Examining Elihu


The poetic interlude in the 28th chapter of Job prepares the way for the arrival of a new character on the scene.  By the time the words of Job are ended in chapter 31, the silence created by his last defense allows for an opening and introduction of a young man, Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram.”

As the narrator introduces Elihu, we are informed that his anger burns towards Job and his three friends, the former because “he justified himself” and the latter because they had failed to properly answer Job, instead condemning him.  Apparently, the dialogues and diatribes from the previous chapters took place in a public venue and Elihu was one of, perhaps many, observers.

Confusion regarding the presence of Elihu in the midst of Job abounds.  Some commentators have viewed him as the mouthpiece of Satan while others see him as a Christological figure providing the mediation that Job had long desired.  With such a wide spectrum of opinions, how then are we to understand Elihu’s overall contribution to the book and more importantly, how are we to rightly interpret his speeches?  To arrive at these answers and others yet to be asked, we need to examine Elihu in order to discern whether he is helpful or hurtful, friend or foe.

The speeches of Elihu span from chapter 32 to chapter 37 and are often filled with verbosity.  Over these 6 chapter divisions, which we may be reminded are not original, nor inspired, but instead a later, helpful interpretative addition, Elihu offers four speeches.  Speech 1 occurs in chapters 32 and 33 and generally may be viewed as an apologetic introduction.  Speech 2 is contained entirely in chapter 34, largely consisting of rebukes towards Job and his friends.  The third speech is found in chapter 35 and the subject begins to transition away from Job and his three poor counselors to theology proper, namely God Himself.  The fourth and final speech of Elihu fills the remainder of the chapters (36-37) and is chiefly a discourse on the character and majesty of God as he prepares for His arrival in the subsequent chapters.

There are at least four key themes that may be gleaned from Elihu’s speeches, and probably more, but for our general examination here we will limit them to:

  1. A rebuke of Job for being right in his own eyes
  2. Pride
  3. The majesty of God
  4. The purposes of God in affliction.

As the young man enters center stage, we read of his lengthy apologetic in chapter 32, setting the stage for his own interjection of opinions into the affliction that Job.  There is somewhat of an initial tone of humility expressed by Elihu and we have no real reason to assume anything other than proper motives for voicing his own opinions here.  However, he does at times go too far in his harshness and, as with the other speeches, his cannot simply be taken as inerrant.  In his opening remarks we see that he has respectfully waited his turn to speak while his elders offered their extensive advice to Job.

The rebukes of Job come early and often, as Elihu holds back very little, if anything, of what has been building up inside, like wine waiting for venting.  His initial rebukes of Job are often accompanied by quotations of things that Job has said.  With these, there has been confusion whether Elihu has intentionally misconstrued what Job has said, or whether he is simply generalizing what Job has said.  Determining which position to take on these quotations likely determines whether one views Elihu in a negative or positive light respectively.  In his opening apologetic, he has already informed his audience that he has been a diligent listener of the proceedings (Job 32:11-12).  It seems unlikely that Elihu is undertaking a smear campaign of Job by intentionally distorting his previous speeches.  Instead, it seems more reasonable to conclude that Elihu is generalizing, though sometimes inaccurately, for the purpose of summarizing the tenor of Job’s speeches.

This occurs in Elihu’s first rebuke of Job from chapter 33:8-13 (ESV)

“Surely you have spoken in my ears,
    and I have heard the sound of your words.
You say, ‘I am pure, without transgression;
    I am clean, and there is no iniquity in me.
10 Behold, he finds occasions against me,
    he counts me as his enemy,
11 he puts my feet in the stocks
    and watches all my paths.’

12 “Behold, in this you are not right. I will answer you,
    for God is greater than man.
13 Why do you contend against him,
    saying, ‘He will answer none of man’s words’?

