Perspective From an Unexpected Source
Topic: Affliction & Suffering Passage: Job 32:1–37:24
I recall someone telling me years ago that a person would be fortunate if they had five true friends in their lifetime. Like many words of counsel that are spoken to youth, those promptly rolled off my back as irrelevant. After all, at that moment I was surrounded by many whom I considered to be friends. Today, perhaps predictably, I have managed to stay in touch with only a few of them through the years and have remained close to none of them.
According to the Pew Research Center, the average Facebook user has somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 “friends,” many of whom they have never met or carried on a conversation. It is not unusual to be “friended” and “unfriended” many times during the course of a single week.
Label me “old fashioned,” if you will, but I still believe that “friendship”—true friendship—is an uncommon thing. That’s because both having a friend and being a friend is a rare commodity. At some point, I latched onto a definition of “friend” that has stayed with me. It goes like this: “A friend is the first person who comes in when the whole world has gone out.”
Job’s three friends, who had “come to show him sympathy and comfort him” (Job 2:11) when they heard of the tragedies that had befallen him, have now “checked out.” Oh, they were still on the scene, but after having given him three megadoses of “retribution theology” they had no more to say. Their attempts at providing counsel had only compounded Job’s misery. They had sought to evoke an invalid confession of sin from their friend, but had instead only exposed the flaws in their own system of thought.
It was Augustine who said, “There is no better proof of friendship than to help our friends with their burdens.” Neither Eliphaz, Bildad, nor Zophar had eased Job’s burden by a single ounce. But as chapter 32 opens, we are introduced to a new character who will step into the role of “friend” and begin bringing perspective to Job from an unexpected source.
We are surprised to meet Elihu this late in the story. We have read nothing about him up to this point. It is obvious that he has been witness to the three rounds of debates between Job and his counselors, but for there to be no mention of him is odd. It would seem that the writer is clearly marking him off as unique and separating from the other three men. Our...
Introduction to Elihu (32:1-5)
...is found in the first five verses of chapter 32. Interestingly, it is much more inclusive that anything we learned about Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. For example, he is identified as “the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram.” Although we cannot be certain, based upon passages like Ruth 4:19, it is possible that his family was part of the Messianic line.
Three times in these opening verses it is said that Elihu “burned with anger.” That description probably does not cast him in the most positive light to begin with, but as I hope we shall see his was a “righteous anger.” Although he was the youngest one to speak, he was not some arrogant young theologian who sought to impress others with his freshly-acquired knowledge. His concern was that the name and reputation of a good and just God be protected at all cost. You will observe that his “anger” was directed both toward Job’s emotional outbursts as well as toward the intellectual smugness of the three counselors.
The friends had said that Job was suffering because he had sinned, but Elihu was concerned that Job not sin because he was suffering. You see, when we go through times of adversity the residue of our sin often comes to light. For example, we complain and grow bitter. We take our eyes off of the Lord and focus all of our attention upon ourselves and our loss of comfort...comfort to which we believe we are entitled.
Although Elihu’s speech appears to repeat many of the same things that we have heard Job and his comforters say throughout this lengthy debate, there is a noted difference in their application. Elihu presented a different perspective on suffering than any of them had been able to offer. More than Eliphaz, Bildad, or Zophar, he identified himself with Job. He was not merely an observer to Job’s misery...he was a fellow-sufferer. The answers that Elihu introduces, the Lord will supplement. And in that sense, Elihu is like an Old Testament version of John the Baptist, in that he prepared the way for God’s more complete revelation of Himself. As we listen to his words, let us hear them as the voice of another who “cried in the wilderness” (cf. John 1:23) just before the Lord was about to break through.
The speech of Job’s young friend is a lengthy one, encompassing six chapters and 165 verses. It breaks down into four parts. Each part is introduced by the phrase, “Elihu answered,” or something similar. We’ll look at these four divisions individually, beginning with chapters 32 and 33, where we find...
