Sermon for April 6th, 2014
Job 32:1-10 Get Ready (for Elihu)
1So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. 2Then Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became angry. He was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God; 3he was angry also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, though they had declared Job to be in the wrong. 4Now Elihu had waited to speak to Job, because they were older than he. 5But when Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouths of these three men, he became angry.
6Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite answered: ‘I am young in years, and you are aged; therefore I was timid and afraid to declare my opinion to you. 7 I said, “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom.” 8But truly it is the spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding. 9It is not the old that are wise, nor the aged that understand what is right. 10Therefore I say, “Listen to me; let me also declare my opinion.”
If you have faithfully paying attention up to this point our sermon series on the "other voices" in the Book of Job; if you've been following along with the story, and the characters, and the conversations, there should be one glaring question on your mind right noaw, after listening to the opening verses of chapter 32. It's probably the same question that's on the minds of Job and his three friends: Who the 'El is Elihu? Or to put it more succinctly...Eli...who??
That's actually a really good question. Often readers will lump Elihu together with Job's friends, but in chapter two, when the friends are first introduced, Elihu's name is not among them. During the back and forth conversation between Job and his friends, Elihu is never once mentioned and never speaks a word. He just suddenly appears right here in chapter 32, although it seems obvious from his words that he has been listening to the conversation for awhile (we just have no idea how long). Elihu speaks through this and the next five chapters without being interupted a single time by Job. Neither Job nor any of the friends ever respond to Elihu's words. In fact, once he finishes speaking, he's never mentioned in the book again. When God rebukes Job, and then rebukes Job's three friends, Elihu is left out of that list, too. He simply appears out of nowhere, speaks passionately for six chapters, and then disappears.
Elihu is a puzzle, a mystery. His speeches don't fit the pattern we've seen thus far between Job and his friends. His entire presence in this story seems (at first glance) awkward and out of place. This has led some scholars to speculate that chapters 32-37 were inserted into the book at a later date, and not part of the original composition. While that's entirely possible, I think a closer look at this strange, often neglected and misunderstood voice in the book of Job yields some amazing, eye-opening, and inspiring possibilities.
So what do we know about Elihu? On the surface, he seems to have some identifying characteristics in chapter 32. Let's explore some of them:
- We know his name: אֱלִיה֣וּא בֶן־בַּרַכְאֵ֣ל
- Elihu: My God exists / my God is
- Ben Barachel: a child of God's blessing
- Also see בּוּזָה (despised) and רוּם (exalted)
- We know that he is young (but how young?)
- We know that he is angry (but he is also patient)
So Elihu remains a paradox, a mystery, despite his supposed "credentials." We have been introduced to him, and yet we really don't know him at all. Let's continue reading, in the hopes of finding a clue somewhere in his words. For the rest of chapter 32 and the beginning of chapter 33, Elihu rebukes Job's friends, then rebukes Job (who else does that?). And having thus equally decimated all on the playing field, reducing everyone's arguments to the dung heap, Elihu turns his focus heavenward, and begins to build his case about God.
Job 33:14-28 God's Justice / God's Mercy
14For God speaks in one way, and in two, though people do not perceive it. 15In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on mortals, while they slumber on their beds, 16 then he opens their ears, and terrifies them with warnings, 17 that he may turn them aside from their deeds, and keep them from pride, 18to spare their souls from the Pit, their lives from traversing the River. 19They are also chastened with pain upon their beds, and with continual strife in their bones, 20so that their lives loathe bread, and their appetites dainty food. 21Their flesh is so wasted away that it cannot be seen; and their bones, once invisible, now stick out. 22 Their souls draw near the Pit, and their lives to those who bring death.
Elihu does not sugar-coat his understanding of God. This is actually pretty terrifying stuff--he says that God himself is the source of nightmares, pain, suffering, and death. He hints at a larger purpose for these things, but ultimately God's ways are beyond our powers of perception. I'm also reminded here of Paul's teaching in Romans that everyone has sinned, and everyone falls short in the end. But just when we think things are getting far too bleak...enter mercy. Enter a savior.
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 vigour”; 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. 28 He has redeemed my soul from going down to the Pit, and my life shall see the light.”
If there should be...an angel. A mediator. One who declares a person upright. A redeemer, who ransoms an unworthy soul from darkness into light. Can you think of anyone in the scriptures who fits that description? Incidentally, the word translated here as "angel" is the Hebrew word מַלְאָ֗ךְ. It simply means messenger--one who brings a message.
