a critique of elihu’s speech against job

In the book of Job, Job has three friends approach him and condemn him for evil. Because Job was suffering, they were of the opinion that Job had some hidden evil. After a few rounds of back and forth, the friends quite down. A third party, Elihu, speaks up. He is angry at both Job and Job’s three friends:

Job 32:1 So these three men ceased answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes.
Job 32:2 Then the wrath of Elihu, the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, was aroused against Job; his wrath was aroused because he justified himself rather than God.
Job 32:3 Also against his three friends his wrath was aroused, because they had found no answer, and yet had condemned Job.

Job 32:5 When Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouth of these three men, his wrath was aroused.

It seems that Elihu wanted the three friends to keep pressing Job. Job does not answer their queries of a hidden sin. The friends give up. And Elihu is furious that they did not get Job to admit sin. Elihu was not necessarily mad at the friends’ particular responses (unless the “answer” is meant to mean a not yet disclosed reason for Job’s suffering). From Elihu’s further statements, it is clear that Elihu thinks Job has some hidden sin that the friends just have not uncovered as of yet. On this point Elihu is wrong.

Elihu is mad at Job because Job tries to justify himself rather than God. This seems like a legitimate point, as God levies similar arguments later the in the book.

Elihu then gives himself a little background (v6-10). He expresses dissatisfaction with the friends’ reasoning and also with their inability to counter Job’s arguments (v12-13). Elihu proclaims his indignation and eagerness to speak (v16-20). The entire chapter of Job 32 seems to be a long winded and substanceless rant on the part of Elihu (it is no wonder that Elihu’s modern critics label him as vain and boastful).

In chapter 33, the rant continues on for several verses. In verse 6, Elihu makes an interesting statement which could be taken as him claiming to be God’s voice or an intermediator between God and Job:

Job 33:6 Truly I am as your spokesman before God; I also have been formed out of clay.

Starting in verse 8, Elihu sums up Job’s argument:

Job 33:9 ‘I am pure, without transgression; I am innocent, and there is no iniquity in me.
Job 33:10 Yet He finds occasions against me, He counts me as His enemy;
Job 33:11 He puts my feet in the stocks, He watches all my paths.’

Job proclaims his innocence to God, counting God as his oppressor. Elihu says this statement is unrighteous (v12). Elihu then claims that God needs not respond (v13). Elihu adds that God does tell people things, and sometimes that is though messengers (v14-15, 23).

Elihu then claims that God uses evil to convert sinners, sparing their lives:

Job 33:17 In order to turn man from his deed, And conceal pride from man,
Job 33:18 He keeps back his soul from the Pit, And his life from perishing by the sword.

From these words, it seems Elihu considered himself as that intermediator to show Job that Job is unrighteous. Elihu is saying God is answering Job though Elihu’s own speech. Elihu ends this chapter by reaffirming his own message (v31-33).

In chapter 34, Elihu starts by affirming his own message again and then quoting more of Job’s statements which he finds improper:

Job 34:5 “For Job has said, ‘I am righteous, But God has taken away my justice;
Job 34:6 Should I lie concerning my right? My wound is incurable, though I am without transgression.’

Job 34:9 For he has said, ‘It profits a man nothing That he should delight in God.’

Elihu’s response is that God does not do evil, but rewards the righteous with good:

Job 34:10 “Therefore listen to me, you men of understanding: Far be it from God to do wickedness, And from the Almighty to commit iniquity.
Job 34:11 For He repays man according to his work, And makes man to find a reward according to his way.
Job 34:12 Surely God will never do wickedly, Nor will the Almighty pervert justice.

Elihu then points to God’s power. God can kill everything on Earth in a moment (v14). The idea seems to be Dignum Deo theology. Because God is powerful, God is duty bound to perform justice, punishing the wicked and blessing the righteous (v17). God is not partial to humans (v19-20). God knows what everyone does (v21). There need not be a trial before punishment for this reason (v24). God crushes the wicked in plain view of everyone (although their evil was in secret) (v25).

It is clear, Elihu is pointing to some sort of secret sin in Job’s life as the reason for this very public punishment. On this point, Elihu is wrong. Job is being targeted because God called Job “perfect” and Satan wanted to test out the theory. This is evidence towards Elihu not being a true witness, not contrasting the three friends but complementing their false ideas.

Elihu spends several more verses condemning Job as evil before adding:

Job 34:35 ‘Job speaks without knowledge, His words are without wisdom.’
Job 34:36 Oh, that Job were tried to the utmost, Because his answers are like those of wicked men!
Job 34:37 For he adds rebellion to his sin; He claps his hands among us, And multiplies his words against God.”

Elihu wishes even more pain on Job than Job has already endured, explicitly claiming Job has sinned before the tribulations started. Elihu begins his next chapter by proclaiming that sin and righteousness do not give God anything. Wickedness, Elihu states, hurts not God, but man:

Job 35:8 Your wickedness affects a man such as you, And your righteousness a son of man.

