For ever and ever : to eternity and beyond?

So many ways to say for ever

There are lots of ways in which we talk about something going on forever. From age to age. Happily ever after. Always. For ever and ever.  Through all eternity. Evermore and evermore. To the end of time. For ever and a day (that’s mathematically correct, you can always add one to infinity).  World without end. In perpetuity.  I like Buzz Lightyear’s ‘To infinity and beyond!‘, and it’s no less clear than many other expressions.   The main difference between ‘infinity’ and ‘eternity’ is that ‘eternity’ has religious overtones which ‘infinity’ mainly avoids, as a mathematical or scientific term.

eternity machine
keeping on keeping on: the first perpetuum mobile
From age to age…to age

Other languages could demonstrate similar collections, from single words (Latin semper and all its descendants) to beautiful or bombastic periphrases. Most Catholics of my generation will remember ‘in saecula saeculorum’ and similar expressions, however vaguely, just because they came up so often at the ends of prayers, when people tend to slow down slightly, so it’s easier to hear.   You can see the same thing occurring in the psalms, where ‘now and for ever’ or a similar form of words flows naturally into an ‘Amen’ or sometimes an ‘Alleluia’ (Pss 40/41, 71/72, 88/89, 105/106 and 113/114 for example).   I don’t think it’s making too many assumptions to think that when ‘now and for ever’ is the last line of the psalm, it might well have been followed by a spontaneous ‘Amen’, such as you often hear when ‘through Christ our Lord’ occurs during the canon of the Mass (and much more frequently among the evangelicals, hurrah for them).  This happens several times (Pss 120/121, 130/131 and 144/145, among others).

infinity in its purest form, and here is a link to a real railway that does the same thing :
Happily ever after

The wish to see happiness unfolding endlessly into the distance is deeply rooted in human beings.  It is how we end nearly all our stories, once the villains have been routed.  Happy (and distant) endings are what we all desire, from daydreams to marriage vows (’till death do us part’);  and yet we know first that death comes to us all (‘What man can live and never see death?’ Ps 88/89.49),  and second that we know absolutely nothing about anything that happens afterwards.  ‘Till death do us part’ is actually impressively realistic compared with most of our expressions.  When we say it, we are recognising human limitations; it is even more convincing than ‘for ever’ would be, because it is more sober.  But God doesn’t have human limitations, so when the psalmist talks about ‘for ever’, what exactly does he mean?  Is this an eternity we can recognise?

Wedding ring
a ring goes round and round..and round
Reach for the stars

In Greek and Roman mythology, one version of ‘for ever’, of lasting into eternity, was to be turned into a star (or a constellation), like Hercules and the Pleiades.  This was an honour beyond being turned into a tree (Deucalion and Pyrrha, Daphne), or a natural phenomenon (Echo, Narcissus).  Stars are too far away to touch, too distant to see clearly, but beautiful and seemingly permanent, so it’s a good halfway house between Mount Olympus and life on earth.    It’s not even just the pagan Greeks.  The nicely-brought-up, Catholic-in-good-standing  Juliet longs for Romeo,  ‘…and when I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night ‘, (R&J, Act III, scene 2) .  Some people nowadays aspire to sending their own ashes, or those of someone dear to them, up into space, because to be in space is to be out of time.  Now that the Church has decided against scattering ashes, I imagine this is no longer a possible Catholic option, but being buried or having your ashes placed under a tree is still allowed.

God creating earth
stars outside earth, serenely circling
Dwellers all in time and space

As temporal beings, we find it almost impossible to conceive of being outside time, and it’s very hard to imagine any sort of eternity that doesn’t seem either boring or terrifying in the long term.  Change, immutability, continuity, repetition : we struggle with all of this in the context of ‘for ever’.  Even ‘perpetual light’ means no twilight or dawnings, nothing refreshing or familiar; it sounds intimidating, possibly even bringing  interrogation to mind.   The language we use to address the question doesn’t really work.  What does ‘eternity in the long term’ mean?  The two ideas cancel each other out.  It is surprising how many times ‘for ever’ occurs in the Psalms, but it means different things to different psalmists.

Pharisees vs. Sadducees
Law in 2 scrolls
Lord, how I love your law

We know that one of the points of contention between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was over eternity, specifically life after death.  The Pharisees asserted that it was the reward for a good life, but would not be drawn on what it actually meant or what it might be like, which was very sensible of them.  The Sadducees thought that virtue had to be its own and only reward: people should do good things because they were good, not from any hope of reward.  Austere, but impressive.

