Remember, God Doesn’t Need You (RJS)

And now Elihu Speaks.

Chapters 32-37 contain an interesting interlude in the progression of arguments in the book of Job. A heretofore unmentioned character, Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite speaks. Some claim that this section is a late addition to the text of the book of Job.  It doesn’t seem to mesh well with the rest of the book and Job never replies to Elihu or to his arguments and accusations.  Tremper Longman III comments on the uncertiantiy concerning Elihu’s speech (Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms)), but doesn’t consider it of much importance. The book of Job is a literary piece, not a historical report. As a result we should interpret the book as Scripture as it stands. John Walton (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)) agrees. However the current form of the book came to be, it is “a carefully and artfully constructed book.”

Elihu’s speech isn’t simply an interlude, however. It represents a different approach to the questions that are raised. Walton suggests that three friend who speak in the earlier part of the book represent the common logic of the ancient Near East. By contrast Elihu’s position and argument is more nuanced and consistent with Israelite thinking about God.

In this way I might suggest that … Elihu represents a more theologically sophisticated and nuanced position that might have predominated among the Israelites. Those Israelites who would have scoffed at the blatant attempts to prompt Job to action in order to restore his prosperity and favor with God would likely find Elihu’s thinking more persuasive. (Walton p. 351)

Some Christians, as well, find Elihu much more persuasive. In fact some (not Walton or Longman) argue that Elihu brings a voice of wisdom to the dispute. He correctly rebukes and calls Job to account setting up the final encounter between God and Job. Both Walton and Longman, however, seem to struggle with the tension between apparent truth Elihu speaks at times and the fact that in the context of the book much of this truth does not really apply to Job.

Does Elihu bring a note of wisdom to the discussion of  suffering and of proper motivation for following God?

Or

Does Elihu present yet another view the book of Job undermines as inadequate?

Elihu’s argument in Chapter 35 makes an interesting case in point.

And Elihu answered and said:
Do you think this is just?
     You have said, 'I am right rather than God.'
For you have said, 'How does it advantage me?
     How have I benefited by refraining from sin?
I will respond to your words,
     and to your friends as well.
Look at the heavens and see.
     Gaze at the clouds high above you.
If you sinned, what would you do to him?
     Or if your transgressions multiplied, what would you do to him?
If you are right, what would that give to him?
     Or what does he receive from your hand?
Your wickedness influences a person like you,
     your righteousness, a human.
                                                    (Job 35:1-8, Longman)

The NIV translation of the last section of this passage is a bit more direct.

If you sin, how does that affect him?
    If your sins are many, what does that do to him?
If you are righteous, what do you give to him,
    or what does he receive from your hand?
Your wickedness only affects humans like yourself,
    and your righteousness only other people.
                                                               (Job 35:6-8, NIV)

Elihu goes on in the rest of the chapter to point to the grandeur of the sky and heavens with the implication that God’s sovereign majesty to place Job’s insignificance in appropriate perspective. Longman describes Elihu’s argument this way.

God’s creation is vast, and by extension so is God himself, who is above his creation. Job by contrast is miniscule. Job’s sin or his innocence does not deeply affect this God.  God does not benefit from human righteousness, and one’s sin does no hurt him. (p. 398, Longman)

Elihu finishes off his argument in 36:22-37:24 by coming back to this theme and reflecting on the greatness of God and his creation. The power of a storm reveals the God’s handiwork and his glory. God is in control of the thunder, lightening, rain, snow, whirlwind.  Such a God is not to be trifled with, or challenged. Elihu’s point is to demonstrate the futility of trying to contend with him or to defend oneself before him. He is not answerable to a mere human. God’s overwhelming power should convince Job, if nothing else does, that God is acting justly toward him and that he should fear God and repent. Who is he to think that God owes him anything, much less an answer to his petty complaints?

Is Elihu’s picture of a distant God correct? Longman has this to say about Elihu’s picture of a distant and sovereign God.

There is an important sense in which God does not need humans at all, righteous or wicked. He is, after all, God, and God is self-sufficient in his triune self. The Bible does teach that God does not have needs that only humans can fulfill. … Failure to remember that God does not need us or our gifts leads to human pride and a diminishing of our ability to see the true nature of God.

However, besides teaching that God does not need humans or their righteous acts to fill some kind of lack in himself, the Bible also clearly teaches that God desires to be in relationship with his creation. An overemphasis on the self-sufficiency of God can also lead to a distortion of our relationship with him. The Bible clearly teaches throughout that God loves his human creatures and desires to be in relationship with them. …

Elihu represents those who wrongly affirm the self-sufficiency of God to the detriment of God’s desire for relationship with his human creatures. He wrongly states that God is beyond the notice of sin, righteousness, pain, and suffering. Indeed the prologue to the book of Job reveals quite the contrary. God cares deeply that Job respond with faith, and he desires that Job’s love of him not be due simply to the fact that God rewards him. (pp. 413-414, Longman).

