Sunday, July 29, 2007

Elihu - Immature Preacher, or Messenger of God?

The book of Job is one of the most mysterious books of the Bible. Every time I read it, I come away with different thoughts of who was right, and who was wrong; what was said that pleased God, and what was said that displeased him. The basic story is: Satan challenges God that there is no one of his creatures worthy of him; God says, not true, consider my servant Job; Satan fires back, Oh, sure, he's your favorite, why wouldn't he be faithful; God says, OK, go ahead, try your best to turn him against me. So, Satan throws all sorts of terrible things into Job's life...Job endures all without cursing God, but he gets pretty cranky in the process. And if he doesn't have enough to worry about, three of his "friends" come along to give him all sorts of advice on why his luck has turned so bad. Through Chapter 31, these fine fellows carry on their discussion, and Job just about gets fed up with all the "help"...exasperated, he defends his honor and claims all their accusations against him are false, that he was just minding his own business, then Wham! bad things started. But he was innocent!
"Oh, that I had someone to hear me!"
Job 31:35
Well, God is listening, of course, and He's about to intervene. But first, a young man, apparently a protege of the four old codgers, can't stand the blah-blah-blah any more, and bursts out...I can't stand it any more! (Actually, he says...)
"I am young in years,
and you are old;
that is why I was fearful,
not daring to tell you what I know.

I thought, 'Age should speak;
advanced years should teach wisdom.'

But it is the spirit in a man,
the breath of the Almighty, that gives him understanding.

It is not only the old who are wise,
not only the aged who understand what is right.

"Therefore I say: Listen to me;
I too will tell you what I know.

I waited while you spoke,
I listened to your reasoning;
while you were searching for words,

I gave you my full attention.
But not one of you has proved Job wrong;
none of you has answered his arguments.

Do not say, 'We have found wisdom;
let God refute him, not man.'

But Job has not marshaled his words against me,
and I will not answer him with your arguments.

"They are dismayed and have no more to say;
words have failed them.

Must I wait, now that they are silent,
now that they stand there with no reply?

I too will have my say;
I too will tell what I know.

For I am full of words,
and the spirit within me compels me;

inside I am like bottled-up wine,
like new wineskins ready to burst.

I must speak and find relief;
I must open my lips and reply.

I will show partiality to no one,
nor will I flatter any man;

for if I were skilled in flattery,
my Maker would soon take me away.
Job 32
Then, having gotten his wind up (and probably having put the old guys to sleep), he begins to let Job have it...
"But now, Job, listen to my words;
pay attention to everything I say.

I am about to open my mouth;
my words are on the tip of my tongue.

My words come from an upright heart;
my lips sincerely speak what I know.

The Spirit of God has made me;
the breath of the Almighty gives me life.

Answer me then, if you can;
prepare yourself and confront me.

I am just like you before God;
I too have been taken from clay.

No fear of me should alarm you,
nor should my hand be heavy upon you.

"But you have said in my hearing—
I heard the very words-

'I am pure and without sin;
I am clean and free from guilt.

Yet God has found fault with me;
he considers me his enemy.

He fastens my feet in shackles;
he keeps close watch on all my paths.'

"But I tell you, in this you are not right,
for God is greater than man.

Why do you complain to him
that he answers none of man's words?

For God does speak—now one way, now another—
though man may not perceive it.

In a dream, in a vision of the night,
when deep sleep falls on men
as they slumber in their beds,

he may speak in their ears
and terrify them with warnings,

to turn man from wrongdoing
and keep him from pride,

to preserve his soul from the pit,
his life from perishing by the sword.

Or a man may be chastened on a bed of pain
with constant distress in his bones,

so that his very being finds food repulsive
and his soul loathes the choicest meal.

His flesh wastes away to nothing,
and his bones, once hidden, now stick out.

His soul draws near to the pit,
and his life to the messengers of death.

"Yet if there is an angel on his side
as a mediator, one out of a thousand,
to tell a man what is right for him,

to be gracious to him and say,
'Spare him from going down to the pit;
I have found a ransom for him'-

then his flesh is renewed like a child's;
it is restored as in the days of his youth.

He prays to God and finds favor with him,
he sees God's face and shouts for joy;
he is restored by God to his righteous state.

Then he comes to men and says,
'I sinned, and perverted what was right,
but I did not get what I deserved.

He redeemed my soul from going down to the pit,
and I will live to enjoy the light.'

"God does all these things to a man—
twice, even three times-

to turn back his soul from the pit,
that the light of life may shine on him.

"Pay attention, Job, and listen to me;
be silent, and I will speak.

If you have anything to say, answer me;
speak up, for I want you to be cleared.

But if not, then listen to me;
be silent, and I will teach you wisdom."
Job 33
And Elihu continues on all the way for four more chapters, expounding on the virtues of God and how Job ought to be ashamed of himself for even questioning The Almighty's ways.

Finally, God Himself intervenes, and shares with us all His Mightiness, and our mini-ness (Job 38-41). Job repents in chapter 42, God rebukes Job's three friends, Job's luck turns for the better (though we wonder if he remains haunted by the memories), he lives to a ripe old age and passes away peacefully.

But here's one of the many mysteries of Job. What about Elihu? He had rambled on for six chapters. Six chapters of pretty good preaching, he had pointed out most of the good things of God and the bad things of man in one sermon. But as soon as he is finished, he disappears from the text. No more Elihu. No rebuke or well done from God. No shut up and sit down from the three friends. No "I told you so" from Job. God makes a point of addressing Job, and the three friends, but not Elihu. It almost looks like you could excise chapters 32-37 of the book, and it would be the same.

Had anyone heard or cared about the words of Elihu? Did he make a contribution to the discussion, either positive or negative? Was he the straw that broke God's back, and forced him to speak up, or was he God's voice of wisdom, as he claimed? Or did his sermon have another purpose? What do you think?

Sir Chuck, surveyor of mysteries


  1. The problem of Elihu is the problem of truth vs love. The things he was saying might be appropriate to an essay in First Things but still not the sort of thing one says to a greiving man.
    Also the Jewish tradition is not that you should never question or complain to God(several Psalms do so and even Jesus said, "Why hast though forsaken me") but that you should always remain faithful while doing so which is slightly different. In the last part of Job God is made to sound like the Czar then a loving father. And yes one can go on about sovereignity(like Elihu) but that is how it sounds at first glance. But there is more to it. It is to be remembered Job did get a book of his own in which his complaints were written. Also God did not have to tolerate it as long as He did. Perhaps He simply intervened when things had gone far enough.
    As for Elihu, he was being presumptuous in a different way from Job. However I think he was motivated less from self-righteousness then from actual concern. I remember reading one story about one person whose father was down with alzheimer's. What he told was how shocked he was when his mother said in effect,"first I prayed that he be healed and that wasn't granted, then I prayed that he should at least die and even that wasn't granted. Don't ever pray in my presense again!" Which is going farther then even Job went. However the mother managed to recover and forgive God. Why would Absoulute Good need forgiving? Paradoxically as it seems He does sometimes have to be forgiven in our hearts, not for His sake but for ours. We do sometimes need to forgive God for things we can't understand and find hard to accept. Forgiveing what seems to be a wrong can be as important as forgiving what really is one. A classic case of what happens when we do not do so was Simon Wiesenthal, the famed pursuer of nazis. The poor fellow lived his life consumed in hatred and apparently never did forgive God for something far worse then what happened to Job. Few of us are strained like that and probably few would dare talk like Elihu to him.
    Sometimes one believer can't understand why another would be brought to such a point and is genuinely afraid. And maybe that is why God chose just that momment to intervene-to keep it from sundering a friendship.
    I suppose the best way to describe Elihu is not as an immature preacher but as someone who is genuinely upset. Who saw a friend desperatly clinging to his faith and was trying to help him hold.
    It maybe that the best way to describe Elihu was as an unskilled doctor. He perscribed the wrong medicine at the wrong time.

    Sir Jason

  2. He prescribed the wrong medicine at the wrong time.

    I'm not so sure, Sir Jason. Sometimes God uses a "grating voice" to break through our self-pride and self-justification. In this case, Job had been pretty successful in arguing against his three friends; unfortunately, it was reaching the point of piety and self-righteousness. That seems to be a pretty clear object lesson that we can even sin by being proud of our ability to avoid sin... and that seems to be Elihu's bottom line. He states...Oh, that Job might be tested to the utmost for answering like a wicked man! To his sin he adds rebellion; scornfully he claps his hands among us and multiplies his words against God." 34:36-37 so he's pretty obviously seeing sin as part of Job's problem. But we (and Job) know that Job had not sinned prior to Satan's attacks; it is our tendency to assume Elihu is making the same mistake as the first three advisers, that Job really had and just wasn't admitting or remembering it. but I think Elihu is preaching directly to Job's sin of pride... and we learn that no matter how well earned one's pride is, it still leads us to downfall.

    Job, then, humbled by God's response in the following chapters, seems to realize that Elihu was right, and rather than rebutting him, repents and humbles himself. Therefore, God's response seems to me to be in support of Elihu's speech, not against it.

    Make sense?

    Sir C

  3. "it is our tendency to assume Elihu is making the same mistake as the first three advisers, that Job really had and just wasn't admitting or remembering it. but I think Elihu is preaching directly to Job's sin of pride... "

    I think this is a helpful way to look at it. I still need to search the text myself and make sure it is fully supportable. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar were all quite sure not only that Job had sinned, but that he was HIDING a terrible sin, and this was the cause of his suffering. If Elihu confronts not a hidden past sin (which did not exist) but the basic sin nature in all mankind coupled with the sins that Job was starting to commit as he struggled with his situation, that would be an understandable difference.

    I think 35:2-3 somewhat supports this idea: "Do you think this is just? You say,'I will be cleared by God.' Yet you ask Him, 'What profit is it to me and what do I gain by not sinning?'" The root issue here is that Job thinks he is innocent, but in his "innocence" he falls into the sins of pride and unbelief and willingness to go ahead and sin because it "doesn't make any difference."

    If this is the case, maybe God intervened because Job had been pushed far enough and it was time to open that way of escape for him before he did fall away.

    Even in God's ultimate words to Job, He did not come as a ministering angel (like the angel who aided the suicidal Elijah after Mount Carmel). He just presented who He is, and "allowed" Job to make the final decision of what his heart would do with that knowledge. So He still left open the opportunity for Job to choose to surrender and praise, or to be angry and reject God. Job chose the right thing. God intervened just in time.

  4. If this is the case, maybe God intervened because Job had been pushed far enough and it was time to open that way of escape for him before he did fall away.

    Great point, Ruth, and to my sense of the story, right on target. Who of us hasn't realized God's intercession when we're just about give it up? That's the blessing of our faith; He gives us liberty in our thoughts, but then steps in if and when those thoughts turn to the worst.