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A Wound-Up Young Bystander Speaks Out (Job 32:2-33:33) April 5-6

We are now introduced to a new character in the narrative—Elihu. His words occupy six chapters and thus constitute one of the major addresses in the book. Some today accuse him of simply rehashing the arguments of Job's three friends. Yet we should note up front that when God later rebukes Job's three friends for their words, He has nothing to say about Elihu (42:7-9). This would seem to imply that Elihu's assessment was for the most part correct, as it does not seem likely that God would single out the three friends and ignore, if it were likewise wrong, the longest speech given just prior to His own address. It may even be that God, as Elihu believed, gave him his valuable insight to inject into the discussion before God arrived on the scene Himself.

This would not necessarily mean that everything Elihu said was correct or that he exemplified a perfect approach and attitude—his own affirmations notwithstanding. For consider that at the end of the book, God commends Job for speaking of Him what is right—and yet we know that Job made some mistakes in his remarks about God and that his attitude was not always the best (as understandable as that may be given his circumstances). Consider also that we sometimes regard sermons in the Church of God today as inspired without believing every word in them to be inspired. In any event, it does appear that God wanted Job to hear what Elihu had to say as part of God's answer to Job.

Elihu is introduced with details of his family background (32:2). Recall that Job and his three friends were identified by only their respective lands. It is likely that they were all well-known figures. Conversely, it appears that Elihu needs more to identify him because he is, comparatively, a young nobody. The fact that he has listened to the entire conversation thus far illustrates that there were probably a number of bystanders during the exchanges between Job and his friends—though this is the first real indication of it in the book.

Given what he has heard, Elihu is angry with Job's three friends for baselessly condemning Job (verse 3). He is also angry with Job because he has been justifying himself rather than God (verse 2)—that is, Job's primary concern has become one of defending his innocence to the point of impugning God's justice. God Himself will later affirm Elihu's assessment in this regard (see 40:8). While Job's suffering certainly makes his remarks understandable, there is no doubt that he has gone too far in what he has said—though he probably didn't fully mean all of it.

Elihu is so moved that he is about to burst at the seams with what he has to say (verses 18-20). He is insistent about being heard (verse 10; 33:1, 31, 33). Many in modern times have criticized Elihu for being insufferably verbose and pompous. For instance, he takes 24 verses to say he is going to speak (see 32:6-33:7). Yet loquaciousness was a prized attribute in the ancient world. Moreover, Elihu was, as mentioned, a virtual nobody compared to Job and his three friends—so he deems it important to establish why they should listen to him. He does seem somewhat overconfident in his ability to help Job "see the light," perhaps because of his belief that God has blessed his perception of matters. That combined with youthful brashness and zeal probably accounts for his coming on a bit strong in places.

Elihu begins by explaining why he has waited to speak—he is younger and he wanted to hear what older, wiser people had to say (verses 6-7). This should illustrate that he is perhaps not so arrogant as some believe him to be. Elihu's mention of the human spirit and breath of the Almighty in verse 8 in context would seem to imply not just God giving intellectual ability to mankind generally through the imparting of the human spirit (which He has certainly done)—but, in contrast to wisdom coming with age, that God can impart wisdom directly to a man's spirit through His own divine Spirit. So Elihu, it appears, believes God has inspired him. And this may well be the case. Yet, as already mentioned, this would not necessarily mean that everything Elihu said was from God. He makes no claim to being a prophet.

The exact meaning of verse 13 is disputed. The NKJV has Elihu quoting the sentiment of the friends in the first part of the verse and giving his own opinion in the second part. The Good News Bible paraphrases this as: "How can you claim you have discovered wisdom? God must answer Job, for you have failed." Other versions have Elihu quoting the sentiment of the friends in both parts of the verse. For example the New International Version has: "Do not say, 'We have found wisdom; let God refute him, not man.'" That is, the friends are portrayed as saying that they have done all that can humanly be done and Elihu is here contradicting that.

Elihu then addresses Job. He is much more personal and direct than the three friends. Unlike them, Elihu repeatedly addresses Job by name. For a young man to address his elders so casually—especially someone like Job who, though presently removed from his position due to his condition, had served as a ruler over the people—would surely have seemed impertinent in the society of that day. However, this was evidently part of Elihu's commitment to show no partiality or flattery (verses 21-22). It is interesting to note that the Hebrew verb translated "flatter," kanah, means "to call someone by his honorific title" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, footnote on verses 21-22).

