A young person’s wisdom

Sunday 28 October 2001

Job 32-37

Toby Nelson worked as a volunteer chaplain at the site of the demolished twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. He writes:

In between spontaneous comfort and counseling sessions, one could see the enormity of this disaster. TV images and words fail to capture what I saw. Before me lay what used to be the 1300 foot twin towers, but is now in a densely packed mound 80 feet tall and four city blocks around.

In one section, large Tonka Toy-like cranes pulled and tugged at twisted I-beam steel girders reluctant to let go of other spaghetti layered wreckage. These hardened steel beams that once lifted over 2 million tons of sheet rock, copy machines, desks, and souls of the assumed dead, were no match for the destructive forces of brilliant, bold, and creative evil. From a spiritual perspective, the cultural god of materialism was now reduced to a humiliating monument of debris …

One conversation with a firefighter characterized many paradoxical outbursts of complaints and confessions: ‘Why would a loving God allow this to happen?’ Together, we were pondering mysteries that could not be fully answered. And like so many others, he asked, ‘Pray for me to find God. I haven’t been in church in along time, but I believe . . .’

One attractive 30 year old woman searching for her husband of less than a year pleaded, ‘How could people do these evil things and kill so many innocent people?’ Tears in her desperate eyes and convulsing body begged for answers about the problem of suffering.[1]

It is not hard to ascribe the horror and suffering of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to Satan.  The word “evil” is increasingly on the lips of world leaders today. We often find it easy to identify evil actions, and to condemn evil people. But where does evil come from? Why do innocent people suffer? Why do I suffer?

In The Pleasures of God John Piper asks,

Do we charge God with wrong when we say that [God is somehow responsible for the destruction of thousands of lives by drowning because of the storms and hurricanes and tornadoes and monsoons and typhoons which God has ‘brought forth from his storehouses’ over the centuries]? Might it not be Satan who makes destructive wind blow?

This is a good question. The answer is not simple. I don’t mean the answer is hard to find. I mean that the answer is complex. Satan does have great power in this world to do harm … We know that he can cause sickness (Luke 13.16; Acts 10:38) and, since he is called a ‘murderer from the beginning’ (John 8:44), we may infer that he can indeed kill, whether by sickness or by stirring up people to kill or in other ways as well.

It is hard not to see his hand in the tragic deaths, for example, of missionary children. I remember receiving a phone call that the son of a missionary friend was killed in a car accident. Another missionary family in Cameroon lost two of their three children in one day to malaria within days after coming home on furlough. And such stories are multiplied almost every day.[2]

Can we speak of a God of love and grace when we observe so much un-love and un-grace in our world – and, if we are honest, in our own hearts?

Long ago Job wrestled with questions like these. As we have seen, as the dialogue of chapters 3-31 continues between Job and his three friends, Job’s focus slowly moves from his own abject experience toward broader existential horizons until his mind’s eye rests on the apparent absence of God.

Eventually the three friends exhaust their store of wisdom and theology and fall silent. In chapters 26-31 Job presents his final extended speech, and he too falls silent. On the ash heap outside Uz, these four men sit, waiting patiently – hoping for God himself to speak to Job’s situation.

God does speak, but before that there is one more surprise: expecting God, we discover in God’s place a young man named Elihu. I imagine him dressed in torn jeans, hair outlandish and eyebrow pierced, wearing a T-shirt advertising St Matthias Anglican Church.

Elihu appears to me, as I read the words placed in his mouth, as a brash and bombastic young man who believes he has all the answers. He says, “You’re old enough to be my father, so I wasn’t going to tell you how I see it (cf 32:16). But now that these three so-called intellectuals have failed, God has called me to put things in their true perspective (cf 32:19).

“And boy! Are you fortunate that I’m here! I have listened to all your speeches; I have something new and insightful to say; and I speak not from observation or experience alone but also by divine inspiration” (cf 32:8).

No one interrupts him (not even God!), and Elihu gives four speeches. In the first speech he makes a good start (32:6-33:33). Against Job, Elihu says:

(a)          God is not ignoring you (33:15-16; cp Job in 33:13)

(b)         God is not misusing his power (33:19-28; cp Job in 33:8-11)

(c)          God is not beyond forgiving (33:26; cp 33:8-11)

Elihu questions Job’s assertions of blamelessness, but reassures him that God is wise and good. Elihu also seems to say that while suffering is not good, it can produce good results.

