Come back in time with me. It is year 1. We are in Eden. What glories do you see in your mind’s eye? The sweet juices of some unknown fruit runs down my chin. Under a warm, vibrant, sunny sky, your bare feet feel soft earth holding you up as a gentle breezes caresses your skin. Eden.
We are with Adam and Eve. And the serpent.
No. We aren’t with them; we aren’t “we.” You are alone in Eden, drinking in beauty you cannot imagine. Walking, you almost feel like you are floating, gliding along a ground that is just perfect. You see it – the wondrous tree of knowledge. No splendor here surpasses the brightness of this tree. “Come, climb me,” it quietly sings to you.
But you do not. God has forbidden any contact with this tree, especially the consumption of its fruit. To eat would be to disobey. You are not sure why you are even looking at it. You know it is forbidden. You are also not sure how long the serpent has been beside you. You’re startled by his presence. He’s quietly doing what you were doing, looking at the tree. What is that look in his eye?
“God won’t let you eat from this tree.” Whoa. The serpent has never spoken to you before. “He’s banned this tree, hasn’t he?”
“God said if we eat of this tree, we will die.” You reply.
He smiles an odd, discomforting smile. “No you won’t.” I won’t you, wonder. I won’t die. Why would God say I would die if it is not true?
The serpent looks away from you and back toward the tree. “God knows that when you eat of this tree, you will know all that God knows.” You look from the serpent to the tree, back to the serpent, back to the tree. Once more you look to him, but the serpent is gone, as unexpectedly as he slithered up. Now, once more, the tree; it is so inviting; so beautiful; your eyes can see its deliciousness. What do you do?
In the book of Job, the speeches of Elihu put us in Eden, in Eve’s place. Knowing what we know now, we can say, “No, no, don’t bite, Eve. Walk away. That serpent is liar.” But even knowing that, we would still be tempted beyond control standing before that tree.
For us, Elihu is the serpent. Job goes through his disaster in chapters 1 & 2. He and his friends go through their exhausting dialogue in Job 3-27. Job 28 is a poem about how impossible it is to have wisdom. No one knows who the speaker is in Job 28. Job is the speaker in chapters 29-31. There he reiterates his claims of his own innocence. The basic tension of the book is that an innocent man went through horrific suffering for no reason. His ignorant friends blame him for his plight and say his only hope is to confess his sin. He steadfastly holds onto his innocence and holds out hope that he will have an audience with God.
He gets that audience in chapters 38-41, where God speaks out of a whirlwind. Job, blown away by awe at God’s speech, repents at the opening of chapter 42. However, for over 2000 years, readers have debated exactly what Job was repenting of. In the remainder of Job 42, he is vindicated by God and his fortunes are restored. He gets back all he has lost.
But what of Job 32-37? This is a speech that runs for 6 long chapters. Elihu is never mentioned prior to his appearance. In his speech, there is no dialogue. Job never responds to Elihu or in any way acknowledges what he said. After chapter 37, we never hear from Elihu again. So why do we bother with it?
We bother with it because this is our scripture, given to us by God. The Apostle Paul says all scripture is inspired by God and given to teach. What is God teaching us in Elihu’s speech? I believe God is teaching us how to discern God’s voice. As people of faith, we must learn to know both the truth in the message and the truth in the speaker who delivers the message.
Is the serpent a liar? Yes. Are his lies obvious? Sometimes. Sometimes not. God told Adam and Eve they would die in the day that they ate of the tree of knowledge. “No, you will not die,” the serpent said. “Your eyes will be opened.” What happened when Eve ate, and Adam joined her? Did they die? No. Their eyes were opened. Who lied, God or the serpent? It’s not as easy or obvious as we might hope. We have to pay extremely close attention to every word.
