Alfred Place Baptist Church

35-37 A young man continues to speak

These chapters are the last half of Elihu’s speech beginning with these dense brief sentences; “Then Elihu said: ‘Do you think this is just?’ You say,‘I shall be cleared by God’. Yet you ask him,‘What profit is it to me, and what do I gain by not sinning?’” (vv. 1&2). Tragedy can strike quickly and it seems to the world utterly capriciously and to the church so mysteriously. Even the most holy of people are not immune from it. An American Christian like Horatio Spafford, so full of trust and love for God, can actually lose all his children when the liner sank in which they were sailing across the Atlantic. Six months ago tomorrow it was September 11th and there were the terrorist atrocities that took place in New York City and Washington DC when hundreds of Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists were all alike killed. We all know that it was evil men who did this; we know it wasn’t God who was its author. The Bible affirms God does not willingly afflict, yet why did God permit such things to happen to those particular people who died that day, and not to others? Job was a man who loved God and man and yet Job endured this fearful providence. God took away the protection, the walls of providential care that were around him (as they are around every one of us). God allowed Satan to clamber over and destroy Job’s possessions, his family, his health and the affection of his wife. More than that, God allowed the grieving process to be interrupted by men who came and sat in glum silence for a week and then spoke in their ignorance, none of them knowing what you and I know, that what had happened was God showing to the whole human race for the rest of time that God can keep his people, every single one of them, in the lesser pains that we experience, because he kept Job through these horrendous trials. God will keep you and me. I’m much more sinful than Job; I deserve nothing from God; I have forfeited any entitlement to any keeping care and personal love from him, because of my disdainful rebellion. Yet I suffer far less than Job did. He’ll continue to keep me in Christ. He has covenanted himself to do that.

“A sovereign Protector I have, unseen and for ever at hand;
Unchangeably faithful to save, almighty to rule and command.” (Augustus Toplady)

This God will keep you who love him and serve him, by the same powerful mercy that kept Job, but the first three associates who come to him, these erstwhile ‘friends’ know nothing of Job chapters 1 and 2, and neither did the young man Elihu who listened to everything that was going on and was bursting to make his own suggestions as to why Job was suffering.

Elihu’s answer, when you strip it down, is very like the other three, that Job is suffering because he’s a sinner, because of some dreadful, secret sin that men know nothing about but unhidden from the omniscient God. So God is righteous in punishing Job. Elihu thinks he knows the answer to Job’s pain. We are suspicious, aren’t we, of anyone who can glibly affirm to possess answers to what are the secret things of God? There’s a scene in a British film called Whistle in the Wind. A group of kids have experienced the death of their pet kitten; they had prayed as children do pray that the cat would live, but the cat died. They can’t understand it. “We prayed; we asked God that he would spare the kitten . . .” So they go looking for the local vicar, and they find him in a teashop and he’s taking a morning break, enjoying reading his paper and eating some shortbread biscuits and a cup of coffee. So they go up to him and they stand until he puts the paper down and he looks at them and they said, “Why did God let our cat die?” The vicar wasn’t very pleased to be interrupted in a public place about the decease of a cat, but he put the paper aside and then he tried to explain. He went on too long, as some of us do, and he tried to give a sort of theological response to the question. The children looked and listened intently and when he finished he wished them well and he picked up his paper and got on with his tea and biscuit. The children walked away, down the pavement and they were rather puzzled. One little boy holding his sister’s hand looked up at her and he said, “He doesn’t know, does he? He doesn’t know.” After you’ve listened to the three friends who’ve given their advice and opinions to Job as to why he’s lost everything, you know one thing, that they don’t know why he has suffered as he has. Then after you’ve heard Elihu, you know he is no wiser – with all the confidence and boldness of youth. He doesn’t know what you and I know, who’ve read Job chapter 1 and Job chapter 2. Job himself was not told by God the reason for his suffering. It was a secret event belonging to God. What truths did Elihu affirm?