This is Elihu capping his rant about Job’s prior sin which begot all the evil. This is another piece of evidence of Elihu being a false witness.

Elihu next argues that when people are in need of help, they cry out to God (v9-12). God sometimes does not respond due to their pride (v12). This pride Elihu attributes to Job (v15-16). In this point also, Elihu is wrong. Satan is in control of the situation, and God’s deliverance is not anywhere stated to be contingent on Job’s pride.

In the next chapter, Elihu again claims to be speaking for God (v2). The next series of verses reiterate that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked (v3-16). Elihu then takes the opportunity to call Job wicked again:

Job 36:17 But you are filled with the judgment due the wicked; Judgment and justice take hold of you.

Elihu follows this by criticizing Job’s questions towards God (v18). Elihu claims God is righteous (v24), God’s work is visible (v25), and God is powerful (v27-33).

The entire next chapter speaks of God’s powerful works and awesome deeds. This echoes God’s own speech in the next few chapters. The point seems to be that no matter where we are and what is happening, God should be praised for God’s power. This seems as a legitimate point of Ehilu’s behalf.

In summary, Elihu has a few valid points but also many rehashed falsehoods from the three false witness friends. Elihu is correct in magnifying God, criticizing Job for magnifying himself, and also correct in that God does not owe a response to Job. Elihu is wrong that Job is wicked, that God is punishing Job, and that all visible good and evil are judgments from the hand of God.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, Morality, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to a critique of elihu’s speech against job

  1. Matt Damore says:

    Thanks for the talk the other day, Chris! And thanks for the link to your blog. I’ll start with what I do agree with. I do agree with you that Elihu was in the wrong in some of the things he had said against Job. And I do think that Elihu was needlessly myopic in his understanding of retributive justice as it pertained to what was happening to Job (it almost seemed to me that there was a ‘higher’ kind of justice going on). I also agree that Satan is in control in that the reigns of Job’s suffering were given to Satan (that God has permitted Satan to have control).

    Just a couple questions.

    If Elihu is wrong that all visible good and evil judgments are from the hand of God, wouldn’t (or couldn’t) it be the case that none of the judgments from the hand of God are really evil? I remember you bringing up the analogy of your kids. Suppose you permitted something that your kid thought to be evil, but that you had a good reason that the kid didn’t understand, but that (in your wisdom) you permitted to help them mature, or learn about life, or help them grow and cultivate the virtues that are only occasioned by suffering? Could it be that one of your kids could appropriate some kind of Job-like reaction, and that you (in a God-like perspective) permitted the kid’s screeds against you as constitutive of the kid’s desired spiritual development (like Sgt. Foley breaking Zack Mayo in An Officer and a Gentleman – which is disanalogous in the reasons behind the breaking, of course)? In that case, it would seem to me that, in itself, your goodness would be left unscathed, and that your kid (thinking himself innocent) could still level the kind of indictments against your character that we find in Job. If that’s the case, then I’m not sure how I could conclude from Job that Job’s indictments are ‘cosmically’ accurate even if the indictments are ‘correct’ from Job’s individual perspective. Perhaps, in that sense, God says to Job that, not only has Job spoken rightly of God, but that it was necessary for Job to speak the way he did in order to get the vision of God, and the consequent transformation of character, requisite for spiritual maturity: that is, it might have been necessary for Job to make the perfect case (in terms of justice) against God for Job to reach a place of spiritual vision – as C.S. Lewis mentioned somewhere, the road to God runs past Sinai.

    I’ll have to read the story again, but the larger point that I glean from Job is not that God had permitted Satan to test the theory that God was perfect, but that Satan wanted to test whether or not Job’s devotion to God (in terms of retributive justice) was contingent on the reap/sow motif that Job had benefited from in his life up to that point. It seems analogous to a good son, born with a silver spoon, still obedient to his parents, and not a bad person, gives to charity, does his duties, takes care of his body, displays the virtues, is self-critical of his vices, lives in luxury and blessed with exorbitant wealth – and where you and I might wonder just how such virtue would hold up if the health and wealth were stripped, whether the good qualities supervened on the health and wealth, and if they did, whether or not it had be a dross – or even if they hadn’t been a dross, whether such qualities couldn’t have attained to the kind of spiritual richness that could otherwise attain if they weren’t truly tested by the kind of suffering that the son could not understand (the kind that, for all he knows about the scales of justice, the infliction would need to appear to go contrary to every ingrained, deep-seated intuition about justice). The end of the story seems to indicate that God knew, and Satan and Job did not, that the infliction of suffering lead to the kind of soul-making that neither Satan and Job could not foresee. I say all of this with a full acknowledgment of my presuppositions regarding the concept of God, so I invite any kind of correction here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s