Elihu's words to Job at the beginning of 33:6 are variously translated. The King James Version has: "Behold, I am according to thy wish in God's stead." The New King James Version gives just the opposite: "Truly I am as your spokesman [or mouth, according to the margin] before God." Yet neither of these translations seems to fit with the latter part of the verse, "I also have been formed out of clay." J.P. Green's Literal Translation renders the first part of the verse, "Behold, I am toward God as you." This seems more likely. Notice the NIV rendering of verses 6-7: "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 by heavy upon you." Accepting this translation, The Bible Reader's Companion notes on verse 6: "How refreshing! At last Job hears from someone who does not think of himself as morally superior. Anyone engaged in a ministry of comfort must come with Elihu's attitude. We are all clay. We struggle together. Only the harmless person, who rejects the temptation to condemn or hold others in contempt, can be God's agent of healing." Indeed, Elihu appears to be taking a gentler approach with Job here than the three friends have.

Then, surprisingly, despite all his prior verbosity, Elihu cuts straight to the heart of Job's problem: Job is not right in his accusations against God's justice and in treating God as some sort of equal with whom he can contend in court (verses 8-13). Because of this and other statements to follow, some think that Elihu was accusatory in the same way Job's friends were. Yet it should be recognized that Elihu limits his direct criticism of Job to only the statements Job has made in the dialogue with his friends. He does not, as the friends, accuse Job of having lived an evil, hypocritical life to deserve the suffering he has been experiencing.

Elihu further addresses Job's frequent plea for a hearing with God by saying that God communicates with people in various ways that they do not always recognize (verse 14). Job had complained of nightmares (7:14), and Elihu suggests that God may have been trying to tell him something this way (33:15). Moreover, Elihu says that God's objective in this would be to get a person's attention or teach him something to keep him from perishing: "He causes them to change their minds; he keeps them from pride. He keeps them from the grave" (verses 17-18, New Living Translation). Elihu further suggests that illness is another measure God might use for the same disciplinary and ultimately redemptive purpose (verses 19-22).

Elihu is offering possibilities. He is not, like Job's friends, bound to the notion that all suffering is punitive and that the measure of suffering corresponds to the degree of a person's wickedness. He agrees that suffering may be punitive but also sees that its objective may be preventative. Perhaps he thinks that Job could be right in the description of his character but that he was headed for a prideful fall—and that God was intervening to keep that from happening. This may even be true. However, it would be surprising if Elihu simply assumed that Job had absolutely no aspects of his life prior to the trial of which to repent. We have no evidence that Elihu knew anything about the discussion between God and Satan at the outset of the book and, thus, of God's description of Job. It could be that while Elihu did not think Job some great sinner and hypocrite as the friends did, he may have felt that Job had some relatively minor sins that his generally righteous life was leaving him blind to—and that God could have been using suffering as a means to bring Job to more thoroughly examine himself. Even if such an assumption were wrong, it would not have been unreasonable. And again, Elihu makes no dogmatic pronouncements on why Job has been afflicted.

In verse 23 Elihu presents the idea that God may send a messenger or mediator to the afflicted person. It seems likely that he views himself here as God's messenger commissioned with showing Job God's righteousness and justice—with the implication that a person reached in this way would then trust in God's righteousness rather than his own, thus leading to deliverance. In verse 24, Elihu says God commands the deliverance on the basis of having found a ransom—a kopher, a covering or atonement. Perhaps what is meant here is simply that God has instituted sacrifices for the purpose of redemption. After all, the offering of sacrifices for atonement is mentioned at the beginning and end of the book (1:5; 42:8). Yet there may be a more specific foreshadowing here of what such sacrifices prefigured—the role of Jesus Christ as the ultimate ransom and atoning sacrifice for the sins of all humanity.

Elihu, we should observe, looks on God's goal in chastening in an entirely different light than Job's friends. They only saw God harshly meting out judgment until people died or straightened up—and that He was practically ambivalent about the outcome. Elihu sees God disciplining repeatedly just as a loving parent would with the intent of saving people from destruction (see verses 29-30). Elihu appears to have this same concern for Job. Despite seeming somewhat overbearing, Elihu says that his desire in speaking to Job is for Job to be justified (33:32)—"cleared" (NIV)—again demonstrating a rather different attitude than Job's three friends. As we will see, Elihu will get more severe in his criticism of Job—yet not because he thinks, as the friends do, that Job is a hopeless hypocrite but because he thinks that Job is jeopardizing his relationship with God and spiritual future through now lashing out at God in outrageous accusations.

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