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Bible Commentaries
Job 33

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-33



Job 32:1-22; Job 33:1-33; Job 34:1-37

A PERSONAGE hitherto unnamed in the course of the drama now assumes the place of critic and judge between Job and his friends. Elihu, son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, appears suddenly and as suddenly disappears. The implication is that he has been present during the whole of the colloquies, and that, having patiently waited his time, he expresses the judgment he has slowly formed on arguments to which he has given close attention.

It is significant that both Elihu and his representations are ignored in the winding up of the action. The address of the Almighty from the storm does not take him into account and seems to follow directly on the close of Job’s defence. It is a very obvious criticism, therefore, that the long discourse of Elihu may be an interpolation or an afterthought-a fresh attempt by the author or by some later writer to correct errors into which Job and his friends are supposed to have fallen and to throw new light on the matter of discussion. The textual indications are all in favour of this view. The style of the language appears to belong to a later time than the other parts of the book. But to reject the address as unworthy of a place in the poem would be too summary. Elihu indeed assumes the air of the superior person from the first, so that one is not engaged in his favour. Yet there is an honest, reverent, and thoughtful contribution to the subject. In some points this speaker comes nearer the truth than Job or any of his friends, although the address as a whole is beneath the rest of the book in respect of matter and argument, and still more in poetical feeling and expression.

It is suggested by M. Renan that the original author, taking up his work again after a long interval, at a period in his life when he had lost his verve and his style, may have added this fragment with the idea of completing the poem. There are strong reasons against such an explanation. For one thing there seems to be a misconception where, at the outset, Elihu is made to assume that Job and his friends are very old. The earlier part of the poem by no means affirms this. Job, though we call him a patriarch, was not necessarily far advanced in life, and Zophar appears considerably younger. Again the contention in the eighth verse (Job 32:8) -"There is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty giveth them understanding"-seems to be the justification a later writer would think it needful to introduce. He acknowledges the Divine gift of the original poet and adding his criticism claims for Elihu, that is, for himself, the lucidity God bestows on every calm and reverent student of His ways. This is considerably different from anything we find in the addresses of the other speakers. It seems to show that the question of inspiration had arisen and passed through some discussion. But the rest of the book is written without any consciousness, or at all events any admission of such a question.

Elihu appears to represent the new "wisdom" which came to Hebrew thinkers in the period of the exile; and there are certain opinions embodied in his address which must have been formed during an exile that brought many Jews to honour. The reading of affliction given is one following the discovery that the general sinfulness of a nation may entail chastisement on men who have not personally been guilty of great sin, yet are sharers in the common neglect of religion and pride of heart, and further that this chastisement may be the means of great profit to those who suffer. It would be harsh to say the tone is that of a mind which has caught the trick of "voluntary humility," of pietistic self-abasement. Yet there are traces of such a tendency, the beginning of a religious strain opposed to legal self-righteousness, running, however, very readily to excess and formalism. Elihu, accordingly, appears to stand on the verge of a descent from the robust moral vigour of the original author towards that low ground in which false views of man’s nature hinder the free activity of faith.

The note struck by the Book of Job had stirred eager thought in the time of the exile. Just as in the Middle Ages of European history the Divine Comedy of Dante was made a special study, and chairs were founded in universities for its exposition, so less formally the drama of Job was made the subject of inquiry and speculation. We suppose then that among the many who wrote on the poem, one acting for a circle of thinkers incorporated their views in the text. He could not do so otherwise than by bringing a new speaker on the stage. To add anything to what Eliphaz or Bildad or Job had said would have prevented the free expression of new opinion. Nor could he without disrespect have inserted the criticism after the words of Jehovah. Selecting as the only proper point of interpolation the close of the debate between Job and the friends, the scribe introduced the Elihu portion as a review of the whole scope of the book, and may indeed have subtly intended to assail as entirely heterodox the presupposition of Job’s integrity and the Almighty’s approval of His servant. That being his purpose, he had to veil it in order to keep the discourse of Elihu in line with the place assigned to him in the dramatic movement. The contents of the prologue and epilogue and the utterance of the Almighty from the storm affect, throughout, the added discourse. But to secure the unity of the poem the writer makes Elihu speak like one occupying the same ground as Eliphaz and the others, that of a thinker ignorant of the original motive of the drama; and this is accomplished with no small skill. The assumption is that reverent thought may throw new light, far more light than the original author possessed, on the case as it stood during the colloquies. Elihu avoids assailing the conception of the prologue that Job is a perfect and upright man approved by God. He takes the state of the sufferer as he finds it, and inquires how and why it is, what is the remedy. There are pedantries and obscurities in the discourse, yet the author must not be denied the merit of a careful and successful attempt to adapt his character to the place he occupies in the drama. Beyond this, and the admission that something additional is said on the subject of Divine discipline, it is needless to go in justifying Elihu’s appearance. One can only remark with wonder, in passing, that Elihu should ever have been declared the Angel Jehovah, or a personification of the Son of God.

