Lecture 27: Elihu
Course: The Book of Job
The second half of the book of Job is made up of three major speeches. We have already looked at the first, which is Job’s speech. Of course, the last speech is God’s. But in between the two comes a person whom we have not seen before, a young man by the name of Elihu.
I. Introduction to Elihu
To get a sense of who he is, we will read the introduction to his speeches, chapter 32, verse 1: “So these three men stopped answering Job, because he was
righteous in his own eyes. But Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became very angry with Job for justifying himself rather than God. He was also angry with the three friends because they had found no way to refute Job, and yet had condemned him. Now Elihu had waited before speaking to Job because they were older than he. But when he saw that the three had nothing more to say, his anger was aroused. So Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite begins his speech.
He is not mentioned anywhere in the book at all until this point; and we should note, after he finishes speaking he is never mentioned again. So it is quite peculiar to have this individual, Elihu, suddenly stand up and give what is really an enormous speech from chapter 32 through chapter 36. What are we to make of Elihu?
Some say that Elihu is absolutely a critical part of the book and that he resolves the dilemma; that when Elihu speaks, you get the basic answer to the problem of Job; and then God kind of comes along and ratifies it. But that the real answer, the real wisdom in the book of Job comes in the speech of Elihu. In my opinion, this interpretation is impossible. Elihu I believe has nothing of value to add to the book of Job.
II. Elihu Adds Nothing of Value to the Book of Job
I will describe why he is in the book in a moment. But I will say again, I don’t think he adds anything of value to the book. Why would I say this?
A. Elihu is overconfident of his own wisdom
First of all, because Elihu is really overconfident in himself and he speaks a whole lot. Let me give you a few examples of what he says. Chapter 32, verse 18: “For I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me.” If Elihu says anything right in his entire speech, it is that he is full of words, for he really does speak a great deal. Let’s look at a little more of what he has to say, chapter 32, verse 9: “It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right.” That is true, but it’s a little uppity for a young man to jump up and say, “I am going to solve all the problems.” Chapter 32, verse 17: “I too will have my say; I will tell what I know.” Verses 21 and 22: “I will show no partiality, nor will I flatter anyone; if I were skilled in flattery, my Maker would take me away.” He says, “I’m going to be completely fair and impartial and I’m going to give a really good, wise answer.” Chapter 33, verses 1-5: “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; stand up and argue your case before me.”
He gives a huge introduction before he even really begins to speak and make his argument. Chapter 33, verse 33: “But if not, then listen to me; be silent, and I will teach you wisdom.” Perhaps the most telling is chapter 36, verse 4: “Certainly my words are not false; one perfect in knowledge is with you.” That is really quite a claim to make, “one perfect in knowledge is with you.” Remember that Job had said to the friends, “You are the real people and wisdom will die with you.” Here Elihu says, “I am one perfect in knowledge.” Remember also the poem of chapter 28. True wisdom, the wisdom that answers the dilemma of Job, what I’m calling level 3 wisdom, is hidden, it’s secret. It is found only with God. Yet, Elihu claims that he has perfect knowledge.
His verbosity is quite remarkable. He has said he is full of words and his speech is extraordinarily long; but let’s consider what the Bible has to say about a person such as this. Let’s look at a few passages from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes on the subject of being verbose. For example, Proverbs 10:19: “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.” Proverbs 12:15: “A fool’s way is right in his own eyes; but whoever listens to counsel is wise.” Proverbs 17:28: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise. When he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” Proverbs 26:12: “Do you see a person who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” Ecclesiastes 5:3: “A dream comes when there are many cares and many words mark the speech of the fool.”
Ecclesiastes 10:14: “Yet fools talk on and on. No one knows what is to happen and who can tell anyone what the future holds.”
So what we discover elsewhere in the Bible in wisdom literature is that verbosity is the mark of a fool. Someone who claims he has all the answers and who talks on and on, giving the answer, is almost certainly going to be wrong. In light of what we see elsewhere in the book of Proverbs and wisdom literature on the nature of a fool; in light of the fact that Job 28 has declared that the most profound wisdom, the wisdom that would answer the dilemma of Job, is hidden and secret, Elihu’s verbosity, his claim to be full of words, his claim to have perfect knowledge, cannot possibly be taken as the truth.
