BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 156 (April-June 1999): 143-59

               Copyright © 1999 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.



                          ELIHU'S THEOLOGY




                                            Larry J. Waters


            The Book of Job is essentially about God's relationship with

humankind, specifically with a man named Job, and it revolves

around two questions. The first question is introduced through the

accusations of Satan (1:9-11; 2:4-5): Why do people worship

God?1 Satan suggested that the motivation for Job's worship and

righteousness was "self-focused aggrandizement (Job 1:9-11)."2

Elihu3 sought to show that Satan's thesis-that "all religious in-

terest is ultimately grounded in self-interest, or worse, in merce-

nary commitment"4--is false.

            The second question asks, How should people respond or react

to God when He is silent and seemingly unconcerned about their

problems? Therefore Elihu's theology is primarily related to Job's

reaction to God, and the misunderstanding of the three antago-

nists and Job regarding their relationship to Him. Specifically

Job questioned the operation of God's justice and ultimately God's

own integrity, whereas the three questioned Job's claim of inno-

cence and asserted God's right to exercise His freedom in the use

of retributive justice. These two attributes, God's justice and

sovereignty, were emphatically defended by Elihu.



Larry J. Waters is Professor of Bible Exposition, International School of Theology-

Asia, Quezon City, Philippines.


1 See Roy B. Zuck, "A Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs," in A

Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody. 1991),

219-32. Many observations in this article are drawn from this study, but will not be

noted hereafter unless directly quoted.

2 Ibid., 219.

3 For a discussion of the authenticity of Elihu's speeches, see Larry J. Waters,

"The Authenticity of the Elihu Speeches in Job 32-37," Bibliotheca Sacra 156

(January-March 1999): 28-41.

4 D. A. Carson, How Long, 0 Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand

Rapids: Baker, 1990), 160.

144                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1999



                                    THE THEOLOGY OF GOD

In response to these two questions Elihu spoke first of God's

sovereignty. God is greater than man (33:12); He is sovereign in

His decisions and actions (34:14-15, 29), in His rule over indi-

viduals, nations, and the earth (33:14-18, 29-30; 34:13-15, 21-25;

37:13), and in His greatness (36:22, 26). His sovereignty is

demonstrated in His creative work (32:22; 33:4, 6; 34: 14) and His

control of nature, including the cycles of evaporation (36:27-33),

rain (36:28; 37:6), the clouds, lightning, and thunder (36:29-33;

37:2-5, 11-12, 15-16), the cold, snow, and ice (37:6-10), extreme

heat (37:16-18), and animals (37:8).

            Elihu explained the relationship between the sovereignty of

God and suffering by emphasizing that Job's life was under the

control of the sovereign Creator God, who sustains life (34:13-15).

Since God's decisions, actions, and dominion are autonomous,

neither Job nor the three had the right to question God or presume

on Him. However, Job and the three assumed that everything in

God's universe ought to be explained to them (30:20) or known by

them (15:8-10; 20:4). As a result Elihu declared, in essence,

"There are some things you [Job and the three] will not under-

stand, for you are not God."5 There will always remain some

mysteries to suffering; therefore when believers suffer, they must

maintain faith in the Lord.

            A second attribute Elihu defended is God's "infinity, for He

cannot be understood (36:26; 37:5, 15-16), seen by man (34:29),"6

or limited by space. A third attribute is God's eternality (36:26,

29), for He cannot be dated or limited by time. Elihu's purpose in

emphasizing these three attributes was to move Job and the three

from a focus on themselves and the problems surrounding under-

served suffering to the infinite God whose purposes are eternal

and who knows exactly what He is doing. Before Elihu's inter-

vention the debate had been anthropocentric and not theocentric.

Elihu rectified that situation and injected a recognition of the di-

vine into the discussion. Another purpose Elihu had in mind was

to get Job and the three to understand that God is not limited in the

way He deals with the suffering of humankind. God acts when,

where, and how He has sovereignly decreed. This is not to dis-

courage prayer or a humble, submissive, and righteous lifestyle,

but rather to encourage a life of faith and trust.

