Who is this who darkens counsel with words of ignorance?
With these words God appears out of a whirlwind, or storm cloud, to Job, the despondent Old Testament character who had lost his family, health, and wealth to a series of misfortunes. Job had since vacillated between bemoaning his misery and calling upon God to let him plead his innocence before Him.
And so, finally, in Job 38, God appears.
This theophany is exactly what Job had demanded but nothing like what he had expected.
“Then call me, and I will respond; or let me speak first, and answer me,” Job had said (Job 13:22). Later, imagining what it would be like to chance upon God, Job said he was ready to make his case before the Almighty: “I would set out my case before him, fill my mouth with arguments” (Job 23:4).
Job had longed to find God. “Would that I knew how to find him that I might come to his dwelling!” (Job 23:3). The opposite had happened: God not only came to Job, but did so in such a way that it would be impossible for Job to find Him on his own. For whirlwinds have no ‘dwelling,’ no fixed place. “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” (John 3:8).
The storm-cloud and God’s first words to Job are steeped in irony.
Job had earlier cursed the day of his birth, wishing that dark storm clouds had brooded over it (Job 3:5). He was ready to die. Instead, he gets what is effectively a second birthday. For his encounter with God really does mark a rebirth for Job—his relationship with God is restored and he gets a new life.
Storm clouds are typically dark, not bright and reflective. But it is God who accuses Job of ‘darkening’ counsel. Job considered himself in the know—enlightened, one might say—about the true state of his soul and his place in the world. But the light of man is really darkness. And what appears to be the darkness of God is true light. Put another way: “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
Job had expected answers from God. Not only does he never get to even ask his questions, he finds himself being questioned:
Who is this who darkens counsel
with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins now, like a man;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size? Surely you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it? (Job 38:2-5).
These lines go on in what becomes a long soliloquy, in which God describes the creation of the world and all the creatures that inhabit it. All this is in the form of a question, which amounts to, Who are you to ask questions of me?
Job had been in the dark about God’s true nature. And, in encountering God, he remains in the dark about God, who remains cloaked behind the storm-cloud. But here is the beginning of enlightenment for Job: the realization that God is beyond His own self-made standards of what is right and how the world should work. God is beyond his grasp. And this, ironically, is the first step towards knowing God.
Not only had Job been ignorant of God. He had also been ignorant of his own true nature:
Look, I am of little account; what can I answer you?
I put my hand over my mouth (Job 40:4).
Here is the total humility that is required of us—that we not only admit that God is beyond all our concepts, but that even we, as His creatures, are not the masters of our own reality. Our lives are, in a sense, ‘hidden’ with Him (see Colossians 3:3). Faced with such a profound truth, we can only respond in silence. And it is precisely in silence that God is truly encountered.