The narrative verses which introduce the new speaker state that his wrath was kindled against Job because he justified himself rather than God, and against the three friends because they had condemned Job and yet found no answer to his arguments. The mood is that of a critic rather hot, somewhat too confident that he knows, beginning a task that requires much penetration and wisdom. But the opening sentences of the speech of Elihu betray the need the writer felt to justify himself in making his bold venture.

I am young and ye are very old;

Wherefore I held back and durst not show my knowledge.

I thought, Days should speak,

And the multitude of years teach wisdom.

Still, there is a spirit in man,

And the breath of the Almighty giveth them understanding.

Not the great in years are wise,

Nor do the aged understand what is right.

Therefore I say: Hearken to me;

I also will show my opinion.

These verses are a defence of the new writer’s boldness in adding to a poem that has come down from a previous age. He is confident in his judgment, yet realises the necessity of commending it to the hearers. He claims that inspiration which belongs to every reverent conscientious inquirer. On this footing he affirms a right to express his opinion, and the right cannot be denied.

Elihu has been disappointed with the speeches of Job’s friends. He has listened for their reasons, observed how they cast about for arguments and theories; but no one said anything convincing. It is an offence to this speaker that men who had so good a case against their friend made so little of it. The intelligence of Elihu is therefore from the first committed to the hypothesis that Job is in the wrong. Obviously the writer places his spokesman in a position which the epilogue condemns; and if we assume this to have been deliberately done a subtle verdict against the scope of the poem must have been intended. May it not be surmised that this implied comment or criticism gave the interpolated discourse value in the eyes of many? Originally the poem appeared somewhat dangerous, out of the line of orthodoxy. It may have become more acceptable to Hebrew thought when this caveat against bold assumptions of human perfectibility and the right of man in presence of his Maker had been incorporated with the text.

Elihu tells the friends that they are not to say we have found wisdom in Job, unexpected wisdom which the Almighty alone is able to vanquish. They are not to excuse themselves nor exaggerate the difficulties of the situation by entertaining such an opinion, Elihu is confident that he can overcome Job in reasoning. As if speaking to himself he describes the perplexity of the friends and states his intention.

"They were amazed, they answered no more;

They had not a word to say.

And shall I wait because they speak not,

Because they stand still and answer no more?

I also will answer my part,

I also will show my opinion."

His convictions become stronger and more urgent. He must open his lips and answer. And he will use no flattery. Neither the age nor the greatness of the men he is addressing shall keep him from speaking his mind. If he were insincere he would bring on himself the judgment of God. "My Maker would soon take me away." Here again the second writer’s self defence colours the words put into Elihu’s mouth. Reverence for the genius of the poet whose work he is supplementing does not prevent a greater reverence for his own views.

The general exordium closes with the thirty-second chapter, and in the thirty-third Elihu, addressing Job by name, enters on a new vindication of his right to intervene. His claim is still that of straightforwardness, sincerity. He is to express what he knows without any other motive than to throw light on the matter in hand. He feels himself, moreover, to be guided by the Divine Spirit. The breath of the Almighty has given him life; and on this ground he considers himself entitled to enter the discussion and ask of Job what answer he can give. This is done with dramatic feeling. The life he enjoys is not only physical vigour as contrasted with Job’s diseased and infirm state, but also intellectual strength, the power of God-given reason. Yet, as if he might seem to claim too much, he hastens to explain that he is quite on Job’s level nevertheless.