This passage (Job 33:8-13) is typical and exhibits well the characteristic thoughts of Elihu with regard to Job.  In this we see Elihu’s attentiveness to the arguments which were previously laid out, his summation of Job’s perspective on his affliction, and his concluding rebuke.  Verse 9, cited above, illustrates the difficulty with how to interpret Elihu’s take on Job’s complaints.  On the one hand, some have taken it to conclude that he misconstrues Job by claiming that he spoke of his innocence, in toto.  However, Job did no such thing, only maintaining his innocency with regard to his present affliction.  In fact, on several occasions we read of Job referring to past sins: Job 13:23-26; 14:16.  Meanwhile, others have concluded, and perhaps rightly, that Elihu is simply making a generalization of Job maintaining his righteousness and that he has denied all along any correlation between his affliction and unconfessed or hidden sins.  Additional rebukes of Job in Elihu’s speeches occur in Job 34:5-9; 34:35-35:4; 35:16; 36:16-24 and 37:14-20

A second key theme of Elihu, as we enumerated above, is the subject of pride.  Perhaps this theme is less obvious than the rebukes of Job and less powerful than the exaltation of God’s majesty, yet nevertheless it percolates throughout, primarily by way of mentions in Job 33:17; 35:12; 36:9; 37:24.  Context for each of these are informative.  The first occurs while Elihu outlines some purposes of God in affliction, which we will look at in more detail below.  By stating that affliction may serve to humble and keep one from pride, Elihu has essentially placed his finger on the pulse of Job’s chief malady.  In Job 35:12, he informs us that God may choose not to answer the prayers of those who are being afflicted because of their pride (cf. James 4:7).  The third passage, Job 36:9, seems to specifically address those who are in position of authority, i.e. kings, who are “caught in the cords of affliction” in which the Lord, “declares to them their work and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly.”  Again, our context for pride rises out of God’s purposes in affliction.  Finally, Job 37:24, the final words of Elihu, conclude by stating that the Lord “does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit.”  If we are to conclude that often what is most important is spoken last, then we are on sure footing when concluding that pride is a major theme in these speeches and an indication of the true sin that Job possessed.

These emphases on pride are used in the speeches of Elihu both directly and indirectly to rebuke Job of this hidden, indwelling sin that wasn’t stirred up until affliction struck.  Job’s continual lamenting, at some point, crossed over from anguish and spilled into self-pity rooted in pride.  Ultimately, while Job may have indeed been innocent of a directly correlated sin to his affliction, he nevertheless became guilty of pride and it was out of this condition of the heart that his tongue spoke faux knowledge that darkened the wisdom and majesty of God.

Which brings us to the third key theme of Elihu, namely the exaltation of the Majesty of God.  This is actually not a new theme in Job as we have seen bits and pieces from Job himself and his friends.  However, with Elihu it serves a preparatory function, awaiting the arrival of God.  While each of his speeches are peppered with statements that highlight the character and attributes of God, it is Job 36:22 to the end of chapter 37 that really prepares the way for the arrival of God by proclaiming the majesty of God, particularly as it relates to his creation.  Perhaps, in a very real sense, Elihu is functioning as a type of John the Baptist.  In this way, God’s speeches are not a shock when He speaks of ostriches and wild donkeys, rather this is a continuation, albeit now inerrant, of thoughts expressed previously about Him, serving to build upon the truths and correct the errors.

The final key theme found in Elihu’s speeches is the purpose of God in affliction.  There are at least 8 clear purposes, but perhaps more can be gleaned from these four speeches.  These occur in Job 33:17; 33:30; 34:27; 36:10-11; 36:16; 36:22; 37:7 and 37:13.  With these wide varieties of God’s purposes which may be found in affliction, Elihu has risen above the argument of Job’s friends that affliction is limited to the wicked.  Additionally, he has solved Job’s dilemma that while the wicked suffer, so to do the righteous, but these sufferings flow from a capricious God and to be appear arbitrary and largely meaningless.

Given this overview of Elihu, what may we conclude?  With the exception of perhaps some sharp language in his rebuke of Job, he was correct in his assessment of pride, his exaltation of God’s majesty, and the purposes of God in affliction.  At the conclusion of his speeches, we are given several additional indications that validate Elihu.  First, Elihu was the only contributor that Job did not reply to.  Second, and perhaps most importantly, in His final analysis of Job and his friends, God did not issue a rebuke to Elihu.  Having undertaken this examination of Elihu, we may conclude that Elihu was indeed helpful.

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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