1. GOD IS APART FROM CREATION.

So Elihu, now (in chapter 35), takes two truths and he reminds us all about them, but then he spoils these two truths by applying them rigidly without other compensating balancing truths, to Job’s case. He begins by seizing on some words of Job and says that while Job has claimed that God has cleared him, that is, has justified him, (v.2) still Job is crying, “I haven’t profited from God’s goodness, I haven’t gained anything from resisting sin” (v.3). “I’m still trying to cope with these terrible pains. What’s been the profit for me of finding forgiveness when I made sacrifice? Why was I bowing before him, loving him and working and speaking for him to others? I haven’t gained anything from behaving like that and resisting sin.” Elihu tells Job that he mustn’t turn everything on himself, that God has been glorified in all he does and all Job is and that’s to be our concern, not what joy or pains finally come to us, but that by our lives, whether in health or in sickness, we give honour and glory to God.

i] When we sin we don’t involve God in our guilt.

Elihu points out firstly, that God isn’t a part of this creation, he dwells high above the clouds (v.5). So that when we sin we don’t pull him into our guilt. The terrible Inquisition of the Roman church with its tortures and public executions did not make the God of love a criminal. A wife may get drawn into a husband’s criminal act and she shares in his shame, and when Hitler acted and killed the Jews, the whole nation of Germany which he headed was all affected and suffered because of the guilt and shame of its leaders. But God is not like that; God is uncontaminated by the wickedness of people that take his name. We can’t pull him down into the mire with us. This is what Elihu says in v.8: “Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself, and your righteousness only the sons of men.” So, be aware of this theological reality, of what we call the ontological difference – the difference in the being of God the Creator from the beings of us sinning creatures. We don’t affect him.

ii] God is under no obligation to give wicked men whatever they ask.

The second thing Elihu says is, “God has no obligation to jump and give unbelieving, wicked men whatever they ask.” For example, they might plead for relief from their problems (v.9), but they don’t plead in a God-honouring way; “No one says, ‘Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night?’” (vv.10–11). There is a God-honouring way, the Christian in sleepless nights in the hours of darkness will pray and mediate on God’s longsuffering and kindness to him. He may think of hymns, won’t he? Perhaps he will go through them alphabetically “Arise my soul arise . . . Begone unbelief my Saviour is here . . . Come ye sinners poor and needy . . .” He’ll go over the verses he can remember, and they’ll keep him. The beasts – your dog, your budgerigar – well they don’t have praise and thanks to their heavenly Father. They don’t have songs in the night, but Christians do. So Christians don’t just say, “Why oh why? Gimme, gimme, gimme”. When we can’t sleep then there are times when we’ll praise this God who is above us and different from us. He doesn’t have the heartaches and neuroses that we have. God is without passions. He is the ever-blessèd God and he’s always the ever-blessèd God – when his Son was hanging on Golgotha, God was then still the ever-blessing and ever-blessèd Almighty God. And this God has no obligation to satisfy the whims of unbelieving sinners. They don’t give him a thought for months or years, and then they ache for something and they ask God for it, “Oh, Lord, won’t you give me a Mercedes-Benz?” That’s too worthless a prayer for God to listen to. If they prayed, “God be merciful to me a sinner, give me a new heart and make me a new creation. Make everything new and give me new life to serve you and love you and my brethren,” well, that’s a meaningful prayer. That’s the beginning of prayer.

There’s a book written by Helen Fielding. It came out in 1996 and now a film has been made about it. It’s called Bridget Jones’ Diary. And Bridget Jones, then, is a thirty-something single woman and most things seem to go wrong in her life. She is a woman who lives her life without God, and without any structures of morality; without what’s right and without what’s wrong. She does what is right in her own eyes. It’s a family Christmas, but she doesn’t feel like going home to the family, yet she has to and she prays this prayer: “Dear God, please help me. I want to go home. I want my life again. I don’t feel like an adult, I feel like a teenage boy who everyone’s annoyed with”. Well, that’s her self-pitying petition. She’s thinking of God like Santa Claus, isn’t she? Her view of God is a divine Mr. Fixit. She has a problem which she can’t solve . . . well I’ll ask God to fix it. And most of her references to God in her diary are cries of despair, outbursts of frustration. That’s how the man, the woman in the world, without God, thinks of God. “At times of desperation, well, I’ll ask him to come and intervene.” Then Bridget Jones writes some months after her disastrous Christmas that she’s going to try another religion, an Eastern religion. “You don’t give me what I ask for, so I’ll try another god”, she says.