"Behold. I am before God even as thou art;

I also am formed out of the clay.

Lo, my terror shall not make thee afraid,

Neither shall my pressure be heavy upon thee."

Elihu is no great personage, no heaven-sent prophet whose oracles must be received without question. He is not terrible like God, but a man formed out of the clay. The dramatising appears overdone at this point, and can only be explained by the desire of the writer to keep on good terms with those who already reverenced the original poet and regarded his work as sacred. What is now to be said to Job is spoken with knowledge and conviction, yet without pretension to more than the wisdom of the holy. There is, however, a covert attack on the original author as having made too much of the terror of the Almighty, the constant pain and anxiety that bore down Job’s spirit. No excuse of the kind is to be allowed for the failure of Job to justify himself. He did not because he could not. The fact was, according to this critic, that Job had no right of self defence as perfect and upright, without fault before the Most High. No man possessed or could acquire such integrity. And all the attempts of the earlier dramatist to put arguments and defences into his hero’s mouth had of necessity failed. The new writer comprehends very well the purpose of his predecessor and intends to subvert it.

The formal indictment opens thus:-

Surely thou hast spoken in my hearing

And I have heard thy words:-

I am clean without transgression:

I am innocent, neither is there iniquity in me.

Behold. He findeth occasions against me,

He counteth me for His enemy;

He putteth me in the stocks

He marketh all my paths.

The claim of righteousness, the explanation of his troubles given by Job that God made occasions against him and without cause treated him as an enemy, are the errors on which Elihu fastens. They are the errors of the original writer. No one endeavouring to represent the feelings and language of a servant of God should have placed him in the position of making so false a claim, so base a charge against Eloah. Such criticism is not to be set aside as either incompetent or over bold. But the critic has to justify his opinion, and, like many others, when he comes to give reasons his weakness discloses itself. He is certainly hampered by the necessity of keeping within dramatic lines. Elihu must appear and speak as one who stood beside Job with the same veil between him and the Divine throne. And perhaps for this reason the effort of the dramatist comes short of the occasion.

It is to be noted that attention is fixed on isolated expressions which fell from Job’s lips, that there is no endeavour to set forth fully the attitude of the sufferer towards the Almighty. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar had made Job an offender for a word and Elihu follows them. We anticipate that his criticism, however telling it may be, will miss the true point, the heart of the question. He will possibly establish some things against Job, but they will not prove him to have failed as a brave seeker after truth and God.

Opposing the claim and complaint he has quoted, Elihu advances in the first instance a proposition which has the air of a truism-"God is greater than man." He does not try to prove that even though a man has appeared to himself righteous he may really be sinful in the sight of the Almighty, or that God has the right to afflict an innocent person in order to bring about some great and holy design. The contention is that a man should suffer and be silent. God is not to be questioned; His providence is not to be challenged. A man, however he may have lived, is not to doubt that there is good reason for his misery if he is miserable. He is to let stroke after stroke fall and utter no complaint. And yet Job had erred in saying, "God giveth not account of any of His matters." It is not true, says Elihu, that the Divine King holds Himself entirely aloof from the inquiries and prayers of His subjects. He discloses in more than one way bath His purposes and His grace.

"Why dost thou contend against God

That He giveth not account of any of His matters?

For God speaketh once, yea twice,

Yet man perceiveth it not."

The first way in which, according to Elihu, God speaks to men is by a dream, a vision of the night; and the second way is by the chastisement of pain.

Now as to the first of these, the dream or vision, Elihu had, of course, the testimony of almost universal belief, and also of some cases that passed ordinary experience. Scriptural examples, such as the dreams of Jacob, of Joseph, of Pharaoh, and the prophetic visions already recognised by all pious Hebrews, were no doubt in the writer’s mind. Yet if it is implied that Job might have learned the will of God from dreams, or that this was a method of Divine communication for which any man might look, the rule laid down was at least perilous. Visions are not always from God. A dream may come "by the multitude of business." It is true, as Elihu says, that one who is bent on some proud and dangerous course may be more himself in a dream than in his waking hours. He may see a picture of the future which scares him, and, so he may be deterred from his purpose. Yet the waking thoughts of a man, if he is sincere and conscientious, are far more fitted to guide him, as a rule, than his dreams.

