Who is Elihu? That young man, whose name means “He is my God”, who turns up at the end of the Book of Job. Who introduces himself with diffidence. Thoroughly trashes Job’s friends. Has a word of two for Job. Sets God up for the final discourse between God and Job. And vanishes! Another of the young prophets that God plucks from tending their flocks and orders them to speak his words to kings? Or perhaps like those mysterious creatures who appear as men in white garments or as luminous beings. Who tells preteen girls and old women they will become pregnant, scaring the sandals off shepherds in the night, feeding forlorn prophets? They, too, come and go. Vanish. And if not, why did those three self-assured friends let him waltz in and proclaim with authority, and without counterpunching with the platitudes of self-approbation. “You are young. You don’t understand” (Eliphaz); “You don’t know the law, so shut up” (Bildad); “That is the most arrogant thing I ever heard” (Zophar).
It wasn’t until I read the third English translation of Job and paged through commentaries that I realized that Elihu spoke the language of redemption, not of cringing, or parroting the Law, or making a false confession to please the crowd. But speaking to God, opening up to God with the honesty of the soul, even in pain and frustration, anger but never fear, which may make us turn inward, and not to God. Is prophesy arrogant? Even some of the Early Church Fathers castigated Elihu for arrogance. But is this true to the text? If his words come from God through the Spirit sent by Jesus yet unborn, is that arrogance or authority?
Elihu turns up in Job 32, and today’s reading is a selection of Elihu’s speech from that and the next chapter. Job 32:1-10, 32:19-33:1, 33:19-28. It would be well to take the time to read it all without the deletions. From the beginning, Job 32:2-3, Elihu is angry with Job for self-justification, not accepting God as ultimately just. But angrier with the three friends for their failure to find an answer. He proclaims in his prophetic voice, “See, I open my mouth; the tongue in my mouth speaks” (Job 33:2). He says that his words are upright, because, “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Is he not announcing himself as God’s messenger? For the rest of the chapter he proclaims God’s supremacy over all, but a God that does care, that leads and awakens, punishes, redeems. Shaddai, the Spirit of God, is active. God brings “back [our] souls from the Pit, so that they may see the light of life” (Job 33:30). God is life and light. Having described how God’s mercy brings us from the Pit of our sin, back to the light of life, he says to Job, “Pay heed, Job, listen to me; be silent, and I will speak. If you have anything to say, answer me; If not, listen to me; be silent, and I will teach you wisdom” (Job 33: 31-31). Note, he offers Job a chance to be heard. And he speaks with the authority to speak wisdom.
In Chapter 34, Elihu rounds on the three friends, first praising Job for his courage and honesty, at least as Job sees it. Yes, flawed, but honest. From the heart. Elihu says, “For Job has said, ‘I am innocent, and God has taken away my right; in spite of being right I am counted a liar; my wound is incurable, though I am without transgression.’ Who is there like Job, who drinks up scoffing like water” (Job 34:5-7). Job has wrestled with his loyalty in the face of what seems unjust. He only wants to present his case before God. But he hasn’t fallen to a false confession. He hasn’t yielded to the will of the crowd. In Chapter 35, Elihu drops the other shoe, so to speak. Look up at the wonder of God. He reminds Job that this is not all about Job. But at least Job faced the ambiguity. And in the ambiguity, the lack of certainty, is room for growth. Confusion is the ultimate vulnerability. That Job fights so hard is faith, and in his despair, even a kind of love. Someone you don’t care about can’t betray you.
Let us go back to Job as a Suffering Servant. Did not Jesus wrestle with what he was being called to do, to surrender, to suffer, to die? Jesus was not God in a man suit. He was a man. A man who by his divine nature was righteous, living in a very unrighteous world. Elihu is pointing out that what happened to Job makes no human sense, but it is God’s sense. Elihu, who speaks for God, reminds Job that we can’t win an argument, with God, or buy a favor with a bribe. It is God, alone, who gives songs in the night (Job 35:10, RSV, NIV; the NRSV says “strength, in the night” which may be true, but doesn’t reflect the peace and grace of God).” This is the gist of Elihu’s teaching. It is all about God’s grace. Not about worldly wisdom or strict obedience, and certainly not about harassment. The three had no right to badger Job. Job was in conversation with God, and like all discernment, all pilgrimages, understanding is a gift of grace. We can only ask and wait.
Until the Incarnation, Israel was led, or at least warmed, by prophets. But in an allegorical way, Job and Elihu taken together are almost a foretaste of Jesus yet to come. Job is Everyman in this sinful world. Elihu is the embodied voice of a God who is a loving father. It is Elihu who reveals the path to reconciliation between creature and Creator, which will be fully accomplished by Jesus.
Until God enters in chapter 38, Elihu praises God in terms of the natural world, and teaches that God cares for us, and only corrects us to bring us to his light. Elihu is now acting as the uplifting spiritual director, redirecting Job to Glory, not to Suffering. Matching Job’s honesty, his compassion allows Job to turn to God. To make a real confession. A personal one between himself and the God who made him, and loves him despite, or even because of, his pain and suffering. It wraps the human condition into a larger mantle. Job has said throughout that he doesn’t understand why evil rulers can be powerful and rich and get away with it. This was at the heart of his seeking justice. And with Elihu’s words, he is ready to hear God’s voice, and repent. But not in performance, pleasing to his wise friends, but in simple glorification of God. Job is ready to give up his false illusions.
Do we not now live out Job’s life? The national situation is horrendous. What started out as a cry for the end to systemic racism is rapidly turning into a race war, and dozens of identity wars. We need to pray that our mouths be filled with the Spirit so that we can proclaim, not in arrogance, but with authority, God’s Truth. But right now we feel like Job. But we are also Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, insisting on our own wisdom in our ignorance, and, in doing so, distracting from the only true Wisdom, that of God. We need to make our confession, but not a breast-beating act of showmanship, but humble in the wonder and grace of God. As did Job.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She is a postulant in the Episcopal religious order, The Sisters of St. Gregory. She lives with her cats, books, and garden. Soli Deo Gloria.