Look at Elihu’s words in vv.12–13, “He does not answer when men cry out because of the arrogance of the wicked. Indeed, God does not listen to their empty plea; the Almighty pays no attention to it”, he says, but then Elihu turns this onto Job who has been pleading for God to tell him why he’s suffering; “Oh, that I could see him.” Elihu sharply tells him, “How much less, then, will he listen when you say that you do not see him” (v.14). God is so high and hidden, so uninvolved, and Elihu makes the almightiness of God an explanation of why God isn’t answering when tiny pipsqueak Job prays to him. Elihu is abusing the wholly other nature of God. He is not using the truth of the living God to heal the hurting heart of Job.

2. GOD’S JUSTICE.

Then in chapter 36 Elihu continues with yet another speech and that goes on to the end of chapter 37. He begins by claiming he’s speaking on behalf of God (v.2) and that his purpose is to vindicate God (v.3), that his words are true (v.4). Then he preaches about the mighty justice of God. It’s a wonderful theme, but he again goes astray in absolutizing that truth. God IS just, God IS straight, but Elihu leaps from that to God’s instant retribution. Our entire relationship with God in Elihu’s eyes tends to be explained in terms of rewards and punishments.

Now my schoolteacher in the 1940s he practised instant retribution, and he was typical of schoolteachers of his day. If anyone talked you were brought to the front of the class and he had a stick which had little rubber rings around it and then he would cane us on the hand. Six times then back to your seat. If you were late, caned, back to your seat. If you gave the wrong answer, caned, then back to your seat. If you answered back of course, out to the front and instant retribution, and then life in the classroom went on. Elihu and the three friends of Job think they’ve figured out God, that they know him. To get from God what you want is to play the game his way. You give him obedience, and he rewards you. So Elihu feels he’s been rewarded and Bildad and Zophar have been rewarded too because they’ve always been doing what God asks of them, but God brings retribution to bear on wicked men. The implications then are clear, that Job is suffering because God is punishing him for his wickedness. God kills the wicked but God spares the afflicted (v.6); God raises them up to be kings (v.7). If men are in chains of pain and affliction God tells them why (vv.8–9) — “you sinnned arrogantly”, he says. Like the teacher punishing the arrogant boy in front of the class. “Listen to me”, he says (v.10). “If they obey God, they’ll prosper” (v.11); “if they don’t listen, they’ll die in ignorance” (v.12). “The godless are the people who resent this” (v.13), “when God chastises them they sulk”. “They will go off defiantly into the world if mysterious retribution is what religion is all about, then they will just sink in the world. They know where the prostitutes are” (v.14). “But the Lord delivers the righteous who suffer”, Elihu says to Job. “He’s wooing you by all your losses, to deliver you from distress” (v.16). “Now you’re being judged” (v.17). “Don’t be bribed by riches not to repent” (vv.18–19). “Don’t long for the night to come that you can do evil” (vv.20–21). “Job, face up to this fact, God is your just teacher and he gives instant retribution” (v.22). “You can’t tell God he’s done wrong” (v.23). “How great is God, he’s beyond our understanding” (v.26).

3. GOD’S POWER IN CREATION.

Then from v.27 onwards Elihu sings a hymn of praise to the power of God in creation. It goes on into chapter 37; it begins by referring to the great cycle of the heat coming down and the oceans evaporating, the moisture going up and forming into clouds and coming down in rain and snow and thunderstorms and ice. Let me read these wonderful words in chapter 37 and vv.5–13, “God’s voice thunders in marvellous ways; he does great things beyond our understanding. He says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’ and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’ So that all men he has made may know his work, he stops every man from his labour. The animals take cover; they remain in their dens. The tempest comes out from its chamber, the cold from the driving winds. The breath of God produces ice, and the broad waters become frozen. He loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them. At his direction they swirl around over the face of the whole earth to do whatever he commands them. He brings the clouds to punish men, or to water his earth and show his love”. What is he saying?

i] We can’t understand how God works in his creation.

