Menu Home

Explaining suffering in Job: Elihu

We’ve just written essays on the book of Job, and I’ve been looking at whether or not the text answers questions of suffering.

Elihu’s speech

Does the book of Job provide an explanation to suffering? There are a number of angles through which we can work this out, but I want to focus on just one here: the speech of Elihu (Job 32-37). Elihu is a younger man who has been biding his time in the debate (32:4), and he steps up to refute Job after the three other men run out of steam.

Elihu’s speech is both a strange one and highly significant in the flow of the book. It comes immediately before the entrance of God. For some reason, even though Elihu makes the longest single speech of any of Job’s friends, no one responds to him at all!

Maybe what Elihu says is correct. John Piper reckons that Elihu provides ‘the truth as our inspired writer saw it’ — Elihu’s speech is ‘the first step in solving Job’s problem’. For Piper, Elihu paves the way for God’s entrance because Elihu takes the right approach to Job’s situation. Is this the case?

Elihu’s solution

Elihu does introduce something new to the debate. Unlike Job’s three companions, Elihu actually presents a theodicy — an attempt to defend God by giving an explanation for Job’s suffering. Whereas the other characters focus on Job’s sinfulness, Elihu emphasises God’s purposes. His idea is that Job’s suffering is a form of education or discipline from God (33:19ff).

Job’s friends view divine retribution as a rigid equation: the people who prosper must be righteous; the people who suffer must be wicked. Elihu is right to criticise this.

Elihu’s theodicy is misplaced, however. The test established in the prologue is really a test of God’s rule rather than Job’s faith. The text does not leave us expecting Job to be disciplined, because he is righteous and refuses to follow God just for the perks (1:1, 1:8, etc). There is no suggestion that Job is meant to learn something from his suffering, only that he is expected to continue being upright no matter what befalls him.

The other problem is that, just like Job’s other friends, Elihu still seeks to ascribe a particular purpose to a particular experience of suffering. This is presumptuous: the only ones privy to the ’causes’ of Job’s suffering are God, his court, and the reader.

Was God using the 2004 tsunami to punish the people of South East Asia, as Job’s friends might claim? Of course not — but neither did God send the tsunami to discipline the Christians, as Elihu would have it. Elihu’s perspective turns out to be as rigid and ignorant as that of Job’s friends.

Elihu the windbag

If Elihu has got it wrong, why does his huge speech seem to be ignored by everyone else, including God? Elihu is not condemned by God but neither is he affirmed, as Job is — he’s simply ignored.

This is where a rhetorical perspective is helpful. Elihu puts himself forward as a true sage. He is eager to speak on behalf of God and eager to make pronouncements about Job’s situation. He spends a whole chapter just introducing himself and explaining his credentials!

Is the book of Job actually endorsing Elihu’s eagerness? The frame narrative mentions Elihu’s anger three times in 32:2-5. As it quickly becomes apparent, this is not righteous anger but hot air. Elihu says he is bursting with words (32:18-20), which ironically makes him just like the fake sages Eliphaz warned against (15:2-3). He is quite literally a windbag! Elihu’s speech is packed with ironies like this.

“Job opens his mouth with empty talk; without knowledge he multiplies words”.  Elihu continued: “Bear with me a little longer and I will show you that there is more to be said on God’s behalf. I get my knowledge from afar; I will ascribe justice to my Maker. Be assured that my words are not false; one who has perfect knowledge is with you”. (35:16-36:2-4)

Of course Elihu has no basis for such an audacious claim to knowledge. He’s no prophet. His credentials are not from God but from himself. It is actually Elihu who speaks ’empty talk’.

It turns out that Elihu is the worst of the lot, an arrogant young man, zealous but foolish. He’s the self-righteous blogger who feels entitled to write his own systematic theology. He’s the ‘helpful’ guy in small group who eagerly quotes Romans 8:28 at someone else’s tragedy. He’s the Reformed Christian who loves criticising others.

As Norman Habel puts it, Elihu’s speech is ‘a deliberate, ironic anti-climax. Job asked for God, but he first got the “little god”, Elihu’. The others ignore him because he does not even deserve an answer.

Elihu’s speech does not exactly reveal the purpose of the book of Job but rather what the book is not. If Job does indeed need a theodicy, the book is skeptical of such a thing — we could even call the book an anti-theodicy.

Categories: Bible Written by Arthur

Tagged as:

Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

10 replies

  1. “Elihu’s theodicy is misplaced, however. The test established in the prologue is really a test of God’s rule rather than Job’s faith. We’re not expecting Job to disciplined because he is righteous and refuses to follow God just for the perks (1:1, 1:8, etc).”

    I don’t think it’s as exclusive as that. While it’s clear that God is showing Satan that he cannot overthrow His plans or harm His people more than allowed, that doesn’t make the tests to Job’s faith any less real. If someone were to say to Job, “Your faith shouldn’t be tested, this is really about God’s rule” then I’d say they’d be just as bad as Job’s other friends.

    The other problem is that, like Job’s other friends, Elihu still seeks to ascribe a particular purpose to a particular experience of suffering. Was God using the 2004 tsunami to punish the people of South East Asia, as Job’s friends might say? Of course not — but neither did God send the tsunami to discipline the Christians, as Elihu would have it. Elihu’s perspective turns out to be as rigid and ignorant as that of Job’s friends.”

