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May 31 - Job 32-37 - "Elihu: Speaking for God"

MPC 31st May 2009.

Derek Hanna


I saw a movie a while ago called “Touching the Void”.

It’s a movie about a true story of two friends, Simon Yates and Joe Simpson who attempted to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. The problem came about as they were trying to descend, as they’d run out of fuel, and Simpson had broken his tibia, so couldn’t move properly. They tried to find the fastest way down the mountain, which meant abseiling themselves down the mountain directly. They had tied two ropes together, but the knot they used to tied the ropes together wouldn’t go through the belay plates. It meant Simon Yates was sitting on top of a cliff holding Joe Simpson, who was hanging about 100 feet below him over the cliff. He couldn’t see him, he couldn’t pull him up... and Joe Simpson was beginning to freeze being exposed like that. So Simon Yates cut the rope. Not knowing what was below, not knowing how his friend would fare... but it was the only hope for either of them. Now faced with a situation like that one - and it’s an extreme situation - the good decision isn’t necessarily the enjoyable one. In fact in this case, the only hope for life - for both of them - was to create some short term pain and suffering for both.

But I suspect that is far from how we view life should work. A good life is a comfortable life. A good decision is one that increases or maintains your present comfort level. I don’t say this as a criticism, as it’s our natural instinct. It’s self-preservation. When someone hurts us, we avoid them. When we find somewhere or some group we feel comfortable, we go back for more. I was looking at some pictures of one of my friends on Facebook the other day, and from his pictures his life and friendships revolve around his local pub. He had photos of being there, his updates referred to it, they had shirts with the logo on it, and people in the photos had tattoos of the pub’s emblem. But the underlying assumption in all of these scenarios is that comfort is something that is good and can be maintained. But perhaps the comfort that we have, or the comfort that we’re seeking is more like frostbite.

Perhaps our life is more like Joe Simpson’s than we want to admit. And perhaps our pursuit of comfort is stunting us coming to or growing like Jesus.

Now Elihu is an angry young man. He’s missed his morning dose of Valium, and he is on a rampage. Job 32:1-5:

So these three men stopped answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. But Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became very angry with Job for justifying himself rather than God. He was also angry with the three friends, because they had found no way to refute Job, and yet had condemned him. Now Elihu had waited before speaking to Job because they were older than he. But when he saw that the three men had nothing more to say, his anger was aroused.

He’s held his breath so long, and he can’t hold it any longer. But essentially Elihu’s issue is this - that they’ve reduced the issue to two-dimensions. On the one hand, Job is innocent of wrongdoing, and therefore God’s justice is brought in to question... (v.2) Or on the other hand, Job is guilty of wrongdoing, and therefore Job has been wrong all along. And with this two-dimensional argument, because Job has put a stronger case forward and the friends haven’t been able to prove him guilty (v.3)... the explanation that looks like triumphing is that God is unjust. But Elihu’s not accepting that answer. He’s steamed up, and so he says to Job, in verses 33:1-7:

 1 But now, Job, listen to my words; 
       pay attention to everything I say. 
 2 I am about to open my mouth; 
       my words are on the tip of my tongue. 
 3 My words come from an upright heart; 
       my lips sincerely speak what I know. 
 4 The Spirit of God has made me; 
       the breath of the Almighty gives me life. 
 5 Answer me then, if you can; 
       prepare yourself and confront me. 
 6 I am just like you before God; 
       I too have been taken from clay. 
 7 No fear of me should alarm you, 
       nor should my hand be heavy upon you.

If you remember last week we saw in Job’s speeches that one of the things he was afraid of was that if he brought his case before God, that it wouldn’t be a fair argument... as God by the sheer intensity and majesty of his being would overwhelm Job. But Elihu is saying to Job here... let’s pretend for the moment that I am God to you. I am going to examine your words, and I’m going to show you that the problem isn’t as two-dimensional as you might think.

Now the thing not in Elihu’s favour is that while his answer to Job has more depth and more insight... His understanding of what Job is saying is as shallow as his friends. Verses 8-11.:

 8 But you have said in my hearing - 
       I heard the very words - 
 9 'I am pure and without sin; 
       I am clean and free from guilt. 
 10 Yet God has found fault with me; 
       he considers me his enemy. 
 11 He fastens my feet in shackles; 
       he keeps close watch on all my paths.'