In his second speech Elihu’s wisdom falters (34:1-37). He sides with the philosophers of his day and attacks Job’s character. He argues that it is foolish to question God, and stupid to blame God, for human suffering (vv 12-20).

God is just. He is Almighty. His might is right, whether we like it or not, in theory or practice. We must humbly accept whatever comes to us. This is Elihu’s worldview. Elihu knows nothing of the arrangement between God and Satan (1:6-2:8). But even if he had, I suspect his advice would not change.

Australian boxer and Muslim Anthony Mundine expressed this same sentiment when he said on national television last week that, on September 11, America got what it deserved. In Elihu’s world you get what you deserve.

Elihu is a victim of his own coldly rational black-and-white worldview. But our world is not simply black and white. There are people like Job who are righteous yet who suffer intolerable injustices. Some live in New York; some live in Kabul.  And there are people like Satan who seem to live a charmed life. Some of these live in America; some in Afghanistan; some in Australia. Such people are everywhere.

Against Elihu, I believe it is both natural and necessary for us to question God at times. We often do not get what we deserve, and we have a right to feel angry, unjustly treated, and deserving of an explanation from God.

In the third speech, Elihu suggests that “from a distance God is watching us” (35:1-16). In verse 3 he recalls Job asking, “What do I gain by not sinning?” Elihu’s shocking reply is that it does not matter to God whether you sin or not: God could not care less about you.

Elihu implies that not only is God impartial but he is indifferent. This is not what Job needs to hear. It is not what he deserves from Elihu. But there is worse to come.

Elihu now addresses Job’s accusation that God does not answer his prayers. He says, “Job, you are proud; you have wrong motives; and you lack faith” (cf 35:12, 13, 14).  The reality is that Job is humble, pure in motive and faithful to God in the face of huge temptation to give up his faith and deny God’s very existence. Elihu may have been listening to Job’s speeches, but he does not know Job’s heart.

Here Elihu is scraping the bottom of the barrel. But in 35:10-11 he approaches Job’s experiential and spiritual darkness with a lighted candle: God gives us songs in the night to lighten our darkness.

In the fourth speech Elihu rises from the barrel bottom and breaks the surface (36:1-37:24). In a surprise move, he turns toward God, and intelligently and sensitively speaks about reward and punishment (36:5-12).

There is also a wonderful new insight here – all the more startling because it comes from the lips of a young man and not from the three seemingly wise and venerable and pastorally experienced friends.

Elihu says, profoundly, “Those who suffer [God] delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction” (36:15). Has Elihu personally experienced this? It is certainly the kind of thing Job needs and appreciates.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the children’s novel by C.S. Lewis, the obnoxious character Eustace is transformed by magic into a dragon. In great pain from an amulet he had slipped on before the transformation, and frantic to resume his usual appearance, he scrapes away one set of scales only to find another underneath. He relates what happened:

Then the lion [Aslan, symbolic of Christ] said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty near desperate now … The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt … Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water … as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I had turned into a boy again.[3]

God’s ways are sometimes painful, but good comes from them. God’s wisdom may lead through suffering and darkness, but it delivers healing and renewal.

Don’t worry about what life throws at you. You are loved by God; you have been rescued by Jesus; you are purified by the Holy Spirit; you have access to God’s timeless written word, and God’s flawed but holy people, to guide and support and encourage and challenge and shape you into the person God wants you to become.

Elihu concludes his fourth speech with a beautiful evocation of God’s power and glory demonstrated in a thunderstorm (especially 36:27-30; 37:10-13). He finishes with a call, echoing Job’s words in 28:28, to approach God with confidence and reverence (37:24).

Elihu was a young and brash person, but there is wisdom to be found in his words for those who take the time to listen. God is transcendent but also trustworthy; he can be perplexing but always patient; he is great but he is good.


Copyright © 2001 Rod Benson. All rights reserved. Sermon 424, Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday October 28, 2001. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).

[1] From Toby Nelson, “Work at Ground Zero,” Clergy/Leaders’ Mail-list No. 1-180, email received October 18, 2001.

[2] John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (second edition; Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 2000), p. 67.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (London: Penguin, 1965), p. 96.

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