B. Elihu says nothing that has not already been said
More than that, Elihu says nothing that has not already been said. For example, Elihu says God reproves a man with great pain; but if the man repents, God
restores him and fills his life with joy. For example, chapter 33, verses 19-28, we will read a little of this. This is Elihu speaking: “Someone may be chastened on a bed of pain with constant distress in their bones, so their body finds food repulsive and their soul loathes the choicest meal. Their flesh wastes away to nothing, their bones, once hidden, now stick out. They draw near to the pit and their life to the messenger of death. Yet if there is an angel at their side, a messenger, one out of a thousand, sent to tell them how to be upright, and he is gracious to that person and says to God, ‘Spare them from going down to the pit, I have found a ransom for them. Let their flesh be renewed like a child; let them be restored as in the day of their youth,’ then that person can pray to God and find favor with him. They will see God’s face and shout for joy. He will restore them to full wellbeing.”
We could read on in that vein, but the main point is very clear. Elihu says, if a person is in pain and grief because God has struck him, he is suffering torments in his body; and he is able to repent, then God will give him a full restoration.
We have read this over and over in the speeches of the three friends. It is not that it is wrong. It is just that in the case of Job, it does not apply. For example, to remind you, we have from the speech of Eliphaz, chapter 5, beginning in verse 17: “Blest is the one whom God corrects, so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. He wounds, he also binds up. He injures, but his hands also heal.” He goes on and says, “If you will return to God, you will be restored to full vigor and health and strength.” We have the same thing in chapter 11:13-20. This is the speech of Zophar: “But yet if you devote your heart to him and stretch out your hands to him; if you put away the sin that is in your hand, allow no evil to dwell in your tent…” He goes on and says, “You will be secure, there will be hope. You will look about you and take your rest in safety.”
Again, we see from the speeches of Eliphaz and Zophar that Elihu is saying pretty much exactly what they said. Elihu will insist that God is the wise and powerful ruler of the world, which is of course true; but in the case of Job, it is not something that solves the problem. Chapter 34, verse 10: “So listen to me, you men of understanding.” This is Elihu again. “Far be it from God to do evil, from the Almighty to do wrong. He repays everyone for what they have done; he brings on them what their conduct deserves. It is unthinkable for God to do wrong, if the Almighty would pervert justice. Who appointed him over the earth? Who put him in charge of the whole world? “ He goes on and he talks about the justice and the power of God.
Once again, this is something the three friends have said repeatedly. We can take another quick look at a passage or two. Chapter 22:12, a speech of Eliphaz: “Is not God in the heights of heaven? And see how lofty are the highest stars! You say, ‘What does God know? Will you keep to the old path that the wicked have trod?’” Eliphaz is saying the same thing. God is on high, God is the judge of the righteous and the wicked. God is the one who will set everything right. God never does anything wrong. Again, all of that is true, but it is not new. He is repeating old arguments.
Why this is important is, Elihu’s whole point is that the three have failed to convince Job. They did not give a satisfactory answer and he thinks therefore he
needs to step in and fix it. He needs to step in and give the answer that will solve all the problems. But it turns out his answer is exactly the same as theirs. Elihu declares that evil people will be destroyed, but the repentant will prosper. For example, in chapter 36, verse 5: “God is mighty, but despises no one; he is mighty and firm in his purpose. He does not keep the wicked alive but gives the afflicted their rights. He does not take his eyes off the righteous; he enthrones them with kings, he exalts them forever. But if people are bound in chains, held fast by cords of affliction, he tells them what they have done – that they have sinned arrogantly.”
Notice first of all again, he gives the starkest version of the doctrine of retribution. For him, the problem of evil is very simple. If you are good, God will raise you up like a king. If you are evil, God will put you in chains and make your life miserable.
So as far as Elihu is concerned, the doctrine of retribution is absolutely the answer to all the problems. We have seen that this does not work. Once again, it is also the answer that the three friends have given over and over and over again.
We can go back to the very beginning, back to the first speech of Eliphaz again in chapter 4, reading at verse 7: “Consider now: Who being innocent has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it. At the breath of God they perish; at the blast of his anger they are no more.” Here we have Eliphaz in his very first speech, giving the doctrine of retribution and then we see Elihu at the end of the book when he is supposedly setting everything right, giving the exact same speech, just a little bit of different metaphor.
We can see the same thing in chapter 15, for example. Again, this is Eliphaz speaking, beginning in verse 20: “All his days the wicked man suffers torment, the ruthless man through all the years stored up for him. Terrifying sounds fill his ears; when all seems well, marauders attack him. He despairs of escaping the realm o darkness; he is marked with the sword.” Or, we could see one more passage, chapter 18, verse 5, a speech of Bildad: “The lamp of the wicked man is snuffed out; the flame of his fire stops burning. The light of his tent becomes dark, the lamp beside him goes out. The vigor of his step is weakened” etc.