The serpent said, “You will not die when you eat.” They did not die. The serpent said, “Your eyes will be opened.” Their eyes were opened. Oh man, he just keeps nailing the mark. Everything he says is right. We have to listen to this one. “Your eyes will be opened. …” “… You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” There it is. That’s the lie, hidden underneath truth. When Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened, their first act was to get dressed. They had been naked and unashamed. They lived in something we cannot even conceive – a world completely free of shame, sin, guilt. And as soon as they did the opposite of what God said, a whole new world was opened, one previously unknown. This was a world of sin, of loss, of shame. In that world there is death – something that did not exist in Eden, not for Adam and Eve.
Job was a throwback kind of guy – he was an extreme throwback. He lived an edenic type of life. He ived free from shame and guilt. It is said over and over in chapters one and two. Job was blameless. What does the blameless one do when he is jerked out of Eden by pain and loss? Does Job sin? Not really. He challenges God saying he’ll use God’s own laws against God in court. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, Job’s friends, try to put him in his place. But his unblemished character and raw, unfiltered honesty overpower their shallow reliance on tradition theology.
Then Elihu comes along, out of nowhere. He’s been listening all the while. Now he has something new to say. I caution patience with him. Elihu admits his own youth. He spends most of chapter 32 just telling Job how much he needs to speak. “Listen to me; let me also declare my opinion” (32:10). “I will also give my answer; I also will declare my opinion” (v.17). “I must speak, so that I may find relief; I must open my lips and answer” (v.20). “But now, hear my speech, O Job, and listen to all my words. See, I open my mouth …” (33:1-2a). Elihu, enough already! Out with it!
By the way, every verse I just read was a different verse, not a re-reading of the same one. He spends an entire chapter telling he’s getting ready to talk and that he’s mad at the three friends for failing to answer Job. Then when he finally gets going, much of what he has to say is irritatingly similar to their speech. So how, exactly, does he function for us as the serpent functioned for Eve. Listening to Elihu, you might be annoyed, but not tempted to disobey God.
That is true until we come to Chapter 33, beginning in verse 22. He’s running along the judgment tract, just like the self-righteous three friends, but then he brings in something new.
22Their souls draw near the Pit, and their lives to those who bring death.23Then, if there should be for one of them an angel, a mediator, one of a thousand, one who declares a person upright,24and he is gracious to that person, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down into the Pit; I have found a ransom;25let his flesh become fresh with youth; let him return to the days of his youthful vigor.’26Then he prays to God, and is accepted by him, he comes into his presence with joy, and God repays him for his righteousness.27That person sings to others and says, ‘I sinned, and perverted what was right, and it was not paid back to me.28He has redeemed my soul from going down to the Pit, and my life shall see the light.’
29“God indeed does all these things, twice, three times, with mortals,30to bring back their souls from the Pit, so that they may see the light of life.
That sounds more like the New Testament than what we’d read in Job. God rescues people – sinful people – from the pit of death. That person, says Elihu, acknowledged his sin and God redeemed him. He doesn’t use the word “mercy,” but that is what this sounds like. “He has redeemed my soul … my life shall see the light,” says Elihu. John 8:12: “Jesus spoke to them saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever followes me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’” Elihu is speaking the Gospel. This forgotten one, the overlooked voice in Job, is closest to our understanding of the truth we have from God.
And yet, in the book of Job, the story does not end with this Gospel of Elihu. In fact it is ignored, and the one who ignore this young man, Job, is the one exonerated by God. Elihu, the narrative implies, is so wrong and so off base, he doesn’t even warrant a response. Like the ranting of a 3rd party candidate who gets a few votes but no air time in CNN, Elihu is disregarded as inconsequential, unimportant, and wrong.
Gerald Janzen gives 8 reasons to read but not heed Elihu. (1) Job, in chapter 26, has anticipated what Elihu would say. There, he’s rebuking his friends, but his words work to turn back Elihu as well. They – the friends and Elihu – claim authority, but Job says the human being cannot even understand a whisper of the outskirts of God’s ways (26:14).
