Thursday, October 30, 2003

Job 34: Elihu Continues

This essay is #40 of an ongoing series on the book of Job. Click here to start at the beginning.


I find the second of Elihu's speeches the hardest to understand. The questions that I ponder is this, "Does Elihu agree with Job's friends? If so, why does he do so? If not, what is different with his approach?"

He begins this way:

Elihu answered: “Listen to my words, you wise men; hear me, you learned men. For the ear assesses words as the mouth tastes food. Let us evaluate for ourselves what is right; let us come to know among ourselves what is good. For Job says, ‘I am innocent, but God turns away my right. Concerning my right, should I lie? My wound is incurable, although I am without transgression.’ What man is like Job, who drinks derision like water! He goes about in company with evildoers, he goes along with wicked men. For he says, ‘It does not profit a man when he makes his delight with God.’ (Job 34:1-9)

The one immediate difference is that Elihu comes alongside Job's friends in a manner similar to how he came alongside Job. He begins with "Listen to my words.." but soon he says, "Let us evaluate..." Elihu invites participation. he is the bridge builder who first builds a bridge to Job, then to his friends, and then hopefully between the estranged parties. He says, and means, those things that invite dialog and bring down the barriers to communication.

Elihu makes clear what Job's fault is. "Job drinks derision like water." The phrase could be taken in one of two ways: 1. Job is forced to take in the derision aimed at him by his friends; or 2. It speaks of Job's deriding words to the God in heaven. Contextually we must go with the latter. Job has claimed that God turned away his right and he has implicitly claimed that all the good things that he has done has not gained him anything. He has had no profit from delighting in God.

So Elihu speaks to Job's friends, and indirectly to Job, about God's justice. In effect, he affirms that God's justice does exist and works in the present.

Therefore, listen to me, you men of understanding. Far be it from God to do wickedness, from the Almighty to do evil. For he repays a person for his work, and according to the conduct of a person, he causes the consequences to find him. Indeed, in truth, God does not act wickedly, and the Almighty does not pervert justice. Who entrusted to him the earth? And who put him over the whole world? If God were to set his heart on it, and gather in his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together and human beings would return to dust. (Job 34:10-15)

This sounds very similar to the words of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar about why Job is in trouble in the first place. However, there are some important differences:

  1. Elihu addresses his words from Job's premise that perhaps God is wicked. Eliphaz and company directed all of their remarks based on the premise that Job was wicked. Elihu gives God the high moral ground and directs Job and his friends to do the same.
  2. Concerning God's actions with men, Elihu refers to a person's work and conduct. God moves to connect consequences with deeds. Elihu says nothing about God seeking to bring punishment to the wicked.
  3. Elihu sees God has continuously caring for the creation by continually offering his spirit and breath to sustain it.

Moving on to the next section requires a bit of English grammar. The English word "you" has a terrible property. It will never explicitly tell you when it refers to a single person or the crowd. Consequently, we have to be told that the "you" in Elihu's next section is singular and not plural. Elihu, therefore, is once more addressing Job. I think that you will agree that this single fact makes the next section more understandable:

If you (Job) have understanding, listen to this, hear what I have to say. Do you really think that one who hates justice can govern? And will you declare guilty the supremely righteous One, who says to a king, ‘Worthless man’ and to nobles, ‘Wicked men,’ who shows no partiality to princes, and does not take note of the rich more than the poor, because all of them are the work of his hands? In a moment they die, in the middle of the night, people are shaken and they pass away. The mighty are removed effortlessly. (Job 34:16-20)

Simply put, Elihu has just told Job that God is just and that on the whole he moves as we expect Him to move. 

Elihu continues:

For his eyes are on the ways of people, he observes all a person’s steps. There is no darkness, and no deep darkness, where evildoers can hide themselves. For he does not still consider a person, that he should come before God in judgment. He shatters the great without inquiry, and sets up others in their place. Therefore, he knows their deeds, he overthrows them in the night and they are crushed. He strikes them for their wickedness, in a place where people can see, because they have turned away from following him, and have not understood any of his ways, so that they caused the cry of the poor to come before him, so that he hears the cry of the needy. (Job 34:21-28)

Elihu speaks of God's wisdom and omniscience. God really has no need for conducting a hearing. He knows it all, because He observes. No one can hide. It is with these words, that Elihu most sounds like Job's friends. The difference seems to be that he speaking about and for God, whereas Job's friends were speaking about and against Job. If Eliphaz would say, "God is going to get you for that," Elihu is saying, "God knows and will deal with it in the best way." The God of Eliphaz is constrained to act along the lines of strict justice. The God of Elihu is free to act with mercy. Notice how Elihu underscores this freedom with his next words:

But if God is quiet, who can condemn him? If he hides his face, then who can see him? Yet he is over the individual and the nation alike, so that the godless man should not rule, and not lay snares for the people. (Job 34:29-30)

Job might want God to speak and be close, but God is free to do neither. This does not mean that we can then charge God with error.

Elihu then says to Job:

Has anyone said to God, ‘I have endured chastisement, but I will not act wrongly any more. Teach me what I cannot see. If I have done evil, I will do so no more.’ Is it your opinion that God should recompense it, because you reject this? But you must choose, and not I, so tell us what you know. (Job 34:31-33) 

Elihu's questions are designed to have affirmative answers. Have you ever seen anyone change from a painful experience? Of course, you have. so has Job. Elihu has acknowledged that God will bring suffering on the wicked--as Job's friends have said. But he now again asserts that some suffering has the effect of making changes in people that might not otherwise occur.

This section concludes with Elihu's private thoughts:

Men of understanding say to me, any wise man listening to me says, 'Job speaks without knowledge and his words are without understanding.' But Job will be tested to the end, because his answers are like those of wicked men. For he adds transgression to his sin; in our midst he claps his hands, and multiplies his words against God. (Job 34:34-37)

These words of Elihu foreshadow the Lord's opening question to Job, "“Who is this who darkens counsel with words without knowledge? (Job 38:2)" Job began as a man upright, blameless, God fearing, and one who turned from evil. But his troubles have shown a man who can only love God when God gives gifts and acts according to his liking. Job will be tested to the end. That end will be a man who loves the Lord, because he now knows Him.

Friday: Songs in the Night

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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