What do we see in all of this? One more time, it is the fact that there is nothing new in the speeches of Elihu. Elihu, the man who is angry at the three and who is determined to set it right, winds up saying exactly what they said. Like the three, he wrongly assumes that Job is being punished for something. For example, chapter 36, verse 17 Elihu says to Job: “But now you are laden with the judgment due to the wicked, judgment and justice have taken hold of you.” He exhorts him, “Be careful that no one entices you by riches; do not let a large bribe turn you aside.”
Notice first of all, he says that, “Job, the problem is, God has finally caught up with you. Whatever it is you did, God’s judgment, God’s justice has come upon
you and now you are suffering for your sin.” Then he adds to that, “By the way, Job, you shouldn’t be greedy. You shouldn’t hoard money and make that your salvation.”
What do we know from elsewhere in the book of Job? A) It is that Job is righteous and he is not being punished for any sin. B) Job has explicitly denied making money his security, making money the thing he trusts in. So Elihu wrongly accuses Job of sin.
It turns out, even Elihu’s claim that he must speak is not original. Eliphaz, at the very opening of his first speech, says kind of the same thing, Job chapter 4, verse 2, the very beginning of Eliphaz’s speech: “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient? But who can keep from speaking?” The other friends will say similar things. Even when Elihu says, “I am full of words, I have to speak, I am compelled,” that is not really new either.
There is also a little curiosity in Elihu’s speech that we could comment upon, chapter 33, verse 15: Elihu says, “In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people and they slumber in their beds, he may speak to them in their ears and terrify them with warnings, to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride, to preserve them from the pit, their lives from perishing by the sword.” What he says here is of itself not objectionable. He says that at night when people go to sleep, when they are in bed, God may kind of tug at their conscience. He may warn them of sins they are committing. He may in that way turn them aside from doing something wrong. That is all correct. However, in the book of Job there is only one night visitor, one night spirit. That night spirit, we saw in chapter 4, is a spirit of nihilism. It is a spirit that essentially voices the theology of Satan, the theology that says there is no virtue, there is no goodness; men, people are all despicable before God. Curiously, he recommends the value of a nightly visitation; but the only nightly visitation we have in Job is this evil night spirit.
When Elihu speaks of how sleep is impossible for the wicked, however, or when he speaks of how they loathe life and how the flesh of their bones rots away, Elihu is describing Job. Take a look, for example, at chapter 33, verse 19 and following. Elihu says: “Someone may be chastened on a bed of pain with constant distress in their bones where their body finds food repulsive, their soul loathes the choicest meat. Their flesh wastes away to nothing and their bones, once hidden, now stick out. They draw near to the pit and their life to the messenger of death” etc.
Job has described himself in exactly those terms, chapter 7, verse 5 for example: “My body is clothed with worms and scabs, my skin is broken with festering.” Job 7:13: “When I think my bed will comfort me and my couch will ease my complaint, even then you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions.” Or, Job chapter 10, verse 1: “I loathe my very life; therefore I give free rein to my complaint. I speak out of the bitterness of my soul.” Elsewhere, of course, Job speaks of how his skin is in agony, how it feels like it is burnt up, how he is in pain all day long, how he gets no rest at sleep, etc.
Here is the point. Eliphaz describes a wicked man in just those terms, so it is clear he is talking about Job; and who else has done that? Well, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar have done that. They have done it repeatedly. They have taken Job’s words and they have used them to say, “Job, this only proves what a wicked and evil man you are.” They have presented Job as the paradigm of evil, the proverbial wicked man. Now Elihu is doing the same thing.
In chapter 34:6-13 we see where Elihu gives a very elaborate description of how God punishes the wicked. To take a few verses of it, 34:6 and following he said: “Although I am right, I am considered a liar. Although I am guiltless, whose arrows inflict an incurable wound, is there anyone like Job, who drinks scorn like water. He keeps company with evildoers, he associates with the wicked. He says, ‘There is no profit in trying to please God.’”
Let’s pause right there. Did Job do any of those things? Did he associate with the wicked? Did he say, “There is no profit in trying to please God”? No, he did not say any of those things. He goes on and he says, verse 11, “God repays everyone for what they have done. He brings on them what their conduct deserves. It is unthinkable God would do wrong.” He goes on and describes at length and in detail all of the ways God makes the wicked suffer. Once again, there is nothing new here. The three friends have done this repeatedly. They have openly accused Job of being a wicked man and have described at length how God punishes the wicked.
What I’m saying to you, I think at this point is very obvious. Elihu is not the answer to the book of Job. Elihu brings nothing new to the table. Elihu simply echoes what Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar have said repeatedly.
C. Almost everyone in the book ignores Elihu
Another point to make is that almost everyone in the book ignores Elihu. I say “almost.” There is a place where he might be recognized; but no one else even acknowledges that he is there, much less takes him seriously. No one bothers to answer him. In the epilogue at the end of the book God will deal with Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, but he won’t even mention Elihu. It is as if he had never existed. That is not something you do for the most important guy in the whole book.
I said “almost” because there might be one place where God actually does acknowledge Elihu. God opens his speech in chapter 38, the first words of God are these, 38:1: “And the Lord answered Job from a whirlwind and said: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel with speech that lacks knowledge? Gird your loins like a man so I may question you and you may instruct me.’”
Almost everyone assumes these words are addressed to and about Job. Verse 2 when God said, “Who is this who darkens counsel with speech that lacks
knowledge?” that God is talking about Job as the one who darkens counsel and has speech that lacks knowledge. In fact, towards the end of the book, after God finishes his speech, Job will quote this line and say, “Yes, I darken counsel and I spoke without knowledge” so you could say, obviously then he is talking about Job.
This is just a suggestion of mine, but I would say, not necessarily. Job may take this verse – “Who is this who darkens counsel with a speech that lacks
knowledge” – and apply it to himself and say, “ I have said some things that I didn’t really understand,” and take that upon himself. But when God says this
line, it is coming immediately after Elihu’s speech. Elihu has been speaking chapter after chapter. Then God steps in and says, “Who is this who darkens
counsel with a speech that lacks knowledge?” By itself, the implication would be, God is implying that Elihu is the man who speaks without knowledge. Again, that is just a suggestion, it is just a possibility; but in context, if you were to just read the passage by itself, the preceding verses and then these verses, you would assume Elihu is who he is talking about.
D. Some scholars think that the Elihu speeches were inserted later
We do need to say one more thing about Elihu and then we will try to determine why his speeches are here at all. Some scholars think that the Elihu speeches are entirely secondary. In other words, that the Job poet, the original book, did not include the Elihu speeches. They will say a pious scribe came upon the book of Job and he was just not happy with it and he thought he would improve upon it, so he added the speeches of Elihu. I do not think that is correct. I think the Elihu speeches are original to the book of Job. His speeches do provide a kind of transition to the appearance of God and God’s speeches. More than that, if you were going to present Elihu as the answer to all the problems, as the wisest man there, you wouldn’t present him as he is presented. As one scholar said, “You wouldn’t make the man who is the answer to all the problems in Job into a pompous, verbose, fool” and that is how he comes across. I do not think it is secondary. I think it is original to the book. I think it is intended to be there. But why?
Considering how long it is, how little it adds. Why do we have the Elihu speeches? I would suggest that as we progress through Job, we all feel the same distress that Elihu voices. We are sure there is something wrong with the discussion. We are certainly not happy with how the three have answered Job. But Job is constantly complaining about how God is far off and God is not answering him, and describing all of the problem of evil, without ever giving a solution. That certainly doesn’t satisfy us. So we get through all of these speeches with a strong sense of dissatisfaction. When we do that, we look for an alternative answer. We kind of sit back in our chair as readers and think, you know, what is the real answer here? We begin to think and think and we begin to come up with an answer and we start to say, here is how I think it is.
I simply have to give you what I have seen again in my experience from interpreters, from some commentaries. Here is what we tend to fall into. We tend
to say, the book says Job was righteous, but clearly Job must have done something wrong. Clearly, Job must have had some kind of maybe sinful
tendencies that God had to check. So, even though maybe Job didn’t fully deserve what he got, ultimately what he got is because he is a sinful person, and because God is trying to keep his sin in check. As we talk ourselves into this mode of explaining Job, what do we do? We talk and we talk and we start to sound more and more like Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. As we do that, we develop this argument that ultimately Job suffered because he is a sinner, because he is wicked. That is exactly what Elihu did. Elihu in effect stands for us, the readers. Like us, Elihu really has no impact on the book at all. We can’t change the story; Elihu couldn’t change the story. He just kind of drops in and drops out. He thinks he has all the answers and we tend to be the same way. We tend to think that, I’m not satisfied with what these people have said. I’m sure that I can figure it out.
Elihu is a warning to us, the readers, that we need to be careful to just listen. Compared to the sages of Job, to Job himself and even Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, what are we? We are young, we are children. We are verbose fools who think we know the answers and want to jump in and straighten it all out. I think this is kind of the last word in the book of Job saying, “You don’t have the answer. Only God has the answer.” That is where we will go with the speeches of God.