Versions of eternity in the Psalms
Jess tree
your children are your future

In the psalms, much of the time the psalmist limits his looking forward to this current life, especially when longing for deliverance from present danger.  Children are frequently seen as equivalent to avoiding mortality (cf. Ps 111/112);  they are not an advantage just because they will defend you if necessary (Ps 126/127) or take care of you in old age or infirmity (Ecclesiasticus 3. 14-16 is the classic text here), but because they give you a way of not being blotted out.  They prevent your name being forgotten (cf. Ps 82/83.5).  Obliteration is the fate reserved for the wicked, and it is seen as terrifying (‘the depths […] the dark […] the land of oblivion’, Ps 87/88).  This is why ‘perpetual light’ is meant to be positive rather than scary, but artificial light has altered our perception.   Children are the human-scale opposite of this obliteration.  God’s mercy has to be extended down the generations or it loses its importance (all those references to children’s children).  ‘Let this be written for ages to come/ that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord’ (Ps 101/102.19).

God dividing light and dark
Immortal, invisible : God dividing light from  darkness (Sistine)
How long have you got?

The huge difference between God and human beings is duration.  Man has a span, ‘seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong’ (Ps 89/90.10), but God is ‘for ever’, ‘from age to age’, ‘he rules for ever by his might’ (Ps 65/66.7).  Paradoxically God is also out of time, and it does not mean the same for him (‘one day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere’ Ps 83/84.11), to the extent that even tenses are reversed: ‘Before the mountains were born […] you are God’ (Ps 89/90); ‘From all eternity, O Lord, you are’ (Ps 92/93).  In God’s eyes ‘a thousand years/ are like yesterday’ (Ps 89/90.4), which makes me wonder whether the same person wrote these two psalms which set one against a thousand.  Psalm 101/102, one of the psalms of repentance, specifically contrasts the brevity of human life (‘my days are vanishing like smoke […] like a passing shadow’) and God’s strength and permanence (‘you, whose days last from age to age’), ending with a remarkable stanza which describes how God will outlast even the heavens : ‘Long ago you founded the earth/ and the heavens are the work of your hands. / They will perish but you will remain. / They will all wear out like a garment. /You will change them like clothes that are changed. / But you neither change, nor have an end.’ 

Toasting God

The Psalter shows a growing understanding and increasingly subtle grasp of eternity as we move through it.  In the earlier psalms, it is on a more human scale, and Psalm 17/18 even includes a prayer ‘Long life to the Lord, my rock!’, which shows David (almost definitely the psalmist here) thinking of God as a bigger but still mortal king, who saves him and gives him victory after victory, who will do the same for his sons ‘for ever’; but there is no suggestion of a future eternal life for David to be reborn into.  Human ‘for ever’ is limited to ‘all the days of my life’, as in Pss 22/23 and 26/27.  The good man aspires to live in God’s house or tent for all his life, but is still aware that ‘in your house I am a passing guest, a pilgrim, like all my fathers’ (Ps 38/39.13).  Psalm 60/61 is a pivotal moment, where the psalmist asks ‘Let me dwell in your tent for ever’ and continues even more clearly,’May you lengthen the life of the king: may his years cover many generations’.  We are moving on from children being the only continuation of the just,  to daring to imagine an unending life, for us, in God’s presence.

Eternity as more time or less time

This eternity is pictured as an endless now, and the psalmists see themselves as trees in God’s house or garden, or standing beside a river.  In a time and place where wars kept breaking out, trees seem more permanent than buildings, especially when what you are used to is tents, and they constantly renew themselves (‘still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green’ Ps 91/92.15), as well as being able to proclaim God’s glory and sing his praises (but not in a scary way). The nine or ten psalms that lead up to Psalm 100/101 show a future opening up with no visible term except ‘the end of time’,  and describe this eternal present with serene confidence.   The psalmist is still trying to make sense of it, and different notes are still struck, sometimes even in the same psalm:  Psalm 102/103 talks about God ‘renewing your youth like an eagle’s'(v.5), referring to the myth that eagles could go off on a featherless retreat and come back for a fresh lifespan and new feathers (which I think must be a version of the phoenix myth),  but later compares man to grass and wild flowers, and looks forward to God protecting future generations rather than this one (v.17).