            The fourth and fifth attributes defended by Elihu are God's


5 Ibid., 173-74.

6 Zuck, "A Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs," 221.

                        Elihu's Theology and His View of Suffering                      145


justice (34:12, 17; 36:3, 23; 37:23) and holiness (34:10; 36:23). He is

perfectly just and holy when He judges sin (34:11), punishes sin-

ners (v. 26), destroys the powerful (v. 24), acts impartially (v. 19),

summons death (v. 20; 36:6), disciplines oppressive rulers (36:7),

judges godless kings (34:30), and censures flattery (32:22). Elihu

spent the greater part of his defense in affirming God's justice.

The three antagonists' faulty theology and Job's insistence that

God was neither exercising justice in the lives of others or in his

own life (10:3; 12:6; 19:6-7; 21:7-15, 17-28; 24:12; 27:2) called into

question God's justice and holiness. If Job's suffering were un-

justly allowed by God, or if God's work could be reduced to a quid

pro quo system, then God is no different from the false gods of the

ancient Near East. Elihu maintained that God does not punish or

reward on the basis of human terms (34:33). Therefore the

proposition that God acts unjustly or that He is controlled by

human logic is unacceptable. According to Elihu suffering has

many purposes, all of which fall under the governance of the jus-

tice and holiness of God. To think otherwise diminishes God to "a

god" and exaggerates suffering beyond its importance and pro-

motes it to the prime factor of life, with all things revolving

around its existence or absence (i.e., compensation theology).7

            God's omniscience was also cited by Elihu. This sixth at-

tribute affirms that God is aware of every movement of a person

(34:21) and knows all that is in one's heart (v. 23). God sees the

deeds of sinners and they cannot hide from Him (vv. 22, 25;

35:15). He is also cognizant of the righteous and their needs

(36:7), for He is "perfect in knowledge" (36:4; 37:16). The silence

of God was a major obstacle for Job, because it implied that God

was unaware of his suffering or that He was distant and detached

(13:24). Elihu demonstrated that God is actively involved in ev-

ery area of a person's life and is aware of even inner moti-

vations. Even in suffering, God does not detach Himself from

His creation but is at work in that suffering to attract the sufferer

to Himself (36:15-16). Since God is omniscient and aware of

Job's suffering, He is also aware that it is undeserved. Therefore

any apparent inaction or silence on God's part did not imply Job's

isolation or God's ignorance and hostility.

            The seventh attribute emphasized by Elihu was omnipotence.

God is referred to as the omnipotent Creator (34:19; 35:10; 36:3),

the Almighty Gods (32:8; 33:4; 34:10, 12; 35:13; 37:23), and the


7 The terms "compensation" and "compensation theology" are defined later.

a luck points out that yDiWa is used thirty-one times in Job (including six times by

Elihu) and only seventeen times in the rest of the Old Testament (ibid., 221-22).

Also see R. Laird Harris, "The Book of Job and Its Doctrine of God," in Sitting with