Elihu errs in his emphasis on a self-sufficient and distant God.

But Walton disagrees. Walton is more sympathetic with Elihu and more critical of Job. In his view “Elihu offers a largely accurate (biblically speaking) picture of God, but a flawed understanding of how God’s policies work (specifically the issue of theodicy).” (p. 376, Walton)  He gives a number of examples. Elihu rightly points out that no one can “out-God” God. In Walton’s view Job’s responses throughout the book imply that he thinks he could do better than God. Elihu rightly attacks this.   Job’s quest for justice before God is an offense against God. According to Walton Elihu “is patently right in his condemnation of Job’s self-righteous attitude … Elihu has rightly identified Job’s willingness to defend himself at the expense of God.” (p. 375)

Elihu is also right, according to Walton, in his emphasis on God’s self-sufficiency.

In Elihu’s speech we find a notably Israelite-shaped theology that posits a noncontingent deity. The God whom Elihu defends has no accountability (35:9-15) and no subordination. This is sound theology and a needed element in the theology of the book. (p. 380)

And a little later:

Elihu’s portrayal is of a God who is not accessible (37:23). Elihu’s opinion would be that God does not need our prompting to do justice and he should not be bothered by our petty requests. … Job should not have thought for a moment that God would respond to his desire for a hearing. We should be more concerned with responding to God rather than trying to get him to respond to us.

Is this sound theology? I believe that we should see the wisdom in it and be cautioned by it. God, of his own will, has drawn near to us. … This immanence, however, can be abused and we must be careful not to impose on his grace and generosity. (p. 380)

Walton likens an expectation of response from God to human influence-peddling. It is not what you know, but who you know that counts.

It is not surprising, then, that a natural human inclination is to want to have “insider” status with God. This is the accessibility that Elihu would most denounce, and rightly so. God is not subject to our influence-peddling or our attempts to exploit a relationship with him to achieve our goals. We must not overstep our privileges or presume on his grace. We insult him with our demands for more information as if her needed to be reminded of his responsibilities or explain what we might think are questionable actions. (p. 381)

But are Elihu (and Walton) right? I have learned a great deal from Walton’s commentary – but in this section I think he may be missing the point of Elihu’s monologue in the book of Job. Rather than a needed corrective, perhaps the theology that Elihu presents is as much in error as the theology of the three friends in the previous section of the book.  While there is an element of truth in what Elihu says, he is also wrong in serious ways.

The book of Job is a long discussion of the relationship between God and humans. Elihu presents yet another view that the book of Job undermines as inadequate in its representation of the relationship between God and his creation, most notably between God and humans created in his image. Longman suggested he represents a view that overdoes the insignificance of man and the transcendent distance of God. This makes more sense. It is an exercise in missing the point if we try to fit Elihu into the story as one who brings wisdom, with warning Job should heed, and we should follow today. Wisdom in the book of Job comes when God begins to speak.

What do you think?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • Phil Ware

    I’m with you – I believe that Elihu is close, but his miss is equally as dangerous as the other three friends. God cares about us and our messes and faithfulness and our misses. We long to have tidy answers for our agonizing mysteries and someone, or something, to blame them on. Ultimately, Job doesn’t get answers, but God graces Job with something more, Holy Presence. God’s words at the end initially can seem to confirm Elihu’s theology, but the Holy Presence coming to Job puts those words into perspective — that tension of grace in our God who dwells in “a high and holy place” yet also “with the lowly in spirit and contrite in heart” to bring revival of spirit and heart (Is. 57:15).

  • Kevin Lambert

    I preached on Job this last summer. I preached one sermon per character and it was a great series. However, my sermon on Elihu was the least developed and most incoherent because of all the issues RJS discussed. There is also the issue of whether or not Elihu’s anger was justified and righteous. Also his Hebrew prose is not all the coherent and comes off more like he is raging than actually arguing. In the end I settled on this thesis, “Elihu comes closer than all the rest and prepares the way for the Lord but in the end he was not the final answer.” You can listen to the sermon here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBBG85cBKA8

  • http://www.wheretoreach.us/ T Freeman

    I don’t think it’s as simple as “Elihu is wrong.” Let me start with the big picture. I don’t think the book of Job is best summed up as “a long discussion of the relationship between God and humans.” I think it’s more focused than that. I think it has to do with that relationship in the midst of human suffering. I don’t think that Elihu’s main point is that God is distant. I think his main point is that Job’s suffering (or his innocence, for that matter) doesn’t justify what Job has implied/said about God. In Walton’s words, Elihu has picked up on and is arguing against “Job’s self-righteous attitude … Elihu has rightly identified Job’s willingness to defend himself at the expense of God.”

