let us know the speaker or the point in the argument at which this text appears. If we look back to Job 9:1, we find that this is one of Job’s responses to his friends, the friends who have come to make sure his depression is as deep as possible.
When you consider that when God appears in this story, God doesn’t think much of what has been said before God’s appearance, it is perhaps not helpful to take theology out of any of the speeches from chapter 3 through chapter 37. While God commends Job, it is not for Job’s speech.
In my experience, most Christians who quote from Job at all quote from the speeches of Job’s friends, and don’t trouble to take note of who is speaking. That’s because Job’s friends maintain what most of us feel, which is that many, if not most of the bad things that happen to people are the result of their bad decision. God, according to this view, is in the business of rewarding good behavior and punishing bad.
Job doesn’t really counter this so much as simply assert his innocence. In this passage he’s declaring God powerful, but also distant. That’s Job’s problem with all this. He’d like God to show up and answer his questions. God hasn’t done that.
What is trimmed out of our reading is the fact that this is Job speaking (v. 1), and that he has just declared that God will not answer. His comments on God’s power are not so much praise as they are a declaration of God’s distance. At the end of verse 3 he declares that God won’t respond one time in a thousand.
With all that trimmed, this can sound like a declaration of praise for the Creator. What it actually is, is a complaint about the distance of a God who allows Job to suffer and yet refuses to explain himself.
Job is often referred to as a theodicy, a justification of God’s behavior. Theodicies usually try to explain how God can be good, all-powerful, and yet allow suffering or evil to exist. The book of Job doesn’t actually attempt any theodicy. Job is answered, insofar as he is at all, when God appears and challenges him. In the story, Job never finds out what was going on in the background. We, the readers are privy to the council, and to what God is proving through Job’s suffering.
Equally interesting to me is the fact that Job is quite satisfied with the answer, even though on a logical basis it’s not much of an answer. What Job longs for is what he sees lacking: God needs to take note of him. Once this has happened Job is quite happy.
One of the reasons for that, I suspect, is that Job simply sees that God truly is that great, and is in turn grateful that God has paid attention to his complaints at all, even though God doesn’t answer the questions Job has raised.
So let’s go full circle back to the point about context. Sometimes texts can be used out of context. The problem is that we generally try to make scripture authoritative. If one uses a text out of context and pretends that this reading is authoritative because it is scripture, that presents quite a problem.
When I was in elementary school we had a program of scripture memorization that included memorizing lists of four texts. We’d have four texts on the Sabbath (I was Seventh-day Adventist at the time), four texts on the state of the dead, and so forth. Today I would view a number of these texts as taken out of context. And for their purpose, some of them were.
On the other hand there are allusions and literary borrowing. Revelation, for example, is filled with verbal allusions to various passages in Hebrew scripture. These are not used as proof texts, but rather form part of the literary fabric from which the report of John’s vision is woven. As long as we understand what is going on, there is no problem. The problem is that we often see only one use in scripture: proving doctrinal points.
I’m reminded of the saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” This is quoted in a pious way, indicating that by erecting effective barriers, we can live more peacefully. I actually think this is quite correct. Boundaries, well-defined and reasonable, are very helpful to relationships.
That was not the meaning of this line when it was first written. You might take the time to read the Robert Front poem.
Sometimes in our Bible reading we need to realize that we are reading a story, seeing a picture, getting a sense, and not learning a doctrine.