Sermon for April 10th, 2022
Job 36:1-33 (OT p. 482)
Today’s scripture passage will be interspersed with the sermon. Let us pray…
Other Voices in the Book of Job: Elihu
Late one Saturday night, a pastor was preparing for his Sunday morning sermon. (Not me, of course, I would never procrastinate like that!). The pastor decided that he needed a visual demonstration for his sermon, which was about abstaining from worldly vices. So he went out into his garden in the dead of night, and dug around until he found four earthworms. He carried them back into his study and put each one in a separate jar: The first worm was put into a jar full of alcohol. The second worm was put into a jar full of smoke. The third worm was put into a jar full of chocolate syrup. The fourth worm was put into a jar containing good, clean soil. The next morning, at the conclusion of his sermon, the pastor brought out the four jars and announced the results: The worm placed in alcohol was dead. The worm placed in the jar full of smoke was dead. The worm placed in chocolate syrup was dead. And the worm placed in good clean soil was still alive and thriving. So the pastor asked his congregation, "What can we learn from this demonstration? A little old woman in the back quickly raised her hand and said, "As long as you drink, smoke or eat chocolate, you won't get worms!"
There’s always more than one way to interpret the data. Just like there’s always more than one way to interpret the scriptures.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus paraded into the streets of Jerusalem on a donkey, and the crowd hailed him as a conquering king. They cried out “Hosanna” and believed that he was the long awaited messiah who would deliver them from their Roman oppressors. But Jesus had a very different plan in mind—a very different interpretation of what it meant to be a messiah.
Today we wrap up our sermon series on the Book of Job, and here again, we’ve taken a very different interpretive approach: Most people who read the story see Job as a model of faithful patience, and they see his three so-called friends as insensitive at best, and downright mean-spirited at the worst. I have (hopefully) countered that interpretation, painting Job and his friends as real human beings, far from perfect, but doing the best they can as a micro-community supporting each other in difficult circumstances. And now, into that mix, comes one final voice—Elihu.
Elihu is not one of Job’s friends—he’s just someone who shows up randomly out of nowhere and begins to speak. Elihu is the last human being to speak in the story—after he stops speaking, God shows up in a whirlwind and takes over. Some biblical scholars think the Elihu speeches were inserted by a later author, someone who wasn’t satisfied with the words from Job and his friends, and wanted to add a better point of view.
The last time I preached on Elihu (back in 2014—you all remember it, right?) I suggested that this mysterious visitor might be a messenger from God, perhaps an angel, someone who prepares the way for God’s arrival, like a medieval herald, or like a modern day courtroom bailiff who says “all rise for the honorable judge” who is about to appear. And in today’s scripture passage—chapter 36, which is near the end of his speech—Elihu actually claims to speak for God.
Verses 1-4: Elihu continued and said: Bear with me a little, and I will show you, for I have yet something to say on God’s behalf. I will bring my knowledge from far away, and ascribe righteousness to my Maker. For truly my words are not false; one who is perfect in knowledge is with you.
These would be highly arrogant words...unless they actually happened to be true! In the Hebrew language, Elihu’s name literally means “My God is.” But my God is what? Well, he’s about to tell us.
Verses 5-7: Surely God is mighty and does not despise any; he is mighty in strength of understanding. He does not keep the wicked alive, but gives the afflicted their right. He does not withdraw his eyes from the righteous, but with kings on the throne he sets them forever, and they are exalted.
So far so good: God is good and fair and loves everyone. That was Job’s concern. But now he speaks to the concerns of Job’s three friends, who (as you’ll recall) have been going on about the fate of the wicked.
Verses 8-12: And if they are bound in fetters and caught in the cords of affliction, then he declares to them their work and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly. He opens their ears to instruction, and commands that they return from iniquity. If they listen, and serve him, they complete their days in prosperity, and their years in pleasantness. But if they do not listen, they shall perish by the sword, and die without knowledge.
In short, God punishes people when they do wrong, but he also gives them a chance to turn themselves around. God is a god of mercy. In other words, up to this point, Job is not entirely wrong, but neither are his friends. There is a third category, however—those who have abandoned God altogether, those who embrace evil and refuse to change.
Verses 13-14: The godless in heart cherish anger; they do not cry for help when he binds them. They die in their youth, and their life ends in shame.