Elihu’s speech, part one: “God speaks” (32:1-33:33)
While he steadfastly maintained his innocence and seems to have believed in the presence of an all-knowing and ever-present God, Job repeatedly has asked why this God has remained silent during his extended time of affliction. It is a question that most of us would ask under similar circumstances. Just when we most need a word from the Lord, He appears to be distant.
Elihu arrives on the scene like a prophet sent to bring a message from God to Job and his friends. Some years ago, Francis Schaeffer wrote a small book entitled, He is There and He is Not Silent, in which he addressed the questions of “how we know, and how we know we know.” Unless we get those fundamental issues right, then everything is going to be wrong. Both Schaeffer and Elihu understood that faith could not be blind, but had to have a foundation firm enough to bear up under life’s most pressing demands, including the most trying circumstances a person could face.
It was not wrong for Job to ask “why?” but he needed to realize that, even though he would never have all the answers that he craved, there was Someone who did. And even if that One never fully—or even satisfactorily—explained Himself, Job could still place His faith in confidence in Him.
Sounding as the mouthpiece of God, which I believe he was on that day, Elihu’s initial word to Job is that “God does speak.” He begins in chapter 32 by rebuking Job’s friends because they offered no substantial answers to Job’s dilemma. Theirs had been a faulty theological system that had only added to Job’s misery and complicated his circumstances. But that didn’t mean that God had nothing to say.
Elihu is like the evangelical pastor whose small church is in a community where liberal theology and “the prosperity gospel” hold sway. He is angry because he has a word from God to share, and he wonders if anyone is ready to listen. He had waited for the others to speak truth, but they never did. Now it’s his turn. Elihu states three important truths in this chapter. In verses 6 through 10, he says that it is possible for God to speak, and He will put His message into the mouth of anyone He chooses to use...young or old, it makes no difference. Then in verses 11 through 16, he adds that it is necessary for God to speak, because God desires to reveal Himself. What’s more, human philosophy and reasoning offer no satisfactory answers for the sufferings of a righteous man. And then he concludes his rebuke by saying, it is with a sense of urgency that God speaks. God does not delight in delaying our relief from affliction. And while Job and others will never be able to adequately explain His ways, the Lord longs to assist our understanding so that we may be able to bear up with confidence in knowing that our suffering is actually serving a useful purpose.
Elhu’s rebuke continues in chapter 33, but now it is directed toward Job. Here Job is urged to pay careful attention to the words of his young friend. In verses 2 through 4, he comes very close to claiming divine inspiration for his words:
“Behold, I open my mouth;
the tongue in my mouth speaks.
My words declare the uprightness of my heart,
and what my lips know they speak sincerely.
The Spirit of God has made me,
and the breath of the Almighty gives me breath.”
Five times in this chapter, he introduces a statement with the words, “Behold,” indicating that the listener ought to pay careful attention to what is being said. Unlike the so-called comforters, Elihu does not tell Job that he is suffering because he has sinned. Instead he rebukes him for saying erroneous things because he is suffering. Job is not harboring any secret and undisclosed sins, but he is wrong for uttering some erroneous things about God in the midst of his suffering.
Elihu’s point is this: “God speaks, Job. And He is speaking to you through your suffering.” That comes out of verses 19 through 28, but it is seen clearly only by those who are afflicted and willing to see it. Listen carefully to what C.S. Lewis has written in The Problem of Pain:
“The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it. Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victim suspects their existence; they are masked evil. Pain (on the other hand) is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt...We can rest contentedly in our sins...But pain insists upon being attended to. (And then these frequently quoted words) God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Elsewhere, Lewis referred to this as “God’s severe mercy.” God will permit pain in the lives of those He loves in order to achieve a greater purpose. “Oh yes. Make no mistake, Job, God speaks.” It was God’s silence that troubled Job so deeply, but Elihu has come to share a word that none of Job’s friends even knew of. There is a loving and divinely-orchestrated purpose behind Job’s sufferings, and he is soon to discover what that is.
Not only does God speak, but as we see in chapter 34...
