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Bad Religion is not just the name of a band. It’s something that we need to be constantly alert to and aware of. We said very early on in this series that we need to be very careful about who we call the Satan’s accomplice or the devil’s instrument. We must also look with great care at anyone (including ourselves) who claims to speak for God. Such a person or persons, or their words at least, might not be all that they claim.
The speeches have ended. Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar. Three cycles of going through these speeches where Job’s friends are putting forth a principle that they believe explains Job’s troubles – someone has sinned here and these are the consequences. Whether it is Job himself or his children. It’s a cause and effect view of the world that wraps everything up nicely and explains everything nicely. Job has hung on to his integrity, his righteousness, and has been calling out to hear God’s voice, to meet God. He cannot understand how God’s justice and his own uprightness can be reconciled. Job’s friends’ speeches have ended. “So these three men ceased to answer Job.” Job himself has ceased to talk. “The words of Job are ended” is how chapter 31 ends. We’re once more where we began back in chapter 2 – everyone sitting in silence.
From seemingly out of nowhere Elihu strides onto the scene. He’s not mentioned anywhere else. He’s not mentioned in the epilogue. He’s not mentioned in the lines where God will pardon Job’s three friends. He comes onto the stage like a young prophet, claiming divine inspiration. No problem right? Except we have to be careful about claims to divine inspiration. The question here is not so much do we believe Yahweh or not, but rather “What is the authentic word of Yahweh?”
Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at the speech of young Elihu this morning.
There has been much irony throughout this book and it continues here with the coming on the scene of Elihu. Let me set you straight, says Elihu. He’s angry. Elihu does not base what he’s saying on experience or the wisdom of years. “I said let days speak and many years teach wisdom,” he says. He goes on to claim divine inspiration – “But truly it is spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding.” The problem is that these words are undercut in many ways. They’re undercut by Job’s own words about having the spirit of God being in him – “as long as my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils” (27:3). They’re undercut by the voice of God that will come right after, actually serving as a kind of interruption – “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (38:2)
So many words, so many words. Elihu is not even deemed worthy of mention in the epilogue, perhaps because what his words by and large do is repeat what has already been said. He tells Job’s friends “I will not answer with your speeches” (32:14). Elihu then goes on to say things like “For according to their deeds he will repay them, and according to their ways he will make it befall them.” (34:11). Any opposition raised to the theology of reward-punishment results in attacking the speaker – “Surely God does not hear an empty cry” 35:13 and “Job opens his mouth in empty talk, multiplies words without knowledge.” 35:16.
Look at 35:1-7. Here Elihu is repeating an earlier denial by Eliphaz (22:2-4) that anything we do could make any difference to God. It can be quite a common view of the divine. God sits out there aloof and above all our petty troubles and squabbling and questions. We have said from the beginning that the book of Job shows us that God has quite a big stake in our response to him. That the question of “Is God worthy of our love in any circumstance” is one posed by the heavenly council and it’s one in which we are involved in determining the answer. God involves us. Christ involves us when he asks questions like “Who do you say that I am?” or “Do you want to be made well?” or “When the Son of Man returns will he find any faith on earth?” Any supposition against such things is just plainly wrong as far as the Book of Job is concerned. So claims to divine inspiration and speaking for the divine must be weighed and tested. They must be tested against the divine Word of God. They must be weighed against our consciences with the help of the Holy Spirit. We do this together. I always love Jesus’ brother James’ lines at the end of the Jerusalem Council – the first church council – where the early church sought to discern together God’s will for the inclusion of those outside Judaism into the church. James says at the end “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Let us be people who are able to say the same thing as we seek to know God’s will together. We have seen what damage can be done when groups of people claim divine inspiration to know things like, for example, that political leaders have been sent by God. Let us test and weigh such claims. We are in the middle of a discernment process here at Blythwood to seek to know what God has for us in the months and years ahead. May we be doing this together and asking for the Spirit’s help and guidance and testing and weighing things with the Spirit’s help and experience and a growing knowledge of God together.
God is not sitting anywhere aloof or distant. God is as close as our breath. So we, as someone has said, “Weigh what is sound upon the scale of conscience and spirit.”