(2) The fact that God never, not once acknowledges Elihu’s existence much less his speech acts to undercut the legitimacy of his message. (3) In the epilogue of the story, Job is restored. His friends are forgiven for speaking wrongly about God, a charge more serious than we might suppose. Their forgiveness after Job prays for them. But three characters are never mentioned when the story is wrapped up – the Satan; Job’s wife, and, Elihu.
(4) As fervently as Elihu insists he won’t repeat the foolishness of Job’s three friends, much of his speech is exactly like theirs, and just as off. (5) When Elihu promises an angel will intercede for Job, he is promising something he knows nothing about. It is akin to a totally healthy person standing over the hospital bed of one in terrible pain and saying, “It’s not that bad and it will definitely turn out OK.”
(7) In chapter 35, Elihu says, “God does not hear an empty cry” (v.13). But Job’s cry is not empty. In fact, as the dialogues progress, Job’s prayers and complaints grow in richness and depth and sophistication. Elihu’s statement that God does not hear an empty prayer is right, but his implication, that Job’s prayers are worthless, is way off. Without meaning to, Elihu affirms Job’s approach to God. (8) A final undercutting of Elihu cited by Janzen is the motivation that drives his speech. Elihu thinks he is voicing God’s anger. But the reader knows God is not angry with Job. Elihu is venting anger – his own.
These arguments presented as they are by Gerald Janzen illustrate why Elihu, though some of his speech sounds great, is not to be trusted. He’s speaking what he does not know, standing on authority he does not have, and offering help that is not helpful. So why is Elihu in here? We’re right back to the Apostle Paul’s claim, that all scripture is designed to teach us about God. What is God teaching in the Elihu speeches?
Janzen offers this purpose, and I think he is spot on. He says, the Elihu speeches “stand beside the diving speeches [in chapters 38-41] to create a situation in which Job must decide which revelation is from God” (223). Eve had that moment: she remembered that God said if she ate of the tree of knowledge, she would die. But it looked so good. And the serpent seemed so smart. What was right?
Job knew the theology: if you are righteous, then your life will go well. If you suffer and your life does not go so well, then it must mean you weren’t so righteous. But he knew he was righteous. Now this Elihu speaks word … many words … flowery, hopeful words. And then the blast from the whirlwind. What, of all Job has heard and experienced, is the truth?
We open the Bible looking for God. Of the voices we hear, how do we recognize his?
Elihu shows that it is not enough to just read the Bible. When we read, we have to learn to read carefully. Maybe this means going back and reading the story again; maybe in different translations. Maybe we have to read in a group where we get to hear how others hear it. Just as living a life of faith requires something from us, reading the Bible requires mental and emotional investment on our parts. We have to work to understand God’s word.
Elihu also shows us that while theology is valuable it must be read in context. There is truth in some of what he said just as some of what the serpent said is true. But in the overall picture of Job’s story, Elihu’s words are ill-timed and without foundation. We have to know the truth to speak it. For us that means we have to know Christ before we can tell others about him. And when we read theology – writing about God – it has to fit in God’s story.
Finally, Elihu shows that when we read the Bible, reading it carefully and considering the overall story, we have to seek God. “Open my heart as I read, O Lord, so I will hear what you are saying to me. Make my heart responsive, O Lord, so when I hear what you have given me, I will live my life in obedience and I will be in your plans.”
We don’t read scripture so we can say we read it. We don’t read scripture so we can know answers or formulate theological stances. We read scripture hoping to meet God.
Eve followed the wrong voice and ended up cut off from God. Job ignored the deceiver and ended restored and redeemed. We end this morning turning to God in prayer. Last week we concluded praying for wisdom for America. Today we conclude praying that God would grant discernment to us as a church, a body of worshipers, and to us as individual Christ-followers. We will hear all kinds of voices. The noise is constant cacophonous as never before. O God, help us filter the noise and hear you.