Elihu’s speech, part two: “God sees” (34:1-37)
The second part of Elihu’s speech focuses on the justice of God. In our times of affliction it may seem to us that God is distant and completely unaware of what is going on in our lives. But deep inside, His followers know that is not the case. Elihu has even alluded to God speaking though our consciences, as well as through our pain, in chapter 33.
Here the critical issue is the justice and goodness of God. Sixteen times throughout his speech, Elihu quotes the words of Job, more often than not pointing out where he has been mistaken in terms of God not treating him “fairly.” Job did not believe that he deserved the extent of the adversity he was enduring. He knew that his friends’ theology had been misapplied to his circumstances, and yet he could offer no better explanation.
Unaware of the scene that had played out in the first two chapters of the story, Job cries out, “Doesn’t God see what is happening? Doesn’t He care?” And again, Elihu has an answer: “Yes, Job. God sees and He does care.” To the all-seeing eye of God, nothing is hidden. Look at verses 21 and 22:
“For his eyes are on the ways of a man,
and he sees all his steps.
There is no gloom or deep darkness
where evildoers may hide themselves.”
Back in verse 10, Elihu had said, “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.” And verse 12 adds, “Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice.” “It isn’t that God is unaware, Job. The reason He acts the way that He does is because He is God. As verse 13 indicates, the world is God’s by virtue of creation, and He alone possesses the sovereign right to deal with His creation and His creatures as He sees fit. Therefore, as Elihu highlights in verses 18 through 30, God’s sovereign justice is meted out with no favoritism (verses 18 and 19), no uncertainty (verse 20), no ignorance (verse 21 through 25), and no secrecy (verses 26 through 28). With regard to this final point, notice that he says in verse 26 that His judgment will be enacted “in a place for all to see.”
What Job needed to realize is that God’s apparent inaction did not contradict His justice. Or to say it another way, His slowness to act does not deny His sovereignty. “Therefore, Job, it is wrong to accuse God of being unjust and unfair.” The remainder of chapter 34, then, is Elihu’s call for Job to rethink what he has said about God’s inactivity and to endure this intense time of suffering until the Lord providentially decrees that His purposes have been served.
That, of course, is a hard lesson for any of us to learn. Understandably, it surely was for Job. Elihu is often criticized for speaking harshly, in a manner akin to that of Job’s friends. But that is likely a rush to judgment. There are similarities, to be sure, but most of them are superficial. The differences, however, are significant. If Elihu comes off as cruel and insensitive, it is not because of any self-absorbed arrogance. Rather, he speaks that way because of what is at stake...namely God’s reputation through one of His chosen servants.
God’s opinion of Job has not changed throughout this ordeal. He is still regarded as a man who is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned from evil” (Job 1:1). What has changed and will continue to change is Job’s understanding of God.
And that brings us to chapter 35, where we find...
Elihu’s speech, part three: “God responds” (35:1-16)
We don’t know how long it has been since Job lost everything that he had, but he seems now to be questioning the value of having lived a “blameless and upright” life. Once again picking up on Job’s earlier comments, Elihu offers a twofold reply. You will observe that the young man is not merely offering sympathetic shoulder to cry on, but is rather presenting a strong rebuke.
First, in verses 5 through 8, Elihu tells Job that he is asking the wrong question. Granted, neither our sin nor our righteousness can affect God in any significant way. He is and always will be God in spite of us. You can sin as much as you like, and you won’t damage God in the least. Or you can be as good as you possibly can, but you will never put God in your debt. Elihu is not suggesting that God doesn’t care how someone behaves, but he is putting things into the proper perspective. Both your wickedness and your righteousness affect you and your relationship with God and others, but rest assured that nothing you can ever do will in any way affect God’s “Godness.”