The word “shame” here is actually a polite translation from the NRSV. If you look at the footnote in your pew bibles, it gives a more literal translation: “they end their days among the temple prostitutes.” I don’t think Elihu is saying that evil people die young—he’s saying they never actually grow up, and waste their lives in foolishness. But what about those who suffer for no apparent reason? You know, like Job?
Verses 15-16: He delivers the afflicted by their affliction, and opens their ear by adversity. He also allured you out of distress into a broad place where there was no constraint, and what was set on your table was full of fatness.
This is profound: Elihu is saying that God uses our suffering to save us from the real suffering, to help us grow beyond what we think is unbearable into what is better than we could imagine. It is precisely when we think we are most comfortable and content that we are most in spiritual danger, most enslaved by the constraints of the world. Imagine that you are sitting in a nice comfortable chair, happy and content, maybe even dozing off to a nice sleep. Suddenly, God pushes you out of your nice comfortable chair, and burns it to a crisp. Naturally you are upset with God—why would he do that? Why would he take something away from you that made you so happy? And then the freight train comes barreling through, and you realize that your nice comfortable chair was sitting on the train tracks. In your comfort, you were oblivious to the real danger.
That’s Job. But now Elihu turns his focus to Job’s well-meaning friends.
Verses 17-18: But you are obsessed with the case of the wicked; judgment and justice seize you. Beware that wrath does not entice you into scoffing, and do not let the greatness of the ransom turn you aside.
In other words, don’t let your good theology get in the way of your relationship. The picture you are painting of God may be correct, your intentions may be good, but chill out a little. You don’t have to defend God’s honor. God can do that just fine. Now Elihu turns back to Job.
Verses 19-23. Will your cry avail to keep you from distress, or will all the force of your strength? Do not long for the night, when peoples are cut off in their place. Beware! Do not turn to iniquity; because of that you have been tried by affliction. Who has prescribed for him his way, or who can say, ‘You have done wrong’?
It sounds at first like Elihu is saying, “Suck it up, Job. Deal with it.” But I think he’s actually saying, be careful. Don’t let your grief drag you too far into depression, to the point where you lose your faith, or set yourself up as the righteous judge of God’s actions. Ok, so then what? What should we do when dark despair threatens to overwhelm us, when sorrows like sea-billows roll?
Verses 24-25: Remember to extol his work, of which mortals have sung. All people have looked on it; everyone watches it from far away.
In other words, look up, Job. Look around you. If you look for the beauty and the majesty and the simple wonders of this world—you will find them. And then remember who made it all, and give thanks to him. Hope is the antidote to despair, and gratitude is the only source of lasting peace.
Why do bad things happen to good people? That’s an unanswerable question, and dwelling on it gets us nowhere. God is love, but God’s ways are ultimately mysterious to us in this life. Just because we don’t understand him doesn’t mean that we can’t love him and be loved by him.
Verses 26-30: Surely God is great, and we do not know him; the number of his years is unsearchable. For he draws up the drops of water; he distills his mist in rain, which the skies pour down and drop upon mortals abundantly. Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunderings of his pavilion? See, he scatters his lightning around him and covers the roots of the sea. And yet despite all the mystery, God still provides for his people. Verse 31-2: For by these he governs peoples; he gives food in abundance. He covers his hands with the lightning, and commands it to strike the mark.
I think the verse about lightning striking its mark is poetic: God knows what he’s doing, what he’s aiming for, even when we don’t.
The last verse in Elihu’s speech is about as mysterious as everything he’s saying about God. The NRSV translation puts it this way:
Its crashing tells about him; he is jealous with anger against iniquity.
But the NIV translation says:
His thunder announces the coming storm; even the cattle make known its approach.
The Aramaic Bible in Plain English translates the same verse this way:
He will show his possessions to his friends, also to the evil.
And as many different translations as you consult, each one will translate this verse a different way. Why? Look at the footnotes in your pew bible. See those words “Meaning of Hebrew uncertain”? The Book of Job contains some of the most difficult Hebrew in the entire Bible, and if you flip through it, you’ll find that footnote “Meaning of Hebrew uncertain” on almost every single page.
Even the best Hebrew scholars in the world throw up their hands in the air at some point and say, “I have no idea what this is saying. But here’s my best guess…”
That’s poetic. That’s ironic. It’s a great way to end this sermon series, and I think it’s a pretty good way to approach the Bible, our faith, our friendships, and our relationship with God: With persistence, but with humility. With conviction, but with grace. Some days we have no idea what we’re doing. So we do our best, and we trust that God (who knows exactly what he’s doing) is doing his best too, on our behalf.