146                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1999


"mighty" One (34:17; 36:5). Twice, Elihu declared that God is

"exalted in power" (36:22; 37:23). Rabbi Kushner insists that God

is unable to prevent human suffering.9 This idea, however, was

unacceptable to Elihu, Job, and the three, because "God's power

was not questioned; only His fairness."1o Though Job did not

doubt the power of God, he did deny God's willingness to use it on

Job's behalf, and he even accused God of using His power against

him (9:22, 30-31; 13:3; 16:7-12; 19:21; 23:2; 31:35a). For Job,

"God's essence is 'power' and not 'justice;' he bends justice and

rules with raw power (19:6f)."11 For Elihu, to imply that God's al-

lowance of Job's suffering was an action independent of His na-

ture was an attack on God's justice. Elihu insisted that God's

power was working for Job, not against him, even in his suffer-

ing and losses. Elihu wanted Job to put aside his preoccupation

with his own vindication and righteousness and to realize that

God alone had the power to deliver him (36:22-24; cf. 40:8-14).12

The eighth attribute Elihu noted is God's love and mercy. His

provision for His creation, Elihu pointed out, shows that He is

gracious and merciful (37:13). He gives life to humanity (34:14-

15), He forgives and restores (33:26-30; 36:10), He delivers suf-

ferers in their suffering, speaks during oppression, and seeks

intimacy with sufferers during their distress (36:15-16). Elihu

also invited Job to consider God's merciful love, as seen in the

actions of nature. When Job's wife suggested that he "curse God

and die," Job replied, "Shall we indeed accept good from God and

not accept adversity?" (2:9-10). Elihu assumed that suffering was

as much a gift from God as prosperity. Elihu also recognized that

Job's occupation with his former blessings had clouded his mind

to the lessons and intimacies related to hardship and adversity

(33:24, 26; 36:15; 37:13b-14). The "fellowship of God is enriching,

and. ..that fellowship may be found in adversity no less than in

prosperity."13 Suffering is therefore the channel through which


Job: Selected Studies on the Book of Job, ed. Roy B. luck (Grand Rapids: Baker,

1992), 154-55.

9 Kushner says, "God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but He

cannot always arrange it. Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally

powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good, the author of the book of Job

chooses to believe in God's goodness" (Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Hap-

pen to Good People [New York: Avon, 19831,42-43).

10 Philip Yancey, "Riddles of Pain: Clues from the Book of Job," Christianity To-

day, December 13, 1985, 80.

11 Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 114.

12 Elmer B. Smick, "Semeiological Interpretation of the Book of Job," Westminster

Theological Journal 48 (1986): 147.

13 H. H. Rowley, "The Intellectual versus the Spiritual Solution," in The Dimen-

sions of Job: A Study and Selected Readings (New York: Schocken, 1967), 126.

                        Elihu's Theology and His View of Suffering                      147


God dispenses His grace and love in a remarkable way and

where His attributes are more clearly manifest to the sufferer.



                        THE THEOLOGY OF HUMANITY

Job held traditional views regarding the origin and nature of hu-

mans. He acknowledged God as the Creator and Sustainer of life

(12:10; 27:3, 8), particularly his own (10:8-11). Job noted that peo-

ple are by nature frail (6:11-12), impure (14:4), wicked (3:17; 9:22,

24; 10:2; 16:11; 21:7, 16, 28; 24:6; 27:7, 13; 29:17; 31:3), godless

(13:16; 27:8), and without hope (6:11; 7:6; 14:19; 17:15; 27:8). Job

admitted that sin could occur in one's heart (1:5; 31:7, 9) or

thoughts (31:1). Chapters 29-31 reveal that Job had a healthy re-

spect for the consequences of sin and attempted to live righ-

teously. Generally he agreed with his three verbal opponents that

suffering is evidence of sinful behavior, but he also observed that

contrary to the claim of compensation theology not all sinners

suffer and not all righteous people are exempt from affliction

(21:7-15, 17-18; 24:1-17).

            Elihu described God's relationship to people in several ways.

First, he depicted this relationship generally. Elihu spoke of God

as the Creator of humankind (32:22; 33:4, 6; 34:19; 35:10), and the

Authority over and Owner of human beings (33:6). Elihu main-

tained that human life is sustained by God (33:4; 34:20). He re-

garded people as formed from clay (33:6), made of flesh and bones

(33:21; 34:15), lower than God (33:12; 36:23, 26), and destined to

return to dust (34:10). People cannot condemn God (34:17, 29), see

God (34:29; 35:14), or understand Him (36:26) or His ways in na-

ture (36:29; 37:15-16).14 Elihu also said that human beings are

spiritual creatures (32:8, 18; 33:3; 34:14; 37:1, 24). Concerning

wisdom and spiritual knowledge, Elihu affirmed that wisdom

does not come from age (32:4-5, 9) or human nature (32:5, 12-13;

36:29; 37:19), but from God alone (32:8, 19-20; 33:3-4, 15-16, 29-

30; 36:10-13; 37:7, 14-15). True wisdom cannot be attained

through tradition or effort, but is a gift from God. Therefore Job

should entrust his situation to the authority of his Creator.