Passing to the second method of Divine communication, Elihu appears to be on safer ground. He describes the case of an afflicted man brought to extremity by disease, whose soul draweth near to the grave and his life to the destroyers or death angels. Such suffering and weakness do not of themselves insure knowledge of God’s will, but they prepare the sufferer to be instructed. And for his deliverance an interpreter is required.

"If there be with him an angel,

An interpreter, one among a thousand,

To show unto man what is his duty;

Then He is gracious unto him and saith,

Deliver him from going down to the pit,

I have found a ransom."

Elihu cannot say that such an angel or interpreter will certainly appear. He may: and if he does and points the way of uprightness, and that way is followed, then the result is redemption, deliverance, renewed prosperity. But who is this angel? "One of the ministering spirits sent forth to do service on behalf of the heirs of salvation"? The explanation is somewhat farfetched. The ministering angels were not restricted in number. Each Hebrew was supposed to have two such guardians. Then Malachi says, "The priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the angel (messenger) of Jehovah Sabaoth." Here the priest appears as an angel interpreter, and the passage seems to throw light on Elihu’s meaning. As no explicit mention is made of a priest or any priestly function in our text, it may at least be hinted that interpreters of the law, scribes or incipient rabbis, are intended, of whom Elihu claims to be one. In this case the ransom would remain without explanation. But if we take that as a sacrificial offering, the name "angel interpreter" covers a reference to the properly accredited priest: The passage is so obscure that little can be based upon it; yet assuming the Elihu discourses to be of late origin and intended to bring the poem into line with orthodox Hebrew thought, the introduction of either priest or scribe would be in harmony with such a purpose. Mediation at all events is declared to be necessary as between the sufferer and God; and it would be strange indeed if Elihu, professing to explain matters, really made Divine grace to be consequent on the intervention of an angel whose presence and instruction could in no way be verified. Elihu is realistic and would not rest his case at any point on what might be declared purely imaginary.

The promise he virtually makes to Job is like those of Eliphaz and the others, -renewed health, restored youth, the sense of Divine favour. Enjoying these, the forgiven penitent sings before men, acknowledging his fault and praising God for his redemption. The assurance of deliverance was probably made in view of the epilogue, with Job’s confession and the prosperity restored to him. But the writer misunderstands the confession, and promises too glibly. It is good to receive after great affliction the guidance of a wise interpreter; and to seek God again in humility is certainly a man’s duty. But would submission and the forgiveness of God bring results in the physical sphere, health, renewed youth and felicity? No invariable nexus of cause and effect can be established here from experience of the dealings of God with men. Elihu’s account of the way in which the Almighty communicates with His creatures must be declared a failure. It is in some respects careful and ingenious, yet it has no sufficient ground of evidence. When he says-

"Lo, all these things worketh God

Oftentimes with man,

To bring back his soul from the pit"-

the design is pious, but the great question of the book is not touched. The righteous suffer like the wicked from disease, bereavement, disappointment, anxiety. Even when their integrity is vindicated the lost years and early vigour are not restored. It is useless to deal in the way of pure fancy with the troubles of existence. We say to Elihu and all his school, Let us be at the truth, let us know the absolute reality. There are valleys of human sorrow, suffering, and trial in which the shadows grow deeper as the traveller presses on, where the best are often most afflicted. We need another interpreter than Elihu, one who suffers like us and is made perfect by suffering, through it entering into His glory.

An invocation addressed by Elihu to the bystanders begins chapter 34. Again he emphatically asserts his right to speak, his claim to be a guide of those who think on the ways of God. He appeals to sound reason and he takes his auditors into counsel-"Let us choose to ourselves judgment; let us know among ourselves what is good." The proposal is that there shall be conference on the subject of Job’s claim. But Elihu alone speaks. It is he who selects "what is good."

