Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Topical Bible Study: Elihu

Bright Ideas Need Polish to Make Them Shine

                Elihu is the seventh character in the book of Job to have a speaking role. He speaks after Job’s friends have had their alternating tit-for-tat with Job, and he speaks in one long polemic. Without any transition of response or recognition that he had spoken, God turns immediately to Job and Elihu is neither heard from nor spoken of again in the rest of the book. Elihu was probably not perfectly accurate in what he believed was happening to Job, but unlike Job’s three friends, he does not seem to become guilty of attributing things falsely to God, because God only describes Job’s three friends as having spoken falsely of Him, and tells Job to make an offering for them only, not Elihu. This is conspicuous and intriguing to me. What was special about Elihu? I am especially interested in him, because of how much he strikes me as a kindred spirit.
                He’s a:
-young man
-who is very opinionated
-who is not afraid to challenge his elders or the opinion of earthly authority figures
-who has a burning zeal for the Lord that makes him unable to keep quiet when he sees an urgent need for someone to be corrected and God to be glorified by his speaking the truth about Him

Here’s how the introduction to Elihu’s address reads:

So Elihu, the son of Barachel the Buzite, answered and said:
“I am young in years, and you are very old;
Therefore I was afraid,
And dared not declare my opinion to you.
I said, ‘Age should speak,
And multitude of years should teach wisdom.’
But there is a spirit in man,
And the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding.
Great men are not always wise,
Nor do the aged always understand justice.

Haha! Tell me if that isn’t a life verse! How often have I thought that, since I was 14.
He continues:
17b I too will declare my opinion.
18 For I am full of words;
The spirit within me compels me.
19 Indeed my belly is like wine that has no vent;
It is ready to burst like new wineskins.
20 I will speak, that I may find relief;
I must open my lips and answer.
21 Let me not, I pray, show partiality to anyone;
Nor let me flatter any man.
22 For I do not know how to flatter,
Else my Maker would soon take me away.

                Without going into the whole scope of Elihu’s ((diatribe)) against Job, let me give my layman’s analysis. Elihu’s speech is characteristically different from Job’s three friends in one key aspect: he doesn’t claim that God is punishing Job for any specific sin. Elihu contrariwise claims that God is just in doing what He wants with Job because Job is a sinner, and that Job in claiming to be guiltless is wrong. Elihu seems to think that Job has committed sin that no one else may necessarily know about, and that any one of these are just cause for God to punish Job. But where Elihu did not make the same misstep as Job’s friends was that he did not claim that Job’s present calamity was the direct consequence of any sin of Job’s—we readers know that the cause of the calamity was Satan (nevertheless under restraint by God)—only that any calamity God could possibly wish on Job was justifiable by the fact that Job was not a perfect man.

                God’s response seems to bear this out. Job is described as a righteous man by God, the ultimate author of the book. But we know from elsewhere in the Bible that being righteous does not mean being sinless (see a previous Topical Bible Study), and can suggest that because Elihu was not criticized in the final write-up, it appears that he at least did not say anything that God thought necessary to counter, whether or not he was actually totally accurate, which he probably wasn’t. After all, he seemed to agree with the other men that Job was not as righteous as he thought he was—but God’s treatment of Job implies that Job was indeed more righteous in His eyes than the other four men anticipated.

Intermission, to post quotes buttressing my above statements:

Job 32:1-3 So these men stopped answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. But Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became very angry with Job for justifying himself rather than God. He was also angry with the three friends, because they had found no way to refute Job, and yet had condemned him.

Job 33:8-9 But you have said in my hearing—I heard the very words—“I am pure, I have done no wrong; I am clean and free from sin. Yet God has found fault with me; He considers me His enemy.”

Job 33:13-14,16b-18 Why do you complain to Him that He responds to no one’s words? For God does speak—now one way, now another—…to terrify them with warnings, to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride, to preserve them from the pit, their lives from perishing by the sword.

Job 33:27-30 And they will go to others and say, ‘I have sinned, I have perverted what is right, but I did not get what I deserved. God has delivered me from going down to the pit, and I shall live to enjoy the light of life.’ God does all these things to a person—twice, even three times—to turn them back from the pit, that the light of life may shine on them.

[Elihu above proposes that God uses calamity as a way to wake people up and show them that they depend on Him, so that they will be drawn to Him and be saved. This is indeed one way in which God uses physical evils like what Job experienced—to bring people closer to Him or to teach them something important]

Job 34:31-33a Suppose someone says to God, “I am guilty but will offend no more. Teach me what I cannot see: if I have done wrong, I will not do so again.” Should God then reward you on your terms, when you refuse to repent?

Job 42:7 After the Lord had said these things to Job, He said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (repeated in verse 8c)

emphases mine.

                What shall we say then of Elihu? He may not have been totally right in his evaluation of Job, but he was keenly insightful in a few important ways, and if his contribution was not allowed for whatever reason, we’d be worse off for it. An encouraging interpretation of this book shows that there is real value in letting young people speak—to speak in the presence of, and in challenge to, elders. Simultaneously it does imply that the young should wait their turn and seek an opportune moment for when to say their piece. If Elihu’s approach is a model, it would suggest that prefacing a criticism of one’s elders with some clarifying words can help you be better heard and avoid giving the wrong impression. Elihu himself foreshadowed the words of Jesus in Luke 13:1-5 that bad things don’t always happen to people as punishment, sometimes it’s random, or at least for reasons God has that you don’t understand. He also foreshadowed the discussion by Paul in Romans 9 that God as the creator has the prerogative to do what he wants with His creation—who are you, oh man, to question the Almighty? He was, one could say, “wise beyond his years.” 2,000 years or more, even. ;)

                What I learn from Elihu is that it’s not wrong to feel anxious to correct one’s elders or authority figures when you think they are in error. You may very well have something valuable to contribute and keeping it to yourself could sell everyone short. HOWEVER, I also learn—or affirm, in my case—the value of timing and of being sensitive to the right moment at which to speak, as well as the benefit of taking time to preface your hard statements so that your youthful directness will be less likely to offend people to the point of not wanting to listen. I learn that while you may very well be closer to truth than those you are speaking to, you ought to be cognizant of the fact that there are things in God’s reality that evade your understanding, and so you should be wary of concluding that your theological views constitute the final word on an issue. You are young, after all, and will only become wiser the longer you keep thinking about these things, as long as glorifying God is your main object. These are the lessons I learn from the example of Elihu.

                Elihu as a Biblical plot device demonstrates a nascent understanding of things like the sin nature, God’s sovereignty, the preeminent importance of God’s glory above any other thing, and a challenge to the “karma” view of good and evil happening like a formula to those who do good and evil, thousands of years before the canonization of the Bible and its much more highly developed theological treatises on those subjects. It shows that Christian beliefs about God are not recent arrivals on the world stage, but that God’s truth has been understood, sometimes more thoroughly and sometimes less so, throughout human history, from the very beginning to the present day.

Encouragement and caution. This is the message I retain from reading and meditating on the words of a young man “full of words,” like myself.

~ Rak Chazak

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