The Wrath of Elihu, by William Blake

One of the greatest mysteries in a book filled with mysteries is what to make of Elihu. He seems to appear out of nowhere, and after his speeches conclude, there is no further reference to him in the book. It’s almost as if someone from the street stumbled onto the stage of a musical, decided to sing a few songs, and then leave!

What are we to make of Elihu? Should we look at his four speeches as fundamentally different in tone and content from the friends? Does he add any new insight to the book? Does he get the reader a little closer to the truth about Job’s predicament?

While I respect the many commentators who take a positive view of Elihu, I completely disagree with this sentiment. In short, I believe Elihu is an arrogant blowhard, and that while he thinks he is making a new contribution to the dialogue between Job and the friends, he actually just rehashes what has already been said. Let me explain the reasons for my negative appraisal of Elihu:

First, God completely ignores him. After Elihu finishes speaking, the Lord says, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (38:2). Unlike some commentators, I don’t think the Lord is referring to Elihu – I actually think He is referring to Job. But what that means is that God utterly disregards the four speeches Elihu has just made. They don’t even merit comment. It is certainly difficult to imagine how the Lord’s total silence regarding Elihu’s comments could be interpreted as a plus for Elihu (try completely ignoring what a friend says for a few minutes and see how that comes across to them!).

Second, Elihu repeatedly accuses Job of sin. Citing Job’s protest of innocence (33:9), Elihu flatly says, “In this you are not right” (33:12). But wait – Job is right! The first verse of the book says so (1:1). And God says so – twice (1:8; 2:3). But Elihu makes the same false accusations about Job that the friends ultimately leveled against him. Job “travels in company with evildoers” (34:8); Job “answers like wicked men” and “adds rebellion to his sin” (34:36-37); and as a result, Job is now “full of the judgment on the wicked” (36:17). One thing we know for certain is that the friends were wrong in their accusations against Job. Elihu makes the same charges, and therefore he is wrong as well.

Third, Elihu completely distorts what Job actually said. The worst example of this is his allegation about Job in 34:9-

For he has said, “It profits a man nothing
    that he should take delight in God.”

Did Job say something like this? Yes – when he was quoting what the wicked think in their hearts!

They say to God, “Depart from us!
    We do not desire the knowledge of your ways.
What is the Almighty, that we should serve him?
    And what profit do we get if we pray to him?” (21:14-15)

Like a political operative who twists the words of an opponent to put the worst possible spin on his words, Elihu snatches this statement from Job’s speeches out of its context to make Job appear to claim that one should only serve God if he gets some profit in return. Ironically, this is the very accusation the Accuser makes about Job (in 1:9), an accusation that Job’s stubborn commitment to God in spite of losing everything totally undermines. Elihu could not have perverted the message of the book more egregiously than in this distortion of Job’s actual words.

Fourth, Elihu adds nothing to the discussion between Job and the friends. Many commentators point to Elihu’s comments in 36:15 as a new insight:

He delivers the afflicted by their affliction
    and opens their ear by adversity.

And in and of itself, this statement is undeniable. God does “open the ear” through adversity, using it to train us to become more like Him (as Hebrews 12:1-10 teaches). But this is not a fresh insight in the Book of Job. In the very first speech of the friends, Eliphaz makes precisely the same point-

Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves;
    therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty.
For he wounds, but he binds up;
    he shatters, but his hands heal. (5:17-18)

And yet nothing in the book indicates that the Lord was chastening Job through his suffering. Indeed, if there is anyone who really is being sent a message through the adversity of Job, it is not Job but the Accuser, who claims that no one will remain faithful to God in the face of personal suffering (2:4). It is of course the case that Job learns a great deal from his experiences in this book, primarily from the Lord’s speeches in Job 38-41. But God was not afflicting him to open his ear. Job’s ear was already open to the Lord as one who “feared God and turned away from evil” (the first verse of the book!!!).

Fifth, Elihu is the stereotypical brash windbag. Elihu is introduced to us as an angry young man, with the text emphasizing that “he burned with anger” three times in four verses (32:2-5). While he claims to have deferred to the wisdom of the older and wiser in 32:6-7, he quickly avers that the old are not wise and demands, “Listen to me” (32:10). By the time we get to 36:4, Elihu declares,

For truly my words are not false;
    one who is perfect in knowledge is with you.

Just imagine how the people in my church would react if I made the same proclamation this Sunday!

Sixth, Elihu is a firm believer in the Principle of Retribution. Remember that this is the concept that God’s governance of the world follows the simple law of sowing and reaping without exception. It is the same paradigm by which the friends assume Job must be wicked. Elihu clearly holds to the same dogmatic view of this principle.

For according to the work of a man he will repay him,
    and according to his ways he will make it befall him. (34:11)

The overall message of the book is that this principle does not account for all of God’s providential rule of the world. And since Elihu repeatedly voices support for this principle (as in 36:6; 36:11-12), the book ultimately discredits him just like the friends.

Seventh, Elihu’s contention that Job will never see God is grossly mistaken. Job repeatedly requests to see God, to take his case before the Lord. Elihu is confident this will never happen.

For God has no need to consider a man further,
    that he should go before God in judgment. (34:23)

He actually wishes that Job could make his case, because then Job would get the punishment he really deserves (34:36-37)! But this won’t happen, because God doesn’t really listen to any of us, not even the genuinely oppressed, and certainly not a wicked man like Job-

Because of the multitude of oppressions people cry out;
    they call for help because of the arm of the mighty.
But none says, “Where is God my Maker,
    who gives songs in the night,
who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth
    and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens?”
There they cry out, but he does not answer,
    because of the pride of evil men.
Surely God does not hear an empty cry,
    nor does the Almighty regard it.
How much less when you say that you do not see him,
    that the case is before him, and you are waiting for him! (35:9-14)

As far as Elihu is concerned, God is totally inaccessible (37:23), and it is impossible for us to take our case before Him (36:23; 37:19). In an almost taunting tone, Elihu asks Job-

Will your cry for help avail to keep you from distress (36:19)

As it turns out, the answer is yes! Job’s cry does avail him, and he does see God.

Perhaps this is why nothing more is explicitly said about Elihu after he concludes. What more needed to be said? The pompous Elihu claimed that Job would never see God, that God didn’t care about Job or hear his cry.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind (38:1).

In and of itself, that statement speaks volumes about just how insightful the self-proclaimed “perfect in knowledge” actually was.