You may be asking at this point “Well why is Elihu in here at all?” Many people believe this section to be a later addition to Job. Why not just skip from Job’s speech in ch 31 to God’s voice in ch 38? Elihu does not simply repeat arguments already made. He furthers them. In this way, he acts like the Accuser, just as Job’s three friends have been accusing him for the last two hours. They are known ironically as Job’s comforters as they are offering cold comfort indeed. Remember how when we started we heard the Accuser say to God – “Take from Job everything he has and he will curse to your face.” Recall how this didn’t happen. Rather than saying something like “Well I guess I was wrong there – well done Job!”, the Accuser doubles down on his hypothesis. Sure that was fine when we were talking about his children and his possession, but skin for skin, a person will give everything they have to save their own life.
The Accuser has from the beginning been espousing a cause and effect view of God and of life. It’s known as behaviourism. A behaviourist view that says that our responses are conditioned by stimuli. Good stimuli equals good response, and bad stimuli equals bad response. This is the way the world works, after all. It’s the type of view we can put on God. It’s the kind of view that looks for principles which will explain everything and tie them up in a neat little bow. Someone has put it like this – “Satan shares with Job’s interlocutors… a basic representation of the human condition, the frame of which is broadly behaviouristic: God vouchsafes the difference between good and evil here below by dispensing rewards and punishments. Such a representation sanctions naturally the accusation of those who suffer.”
See what I mean about bad religion? It’s like someone saying that faith or religion is a mere opiate. Something we use to dull ourselves. At which point I say when you consider all the ways around us in which people dull themselves, is this really the conversation you want to have?
But getting back to the matter at hand, Satan has had his behaviouristic hypothesis confounded in the beginning when Job continues to worship God. Satan doubles down and so we come upon his current situation sitting in the ashes with the sores and his comforting friends.
In much the same way, Elihu doubles down (I had to find out what that meant – I thought it was a KFC sandwich). Elihu not only looks to the past to explain suffering, but he looks to the future. Suffering is not simply about sins one has committed, but it’s a means which God uses to bring you back to him. Someone has described his position like this – “Suffering not only punishes, it educates.” We hear this in 33:19 “They are also chastened with pain upon their beds, and with continual strife in their bones.” Why? “God indeed does all these things, twice, three times with mortals, to bring back their souls from the Pit, so that they may see the light of life.” (33:29-30)
So come on back Job! God’s doing this for your own good!
You see what I mean about bad religion. Please don’t ever tell anyone such a thing. We’ve said before that sure you can make some kind of connection often from sin to suffering. We know that drinking too much leads to a hangover at least. What we mustn’t ever do it try to make a connection from suffering to sin, particularly when we’re thinking that God wants to use ours or someone else’s suffering to bring us closer to him. Of course, that can happen and of course, we know that God can bring good out of the worst suffering, even suffering unto death, but let’s not play like we know God’s motivations.
To follow Christ is not so much to ask the question of whether or not we obey God, but rather to discern which voice is the voice of God. No matter how pious, how prayerful, how faithful we are, we wonder. No less a figure than Jeremiah could say “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of Israel.” (Jer 2:3) At the same time he would pray to God “Why is my pain increasing, my wounds incurable refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fall.” (Jer 15:18) Because no one is ever simply one thing. Job is not presented as some sort of faithful superhero. Elihu’s appearance here has been described as spectral, ghostlike. He comes out of nowhere and disappears back into nowhere. Don’t these kind of questions appear before us in the same way? What did I do to deserve this God? I must have done something. Are you using these trials to bring me back to you? Have I strayed unknowingly? In this way we become our own accuser. There’s a scene near the end of The Brothers Karamozov. The middle brother Ivan, a materialist atheist intellectual is sick. He’s done away with God. He’s suffering from delirium and in his delirium finds himself stuck with Satan who’s been described in the scene as a “social-climbing mooch in a cheap suit.” After a lot of back and forth, Ivan cries out “You are me, all you are is myself, and nothing more! You are rubbish, you are my imagination!”
We’ve talked about our imaginations being fired by God. We’ve talked about stepping out into God’s creative work. Here we have an example of where our imaginations can go wrong. Telling us that God is far too above the realm of humanity to care about us. Telling us that we have done something to deserve this, or that maybe God is doing this to us for some reason. Looking for answers, looking for reasons. In the face of all of this, we have Job who has said things like “Though he slay me yet I will worship him.” Job who is remaining silent in the face of this Accuser-like doubling down. He’s waiting to hear from God. Which we will all do next week. The stage is set. In the meantime, and all the time, let us pray for guidance that we might know, as we listen for God’s voice, what the voice of God is. It’s not something that we’re called to do on our own. Let us continue to seek and to hear together. Amen