Consider the mighty power of God at this moment. Just the winds coming off the sea in Aberystwyth, how mighty they are, but in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the islands of the seas, South America, North America, the Arctic, the Antarctic. Howling winds, mighty power, the grinding strength of the glaciers, the erupting power of the volcano, the mighty powers that there are in creation. Elihu is making this point: we can’t understand how God works in his creation. There are the wonderful nature films, but the scientists and cameramen and editors who are responsible for them don’t know why things happen as they do. They can shoot the film after months of patient observation, but to comprehend what they are seeing is something else. So there is this great theme here in chapter 36 v.26, that the creation is beyond our understanding”; ch. 36 v.29, “Who can understand how he spreads out the clouds?”; ch. 37 v.5: “He does great things beyond our understanding”. Meteorologists can’t understand it; earth scientists can’t understand fully what God does.

ii] We therefore can’t understand how God works in our lives.

If we can’t understand the scientific workings of creation, then consider the implications of this for our own relationship with the Creator. “Job, if you can’t understand, if no one can understand what God does in the natural world, how can we hope to understand what this same God is doing in our own individual lives?” That’s Elihu’s point. We read in vv.14–16 here, “Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God’s wonders. Do you know how God controls the clouds and makes his lightning flash? Do you know how the clouds hang poised, those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?” Elihu says. If there are secret things that belong to God in terms of climate, and if God withholds from us understanding of why these mighty powers are as they are, surely there are going to be secret things that belong to God when the same God chooses to sends leanness, or pain or silence into our lives? “There are secret things that belong to God. There are things that we can’t grasp”, Elihu humbly acknowledges. No one can ever look at the sun. You can’t bear that sight when the rain has washed the atmosphere and there are no clouds and it’s midday and that burning orb is directly above you. “We daren’t look at the sun”, he says (v.21).

God is like that. Holy and unapproachably bright and glorious, a God whom no man has seen nor can see. God is light, in him is no darkness at all, and so Elihu says at the end of v.22, “God comes in awesome majesty. The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power; in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress. Therefore, men revere him, for does he not have regard for all the wise in heart?” And that’s where Elihu ends and that’s where the speeches of the four men end and Job is silent after he speaks and finally the Lord speaks in chapter 38.

Job agrees with Elihu, of course. He has a sense of God’s absolute might and freedom and inscrutable otherness. No one can run a programmed experiment on God, and print it out afterwards and say, “This is why he does what he does”, and this ignorance of the secret ways of God gives us many questions, frustrations and longings. The gap between God and ourselves is immense. God’s power so vast, our power so puny; God’s mind infinite, our own so limited; God’s character pure and good and ours so flawed, and it seems at times nothing can bridge the gap between ourselves. We float like specks on his infinite vision. We are like the dust on the balance before him, unregistered by the keenest electronic scales, just nothing at all. The nations are like grasshoppers before him, and when we’re suffering and confused and crying for the Lord to give us a fair hearing or an explanation, what hope is there? How can you and I relate to such a God when the inequality between us and the immensity, the measureless might of God, is so vast? Job says in total resignation, “God is not a man like I am.”

Job then longs for a mediator between him and God, someone who will arbitrate, who will lay a hand on God and a hand on him and bring them together. He yearns for someone who is close enough to God and yet close to us, who will stand between us. This wish of Job, as it occurs more and more in his speeches, seems to sound increasingly like a belief he has, a confidence in his own heart, that there is indeed an Advocate on high, someone who will speak for him, who will show tenderness and pity towards him in heaven. Job’s confident longing will certainly be fulfilled in the coming of God the Son, the Word who was God, and was with God, and was made flesh and he dwelt amongst us. Now he has risen from the dead and ascended and is in the midst of the throne of God interceding for us, pleading the merits of his own royal death. That’s mankind’s only hope, and so that’s your only hope, that the Son of God should become our Advocate. The one who became our Advocate has identified so intimately with us, not only taking our frail flesh but suffering as we suffer, and far more than Job suffered. He came by the cross to become our Advocate, and the pains that he endured our salvation has secured. His knowledge of us, and his sympathy comes from the fact that this moment he remembers those pains of redemption so vividly, as if the Crucifixion had been last Friday, and the taste of death had been yesterday, and the Resurrection had been this morning. He remembers the pain and loneliness and the anathema of it all in its horrific details as if it were now. There’s no forgetfulness in Almighty God. The taste of blood, the shock of pain, out Lord knows that, and that is the stuff of his sympathy with you and me, as he, the Advocate, is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. That knowledge comes to us and the comforts of it are ours as we start to trust in him. In him alone! We go to God by him, by the unique God-man, by the one born in Bethlehem, by Jesus we go to God for his grace, and as much knowledge comes to us from a sympathizing God as he sees fit to give.