Certain words that fell from the lips of Job are again his text. Job hath said, I am righteous, I am in the right; and, God hath taken away my judgment or vindication. When those words were used the meaning of Job was that the circumstances in which he had been placed, the troubles appointed by God seemed to prove him a transgressor. But was he to rest under a charge he knew to be untrue? Stricken with an incurable wound though he had not transgressed, was he to lie against his right by remaining silent? This, says Elihu, is Job’s unfounded impious indictment of the Almighty; and he asks:-

"What man is like Job,

Who drinketh up impiety like water,

Who goeth in company with the workers of iniquity,

And walketh with wicked men?"

Job had spoken of his right which God had taken away. What was his right? Was he, as he affirmed, without transgression? On the contrary, his principles were irreligious. There was infidelity beneath his apparent piety. Elihu will prove that so far from being clear of blame he has been imbibing wrong opinions and joining the company of the wicked. This attack shows the temper of the writer. No doubt certain expressions put into the mouth of Job by the original dramatist might be taken as impeaching the goodness or the justice of God. But to assert that even the most unguarded passages of the book made for impiety was a great mistake. Faith in God is to be traced not obscurely but as a shaft of light through all the speeches put into the mouth of his hero by the poet. One whose mind is bound by certain pious forms of thought may fail to see the light, but it shines nevertheless.

The attempt made by Elihu to establish his charge has an appearance of success. Job, he says, is one who drinks up impiety like water and walks with wicked men, -

"For he hath said,

It profiteth a man nothing

That he should delight himself with God."

If this were true, Job would indeed be proved irreligious. Such a statement strikes at the root of faith and obedience. But is Elihu representing the text with anything like precision? In Job 9:22 these words are put into Job’s mouth:-

"It is all one, therefore I say,

He destroyeth the perfect and the wicked."

God is strong and is breaking him with a tempest. Job finds it useless to defend himself and maintain that he is perfect. In the midst of the storm he is so tossed that he despises his life; and in perplexity he cries, -It is all one whether I am righteous or not, God destroys the good and the vile alike. Again we find him saying, "Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power?" And in another passage he inquires why the Almighty does not appoint days of judgment. These are the expressions on which Elihu founds his charge, but the precise words attributed to Job were never used by him, and in many places he both said and implied that the favour of God was his greatest joy. The second author is either misapprehending or perverting the language of his predecessor. His argument accordingly does not succeed.

Passing at present from the charge of impiety, Elihu takes up the suggestion that Divine providence is unjust and sets himself to show that, whether men delight themselves in the Almighty or not, He is certainly All-righteous. And in this contention, so long as he keeps to generalities and does not take special account of the case which has roused the whole controversy, he speaks with some power. His argument comes properly to this, If you ascribe injustice or partiality to Him whom you call God, you cannot be thinking of the Divine King. From His very nature and from His position as Lord of all, God cannot be unjust. As Maker and Preserver of life He must be faithful.

"Far be from God a wickedness,

From the Almighty an injustice!

For every one’s work He requiteth him,

And causeth each to find according to his ways.

Surely, too, God doth not wickedness.

The Almighty perverteth not justice."

Has God any motive for being unjust? Can any one urge Him to what is against His nature? The thing is impossible. So far Elihu has all with him, for all alike believe in the sovereignty of God. The Most High, responsible to Himself, must be conceived of as perfectly just. But would He be so if He were to destroy the whole of His creatures? Elihu says, God’s sovereignty over all gives Him the right to act according to His will; and His will determines not only what is, but what is right in every case.

"Who hath given Him a charge over the earth?

Or who hath disposed the whole world?

Were He to set His mind upon Himself,

To gather to Himself His spirit and His breath,

Then all flesh would die together,

Man would return to his dust."

The life of all creatures, implies that the mind of the Creator goes forth to His universe, to rule it, to supply the needs of all living beings. He is not wrapped up in Himself, but having given life He provides for its maintenance.

Another personal appeal in Job 34:16 is meant to secure attention to what follows, in which the idea is carried out that the Creator must rule His creatures by a law of justice.

"Shall one that hateth right be able to control?

Or wilt thou condemn the Just, the Mighty One?

Is it fit to say to a king, Thou wicked?

Or to princes. Ye ungodly?

How much less to Him who accepts not the persons of princes.

Nor regardeth the rich more than the poor?"