Jesse tree with descendants pictured
Family tree : the patriarchs in order,  from generation to generation, culminating in Christ
His love endures for ever

The psalms in the last third of the Psalter strike an increasingly confident note.  God’s mercy endures for ever, a line that recurs.  So does his justice. These lines are fun to write tunes for, because you can make the music go on running and not come to an end.  He is reliable and faithful.  The history psalms repeat the message and reinforce it : he has always done this, he will continue to do it.  ‘He remembers his covenant for ever,/ his promise for a thousand generations ‘ (Ps 104.8).  And the idea of eternity is less frightening and intimidating because the emphasis now is on God’s love, his faithfulness or his kingdom lasting for ever.  The psalmist is happy to leave the details to God.  The Lord is beyond everything he can grasp, even if he is the (slightly smug and) perfect observer of God’s law who wrote Psalm 118/119, the longest psalm with its emphasis on decrees, rules and precepts; so we need to trust him and leave it to him. ‘I have seen that all perfection has an end/ but your command is boundless’ (Ps 118/119.96). 

The Psalms’ version of heaven
sleeping like a baby

We are heading towards a time beyond time, an eternal present of peace.  The dangers and struggling fall behind, and the psalmist sees himself as a ‘weaned child on its mother’s breast’ (Ps 130/131).  ‘For the Lord has chosen Zion’;  God has chosen the destination (‘This is my resting place for ever, here have I chosen to live’ Ps 131/132.14).   We are all supposed to be there too (‘Those who put their trust in the Lord/ are like Mount Zion, that cannot be shaken, that stands for ever’ Ps 124; and also ‘How good […] it is when brothers live in unity![…] It is like the dew of Hermon which falls on the heights of Zion.  For there the Lord gives his blessing, life for ever ‘Ps 132/133).

A life of eternal bliss

The psalmists get bolder and bolder.  The present tenses keep coming; there are still historical references, but they alternate with present celebration (‘For his love endures for ever’ Ps 135/136), so we stay in the eternal now.  The psalmist calls on ‘you who stand in the house of the Lord’ (Ps 134/135), as though we were there already.  There are still notes of persecution, penitence and exile, but the overwhelming feeling is of a rising wave towards the celebratory last few psalms.  It becomes explicit in Psalm 138/139, which celebrates the might and the reach of God in beautiful and unforgettable words which I’m only not quoting because I’d have to write out most of the psalm, and it’s better if you look it up.  But eternal life is now the explicit aspiration : ‘To me, how mysterious your thoughts, the sum of them not to be numbered!  /If I count them, they are more than the sand; / to finish, I must be eternal, like you’ (vv. 17-18); ‘lead me in the path of life eternal'(v.24).  By the penultimate psalm, we are still being encouraged to ‘sing a new song’, to dance and rejoice, but it’s good to see also that provision is made for sitting down :’Let the faithful rejoice in their glory, / shout for joy and take their rest’ (Ps 149.5).

Medieval band
if only we had the soundtrack
Zion, praise your God!

This is a very joyful eternity, with lots of music (see Ps 150).  It still has a sizeable component of enjoying seeing your enemies vanquished and suffering, which is the big difference between OT and NT heavens, but this is far from being crucial.  The emphasis is overwhelmingly on praise and celebration, and every single created thing taking part in the chorus of joy (Ps 148).  That is an eternity  we can all look forward to.  Science may have done for the concept of the music of the spheres, but we can look forward to hearing the oceans and the mountains singing God’s praise.  I would love to hear that.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.





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Questions in the Psalms : who asks, who answers?


Have I said this before?

One engaging aspect of Psalm 2, as I said recently, is that it starts with a question.  Having noticed that,  I went looking for others, and there are indeed ten psalms which open with questions;  but there are many more questions in the bodies of the psalms.

A capsule full of questions
a lot of questions inside a single opiate?
How do you show a question?

There is no question mark in Biblical Hebrew or Latin, but both languages manage fine without.  It’s always interesting to see how a language deals with questions.  You can do it through question words, like Kipling’s six honest serving men , you can do it through word order, you can do it through adding a particle to one of the other words in a sentence, you can add a catch-all to the end of a statement (innit/ n’est-ce pas/ zar ne), you can even start a sentence with a word which indicates the answer you are expecting (Latin nonne for yes and num for no).  A question mark is a late invention, because it’s almost like St Francis’ advice about using words to preach only if all else fails.  There are so many ways to indicate a question, even if it’s not spoken aloud.  One theory about the origin of a question mark is that it’s an indicator of raising the pitch at the end of the phrase, ‘interrogatively’, as you might say.  I wonder whether Australians ever consider doubling the question mark to indicate that there’s a real question and not just a rising inflection?

page of psalm in multiple languages
lovely multilingual Psalter, even without question marks
What if the question is rhetorical?

