Elihu: Righteous Prophet or Arrogant Fool?

When one arrives at Job 32 they arrive at a particular difficulty. Why? Because in Job 32 we meet Elihu.

The speeches of Elihu perplex many theologians for many reasons. He seems to come out of nowhere in the text, and when he bursts onto the scene he really does burst. Four times in the first five verses of Job 32 we read that Elihu was burning with anger. Out of his burning anger he speaks to Job’s friends and to Job, but neither Job’s friends nor Job respond to him once he’s done, and more so, God never responds to his words or mentions him at all in the end of the book when He rebukes Job’s friends and restores Job. Because of all of these things most people are perplexed with what to do with him.

There are three commonly held views on him.

The first view, and probably the least likely to be accepted among Christians, is the view that the six chapters given to Elihu (32-37) are not original to the book of Job. Instead these chapters are a later addition to it that is something of a foreign intrusion into the text. There are largely two reasons given for this view. First, the Hebrew is different in these chapters. It doesn’t match with the rest of the book, thus it doesn’t belong with the rest of the book. Second, the reason Job, Job’s friends, and God don’t respond to Elihu after he’s done is because he wasn’t physically present with them when these events occurred. This is why we don’t see any response to him. As I said just a moment ago, this view isn’t commonly held within the Church, it is mostly found in nonbelieving commentators and textual critics. Therefore we can move onto the next view.

While the last view is the least likely to be accepted among Christians, the second view is probably the majority view among Christians. This majority view believes Elihu to be an arrogant young man who speaks hastily and harshly about things that he is largely unaware of. The reasons for this view are as follows. First, Elihu overestimates his own importance and does truly show himself to be an arrogant young man. Second, while anger isn’t a sin Elihu has sinfully given too much room to his anger and vents it in the direction of these men. Third, Elihu doesn’t contribute anything new to the ongoing conversation between Job and his friends but merely restates what has already been said after rebuking Job and his friends. Like Job’s miserable comforters Elihu also does say some true things but applies them wrongly and draws the wrong conclusions. Fourth, Elihu’s chapters do build suspense within the book of Job but only do so by delaying the judgment of God at the end. Fifth, the reason Elihu is ignored by everyone at the end of the book is because he does prove himself to be something of an irrelevant intruder into an already lengthy conversation. This view is probably the majority view within the Church. You’ll find it in most commentaries, the ESV Study Bible, and the Gospel Transformation Study Bible.

While the second view is the majority view among Christians, the third view is probably best described as the minority view among Christians. This minority view believes Elihu to a good character and even something of a preview of the very things God will say to Job and his friends at the end of the book. The reasons for this view are also many. First, Elihu finds both Job and his friends wanting in the debate. Second, after rebuking the friends Elihu focuses on Job’s words throughout the debate, quoting Job many times without accusing Job of living a wicked life like the friends have done. Rather he moves the conversation toward a proposal that suffering does indeed have a redemptive role. Third, because of these things Elihu’s words anticipate the stance God Himself will take in chapters 38-42. Some who hold this view, at this point, make the claim that Elihu was a prophet sent by God to prepare Job and his friends for God’s words stronger words about to come. Fourth, though not being the answer to Job’s problems, Elihu points in the right direction by functioning, in small measure, as the ‘arbiter’ or ‘mediator’ Job has been longing for. Fifth, this is the reason why no one responds to Elihu in the end, because he was a voice preparing the way for the greater voice to come. This view is the minority view within the Church. You’ll find it explained and embraced in the Reformation Study Bible, and given a ‘nod’ though not embraced in the ESV Study Bible. This is also the view held by Christopher Ash in his commentary on Job that we’ve been using a guide through our series in Job.

Taken these three views into account, we can easily reject the first view which believes Elihu and his speeches to be a foreign intrusion into the text of Job. As for the remaining two views we find believers lining up in both of them. Personally through studying this text I have come to believe the third view, that Elihu is a good character who prepares the way for God’s voice to come. But honesty would demand I also say that while I believe this third view is the best option I also believe I could be wrong about this.

So, I do not hold my view, and I would encourage you to not hold your view on Elihu with a closed fist, but with an open hand willing to adjust as the text demands of us. But for now think of Elihu like this.

So far in Job we come through 30 chapters of thick back and forth conversation about Job’s innocence, and whether or not Job has been right to say what he has about himself and about God. I think the author of Job knows what he has put together here in his work can easily exasperate the reader and is now giving us a bit of a break, or a change in tempo, with the wisdom hymn of chapter 28 and the speeches of Elihu in chapters 32-37.[1] And more so, that these chapters are present between Job’s final plea and Job’s meeting with God show us that Job might be in need of a bit of a break as well. Remember, God isn’t forced to reply to Job right away or quickly even though Job’s final plea in chapter 29-31 is intense. No, God acts in His own time and Elihu’s speeches reinforce this by causing Job to wait a bit longer for his inner angst to be resolved. Yes we have felt deeply for Job as we have watched him suffer and work through the hard realities and questions of why God does what He does. But we also, again and again, have had to almost gasp at Job’s audacity in accusing God of being a wrongdoer and unjust.[2]

Maybe, just maybe, some of what Elihu has to say will be the very things Job needs to hear in order to be prepared to meet God before the end in chapters 38-42.[3]

 

Citations:

[i]David Atkinson, The Message of Job – The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991) page 116-117.

[ii]Christopher Ash, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross – Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014) page 329.

[iii]Atkinson., page 122.

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