In the ninth chapter of the book of Job, Job imagines what it would be like if God were to come and hear his complaint. He considers both what God would do, and what his response to God would be. Then, after several cycles of speeches between Job and his friends, God does, in fact, come “out of the whirlwind” (38:1 ESV) and answer Job. Ironically, the hearing that Job receives is exactly what he said it would be, but not nearly in the way or for the reason he thought. Furthermore, Job’s response to God is also exactly what he predicted, yet again, not in the way he anticipated. In the end, Job’s speech in chapter nine and the actual unfolding of the events presents a prime example of dramatic irony.
In chapter eight of Job, Bildad assures Job that God is just (8:3) and would not punish Job without cause. Therefore, Job should repent, and God would forgive him (8:5). In Job’s response to Bildad, he insists that such an encounter would be useless. “But how can a man be in the right before God? If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand times” (9:2-3 ESV). God is simply too powerful for Job, how can a mere mortal contend with the one who “removes mountains . . . who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars. . .” (9:5-7 ESV)? Not only is Job acutely aware of God’s power, he is also mindful of God’s wisdom. In a debate with God, what could Job say? Job insists that God would outwit him by getting Job to prove the opposite of what he believes! “Though I am in the right, my own mouth would condemn me” (9:20 ESV). Job sees that the result of such an encounter would render him speechless: “he will not let me get my breath, but fills me with bitterness” (9:18 ESV).
The reason Job thinks he will not get a fair hearing before God is because he insists he has done nothing to deserve his trouble (i.e., he has not received a fair treatment so far, so why expect it in the future?). “If I summoned him and he answered me, I would not believe that he was listening to my voice” (9:16 ESV). The problem, as Job sees it, is that there is an infinite gulf between God and man. “For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together. There is no arbiter between us, who might lay his hand on us both” (9:32-33 ESV). What he needs is someone equal to both God and man who might reconcile the two. At this point in the speeches, Job sees no such solution, yet later he will assert that because God is, in fact, just, such a one must exist (cf. 19:25).
So Job, insistent on his righteousness, is left with the conclusion that because God is in control of the whole universe and because He is far beyond the wisdom of man if God comes to him, Job would be silenced and have no answer.
The irony of Job’s speech is that this is exactly what happens, but not in the way or for the reason Job supposed. In God’s opening speech to Job He affirms Job’s statements (cf. 9:4ff) that God is in control of the universe (38:4f), the seas (38:8f), the movement of the sun (38:12f), light and darkness (38:19f), the seasons (38:25f)—God even affirms that he “binds” (38:31) the constellations Pleiades, Orion, and the Bear that Job had observed were created by God (cf. 9:9). God points all this out with the use of rhetorical questions: “where were you?” etc. The effect of this series of questions is to ask Job, “You say you know these things, but do you understand?” This is the heart of Job’s problem. He recognizes the power and wisdom of God, but has applied it in a limited way.
Job’s response to God’s questioning is exactly what he had predicted: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further” (40:4-5 ESV). While Job had asserted that he would be silenced by God because God would outwit him, what happens is that Job is silenced because he realizes he has spoken rashly. Job comes to see that he has far less knowledge of the situation than he supposed. It is as if God is saying, “If you have understood the gulf that exists between us, why do you presume to find fault with me?” Job agrees, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3 ESV).
It is in this way that Job can continue to maintain his righteousness and yet not make a complaint against God. The solution is not a philosophical justification of Job’s sufferings, but rather a personal encounter with God that ends in trust: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5 ESV). That is, though he cannot see his unrighteousness he trusts in God’s goodness. He concludes, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6 ESV). This comparison between Job’s words and the results reveals a dramatic irony that resolves the tension of the conflict, and elucidates the meaning of the book.