I was charmed to discover that Henry Denham, in the 1580s,  suggested a backwards question mark to indicate a rhetorical question, though it lasted less than a century before dying out.  Its spirit lingers over those who try to develop a way to show irony or humour in text messages, but nothing has really caught on yet.  People keep trying though, because no one wants to be insulting inadvertently. Body language provides context that the written word does not, one reason why we need punctuation.

Lots of question marks
enough questions to keep you awake at night
Do they expect an answer?

The psalms contain both real and rhetorical questions, because so many of them are framed as a form of dialogue, even if we only hear one side.   I think the biggest problem with a rhetorical question mark would be deciding which questions actually are rhetorical.  The distinction is a subtle one, depending on the expectations of the speaker (though I used to have problems even choosing between nonne and num, because you can always inflect a question sarcastically to mean the opposite). Some rhetorical questions are obvious : Who is like the Lord our God? (Pss 34/35, 70/71, 88/89, 112/113), Who is the King of glory? (Ps 23/24), but some are more difficult to gauge :  How can God know? Does the Most High take any notice? (Ps 72/73), Is it possible for God to prepare a table in the desert? (Ps 77/78). 

Is it a real question?

It is easier to be sure of which questions are not rhetorical : Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you hide your face? (Ps 87/88); From where shall come my help? (Ps 120/121).  Bitterness and grief can use questions as a trope, yet these are not rhetorical questions but real ones : Will you be angry for ever?  (Pss 84/85, 89/90); Will you work your wonders [only] for the dead? (Pss 6, 29/30, 87/88), and the great question in Ps 136/137, which manages to be both a real question and a rhetorical one : How can we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil?  Rhetorical questions may not require or even have an answer, but they are a way to introduce some of the biggest problems or questions that we all have to grapple with.

Are there questions in the early Old Testament?

Questions are surprisingly rare in the early books of the Old Testament, especially in conversations between God and people.  Usually, God is giving instructions, and the people comply.  Questions tend to mean trouble.  The first question ever comes from the serpent to Eve : ‘Did God really say…’, and after she and Adam have eaten the apple, it is God who starts asking the questions, starting with ‘Where are you?’ and moving so dreadfully fast to ‘What have you done?'(Genesis 3).  He questions Cain just before the fatal excursion when he kills Abel, and then asks another terrible question, ‘Where is your brother?’ (Genesis 4).  When God asks questions, they must be rhetorical, because of course he always knows the answer, but it is a way to make us face reality. 

Flood and Ark
the ark coming to rest on Mt Ararat (below) once all the baddies are drowned (above)

Noah never asks any questions, even sending out birds to find out how far the floods have receded rather than asking God, and over time, God becomes a more distant figure, still giving commands, but not available to question.  Abraham asks very few questions, despite having lengthy conversations with God, and when he does, they are very ceremonial and diffident (cf. the bargaining with God about whether there will be any just men to be destroyed in Sodom).   Abraham asks no questions at all when God tells him to sacrifice Isaac, because that would spoil the story.  Moses asks questions: Why me?  How can I be convincing?, but God gives him short shrift, and there is a definite movement of God away from the people, with Moses and later Aaron being the intermediaries.  God lives up on the holy mountain, and is not to be questioned.   Only when we get to David and the psalms do we hear direct, visceral questions again.

Who is being questioned?
More questions marks
questions come in all shapes and sizes

The questions are usually addressed to God, but not always.  The psalmist addresses other men (O men, how long will your hearts be closed? Ps 4) or sub-groups like ‘the wicked’ (Ps 51/52, 61/62), but also mountains (Pss 67/68, 113/114) and the sea (Ps 113/114).  These are obviously rhetorical in that they cannot expect a verbal answer, but they are direct and arresting, and they indicate the breadth of the scope of the psalmist,   rather than showing him as a single person alone at night, speaking into the void.

What is being asked?
Job talking to Jesus
how would you not ask questions, given the chance?