As if that answer was not blunt enough, Elihu’s second reply is even more uncomfortable. In verses 9 through 16 Job is told not to necessarily look for the answer he expects. Although God responds to the sincere prayer of His people, He does not obligate Himself to answer every cry of anguish. Verses 10 through 12 seem to be referring to those whose prayer is simply one for relief and not for understanding. These verses teach us that during times of affliction we are to reach out in faith, not simply cry out in pain. Whereas the afflicted one asks in verse 10, “Where is God my Maker?” verse 13 answers, “Surely God does not hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it.” Were we honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that many times our prayers are little more than cries for relief.
Prior to Elihu’s speech, we have listened to Job making his defense and declaring his innocence for six chapters. Now here Elihu is faithfully inflicting “the wounds of a friend” (cf. Proverbs 27:6), urging Job to speak less and listen more. Perhaps—just perhaps—by doing so, he will hear the voice of God.
And that brings us to chapters 36 and 37...
Elihu’s speech, part four: “God instructs” (36:1-37:24)
It goes without saying that Elihu is preparing Job for his face-to-face encounter with God in the closing chapters of this book. His descriptions of God’s majesty are like “previews of coming attractions.” Behind God’s inscrutable ways are a wisdom and might that defy human explanation. Elihu begins in verse 2, saying to Job, “Bear with me a little, and I will show you, for I have yet something to say on God’s behalf.” And again in verse 3, he lays claim to a divine authority to speak.
Chapter 36 contains a number of “Behold” statements, such as we saw in chapter 33. Following each is affirmation of God. In verse 5, we read, “Behold, God is mighty.” In verse 22, we are told, “Behold, God is exalted in his power,” followed by the rhetorical question, “who is a teacher like him?” Then in verse 26, we are informed, “Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years are unsearchable.” And finally in verses 30, 32 and 33, employing terms that will transition us into the next chapter, Elihu adds, “Behold, he scatters his lightning about him...He covers his hands with the lightning and commands it to strike the mark. Its crashing declares His presence.” Each of these phrases serve to remind us that God instructs by means of the revealing of His strength and might. Or to say it another way, His omnipotence is a display of His omniscience.
As chapter 37 opens, we get the sense of an approaching storm. The mention of “lightning” in the closing verses of the previous chapter has conjured up images of gathering clouds with lighting and thunder in the distance. But now the storm arrives. Listen to how Elihu describes it in verses 1 through 5:
“At this also my heart trembles
and leaps out of its place.
Keep listening to the thunder of his voice
and the rumbling that comes from his mouth.,
Under the whole heaven he lets it go,
and his lightning to the corners of the earth.
After it his voice roars;
and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard.
God thunders wondrously with its voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend.”
From there, Elihu goes on to describe God’s control of nature, including the snows that cover the Transjordanian mountains in the winter, the formation of ice from water, the strength of the winds, the sending of rain, and even his protection of the animals under severe weather conditions. So, in verse 14, Elihu appeals to Job’s limited understanding of this awesome One, saying, “Hear this, O Job; stop and consider the wondrous works of God.” Clearly, the young prophet is seeking to evoke in Job a humble wonder that will enable him to see that God is far greater and more majestic than even he—a “blameless and upright” man—could possibly ever imagine.
Like us, Job clearly still has much to learn, but he is nearing the place where he will be in a position to hear God’s instruction. Elihu has proven to be a faithful prophet of God and a good friend to Job. But before concluding, he has one final word of exhortation for the afflicted Job. And a good word it is. We see it in verse 24: “Therefore men hear him; he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit.”
Unlike Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, Elihu has brought perspective, clarity, empathy, compassion, and concrete help to Job’s circumstances, preparing him to hear God’s words in the last five chapters of the story. Unlike the three friends, Elihu avoided completely the futile search for some unidentified sin that Job might have committed as being the cause of his suffering. As one writer has put it, “There is an adversity gospel that goes far deeper than the so-called prosperity gospel.”
Elihu has shown Job that God and His justice were actually working for him and not against him. Counterintuitively, he has demonstrated that suffering was not an adversary but actually a vehicle allowed by God intended to enhance the relationship between God and man. Throughout the speech, Elihu makes reference to no fewer than nine possible reasons why God may permit suffering in a person’s life. I am indebted to Larry Waters of Dallas Seminary for the titles he gives them. There is some “overlap,” but each category is able stand on its own. There are no “proof texts” attached because they are woven throughout the entirety of Elihu’s speech. Hopefully as I list them, they will motivate us to consider what the Lord may be saying to us as we go through our own personal times of adversity.
