God, Job and Elihu
Every believer has, at some time or other in life, asked the same questions as Richard:
Does God really care? If so, why won’t he reach down and fix the things that go wrong — at least some of them?
Suffering affects everybody. For some lucky people, adversity visits rarely, while misfortune stalks others constantly. Then you have the truly wretched individuals, those born into the misery of famine or war, enduring a handful of incomprehensibly tormented years before perishing prematurely, unnoticed, and unlamented by the world.
Believers have long struggled to reconcile belief in an all-powerful, all-good God with the presence of physical and moral evil. Here we will merely lay the starting point for dealing with this knotty problem.
Remember Job? Undoubtedly you do. When Job’s previously untroubled life turned horribly rancid in mere moments through the sudden loss of all his children and a scourging of prolonged, painful torment, he was at a loss as to what to make of it. He had lived an exemplary life; he knew it, and he knew God knew it. Then why his fall from felicity? Over and over Job declares that he would like to argue his case with God as in a legal trial, convinced that he could prove God was behaving unjustly towards him. Three good friends came to give him solace; the book of Job consists largely of their words of comfort which, unfortunately, proved misspoken. God later rebuked them for misrepresenting Him.
Then a younger man, Elihu, appeared as if from nowhere. Significantly, Elihu was not reprimanded for misrepresenting God as the other three were. His words, found in chapters 32–37, pave the way for the appearance of God Himself in chapters 38–41. Together, they present the appropriate response to Job’s not-so-silent scream.
The book’s specific purpose is to elucidate the authority, the moral superiority, and the supremacy of God in all things. God is transcendent, so utterly, incomprehensibly great, exalted so far above us specks of protoplasm that the only appropriate response from us is unstinting, unconditional submission. To question Him in any way whatsoever is completely inappropriate, beyond the pale of rationality.
Considerable attention is usually given to Elihu’s teaching on suffering, whereas he has little to say on the matter. His great concern is with the nature and action of God.
The solution lies in perspective. We must lift our eyes from our pitifully insignificant, transitory, dusty dream world and train our gaze on the invisible yet only real world, the realm of eternity, infinity, glory, and majesty that is God. Rather than questioning or denouncing God, the only appropriate response for an intellectually honest creature when confronted by the divine reality is adoration, worship, praise.
Elihu spends chapter 32 and the first 11 verses of chapter 33 “softening up” Job for the hard but healing solution to his spiritual agony. Then he opens his argument with these words:
Behold, in this you are not right. I will answer you. God is greater than man (Job 33:12 RSV).
Elihu’s seemingly bland words here pack a mighty punch. Right from the get-go he formally introduces the chief point of his corrective polemic: God is in a totally different league from us. The remainder of Elihu’s soliloquy consists of a magnification and elucidation of the implications of this foundational truth. We reach the high point of Elihu’s argument in 34:10–15:
Therefore listen to me, you men of understanding: Far be it from God to do wickedness, and from the Almighty to commit iniquity. For He repays man according to his work, and makes man to find a reward according to his way. Surely God will never do wickedly, nor will the Almighty pervert justice. Who gave Him charge over the earth? Or who appointed Him over the whole world? If He should set His heart on it, if He should gather to Himself His Spirit and His breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.
For a verse by verse commentary, see below at Job 34:10-15
Tate summarizes the ideas: “Elihu contends that the creator cannot be evil… God cannot be unjust in his nature. The creator is supreme and without motivation to do wrong. The divine authority is not derived, and thus not dependent”. Everything that exists, absolutely everything, down to the last atom, is of His making. Elihu continues:
Behold, God is great, and we do not know Him; nor can the number of His years be discovered (36:26).
From that point on to the end of his speech He appeals to the immeasurable majesty of God’s creative works as convincing proof of this statement. His argument is simple yet bullet-proof. If God designed and brought into being all the phenomena that we are aware of and over which we have no control, if He is the giver of human life, then to question His motivation, power, justice or goodness stands exposed as the height of perverse folly.
As Creator of all things, He has the unbounded right to do whatever He wills, and His Will must always be right. To suggest He could be unjust in His dealings with His creatures should rightly provoke ridicule. To hint at even a hint of incompetence in His dealings should be laughed out of court. His governance of the universe cannot possibly be flawed in the tiniest way. Simple logic tells us that for a creature with an IQ not much over 100 to contend with One of infinite intelligence amounts to insanity on steroids. So too for one who has lived a few decades to imagine he is more virtuous than Him who inhabits eternity. What pride, what arrogance, what vanity.
Elihu concludes his discourse with a protracted description of the power and majesty displayed by a thunderstorm. God then appears on the scene in a terrifying whirlwind, filling the frame, while all the human players shrink from view. God takes Elihu’s incisive argument to its conclusion with total authority and breathtaking clarity accompanied, undoubtedly, by signs and wonders.
Over the course of the next four chapters, God throws example after example of His mighty creative works at Job, pointing out that Job was not around when many mighty works were done (38:2–11), that he has absolutely no power to control or change nature’s processes (38:12–15), that he has no access to those regions where mighty phenomena such as snow are generated (38:16–30) and even less to wonders in space (38:31–32), and so on. Job is powerless to “feed the animals”, yet they prosper (38:39–41). He has zero influence over animal behaviour; they do precisely what God-created instinct leads them to do (39:1–10). Could Job train an ostrich to be more solicitous of the welfare of its young (39:13–18)? Never.
For Job, the combined effect of exposure to God’s mighty works together with recognition of his own incapacity to meet the simple challenges presented him by God was overwhelming. God’s withering cannonade of simple logic blasted Job’s entire legal challenge against Him to shreds. Finally, the lights went on. God’s mysterious strategy for bringing Job to full conversion had its desired salubrious effect:
I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You (Job 42:5, RSV).
Job had had a deep, “academic” faith in God, as had his three friends. Now he saw God for what He really is — infinitely holy, majestic, powerful, intelligent — and he was dumbfounded. No more questioning of God’s integrity, wisdom or goodness would ever be entertained by Job.
Stop and think. God has eternally existed. He created two thousand billion galaxies and all the space in between. All the scientists in the world cannot create a single atom! Further, He is maintaining the laws of physics and chemistry that sustain the operation of the entire universe nanosecond be nanosecond. Human beings, made of atoms, occupying a few litres of space, lasting for mere decades before dying, decaying, and stinking, are amoebae. All of us put together are “counted by Him less than nothing and worthless” (Is. 40:17). To God we are beloved children but compared with Him we are bagatelles.
Bow before God, worship Him, believe Him, trust Him. Acknowledge that He has the moral right to do whatever pleases Him. Recognize that He is our judge, we are not His judge. The Creator of everything will never take the dock to be cross-examined by mere creatures. Never!
But how can I love a creator who allows people to be eaten by sharks? Stop, stop, stop. Do not go there. Bow before Him, worship Him, fear Him. Love Him. Trust Him. True, God shows much mercy towards believers who do struggle with these sorts of questions, as He understands our short-sightedness very well, as evidenced by His longsuffering towards Job:
You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the LORD — that the LORD is very compassionate and merciful (Jas. 5:11).
But let us refrain from trying His compassion and mercy.
Far be it from God to do wickedness, and from the Almighty to commit iniquity (vs.10).
The Hebrew here translated “far be it from” is rendered elsewhere as “God forbid”, or “certainly not”, the emphasis being on the abhorrence of the mere idea of doing such a thing. God’s transcendence sets Him in a “wholly other” realm from human beings. We fall into sin as easily as falling off a log, whereas the Holy One is utterly incapable of doing anything that even hints of wrongdoing. Think about it. God created absolutely everything that exists; He has no need of anything at all, so could never be tempted to take what doesn’t belong to Him. He cannot lust after things He has made. He could not lie when He has no felt need to mislead His creatures about anything He has ever done. Since He made us, how could He ever hate us, desire to see us suffer out of spite? The whole idea is ludicrous, its folly self-evident. In short, “God cannot be tempted by evil…” (James 1:13).
For He repays man according to his work, and makes man to find a reward according to his way (vs. 11).
To grasp the import, one needs to inflect these words properly. Thus, one needs to put emphasis on “He…man…his…”. God not only cannot commit evil acts, it is His right, His role to judge man for his deeds. That mighty truth pulls the rug out from under Job’s contention that he, Job, had done no wrong while God had.
The latter part of the verse — “makes man to find a reward according to his way” — is difficult. The word “reward” is not in the Hebrew, leaving us to wonder what it is that God will “cause man to find”. Perhaps it is a reference to final judgment, at which time God will lay out for each person the entirety of his life’s path, showing them exactly what they have done, good and bad. In sum, perhaps one could say that this verse suggests that Judge Jesus will say to each person on that day, “This is your life”.
Surely God will never do wickedly, nor will the Almighty pervert justice (vs. 12).
This verse differs from verse 10 in emphasis. In that verse, evil deeds of any kind were in view, while here the spotlight is focused on justice and injustice. “Injustice on the part of God is inconsistent with the idea of God”. How could a perfectly holy, infinitely intelligent Being be vindictive towards some of His beloved creatures and indulgent towards others? It’s not conceivable.
We are not saying, ergo, that we are all dealt the same deck of cards in life. Far from it. From our human perspective, “injustice” is almost the rule of life. Some prosper, some suffer adversity. Yes, God has ordained life to be this way, but that is not to say that God practises partiality towards His creatures. More on this elsewhere.
Who gave Him charge over the earth? Or who appointed Him over the whole world (vs. 13)?
God’s authority over the universe that He called into being comes from Himself; it is not granted to Him by any other. “He is the One and Only Ruler of the world”. Thus, He comes under nobody’s direction, is answerable to none.
If He should set His heart on it, if He should gather to Himself His Spirit and His breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust (vss. 14–15).
The first part of the verse is difficult in fine detail, but the gist is plain; human beings depend entirely upon God to keep us alive as a race. Our existence is not self-perpetuating but relies upon God continuing to supply all the ingredients of life, material and pneumatic. These verses slam dunk the atheist’s charge that God is capricious right down the toilet. As one commentator puts it, “… were He a capricious or unrighteous Deity, He might at any moment withdraw the boon of life; that man still lives on proves His benevolent care”.