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358. Job 35, Elihu’s Third Speech
Elihu faced a tall order when he waded into the nearly 30 chapters of charged rhetoric and debate between Job and the friends. How could he possibly inject something useful into the debate? The three cycles of speeches between Job and the friends only ended up with further alienation, with each side further digging deeper into their respective positions. From the friends’ perspective Job had sinned, probably egregiously, and needed to own up to that fact. From Job’s perspective, he had not done anything remotely deserving he fate he faced. Rather than repenting, he wanted to talk with God about it. Despite the fearsome prospect of an encounter with God, Job was confident that with his case prepared and the Redeemer of his life/witness in heaven speaking on his behalf, he would prevail in his lawsuit against God.
If there is one thought that captures Elihu’s overall approach in his speeches it is that God seeks not a lawsuit but a relationship. We will see Elihu emphasize this especially in his last speech (Job 36-37), but he will drop broad hints in chapters 33 and 35 that God seeks not so much a confrontation with the creatures as a mode of communication with them. We saw that already in Job 33, where Job says that God speaks to humans “in one way, and in two, though people do not perceive it” (33:14). God speaks through visions in the night and through pain on the bed (33:15-30).
Yet humans, rather than seeking that communication with God, harden themselves and wall themselves off from a relationship. They make their “case” against God, as Job did, and speak in terms of justice and judgment. Well, God will bring judgment—that is the burden of Job 34—and it is judgment on the mighty especially, but also on evildoers in general (34:21-22). It will be sudden and without further investigation; it will happen because people “turned aside from following him, and had no regard for his ways” (34:27).
Yet unlike the friends, who seem to take a perverse delight in describing some of the torments that will attend wickedness, Elihu emphasizes judgment or the prospect of it only as a teaching tool or a way for God to (re)establish a relationship with people. Yet people are too stubborn, too prideful (35:12) to realize this. They cry out, but God will not answer them. This isn’t because of God’s intransigence or unwillingness to speak with them but because their cries are empty (35:13).
Thus, Elihu is interested in reorienting Job’s approach to his distress. Rather than seeing his distress as a God’s declaration of personal hatred towards him, Job ought to see it as God’s calling card for a deeper relationship. This is the essence of Elihu’s “case” in his four speeches.
Job 35 is the shortest of Elihu’s speeches. Though scholars are divided on how the first and second parts of the chapter (vv 2-8; 9-16) relate to each other, the basic point or thesis of his speech is stated in the second part—that people cry out to God and are not heard because of their own pride and self-centeredness. God really does crave connection with the creatures, but the creatures set up obstacles to that connection. He doesn’t go on to say the next logical point—‘You, Job, are exhibit A in this process. You have used your pain as a means for challenging God, for shouting at God, rather than for calm listening to the lessons of pain.’ Though we are never told how Job ultimately reacts to Elihu’s approach, I will argue in my consideration of Elihu’s final speech that it left a deep impression on Job. Elihu, then, is not just “comic relief” or a “long intermission” between the rough and tumble debate among friends and God’s intervention in Job 38. Elihu, in my reading, is a crucial contributor to the debate but, as is often the case in Job, a crucial contributor in an ultimately unexpected way.
Job 35 deals with two issues that are hard to connect. Verses 2-8 briefly mention, without development, four ideas of Job and the friends that try to interpret Job’s distress. I will then use the concept of distress mentioned in verses 2-8 to connect the two parts of the chapter because, in verses 9-16 Elihu begins by talking about how the multitude of people’s distresses/oppressions makes them cry out (v 9). Though people cry out (presumably to God) in their distress, they don’t do the thing that will relieve the distress—calling on God as teacher (verses 9-16, especially vv 10-11), who wants to use this distress as a means of teaching wisdom and establishing a relationship with the creature.