Here the principle is good, the argument of illustration inconclusive. There is a strong foundation in the thought that God, who could if He desired withdraw all life, but on the other hand sustains it, must rule according to a law of perfect righteousness. If this principle were kept in the front and followed up we should have a fruitful argument. But the philosophy of it is beyond this thinker, and he weakens his case by pointing to human rulers and arguing from the duty of subjects to abide by their decision and at least attribute to them the virtue of justice. No doubt society must be held together by a head either hereditary or chosen by the people, and, so long as his rule is necessary to the well being of the realm, what he commands must be obeyed and what he does must be approved as if it were right. But the writer either had an exceptionally favourable experience of kings, as one, let us suppose, honoured like Daniel in the Babylonian exile, or his faith in the Divine right of princes blinded him to much injustice. It is a mark of his defective logic that he rests his case for the perfect righteousness of God upon a sentiment or what may be called an accident.

And when Elihu proceeds, it is with some rambling sentences in which the suddenness of death, the insecurity of human things, and the trouble and distress coming now on whole nations, now on workers of iniquity, are all thrown together for the demonstration of Divine justice. We hear in these verses (Job 34:20-28) the echoes of disaster and exile, of the fall of thrones and empires. Because the afflicted tribes of Judah were preserved in captivity and restored to their own land, the history of the period which is before the writer’s mind appears to him to supply a conclusive proof of the righteousness of the Almighty. But we fail to see it. Eliphaz and Bildad might have spoken in the same terms as Elihu uses here. Everything is assumed that Job by force of circumstance has been compelled to doubt. The whole is a homily on God’s irresponsible power and penetrating wisdom which, it is taken for granted, must be exercised in righteousness. Where proof is needed nothing but assertion is offered. It is easy to say that when a man is struck down in the open sight of others it is because he has been cruel to the poor and the Almighty has been moved by the cry of the afflicted. But here is Job struck down in the open sight of others; and is it for harshness to the poor? If Elihu does not mean that, what does he mean? The conclusion is the same as that reached by the three friends; and this speaker poses, like the rest, as a generous man declaring that the iniquity God is always sure to punish is tyrannical treatment of the orphan and the widow.

Leaving this unfortunate attempt at reasoning we enter at Job 34:31 on a passage in which the circumstances of Job are directly dealt with.

For hath any one spoken thus unto God,

I have suffered though I offend not:

That which I see not teach Thou;

If I have done iniquity I will do it no more’?

Shall God’s recompense be according to thy mind

That thou dost reject it?

For thou must choose, and not I:

Therefore speak what thou knowest.

Here the argument seems to be that a man like Job, assuming himself to be innocent, if he bows down before the sovereign Judge, confesses ignorance, and even goes so far as to acknowledge that he may have sinned unwittingly and promises amendment, such a one has no right to dictate to God or to complain if suffering and trouble continue. God may afflict as long as He pleases without showing why He afflicts. And if the sufferer dares to complain he does so at his own peril. Elihu would not be the man to complain in such a case. He would suffer on silently. But the choice is for Job to make; and he has need to consider well before he comes to a decision. Elihu implies that as yet Job is in the wrong mind, and he closes this part of his address in a sort of brutal triumph over the sufferer because he had complained of his sufferings. He puts the condemnation into the mouth of "men of understanding"; but it is his own.

Men of understanding will say to me,

And the wise who hears me will say:-

Job speaks without intelligence,

And his words are without wisdom:

Would that Job were tried unto the end

For his answers after the manner of wicked men.

For he addeth rebellion to his sin;

He clappeth his hands amongst us

And multiplieth his words against God.

The ideas of Elihu are few and fixed. When his attempts to convince betray his weakness in argument, he falls back on the vulgar expedient of brow beating the defendant. He is a type of many would be interpreters of Divine providence, forcing a theory of religion which admirably fits those who reckon themselves favourites of heaven, but does nothing for the many lives that are all along under a cloud of trouble and grief. The religious creed which alone can satisfy is one throwing light adown the darkest ravines human beings have to thread, in ignorance of God which they cannot help, in pain of body and feebleness of mind not caused by their own sin but by the sins of others, in slavery or something worse than slavery.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Job 33". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/job-33.html.
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