He thinks Job is claiming to be sinless. But Job never says that. What Job does say in this book is that he is not guilty. And there’s a big difference. You would have heard about the Australian lady in Thailand recently who was arrested because she allegedly stole a bar-mat after a party. Now my first question is, how big was her purse that she could fit a bar-mat in there... but I’m not sure that’s the most important question. It turns out though she didn’t do it. Someone was playing a prank on her. But the authorities didn’t find it that funny. They threw her in gaol, and she was facing up to a possible 5 year imprisonment. Now if you’d spoken to her, she would have said that she was innocent. Guilt free. Now that’s not to say she’s never done anything wrong in her life. Her point is that she hadn’t done anything in this instance to warrant that kind of gaol term. Now I checked on ebay, and I can get a bar mat for $10. Brand new. And I’ve never been to Thailand, but I suspect you can get a fake one for less than half of that. It’s hard to reconcile stealing a $10 bar mat, and spending 5 years in gaol.

And that has been what Job has been saying. If I’ve done anything wrong... it doesn’t compare to what I’m suffering. If this punishment were for sin... I must have done some pretty horrific. Even if you want to drag up my life beforehand, for whatever failings I had, I’m paying a million dollar fine for a 5 buck crime. I’m not guilty.

And we know he’s right. Because chapters 1-2 of Job have told us so. Job is blameless and upright. This is not punishment due to sin. Consider Job next time you are tempted to link your own or someone else’s suffering to sin.

But while Elihu gets Job wrong, he actually hits on something that is both profound and confronting.That God can use even suffering and pain for good. See how he says it. Elihu’s first point is that quite often God is shouting at mankind, and people are failing to hear. Job 33:12-14

 12 But I tell you, in this you are not right, 
       for God is greater than man. 
 13 Why do you complain to him 
       that he answers none of man's words? 
 14 For God does speak - now one way, now another -  
       though man may not perceive it.

Elihu argues that Job is looking for a one-dimensional answer - for God to speak using human words - whereas God isn’t restricted in the way he communicates and achieves his purposes. What kinds of ways? Well, dreams (v.15), through words in ears and warnings (v.16)... And even through suffering (v.19-28). That’s the new element that Elihu is bringing to this discussion. If you say you’re pure and sinless Job, and that you’re not being punished for your sin... Then ask the question what God is trying to tell you in your pain and suffering? What is God trying to communicate?

Now just take stock of what Elihu is saying here. He’s saying that the way in which God can choose to communicate something to mankind, is not always through the traditional way. God can choose to communicate to mankind in ways that we do not necessarily approve. Through sickness, war, disaster, death just as he can through dreams, visions, a word in the ear. And I suspect that our reaction to that is that it’s barbaric. What kind of good and loving God would communicate to people using those methods. They seem inconsistent with a God who is good and loving and fair. And they seem imprecise, a bit hit and miss as well. Because it might be hard to know what these things are communicating. How am I supposed to interpret my sickness? It’s not like it comes with a handwritten note. “Dear Job, here’s some swine flu. Please remember to serve me better in the future.”

But Elihu is saying that God in his greatness can in fact choose to communicate to us in ways that are surprising, imprecise... even ways that we think are barbaric. And if Elihu is right, and God communicates in a whole variety of ways - some that we might not approve of, then how do you know what God is communicating? What is his purpose in communicating in this way? Look at what Elihu says. Job 33:17-18; 26; 28-30:

to turn man from wrongdoing and keep him from pride, to preserve his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword... He prays to God and finds favor with him, he sees God's face and shouts for joy; he is restored by God to his righteous state... He redeemed my soul from going down to the pit, and I will live to enjoy the light. God does all these things to a man - twice, even three times - to turn back his soul from the pit, that the light of life may shine on him.

The answer it seems to Elihu is that God communicates in many and varied ways - in order to turn people back from destruction. That is, God obviously sees it as more important that people would turn back to Him, than for them to continue to live in comfort heading towards destruction. He says that God will use pain and suffering to get people’s attention, to snap them out of their apathy... in order that 5, 10, 15 years down the track they don’t have to feel the brunt of God’s anger for a much longer period of time. But it’s a hard argument to swallow. It’s a hard argument to take on board. Even if you know that God’s intention is to save people from what Elihu calls the pit. Because in a country where even smacking children for bad behaviour is frowned upon, who is going to respect a God who uses pain and suffering to achieve even good?

Does God still work like this? Is the God we see in Job, the same God we are dealing with today? Is the God we see in Job, the same God we see in Jesus? Now we actually know why Job was suffering in this book. But Job’s situation is so specific, but that means it’s near impossible for us to draw conclusions about what the purpose of our pain and suffering might be.

So Elihu begins a sketch in Job about how God uses pain and suffering, but here’s how the New Testament colours in those broad brush strokes. Firstly, this pain and suffering that Elihu mentioned should actually function as a wake up call to a world gone pear-shaped. A world that has rejected God. And the effects of that broken-ness affect everyone who lives in it. Irrelevant of whether they are good or bad. And that broken-ness is suppose to lead people to seek refuge and answers and comfort in the only place they can find it. God. In Luke 13:1-5, we have Jesus telling us a horrific story about the murder of some Galileans at the hands of Pilate. And about the death of some people because of a freak accident with a tower.

And the question is - were they worse sinners than everyone else? That is, what is the connection between their sin, and their suffering? You could put the question in our context like this: When that earthquake devastated Iran a few years ago, was it because they were Muslims? Or when the United States suffered under Huricane Katrina, was it because they were abandoning God? Or the bushfires in Victoria recently, was it because we worship our wealth?

They’re pretty offensive questions aren’t they? Jesus' answer to those questions is this. “No.”

But when you look around at the world, the broken-ness and the disasters you see, how fleeting life can be... You cannot help but feel that comfort is an illusion. It’s something you can maintain for a while, but it’s only a matter of time until it’s disrupted. And Jesus answer is to turn back to God while you still have a chance. These things are the effects of living in a fallen world... and they should drive us back to God. Don’t try and join the dots between suffering and sin. If Jesus wasn’t willing to do it, then you and I should avoid it like the plague. What they should do is make us long for a time when we don’t live with the certainty of death and disaster hanging over our heads.

So what does the New Testament have to say about those who do know God then? Well, the starting point in answering that question is understanding what God wants for his people. We know as Romans 8 says, that God is working in each and every situation to change us into being like Jesus. So when things seem good, God is changing us to be like Jesus. When things are tough, God is changing us to be like Jesus. In every situation in our life, God is moulding us into the people we will be for eternity. And sometimes being pushed into that mould isn’t going to be very comfortable. In fact, it can be downright painful. But it always for the same end - to make you like Jesus, and prepare you for what’s coming.

Listen to 1 Peter 1:6-7.

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

We suffer (and he is probably talking about being persecuted for being a Christian) so that what we are (God’s people) can be plainly seen, and our faith and trust in God is refined as if by fire. So that when things are brought to an end, and God fixes the broken-ness, we will be rewarded for sticking with it when we thought God had abandoned us. We will be rewarded for our faith and trust in God, even when the world denied his goodness. And sometimes it’s going to be that our suffering and grief is part of God loving us, and making sure we grow to be like Jesus. Look at Hebrews 12:4-12.

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.

Now don’t get the impression that every instance of suffering in the Christian life is discipline. There will be things that we do that have consequences. Things that we do that have a negative impact on our life. Things that we do that will bring pain and suffering to our lives. And you can read about some of those things in the rest of chapter 12 there. Gossip, causing division, sexual immorality.

But the suffering that is brought upon us by our own sin is not God’s rejection of us. He did not save us through Christ because we were sinless, and he does not maintain his relationship with us because we are sinless. He does it because he has adopted us into his family, because of what Christ has done. So the suffering that is caused by our sin is not rejection by God. It is in fact God loving you. Obviously not pleasant. But he loves you enough that he doesn’t leave you to your own devices so you drift away from him. And the end result should be... holiness, righteousness... being like God. That’s always His intention for His people.

The reality in this world is that a comfortable life is an illusion. All it is in degrees of more or less pain. In this country generally it’s less. But not always. Even if you avoid the pain of sickness and disease... you can’t escape the death of those you love. And the question you need to ask yourself is - do I want to try and seek comfort in a world where it’s an illusion... or do I want to look forward to a world where it is a reality. Will I listen to the warning signs in this world that are shouting at me to get back to God... Or will I block my ears and resign myself to this being as good as it will ever get.

If you are a Christian, will you hold on to the truth that you know about God even when you are suffering. Will you believe him when he says that in each and every circumstance in your life that he will mould you into the likeness of Jesus. Even when it might feel like he’s abandoned you. That’s his promise. As a father cares for his child, so he will care for you. So he will work with the pain and suffering that you are going to experience in a broken world to make you more like Jesus.

Comfortable is not always good. But growth is rarely painless. The question is, will you believe that God can work even in pain and suffering to accomplish his purposes in you. Will your suffering drive you towards God, or away from Him. Will your desire for comfort drive you towards an illusion, or towards the eternal reality. Painful decisions. But decisions worth making.