The same questions and themes recur continually. How long do I have to wait before you help me? (passim; from Ps 6 through to Ps 118/119, this question keeps being asked).  What is man, and why is God interested in him?  Who is just in God’s eyes?  Why do the wicked prosper?   Some of the rhetorical questions are just swagger : Who is like our God?  Whom should I fear?,  – but it’s good to read those as a contrast to the questions of desolation and desperation which recur.  How long? is perhaps the most frequent question, but it comes up addressed to different interlocutors, though mostly it is a plea for God to come to the rescue.  Sometimes the question is framed differently, as in Ps 100/101 (O when, Lord, will you come? v.2)  and Ps 118/119 (When will you console me? v.82; When will you judge my foes? v.84), and sometimes rhetorical questions are used to encourage the Lord to hurry (Can dust give you praise? Ps 29/30). 

Who’s asking?

Some of the more shocking questions are deliberately put into other people’s mouths, as in Ps 77/78 : They even spoke against God./ They said : ‘Is it possible for God to prepare a table in the desert?[…] Can he also give us bread?’ vv.19f, but most of the time the psalmist is happy to challenge God in his own voice.  He is so sure that God is on his side that the Lord’s tardiness in rescue must be due to sleep (Ps 43/44, v.24), or a desire to make a big entrance (many of the ‘how long?’ questions).  At times he can sound petulant or exasperated, but he is always honest and direct, and not afraid to remind God of how much praise and love the psalmist has already lavished on him.  This is not a dialogue between equals, but it is a covenant where both sides have rights of speech and reply.

How many questions can fit in a psalm?
history of Joseph
powerful people doing bad things

The psalmist also addresses his questions to specific groups, including powerful and frightening ones: ‘Do you truly speak justice, you who hold divine power?’ Ps 57/58, where he is haranguing wicked judges and rulers, and threatening them with God’s vengeance.  He returns to this theme in Ps 93/94, with a whole peppering of questions.  He summons God to appear on earth and do some smiting.  He calls out, twice, ‘How long shall the wicked triumph?’.  He tells God that these wicked people are confident that God will pay no heed, and then his question is addressed to them: ‘When will you understand?’ followed by two definitely rhetorical questions : ‘Can he who made the ear, not hear? / Can he who formed the eye, not see?’, powerful words echoed in Isaiah (6.10), Jeremiah (5.21) and of course in Psalm 113/115 to draw the contrast between God and pagan idols who can’t do anything.  He continues, ‘Will he who trains nations, not punish?/ Will he who teaches men, not have knowledge?’, and then swings round to talk about how good God is to ‘his own’.  Two more questions follow, and they might seem rhetorical if the tone were not so urgent.  ‘Who will stand up for me against the wicked? / Who will defend me from those who do evil?’  If God will not step in, he is done for.  As so often in the Psalms, the individual is crying out for help because his cause is just but the legal machinery is loaded against him.  He is not asking for indulgence or forgiveness; he is brave or rash enough to demand justice, and even reproach God with his last question : ‘Can judges who do evil be your friends?’  Of course not.  He ends with an affirmation of confidence, and we too have to trust that God saved him.

King and furnace
we really need a rescue here
Why are you cast down, my soul? (three times)

There is a similar flurry of questions in a few other psalms, including the Pss 41/42, 42/43 sequence. This is the classic yearning psalm, where the ‘how long?’ question is not because the speaker needs to be rescued, but because he so longs to see God’s face.  I have taken these two psalms together because they repeat lines and whole verses, both internally and from one to another; my commentary says that they were both originally parts of one poem, and there is plenty of internal evidence for that.  Any division is late, and porous.  The questions are simple, and addressed to different interlocutors.  First (Ps 41/42) the psalmist asks a general question (When can I enter and see the face of God?), which seems even humbler because he is not asking it of God directly.  He describes himself as pelted repeatedly by questions from others : ‘Where is your God?’  He remembers his past happiness as a leader in the Temple and questions his own sadness: ‘Why are you cast down, my soul?’, an interesting bit of introspection which leads almost to dialogue, as he actually answers two lines later. The psalm moves on into praise of God, and the speaker bravely questions God directly: ‘Why have you forgotten me?  Why do I go mourning[…]?’ before repeating the ‘Where is your God?’ question from others, now directly named as ‘enemies'(v.11).  The strophe with the ‘Why are you cast down?’ question is repeated, with its affirmation of faith in God. 

leading the rejoicing crowd into God’s house

Psalm 42/43 starts here and is practically a recap of the questions, shorn of the some of the beautiful images of the previous psalm.  The first strophe is the usual plea for help against enemies.  The second strophe is addressed directly to God : ‘Since you are my stronghold, why have you rejected me?’ and repeats the line, ‘Why do I go mourning oppressed by the foe?’.  Then we have two happy strophes, but this time looking forward to the future, not a remembrance of what is past, as in the previous psalm.  The last strophe is the same one that was repeated in the previous psalm, with the question to his own soul, to ask why it is sad and to end on a note of hope and praise.

asking God a question
Does God ask questions?

