From chapter 4 to 31 Job conversed with his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, about the meaning of suffering. The upshot of it all was that the theory of his friends was unsatisfactory.
The Unsatisfactory Theory of Job's Friends
They had argued that suffering is basically punishment for sin and prosperity is reward for righteousness (4:7–8). Eliphaz had admitted (in 5:17) that some suffering was chastisement and could be good for us, but it becomes clear that for him this is the exception, not the rule, and that protracted suffering like Job's could not be explained this way. So he winds up saying to Job, "Is not your wickedness great!" (22:5). Job's extraordinary suffering can only be explained as the punishment of God for grievous sin.
Job had defended himself all along by saying, contrary to his three friends' opinion, that there is good evidence from all over the world that the wicked often prosper and the righteous often suffer (21:29–30). And in his case in particular he was not an enemy of God and had not committed any grievous sin that would set him up for such suffering above others.
So Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were not able to sustain their theory in the face of Job's realism and integrity. Their speeches became repetitive, hostile, and shorter as the conversation comes to a close. Finally, only Job was left speaking.
The Argument Won, the Question Unanswered
He has won the argument. But he has not answered his question. He has shown that suffering cannot be explained by the simple principle of retributive justice, where each person gets what he deserves: suffering for the evil and prosperity for the good. But he has found no other answer.
We are left at the end of chapter 31 with the apparent capriciousness of God. All seems to be arbitrary. God rules the affairs of men. And no doubt he does so wisely (28:12–28). That Job never doubts. But why the righteous suffer—so far he has no answer.
It would be possible to live the rest of our lives at this level of understanding. Many Christians try. We could simply say, "Yes, I believe God rules over the world and controls what happens. I also believe that he is just and wise. And I believe that, though things look capricious and arbitrary in this life, all wrongs will be righted in the age to come. He has shown me his love in Jesus Christ and I know he is the only hope for meaning in life now and for salvation in the world to come. So I will be still and trust God, though I cannot understand his strange ways."
That is not a bad way to live. But the writer of the book of Job is not satisfied to live that way. And he wants his readers to know that God has not concealed all of his ways. There is more to see of God's purpose in suffering than we may think.
Elihu Breaks In
So a young man appears on the scene in chapter 32 named Elihu. His speech goes all the way through chapter 37. And here we learn something that neither Job nor his friends had discovered, namely, that the suffering of the righteous is not a token of God's enmity but of his love. It is not a punishment of their sins but a refinement of their righteousness. It is not a preparation for destruction, but a protection from destruction.
The three friends have been wrong—suffering is not the proof of wickedness. And Job had been wrong—his suffering was not the proof of God's arbitrariness. Nor had God become his enemy. Elihu has come to put the argument on a new footing.
Five Reasons We Should Accept Elihu's Counsel
Let's begin our survey of Elihu's theology by asking why we should accept it. Many interpreters understand Elihu as no better than Eliphaz, Bildad, or Zophar. For example, I gathered from one commentator's 40 pages on Elihu's speeches the following labels: Elihu is cruel, cold, detached, crass, trite, perfectionist, vain, etc. (Francis Anderson, TOTC).
I admit that there are some things in Elihu's speeches very hard to understand. And it is true that when you read his speeches, you hear some of the same things the three friends said (they were not totally wrong!). And it is true he is tough with Job, perhaps too tough sometimes.
But there are at least five reasons why I take the words of Elihu to represent the truth as our inspired writer saw it. In other words, I think Elihu gives the first step in solving Job's problem, and that God then speaks in chapters 38–41 and gives the final conclusive word. Here are the five reasons I think this.
1. His Speech Is Presented as Something New
The words of Elihu are introduced to us in chapter 32 not as a continuation or repetition of what the three friends had said, but as something new. Verses 1–3:
So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became angry. He was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God; he was angry also at Job's three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong.
In other words Elihu disagrees with both sides of the argument. So he says in verse 14 to the three friends, "He (i.e., Job) has not directed his words against me, and I will not answer him with your speeches." So Elihu has no intention of trying to settle the matter the way the three friends did. The writer wants us to listen to something new that takes us beyond the old argument.
2. Six Chapters Devoted to His Words
The second reason that I think Elihu is more than a continuation of bad theology, is that the writer devotes six chapters to his words (32–37).
The inadequacy of the theology of the three friends was demonstrated by the fact that their speeches got shorter near the end, and then died out completely. Bildad finishes with six verses (chapter 25), and Zophar can't even manage a closing comment.
It would be very strange, then, if Elihu were given six chapters at this point to say all the inadequate things all over again and make no advance on the inadequate theology of these other three friends. Surely this large space given to his words signals that something crucial is being said here.
3. Job's Response to Elihu
Job does not try to argue with Elihu.
He had been successful in silencing Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, but he does not say one word against Elihu even though Elihu challenged him in 33:32, "If you have anything to say, answer me." The easiest explanation for this silence is that Job agreed with him. In fact, in 42:6 Job does repent for some of the things he said, which shows that Elihu's rebukes are not all wide of the mark.
4. God's Response to Elihu
In 42:7 God looks back over the period of suffering and rebukes Job's three friends,
After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: "My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has."
But God does not rebuke Elihu. Why not? Probably because Elihu's words are not in the same class with the words of those three. Elihu's words are true and prepare the way for the final, decisive words of God. (He claims to be guided by the Spirit of God—32:8.)
5. He Offers Something New and Helpful
Finally, Elihu really does offer a new understanding of the suffering of the righteous that Job and his three friends had not perceived. And his insight does indeed make sense out of the apparently arbitrary suffering that Job and other righteous people go through. Let's try to learn this morning what this young man has to say.
Elihu's Rebuke of Job
Elihu thinks that Job has been wrong in some of what he has said—indeed, he sees pride and arrogance in Job's attitude (see 33:17; 35:12; 36:9). In 33:8–12 he puts his finger on Job's error:
Surely, you have spoken in my hearing, and I have heard the sound of your words. You say, "I am clean, without transgression; I am pure, and there is no iniquity in me. Behold [God] finds occasions against me, he counts me as his enemy; he puts my feet in the stocks, and watches all my paths." Behold in this you are not right.
Job is wrong to claim innocence at the expense of God's grace. We know that Elihu is right about this because in 42:6 Job does in fact repent: "I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." His suffering had driven him to say things about himself that were overly optimistic and things about God that were disrespectful. Even though Job was a righteous man, he was not a sinlessly perfect man. There was a sediment of pride that began to cloud the purity of his life when it was stirred up by suffering.
Elihu's Explanation of Suffering
At least part of Elihu's understanding of why the righteous suffer has to do with this residue of pride in the life of the righteous. We see the first explanation of his view in 33:14–19. He describes two ways God speaks to man: by his word and by suffering. These were the days before Scripture, so the word of God takes the form of visions and dreams. He says,
For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls upon men while they slumber on their beds, then he opens the ears of men, and terrifies them with warnings, that he may turn man aside from his deed, and cut off pride from man; he keeps back his soul from the Pit, his life from perishing by the sword.
Man is also chastened with pain upon his bed, and with continual strife in his bones.
Not to Punish but to Save
So Elihu puts the pain of sickness and visions of the night side by side as two ways that God speaks to man for his good. Verse 17 describes God's purpose: "That he may turn man aside from his deed, and cut off pride from man, and keep back his soul from the Pit."
In other words God's purpose for the righteous in these dreams and in this sickness is not to punish but to save—to save from contemplated evil deeds and from pride and ultimately from death. Elihu does not picture God as an angry judge but as a Redeemer, a Savior, a Rescuer, a Doctor. The pain he causes is like the surgeon's knife, not like the executioner's whip.
The "Righteous Sinner"
Elihu explains his view of suffering in one other place, namely, 36:6–15. The helpful thing in these verses is that Elihu makes clear that there is such a thing as a righteous person who still has sin that needs to be revealed and rooted out. To call a person righteous does not mean that the person is sinlessly perfect. There is a "righteous sinner."
This is helpful because God himself called Job a righteous man in 1:1, and Job won his argument on the basis of his reputation as a righteous man. And yet at the end of the book Job repents and despises himself. So Job is righteous (by the testimony of God!) even though he has sin remaining in him. He is not among the wicked.
Elihu looks at these two groups of people, the wicked and the righteous, and he distinguishes the different roles that suffering has in each. We'll start reading at verse 6:
He does not keep the wicked alive, but gives the afflicted their right. He does not withdraw his eyes from the righteous, but with kings upon the throne he sets them for ever, and they are exalted.
Now if he had stopped there, he would have sounded exactly like Eliphaz: the wicked suffer and the righteous prosper. There is a sense in which this is true in the long run. But the question plaguing Job is why the righteous suffer in the short run. So Elihu goes on in verse 8:
And if they [that is, the righteous] are bound in fetters and caught in the cords of affliction [so Elihu admits right away that the righteous are not always with kings on the throne; they do suffer], then he declares to them their work and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly. He opens their ears to instruction, and commands that they return from iniquity.
In other words the righteous are far from sinlessly perfect. There is much of the old nature left in them, and from time to time this old nature of pride breaks out in actual sinful behavior—as it did with Job when he accused God of being his enemy. This is what Job repents of at the end of the book.
Suffering Refines the Righteous
Elihu's teaching, then, is that affliction makes a righteous person sensitive to his remaining sinfulness and helps him hate it and renounce it. Suffering opens the ear of the righteous (v. 10). The psalmist said the same thing in Psalm 119:71, "It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes." There are dimensions of godliness that the righteous can only learn through affliction.
So the new slant that Elihu gives is that the suffering of the righteous is not the fire of destruction but the fire that refines the gold of their goodness. For the righteous it is not punitive but curative.
The Purpose of Suffering for the Godless and the Righteous
Verses 13–15 describe the same contrast between the purpose of suffering for the godless and the purpose of suffering for the righteous.
The godless in heart cherish anger; they do not cry for help when he binds them. They die in youth, and their life ends in shame. He delivers the afflicted by their affliction, and opens their ear by adversity.
Verses 13–14 describe one group of people for whom suffering results in nothing but destruction—they are the "godless in heart." But then (in v. 15) he describes another group whose ears are opened in their affliction and who experience deliverance by their affliction. These are not the godless or the wicked. They are the righteous. They are the people like Job, who are upright, and fear God, and turn away from evil, and have a blameless reputation. They suffer, too. But the divine purpose is not the same.
How Has Elihu Added to Our Understanding?
How then, we may ask, has Elihu advanced our understanding beyond the impasse between Job and his three friends?
His Two Complaints
We go back to the beginning of Elihu's speech in 32:2–3. He had two complaints.
- He was angry because Job justified himself rather than God;
- and he was angry at Job's three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong.
Elihu has now succeeded in showing why his anger was justified in both cases.
1. He Shows Why Job's Three Friends Are Wrong
He showed Job's three friends to be wrong. They said that the only way to explain Job's suffering was to say that God was punishing him for sin. Elihu shows that this is not the way to explain Job's suffering.
The righteous do suffer. And their suffering is not a punishment for sin but a refinement of their righteousness. Suffering awakens their ear to new dimensions of God's reality and new depths of their own imperfection and need. Suffering deepens their faith and godliness. So the three friends of Job are wrong.
2. He Shows Why Job Is Wrong
But Job is wrong too. He had no better explanation of his suffering than his three friends did. His conception of God's justice was basically the same as theirs. Only Job insisted he was righteous, and so he could not make his suffering fit with the justice of God. He became so exasperated at times that he thought of God as his enemy.
How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin. Why dost thou hide thy face, and count me as thy enemy? (13:23–24)
Elihu said that Job was wrong to justify himself at God's expense like this (33:8–12). God was NOT Job's enemy and Job is not as pure as he claims to be. God is in fact Job's loving Father. He has allowed this sickness to drag on for months because he loves Job, not because he hates him.
The suffering has brought out the hidden sin of pride in Job. Now Job's ear has been opened to his remaining imperfection. Now he can repent and be cleansed and depend on God as he never had before. His suffering was not only an occasion for God to get glory over Satan (which we saw in chapters 1 and 2); it was also an occasion for God to deepen Job's insight and trust and godliness.
The Central Lesson
So the central lesson for us from the book of Job today is that the children of God—those who trust in God and are led by his Spirit and have their sins covered by the blood of Jesus—may indeed suffer. And when they do, it is not a punishment for sin. Christ has borne the punishment for our sin, and there is no double jeopardy!
The suffering of the children of God is not the firm application of a principle of retributive justice. It is the free application of the principle of sovereign grace. Our Father in heaven has chosen us freely from before the foundation of the world, he regenerated us freely by the work of the Holy Spirit, he justified us freely through the gift of saving faith, and he is now sanctifying us freely by his grace through suffering according to his infinite wisdom.
Suffering is not dispensed willy-nilly among the people of God. It is apportioned to us as individually designed, expert therapy by the loving hand of our great Physician. And its aim is that our faith might be refined, our holiness might be enlarged, our soul might be saved, and our God might be glorified.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6–7)
Our Father disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:10–11)
We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
Therefore, count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4)