The Question of Elihu

Dearest Rachel –

There are certain passages and characters in the Bible whose existence give me pause. I talked with you a few times when I was trying to put together scripts for a possible YouTube channel about the problems I always had with Manassah, who seemed to defy the wisdom of the Proverbs by being both the wickedest king in Judah’s history and yet its longest-ruling one at the same time. Compare that to verses that speak of how a government must be established in righteousness (16:12), and that the mind of a king can be controlled by God as easily as the flow of water within a canal (21:1), and you find yourself wondering how this man was allowed to be so wicked for so long, dooming Judah beyond even Josiah’s ability to repent for his nation.

And of course, there is so much of the book of Job to wrestle over. It’s supposedly tailor-made for anyone going through hardship (if nothing else, it reminds you that better people have suffered greater, so whatever you’re dealing with becomes just a little lighter – it reminds me of a bit from Avenue Q that I may touch on in another letter), so, needless to say, I’ve been paying particular attention to it throughout this year, and not just because it’s on my calendar of chapters to read at present (although that does bring it a little further to the fore for now). And yet, one finds oneself wondering what to do with it. Everyone knows that the three friends will be proven wrong in the end, so why does the scripture even bother with what they have to say? If their words are ultimately worthless, why elevate them to a level on par with holy writ?

The closest thing I can guess (and for all the studying I’ve done in my life, I will be the first to admit to being more of a dilettante when in comes to theology, so don’t take this as gospel – heh) is that they raise certain arguments people still have about the existence and unfairness of evil circumstances. The fact that God berates them at the end establishes that their conclusions are wrong, while at the same time acknowledging that people will come to these conclusions. It sort of renders the three friends into strawmen; except that the reader would expect a strawman to be sliced apart with reason and logic, but that never really happens. Oh, sure, Job argues with them about their contentions (“Look, you guys, I’ve been a righteous man; you know this. I don’t think I deserve what’s happening to me any more than the next guy, and probably less!”), but it doesn’t dissuade them in the slightest (“Job, be reasonable. One, God blesses the faithful and punishes the wicked, amirite? Two, we don’t see you all the time; maybe you’ve put a really good front all this time, and while we don’t see it, God does. I’m telling you, man, repent! Of whatever; you know what you did.”). Indeed, they get more and more frustrated that their old buddy can’t seem to listen to reason, until they finally realize they’re wasting their breath and stop arguing – which ironically, returns them to the way they were for the first week after they came to see Job in the first place, and where they were probably doing him the most good in any event. Now, they are silent once again, but it’s not the companionable silence; it’s one of tension, anger and broken fellowship between them.

And here is where a fifth character enters the scene. And what he has to say, like so much of the entire book, raises more questions for me than answers.

Elihu at least has the grace to wait for everyone else to finish speaking. He’s clearly younger than everyone else, so he figures the older men know what they’re talking about. And yet, as the conversation becomes an argument, and the argument goes nowhere, the kid finds himself getting annoyed with what everybody is saying. To him, Job seems to be claiming more righteousness than God – well, now, that can’t be right – but the other old men aren’t convincing, either.

So he pipes up after everyone else has basically worn themselves out, and lays into Job just as the others have done. But rather than claim he’s done something wrong to merit the sufferings he’s experiencing, he points out that Job’s reaction to his sufferings are inappropriate. To claim that God is unjust simply cannot be true; who are we, in comparison to Him to determine what is or is not just?

And then, he adds a twist not considered by the other ‘comforters’:

“Those who have ·wicked [L godless] hearts hold on to anger.
    Even when ·God punishes [L he imprisons] them, they do not cry for help.
They die while they are still young,
    and their lives end ·in disgrace [L among male prostitutes].
But God saves those who ·suffer [are afflicted] ·through [or by means of] their ·suffering [affliction];
    he ·gets them to listen [L opens their ear] ·through [or by means of] their pain.

Job 36:13-15, Expanded Bible

Elihu suggests that suffering can be a means to bring someone (in this case, Job) that much closer to God – assuming he is willing to listen to what He is trying to say through it.

And this certainly makes sense to one’s human ears. Indeed, secular philosophers have arrived at a similar conclusion – most notably, Nietzsche’s aphorism that “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” – but this adds a spiritual facet to that assertion.

But is it correct? By the thirty-seventh chapter, Elihu is practically shouting, trying to make himself heard over the whirlwind that about to interrupt him, and his message seems to become disjointed in his efforts to speak over nature – or rather, God Himself. And then, God speaks, Elihu falls silent – and nothing is said about him or his discourses.

It’s almost worse than my earlier question about the three friends. If their speeches are left in to identify what a wrong conclusion looks like, where does that put what Elihu says? God doesn’t agree with him, or condemn him; He just ignores him.

So is he right, or not? Taken from a certain angle, one might think so, but taken from a similar angle, the three friends might seem to have their points (even the much-later-written book of Proverbs tends to suggest wisdom and righteousness lead to success and prosperity; only the fact that Ecclesiastes – which is written by the same author – argues that ‘it ain’t necessarily so’ tempers that assertion. It’s why Jesus’ disciples were astonished by His turning away the rich young ruler with a requirement he could not find within himself to follow; prosperity and success were by then considered proof of wisdom and righteousness). So the fact that his words are ignored seem to be a puzzle. Right, or wrong? God only knows, and He doesn’t say.

I wish I had an answer to this, but this is where I stand; just as confused as anyone. I know that I always say it, but it bears repeating: you probably have those kind of answers where you are, but you can no more relay them to us than you can communicate with us on any other matter. Someday, we’ll meet again, and I’ll understand, too.

Until then, darling, I love you, I miss you, and I’ll try to stay strong.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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