    It seems to me that there must be particular purposes for particular experiences of suffering (whether we will know them or not) – otherwise one is faced, I think, with a God who decrees arbitrary acts of suffering. Certainly attempting to determine what shouldn’t be determined is dangerous (Deut 29:29). Still, it’s true that none of Job’s friends ultimately counsel Job to keep putting his faith in God and trust.

  2. There seems to me to be another interesting compare/contrast between Elihu’s extended declaration of his credentials and Psalm 119:99. Elihu goes to some length to justify his opinions (whereas the prophets in the OT were able to simply say ‘thus says the LORD’ with authority). The psalmist also seems to have a similar level of hubris; but the attribution of his wisdom is given to God’s laws rather than his own insight. What are your thoughts?

  3. Hi Andy
    “I don’t think it’s as exclusive as that…”
    In the terms of the book, it is. As far as the book is concerned — especially the frame narrative — Job has no need of disciplining. There is no suggestion that Job is meant to learn something from his suffering, only that he is expected to continue being upright no matter what befalls him. Where but in Elihu do we find anything about discipline?

    “There must be particular purposes for particular experiences of suffering…”
    Ah, I didn’t say that suffering is meaningless. :) But the book of Job focuses on the futility of explanations. The reader of course knows what is behind Job’s suffering, but Job never discovers this. When God speaks to Job, God simply doesn’t let on! There was of course some reason behind Job’s suffering but the only ones privy to this are God, his court, and the reader.

    I think your Ps 119 reflection is on the money. If Elihu is indeed speaking divine wisdom, we would expect the frame narrative to make this clear, and we would expect to find Elihu actually appealing to God’s wisdom instead of bleating “Listen to me!” (32:10; 33:1,31,33; 34:10; 37:14) and so on.

  4. Hey Arthur,

    Good stuff in here, mate. What were you getting at with this, though?

    “The test established in the prologue is really a test of God’s rule rather than Job’s faith.”

    It seemed to me a tad different to your conclusion.

  5. How so?

    What I mean is that the wager/test, like the book itself, is not so much about human suffering as God’s rule. Job’s suffering provides the case study for God’s rule to be tested. But Job and his friends aren’t aware of this. Job and his friends act as if Job himself is on trial — but the frame narrative has God put on trial, with Job as his unwitting witness.

  6. Well, now you’ve given that extra little bit and I’ve reread the post in the light of it I can see what you mean and there’s no contradiction. :)

    I guess, though, as I read Job it doesn’t read to me like God is on trial. In fact, God’s right-ness, as it were, is not really questioned by any party in the whole book, including Satan (though Job does sail close to the wind, at points, it could be argued).

    As I read the cues, it seems to me to be more focussed on Job, and what righteousness and blamelessness looks like when the “be good = be blessed” equation from Proverbs doesn’t work. It’s a balancing weight thrown into the wisdom literature mix.

    What sort of literary cues make you see God as the subject in the dock?

  7. Mate, this is why we hit it off so well, all those years ago… I still can’t believe we’ve never met… :D

    ‘God in the dock’ is an oversimplification, seeing as God seems to invite challenge (1:8) and even opts to hand Job over to the Accuser (1:12). God initiates the test. But as the prologue tells it, this is not simply a test of Job. The Accuser’s challenge also contains a question against God’s justice: “God, you and Job seem to be all buddy-buddy, so maybe you just bless people when it suits you? Doesn’t that make you capricious, God?” (1:9-11, 2:4-5).

    But even if the Accuser is not directly challenging God, God’s honour is still at stake, because the man in question is God’s trusted servant (1:8).

    Throughout, Job’s questions are challenges to God’s justice — even if Job has not directly accused God of being unjust. (Isn’t this why Job’s friends are so miffed?) As the book wears on and Job’s friends fail to answer him, Job’s questions become more and more pressing, before Job finally rests his case: “Zap me now if I’m not innocent!” (ch 31). The implication: if God remains silent, Job’s innocence will be assured, but God’s justice will remain in doubt. One of the ironies of the book is that Job thinks God has been accusing him (31:35), yet Job has been accusing God. There’s a sense in which God’s speeches are God clearing his own name.

    Obviously this is not the only angle from which to read Job! But I referred to it in the post because it shows that the book is about more than Job’s suffering. :)

  8. *nods*
    I’m picking up what you’re putting down.

    I reckon the main thrust of the book is about that tension: ‘who is right, God or Job?’ (Or, alternately, “who is wrong, God or Job?”) But the thing about the book is that we’re let in on the answer from the very beginning, which actually shifts some of the tension away from that and onto the question of “How can this be happening? How can it be this way?”.

    Ultimately, it leaves us with an answer, but Job with no answer, which is actually our answer too. Whatever is going on in the heavenly court, we’re not privy to it and ought to trust God for his own sake only and yet trusting in his goodness.

    Not sure if any of this means I disagree with you at all. Somehow I doubt it…

    A nice post, all the same. I like how you help me not to over-simplify, which I could be accused of doing. I’ve generally dealt with all the details at some point, but with my shoddy memory they often fall out, leaving behind an emaciated view of a Biblical book after a sufficient period of time.

  9. You and me both — my memory is rubbish. :)

    And of course, for all the reader’s privileged knowledge of the heavenly court, there’s one other thing left unexplained: by what strange logic can God say to the Accuser, ‘He is in your hands’?

    I suppose this is where things start going a bit cross-eyed. ;)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: