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Elihu, the Forgotten Prophet of Job

The Book of Job is one of the most important of the entire Bible, and is a prerequisite to all discussions of Christian theology, particularly theodicy.

Unfortunately, two erroneous interpretations of Job’s theses are by far the most popular.

Job the Hero: The Sunday School Interpretation

In Sunday School as a child, the Book of Job was presented to me as the story of:

This is the story of Job in the shallow end of the Christian pool. Take a gander, for example, at Christian heavy metal band Tourniquet’s take on the story:

Bad Friends: The “No Heroes” Interpretation

The other popular “take-away” from Job is that when someone is suffering, words only make things worse, and each person who talked to Job was wrong.

Job’s friends Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are indeed rebuked, in the end, by God himself. And Job’s complaints against his friends would seem to serve such a thesis.

Ravi Zacharias wrote in his recent book, “Why Suffering? Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense”:

“[A ‘negative reality’ emerged in] the colossal failure of [Job’s] friends. They were at their best when they took time out of their own lives just to be with him, saying nothing. The moment they began to give their own observations for why Job was suffering and offer their suggestions for remedying his situation, Job’s pain intensified. To be loved and feel cared about is what someone who is hurting needs from friends.”

Zacharias sees the problem of Job’s friends remedied only by God’s ultimate arrival:

“So the failure we see in the story of Job is the failure of friendship. Then comes the answer of God. God’s answer was not propositional, but relational. And that is what Job most needed. He simply needed to know that God was with him through his ordeal… that God had not abandoned him.”

The Problems With These Interpretations

The former interpretation accounts for Job chapters 1, chapter 2 verses 1 through 10, and chapter 42 verses 10 through 16. As such, it is missing about 40 chapters of content.

The latter interpretation has completely jettisoned the most overlooked prophet in the Old Testament: Elihu.

An Overview of Job

Job’s 42 chapters contain the following:

Notice how much material Elihu provides, material never thereafter rebutted, left to be punctuated by God himself. Isn’t it odd that he is so often forgotten, bundled as “just another friend” alongside Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad?

Elihu as Prophet

Elihu is not a shy character. He’s a young upstart, and makes no apologies about the wisdom he brings to the table:

“I thought, ‘Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.’ But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding. It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right. … 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. … Be silent, [Job,] and I will teach you wisdom. … Hear my words, you wise men [Eliphaz, Zophar, Bildad]; listen to me, you men of learning. … So listen to me, you men of understanding. … If you have understanding, hear this; listen to what I say.”

All this, and God does not rebuke him like he rebukes everyone else.

Why?

Because Elihu really is providing us with truth and revelation.

He really is confronting Job, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad and correcting their bad theology.

“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.”

This isn’t some joke.

This is prophecy.

Elihu is on the scene to resolve the dispute, chastising both prior groups and offering the correct theological perspective.

Job’s Lamentation Theology

The calamity that befalls Job — and for which God is superordinately responsible (he deliberately gave permission to Satan here, after all) — prompts Job to regret the day he was born. He claims personal righteousness, and thus his misfortunes must be indicative (given that superordinate responsibility) of injustice in God, given that justice means, “He repays everyone for what they have done; he brings on them what their conduct deserves (Job 34).”

Job laments the fact that he cannot approach God personally with the case for his innocence; he yearns to do so! His friends aren’t “buying” that case, but Job surmises that a person lives that could vindicate him.

Job doesn’t relax God’s classical attributes. He fully endorses God’s omnipotence and superordinate responsibility (Job 12), as well as his cosmic wisdom (Job 28).

As such, Job’s theodicean solution — his “lamentation theology” — is to indict God’s benevolence.

“There is no justice,” Job says.

The Karmic Folk Theology of Eliphaz, Zophar, & Bildad

Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad have different emphases, but repeat some similar themes, and since are all rebuked, can be treated as a group.

Their argument is as follows: Since God is just (“He repays everyone for what they have done”) and superordinately responsible for what happens to a person, then if something bad happens to a person, it must be in response to something that person has done. Eliphaz articulates this “common sense” karmic folk theology:

“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.”

Bildad, for example, jumps to the conclusion that Job’s sons must have been sinners, too:

“Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.”

Every time Job insists that he’s innocent, his friends go the opposite direction: Job must be super wicked, and trying to hide it. Zophar says:

“Though evil is sweet in [a wicked man’s] mouth, and he hides it under his tongue… [it] will turn sour in his stomach [and] become the venom of serpents within him.”

As Job proves adamant in his own defense, his friend Bildad retreats to that classic “catch-all” of total depravity: As a human, you are so beneath God that you are a worthless maggot and deserve whatever happens to you.

“How then can a mortal be righteous before God? How can one born of woman be pure? If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less a mortal, who is but a maggot; a human being, who is only a worm!”

Eliphaz weaves a powerful figure: A wealthy man, portly and happy, brought down to shriveling, sickly misery.

Elihu’s Rejection of Job’s Lamentation Theology

First, Elihu sees it within human capacity to discern God’s justice in the abstract, even if we don’t know how it plays out day-by-day. He rejects the idea that God’s goodness and justice are completely inscrutable, as if something without human-appreciable meaning.

“For the ear tests words as the tongue tastes food. Let us discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good.”

Elihu further defines justice (“He repays everyone for what they have done”) and rejects the notion that God would pervert justice.

So, Elihu joins Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad against Job’s claim of innocence.

“His eyes are on the ways of mortals; he sees their every step. … Should God then reward you on your terms, when you refuse to repent? … [We all agree that] Job speaks without knowledge; his words lack insight. Oh, that Job might be tested to the utmost for answering like a wicked man! To his sin he adds rebellion; scornfully he claps his hands among us and multiplies his words against God.”

Elihu’s Rejection of Karmic Folk Theology

But here’s where it gets interesting.

Elihu agrees, Job has sinned, insofar as Job arrogantly indicted God for injustice, speaking “of things [he] did not understand”; Job’s plea, laden with such “empty talk,” was brazen, reckless, and cheap.

But he rejects the notion that man is a “maggot” who deserves whatever befalls him. The transcendence of God to man does not make man despised, but rather, makes man’s wickedness less impactful to God:

“Look up at the heavens and see; gaze at the clouds so high above you. If you sin, how does that affect him? If your sins are many, what does that do to him? … Your wickedness only affects humans like yourself.”

Instead of a “despised mankind” narrative, Elihu crafts a narrative in which God has an instrumental purpose for all he does:

“God is mighty, but despises no one; he is mighty, and firm in his purpose.”

In this way, God’s justice is comprehensible, but the intricacies of how that justice will be made manifest are mysterious. God is not a flayer; he’s a teacher:

“Who is a teacher like him? Who has prescribed his ways for him, or said to him, ‘You have done wrong’? … How great is God — beyond our understanding!”

It’s less about “vengeance,” but instead about correction, forebearing as long as that purpose has hope:

“He tells [the sinner] what they have done — that they have sinned arrogantly. He makes them listen to correction and commands them to repent of their evil.”

He recrafts Eliphaz’s tale of the sickened man into a narrative of redemption:

“Someone may be chastened on a bed of pain with constant distress in their bones, so that their body finds food repulsive and their soul loathes the choicest meal. 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 place of the dead.

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’s; let them be restored as in the days 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 well-being. … God does all these things to a person — twice, even three times — to turn them back from the pit, that the light of life may shine on them.”

Christ as Victor

We’ve talked before about how the existential dilemma of Ecclesiastes — ultimate meaninglessness — received a practical solution in Christ as conqueror of death.

In Job, we see the dilemma of justice, where the wicked may enjoy the peace of death without their due repayment, and where the playing-out of God’s justice may involve the unrewarded — in life — suffering of the faithful.

Christ, as conqueror of death, is also the final judge. The final judgment is not for God’s edification — Elihu correctly explains that God doesn’t need to hold a tribunal — but for ours. And through that process, all “loose ends” can be wrapped-up entirely:

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”

Elihu as Bridge

From the Jewish Encyclopedia:

“[Elihu’s] meaning is ‘He is my God’ [in the sense of] ‘He remains my God and does not change.’ … [His] argument is as follows: God is the educator of mankind, who punishes only until the sinner has atoned for his sin and recognizes his wrong-doing. Then God has attained His object, to ‘bring back his soul from the pit, to be enlightened with the light of the living.’

Elihu, therefore, holds a middle ground, maintaining that God neither ‘takes away judgment,’ nor sends suffering merely as a punishment, but acts as the educator and teacher of mankind.”

Elihu is our “bridge” to Christ. His is a theological response that unites justice and mercy — not by conflating them, but by employing them as part of a single grand plan.

His is a rejection of pure retribution and an embrace of prospective instrumentality, an exaltation of a God who is mighty, despises no one, and is firm in his purpose.

Elihu, who heralds the Lord Himself:

“Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;

God comes in awesome majesty.

The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;

in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.”