The first is preventive suffering. By this I mean to infer, among other things, that God will at times employ suffering as a preventive measure to keep us from perpetuating a false theology. God’s ways are not our ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9). Elihu insisted that God sent suffering to Job not as a sign of rejection, but rather to accept him and encourage him to rely on God and not his own righteousness and goodness.
Next is corrective (or disciplinary) suffering. We might say that this is the alternative to heeding the warnings of preventive suffering. At times God will bring suffering as a “rebuke” or form of chastening (cf. Job 33:19) in order that we see things aright.
The third category is instructional (or educational) suffering. There are occasions when the Lord desires to lead the sufferer into a deeper and more intimate relationship with Himself. David later alludes to this in Psalm 119(:71), when he wrote, “It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” St. John of the Cross discovered this when he emerged from his own “dark night of the soul.”
Fourth is what we might call exaltational suffering. This is when our suffering seems to serve no other purpose than to bring glory to God as we remain faithful to Him during our affliction. Can there be any greater purpose than that? Let us bear in mind that we glorify His name when we endure suffering without complaining and/or demanding a full explanation from God.
Fifth is revelational (or communicational) suffering. What that means is that adversity can some times be a catalyst to help the sufferer gain a deeper understanding into the ways and workings of God. For example, love, mercy, and grace are all more clearly understood when we are forced to recognize that we need them. Related to this, suffering can also be a means of communicating God’s will because it causes us to listen more intently.
The sixth category might be labeled organizational suffering, meaning that it helps us to prioritize what is truly important in our lives and in our relationship with God. It can be viewed as God’s way of “slowing us down” and forcing us to take stock of how we are investing this one life that He has given to us.
Seventh is relational suffering, suggesting that suffering is able to help believers relate to God more effectively through prayer. I am speaking of prayer that not only “cries out” to God—which we seem to do instinctively and without prompting—but prayer that cause us to be still and to listen for His response as well. How often those who suffer greatly tell us that God’s purposes and plans are actually advanced—and not hindered—during their seasons of suffering.
Eighth on the list of categories is judgmental suffering. Adversity and affliction can be used by God as a means of punishing evildoers. This is true for both individuals and groups, including nations. Job’s three counselors had argued that this was the only reason for suffering. Elihu agreed that God does use suffering to punish evil, but he also argued that it was only one of many reasons. Ultimately the Lord will render judgment on all evil, but it will come in His time and not according to our schedule. Therefore, we must not be too hasty in assuming that God always employs suffering to judge sin.
Finally, there is proclamational (or declarational) suffering. As the Sovereign of the universe, God is not accountable to anyone. And as the Sustainer of that universe, He demonstrates His grace and mercy every moment we live and breathe. To question God’s actions and the administration of His justice over His creation is to place ourselves on an equal footing with Him...which is, of course, absurd. The Lord cannot be manipulated by us, and we need constantly to be reminded of that. When He finally reveals Himself to Job, Job will be reduced to silence.
A life of suffering is more than a series of absurdities and unexplainable pains that must simply be endured. It is a life linked with the unseen purpose and destiny of God Himself. The righteous one who is suffering may never find all of his questions being adequately answered, but he can—even in the midst of suffering—boldly endure by trusting an all-wise, all-loving, and gracious God, who will meet him in unanticipated ways and at unexpected times.
As we have mentioned several times through this series, there is One who suffered on our behalf in a far greater way than any of us can possibly imagine. In bearing our sins by dying on a cross Jesus Christ not only paid the debt that we owed in order to restore us to God, but He modeled the life that is to characterize in one way or another that of everyone who turns to Him in faith. I can think of no more appropriate words for us to consider as we conclude than those recorded by Peter: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).