    Unfortunately for Job and Elihu, this story is happening (as our lives often do) *before* God has put everything, or even most things, to rights. So the task of reconciling our pain with God’s goodness and justice is presented to all of us in this amplified story. Part of the reason that I agree that Elihu, though still flawed and human, hits more right notes than wrong is that Elihu’s speech is immediately followed by God’s approach and questioning of Job, and God’s speech seems to pick up where Elihu left off, on many levels. As Elihu ends with a string of rhetorical questions asking Job if he knows how God does just a few of his great wonders, God begins with similar questions. But Elihu doesn’t just make the logical arguments unmoved by them. He, too, has an attitude to go with his pleas, but his attitude is worship. Elihu opens his final pleas for Job to consider God’s majesty with this: “At this my heart pounds and leaps from its place.” Elihu foreshadows the experience that Job is about to have. Job’s heart will pound as well as he not only considers, but encounters God’s incomprehensible greatness. In some ways, Elihu reminds me of John the Baptist. He does not fully understand what is about to come, but he does prepare Job and the reader for it, he foreshadows it, and he is aware, in mind and heart, that the One is much greater than he or anyone else is. And remember, Elihu is young. So, true to that he is wrong on a point or two, but what he knows is wrong is Job justifying himself vis a vis God. This eventually boils up within him and compels hims to speak. His worship compels him to speak, and urges Job not to lose worship of God as well. That’s what I see as Elihu’s thrust, though I am glad he is not the focus of the story. He is not a model for us, but he is a bit of light before the sun breaks out.

  • RJS4DQ

    T,

    Maybe it isn’t as simple as Elihu is wrong. (Is anything about this book simple?) Longman suggests that Elihu’s error is a matter of degree. Perhaps this is the right perspective.

    But I don’t think Walton is right when he suggests (as I read him) that Elihu has the right theology, that Job has transgressed, and that Elihu’s only significant error is assuming that Job suffers on acount of his sins.

    The last part of Elihu’s speech does lead into God’s response. But I think there are important differences. This will come up in the next post on the book.

  • Marshall

    Longman suggested he represents a view that overdoes the insignificance of man and the transcendent distance of God.

    Elihu reminds me of the attitude of the modern New Atheists, in that God has been pushed back to a place of such transcendent remoteness that no conversation is possible. “Righteousness” has become natural law, and “judgement” is about causality. And they “burn with anger” about it, too. The cosmos is awesome in a splendor-of-the-skies sort of way, but man just gets what is coming to him and there’s no more to be said about it. I notice that in chapter 42 Job repents and God declares him righteous, and God rebukes the three friends and assigns a penance, but he has nothing for Elihu.

    I think God’s reply is different from Elihu’s rant in that God presents himself as at work, creating Behemoth and taming Leviathan. The human problem isn’t insignificance, it’s that we’re just not in a position to get what he’s doing. I don’t believe it’s safe to believe that “God doesn’t need you”, that how we end up isn’t important to God as well as to ourselves. However that doesn’t give the right to criticize: the essential thing is not to understand our role, but to fulfill it.

  • http://www.wheretoreach.us/ T Freeman

    No, nothing about this book is simple; but I’m really glad! That matches, to me, the reality of the struggle to reconcile (relationally, theologically, spiritually, etc.) an ongoing situation of pain suffered by “good” people with the goodness/justice of God. It is so interesting that God both rebukes Job (“Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” . . . “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?”) *and* affirms what he said: “You (Eliphaz and his 2 friends) have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” How’s that for not simple? And, naturally, God makes no mention of Elihu at all!

    I do think this book and these people in it show us the different ways we all try to make sense of profound suffering in the world that is governed by a good and present and almighty God. Job and his friends give voice to things that we feel (or hear from others, or have been taught) but often won’t or can’t voice in the midst of our own pain. I actually love this book; it’s one of my favorites. It makes me feel less like a heretic to see others say some of what I’ve felt/thought and still be redeemed.

  • Susan_G1

    It is interesting that neither Job nor God has anything to say about Elihu; all we know is that the three get punished. It seems that this fact, the style and theology supports that Elihu was not in the original book. We would have a clearer picture of what Yahweh thought is it was in the original.

    I believe, as has been expressed, that Elihu’s theology was wrong, as was that of the three. He’s just wrong in a different way. If he were correct, God would not have answered Job.


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