God himself gets to ask questions in the Psalms, especially in Ps 49/50, an interesting psalm which I discussed before, nearly all of it God speaking in the first person.  He mocks his people for thinking that ritual and outward observance are all that he cares about : ‘Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?’ (v. 13), and he goes on to reproach them for their wickedness, listing their sins, and then questioning again : ‘You do this, and should I keep silence?  Do you think that I am like you?’ (v.21).  Again, God asks a question in the baffling Ps 81/82, and it is the familiar ‘How long?’ question, upbraiding his agents, though presumably he could simply override them.

Are there any answers?

One very striking thing about all these questions is that they do not elicit answers, except in Ps 41/42, where ‘Why are you cast down?’ is followed by the explanation, ‘My soul is cast down as I think of you’ (v.7), but this is really rare.  In all the other cases I can think of, the question is left hanging, to be answered only by God’s action (a rescue, or a revelation).  The questions are piled up, but no answers come.  A similar situation creates the essential form of the Book of Job.

A parallel set of questions?  The Book of Job
Questions from Job's comforters
Job being questioned (or accused?) by his friends

The Book of Job is full of questions to God, in terms so like the words of the psalms that it seems likely either that they date from a similar era, or that one is, deliberately or unconsciously, quoting the other.  Job, like the psalmist, has real questions to ask God.  He wants to understand the reason for innocent suffering (the main ‘why’ question in the psalms), and he longs for relief (the ‘how long’ question).  The language is most beautiful, and Job constantly finds new ways to deal with his hypocritical friends, who are sure that his suffering is a just punishment for secret sin.  Job is asking his questions of God; the friends question Job, because they are convinced he is concealing past guilt, the justification for what they are determined to see as God’s just punishment. Job knows better, and he has complete faith in God’s goodness,  but he wants to understand why the innocent suffer; he wants to argue his case with God, like the psalmist pleading only for a fair hearing and a just judge.

pleading a case before God

Another person intervenes in the discussion : Elihu (these speeches are thought to be a later addition).  He reproaches Job for presuming to question God.  He reminds him that God has many ways to speak to people, dreams, visions, illness etc, but he is accountable to no man.  Elihu is like a bridge between the earlier discussion and the arrival of God himself; he describes the puniness of man and the mightiness of God even more strongly that the Psalms do.  Elihu describes the power of God in apocalyptic terms, like a warm-up act, and then bows out, as God speaks to Job ‘from the heart of the tempest’ (Job 38).

Leviathan with big teeth…but God is in charge

And what does God say?  How does he answer Job’s (fair and justified) questions?  He asks questions back, quite deliberately not even trying to give answers. ‘Brace yourself[…]; now it is my turn to ask questions and yours to inform me’.  All Kipling’s serving men come out in force; the questions rattle like hailstones.  The poetry is sublime, like Milton,  but better.  God pounds Job with his counter-questions, designed to show the difference between his knowledge and God’s.  Then he challenges him : ‘Is [God’s] opponent willing to give in?  Has God’s critic thought up an answer?’ (Job 40).  Job surrenders utterly, and says that he will not speak again.  God makes another speech (this is the section about Behemoth and Leviathan).  Job repeats his capitulation : ‘I have been holding forth on matters I cannot understand […], now, having seen you with my own eyes, I retract all I have said’ (Job 42).  God rebukes the false comforters, he praises Job and restores all his fortune and family, so there is a happy ending.

Shepherds and sheep
his flocks are bigger than ever
Why keep asking, if there are no answers?

But still no answers, because the answers are not the point, any more than they would be if they were to be found in the Psalms.  The basic question of innocent suffering, of why bad things happen to good people, is one that human beings have been asking ever since they learned to think, and there is no easy answer.  What matters is to keep on asking God the question ; the essential thing is the dialogue, and the relationship which makes it possible.


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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