On one occasion Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, the Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.” God hides things from the smart Alec and the self-confident and the man who says he knows. He hides crucial realities from Elihu and Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar. They didn’t know. Job in his sufferings had learned more than them. Job could go like a child to a heavenly Father and ask God why, knowing he had the answer even if he didn’t tell him the answer. “Why are you dealing with me so, why don’t you speak to me, why don’t you tell me the reason for treating me in this way? I can’t believe that you are punishing me for no reason and I know my conscience is clear. Abba Father”, he says. Job is coming as a child to God. Men and women, you must take your bitterness and your perplexities and you must go in faith via Jesus Christ to God and you must ask him to give you a new mind and a new heart and make you one of his. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”

Now, some of you think God hasn’t done much for you, that he hasn’t heard your prayers, the troubles you’ve passed through. Why should God thus hide himself? Awful things happen to God’s children. The worst things happened to Job, and God seemed far away. Why should God hide himself from us? Why shouldn’t God speak and answer us? Well, just let me answer that laterally now? Let’s think what might happen if all of us were close to God, 24 hours a day; if you always understood everything that God was doing in your life; if you never found this Holy Book puzzling, and all your prayers were answered with a “Yes” and God gave you all sorts of supernatural abilities. It sounds initially like heaven on earth, doesn’t it? What would really happen? The Bible gives us an example in a church in the city of Corinth. There God gave people wisdom and insight and miracles and supernatural powers and yet that church with all its knowledge and all its blessings turned out to be a terribly unspiritual congregation. People were so proud that they became know-it-alls. They became so satisfied with the revelations, miracles, and the supernatural experiences they had that many of them even thought that the Resurrection was unnecessary. Their complacency is telling us that we can know too much. Too much knowledge unsanctified to the mighty One will makes us proud. If we are blessed too much minute by minute, any sense of weakness and dependency, any yearning, any longing for God disappears. We know something of God and it isn’t very long before we start thinking we are experts on God. Four men came and spoke to Job. They knew less than Job about God and about pain, but they spoke at great length to him about God and pain. They were proud that God was their pal, well he must have been, because . . . look at all the bounty they had; they were sleek with good health; they had herds and flocks and servants and gold and silver. Weren’t those evidences that God was their all-approving supporter? That knowledge led to pride and complacency and unhelpful advice. If our lives are lived bouncing from one spiritual high to another, from one assured answer to prayer to another, we get so satisfied with life here and now that we don’t much care whether Jesus is coming again or not, and whether we’re soon going to be with him in heaven.

Whom would you rather have as a pastor? Would you have Job with his righteous anguish and defined doubts as a pastor? Or would you have Elihu as your pastor, or Eliphaz, or Zophar, or Bildad? We would all say, “Well, we want Job; we’d listen to Job as our pastor. With the pain that Job has gone through, and the integrity that Job has maintained, and the clean conscience that Job has, and the grief and the knowledge and the yearning and the longing that he has, and the insights that he has of an Advocate at the right hand of God, we’d want Job with his ignorance, rather than these men and their assumed knowledge.” Maybe that’s why God hides himself, then, even from Christians. He hides himself to make us humble and to create a divine hunger. He makes us humble in order to show us how little we understand his ways. We don’t understand meteorology properly. Well, the God of the meteors, how little we know of him! He makes us humble, and he makes us hungry for heaven by identifying ourselves in our own experience with the brokenness of the world and the pain of our fellow men. We say, “This world is not my home. I’m groaning with all of creation. I’m longing and aching for a better world”. Paul writes to the Corinthians and he says, “Knowledge puffs up, but loves builds up. The man who thinks he knows something, does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God”. One of the most important things that you can know about God, Paul says, is that no matter how well you think you know him, you still don’t know him well. What matters is that God knows you; God knows your faith; God knows your strength, and God is moving you to trust him and is drawing you to love him. Isaiah says, “You are a God who hides yourself, but Israel will be saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation. You’ll never be put to shame or disgraced”. Job was never put to shame. Job was never disgraced. “I have not spoken in secret”, God says, “I have never said, ‘Seek ye me in vain’. Those that seek me find me”.

10th March 2002 Geoff Thomas