Elihu in Art
At this point in our search for Elihu's identity, I'd like for us to turn again to the world of art. Sometimes an artist, with carefully trained eye, will pick up on things in the text that others miss.
Notice anything the two depictions have in common with each other? How about with this Biblical figure(as depicted by several famous artists)?
The gospel of Mark (quoting Isaiah) calls John the Baptist a messenger: "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."
Elihu and John the Baptist both point to God. But is it possible that Elihu is also, like John the Baptist, preparing the way? And for what? Or who?
Job 37:1-4, 8-13 Get Ready (for God)
1‘At this also my heart trembles, and leaps out of its place. 2Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth. 3Under the whole heaven he lets it loose, and his lightning to the corners of the earth. 4After it his voice roars; he thunders with his majestic voice and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard.
8Then the animals go into their lairs and remain in their dens. 9From its chamber comes the whirlwind, and cold from the scattering winds. 10By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast. 11He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning. 12They turn round and round by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world. 13Whether for correction, or for his land, or for love, he causes it to happen.
Immediately after Elihu's speeches, God shows up in a big way. He speaks out of a whirlwind, not unlike what Elihu is describing here. He speaks powerfully and forcefully, causing Job to quickly rethink his demand that God explain himself. Incidentally, God does not, in any of the four chapters in which he speaks, explain himself to Job or anyone else.
In the medieval world, the arrival of the King would be signaled by the fanfare of trumpets, and the proclamation of the herald. In a modern courtroom, the bailiff announces the entrance of the judge by saying "All Rise! The court is now in session, the honorable Judge so-and-so presiding." At a State of the Union address, upon the arrival of the President, the Sergeant at Arms says "Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States."
I said at the beginning of the sermon that Elihu's arrival and speeches don't fit the pattern of the other speeches, that they seem awkward and out of place. If you take Elihu to be merely a "fourth friend" this would be true. But if we see him as a messenger, a herald, preparing for the entrance of the creator of the universe, his arrival, his presence, and all of his words fall into place. He is a transition, a bridge between the words of men and the words of God.
Is Elihu a man like John the Baptist, or is he an angel, a messenger from heaven who appears suddenly and vanishes when his work is done? I'll leave that one for you to decide, but before we part company with Elihu, I want to go back to something he says, back in chapter 35. It's an interesting little passage, because for all the hundreds of questions the book of Job raises, it actually provides very few answers. God speaks to Job, but he doesn't answer any of his questions. Elihu, on the other hand, does offer one tiny, little answer to one of Job's many questions. Job has asked, essentially, what's the point? If good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people, why bother being good?
Job 35:4-8 Elihu's Answer
4I will answer you and your friends with you. 5Look at the heavens and see; observe the clouds, which are higher than you. 6If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him? And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him? 7If you are righteous, what do you give to him; or what does he receive from your hand? 8Your wickedness affects others like you, and your righteousness, other human beings.
If the only reason you do good things with your time here on earth is so that God will reward you...and the only reason you avoid bad things is to avoid God's punishment...then you have missed out on something beautiful and wonderful. Something called love. God doesn't need your goodness. And there is no bad thing you could do that could possibly harm God. But we live in a world filled with people, and our actions--good or bad--affect those around us, and even those half a world away from us.
God loves all of the people that he created, whether they are rich or poor, lucky or unlucky, old or young, suffering or celebrating. What God asks of us--and this is where I wrap up everything we've talked about over the past five weeks--what God asks of us is not that we spin our wheels trying to prove ourselves righteous before God, because we can't. But we can be more righteous in our dealings with each other.
We can't understand God in all his mystery and wonder...but we can try to understand each other a little better, in conversation, in dialogue, and in friendship.
We can't prevent tragedies from happening...but we can be there for each other when they do, in silence and in words of encouragement, through the long days and the lonely nights.
We can't always expect that God will speak to us face to face from the whirlwind (nor should we want that, if we are wise). But we can expect God's messengers to find us and walk with us through adversity. And we can hope to be God's messengers for others in the time of their adversity.
The Book of Job is not the story of a lone man, crying out to God in his suffering and solitude. The story of Job is a story of community: Job and his wife; three faithful friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar; Elihu the messenger--and God in the midst of the community throughout. May we all be so blessed. And may we all BE such a blessing.