At a recent pastor’s conference on the book of Job, a leader asked the attendees whether the speeches of Elihu (Job 32-37) should be trusted, like God’s (Job 38-41), or discarded, like those of Job’s three friends (Job 4-5, 8, 11, 15, 18, 20, 22, 25). The show of hands was evenly divided. I couldn’t believe my eyes; every attendee was fully committed to studying and explaining God’s word carefully, and yet there was a widespread and fundamental disagreement on how to read a significant part of the book of Job.
Have you wondered how to read Elihu? Can we get to the bottom of the mystery?
Let Me Introduce Elihu
He pops on the scene out of nowhere: “Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, burned with anger” (Job 32:2). He speaks a few times and then vanishes. God clearly vindicates Job and condemns Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (Job 42:7-8), but he says nothing about Elihu.
Casual readers of Job barely notice Elihu. If they have the guts not to skip from chapter 2 to chapter 38, their eyes glaze over long before they meet Elihu in chapter 32. They sink in a bog of poetry; words swirl together into an indistinguishable mire, and Elihu comes and goes while readers are still gasping for air. Some don’t realize he’s not one of the “three friends.”
In addition, we’re clearly told that Elihu is young (Job 32:4, 6), raving mad (Job 32:2, 3, 5 – four times!), and full of criticism for Job (Job 33:12, 34:7-8, 34:35-37, etc.). Yet God clearly claims that Job has “spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7-8). What’s all the fuss? This case should be closed.
Why Elihu is Just Like the Other Three
Here is the main challenge: Elihu draws the same conclusion as Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. That’s why many interpreters think Elihu is just like them.
Eliphaz: “Job has sinned” (Job 4:7, 15:4-6, 22:5).
Bildad: “Job has sinned” (Job 8:5-6, 18:4).
Zophar: “Job has sinned” (Job 11:6, 20:29).
Elihu: “Job has sinned” (Job 34:7, 37; 35:16).
Of course, the reader knows Job has not sinned: “There is none like [Job] on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8, 2:3). But Elihu charges him with sin, just as the other three do. What’s all the fuss? This case should be closed.
Why Elihu is Just Like God
Though God clears Job of all charges (Job 42:7-8), notice that his declaration comes after Job repents in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). Before this repentance, God calls Job a faultfinder (Job 40:2) who speaks without knowledge (Job 38:2) and puts God in the wrong (Job 40:8).
Elihu also desires to justify Job of all charges (Job 33:32). He accuses Job of finding fault with God (Job 33:9-11), speaking without knowledge (Job 34:35), and putting God in the wrong (Job 34:5-6, 36:23).
Why Elihu is Not Like the Other Three
Though their conclusion is the same, their arguments are completely different. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar perpetually argue: “Before you began suffering, you must have sinned.” Elihu’s case is different: “Since you began suffering, you have sinned.” The three concern themselves with Job’s hidden conduct; Elihu concerns himself with Job’s present speech.
We can see the difference in the evidence they bring. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have no evidence, only presumption, though Job begs them for the merest shred (Job 6:28-30). Elihu, however, constantly brings specific evidence to support his charges: “You say…You say…You say…You say…” (Job 33:8-11, 33:13, 34:5-6, 35:2-3, 36:23).
The poet signals a difference in the number of speeches and responses he gives to each character. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar get no more than three speeches apiece, with the speeches growing shorter as the book progresses. Elihu gets four speeches. Job refutes every speech of the three with eight speeches of his own; Job never responds to Elihu’s speeches, though Elihu asks for a response (Job 33:32-33).
Elihu himself distances himself from the other three. Furious at the stalemate and their inability to answer Job, Elihu promises he has something new to say: “[Job] has not directed his words against me, and I will not answer him with your speeches” (Job 32:14). The poet likewise distances Elihu from the other three. In one of the few narrative and evaluative statements of the book, he declares that Elihu “burned with anger also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong” (Job 32:3).
Confusion abounds over Elihu because he sounds like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, drawing the same conclusion: Job has sinned. But as we penetrate the poetry, we see that what Elihu means by his conclusion is not what they mean by it. His four speeches ring with incredible truth desperately needed by any innocent sufferer:
- God has not been silent; he speaks through your pain (Job 32-33).
- God is not unjust; he will eventually strike the wicked (Job 34).
- Righteous living is not pointless, though we are insignificant next to God (Job 35).
- You’re in no place to criticize God; remember to fear him (Job 36-37).
And God reinforces Elihu’s fourth point with some of his most aggressive and fear-inducing words in all the Bible (Job 38-41). May we all repent of justifying ourselves and remember to fear him.