Second, Elihu said God is intimately involved in the lives of

human beings. God did not abandon humans when He created

them (34:14-15). He is actively involved in the conduct of His

people, and their ways are not hidden from Him (34:21-22). God

communicates with people through dreams, visions, pain, and


14 See Zuck, "A Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs," 226-28, 230-


148                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1999


mediators (33:15-22, 26-29; 36:9-10, 15). God opens the ears of

people to communicate His will and plan (33:16; 36:10, 16), and

draws people to Himself (36:16). Elihu stated that God gives joy in

life (35:10) and that He promotes or demotes people justly and

I fairly (34:30; 36:7, 11). Therefore God was active in Job's suffer-

ing and struggle. The Lord was not Job's enemy (13:24; 33:10); He

desired a deeper relationship with Job (33:26-30).

            Third, Elihu described God's relationship with the righteous.

God’s might and power, he said, are involved in carrying out His

plans and purposes for the righteous (36:5-7). God's relationship

with them is unparalleled (vv. 5-6), and He is aware of all that

happens to them (v. 7a). God does not oppress the righteous or do

violence to righteousness (37:23b). Nothing happens to the righ-

teous of which God is unaware; in this the righteous can be secure.

God was involved in the life of Job and had a special interest in

him as one of His righteous ones. Contrary to Job's accusations,

God was not oppressing him or doing violence to him .(37:23). Un-

like readers who know the events of the prologue, Elihu accepted

this truth by faith and encouraged Job to do the same. In reality the

only enemy Job had to fear was himself, and suffering was re-

vealing that to him (34:35, 37; 35:16; cf. 38:2; 40:2, 8). Job's suffer-

ing was more than Satan's insinuation against him. He was suf-

fering to vindicate more than himself. He was vindicating God's

trust in him. Elihu was saying that when suffering comes unde-

servedly, one should not react as Job did with accusation and self-

defense. Instead the sufferer should "face it with trust [for] if he

could know the cause, he too might find that he was serving God

and was honored in his very agony."15

            Fourth, Elihu described God's relationship with the wicked.

Elihu recognized that people are sinners (33:17, 27; 34:22-27, 30;

35:12-13, 15; 36:9-10, 13-14), and are therefore held accountable

to God (32:22; 33:26; 34:11, 30; 35:15; 36:10-12). For Elihu people

are unable to deliver themselves and therefore need God's inter-

vention and involvement (33:23-32; 36:15; 37:13). Even those who

are mighty are ultimately subject to God (34:24). He knows their

works (v. 25) and will overthrow them (vv. 25-26), because they

have turned from following Him and have not regarded His

ways (v. 27). They also cause the poor to cry out to God (v. 28).

Furthermore God does not value an evil or proud person (35:12-

13). Ultimately they are removed from their place (32:22; 34:24)

and another is promoted above them (34:24). Especially pertinent

to Job was the issue of pride (33:17; 35:12) and his accusation that

God does not punish the wicked (21:7-16; cf. 35:12; 36:6).


15 Rowley, "The Intellectual versus the Spiritual Solution," 124.

                        Elihu's Theology and His View of Suffering                      149


The point Elihu was making is that God's retributive justice

is still in effect regardless of the charges brought against it by a

faulty theology or false accusations. People are accountable to

God and are totally dependent on His grace for deliverance.



                        THE THEOLOGY OF RETRIBUTION

For most ancient peoples, the quintessential principle of life was

that God (or the gods) rule with predictive, moral, and com-

pensative order.16 It was generally believed that the sovereign

God/gods ruled His/their world, and that when necessary

He/they would intervene in human history to reward the good and

punish the wicked. Of course the Scriptures teach that God will

ultimately punish the wicked and reward the righteous.17 It would

seem that moral order in the world was and continues to be "one of

those requirements of the human mind which God cannot fail to

satisfy without appearing unjust."18

            A belief held generally throughout the ancient world19 was

"that there is an exact correspondence between one's behavior and

one's destiny," and this principle "is known as the doctrine of re-

tribution."20 Generally in this view there was no room for the suf-

fering of the righteous or the blessing of the wicked.21

            Eichrodt asserts that a "deeply rooted belief in retribution"

was found in Israel.22 Eichrodt's theology of the Old Testament


16 Rene Girard writes, "The idea of retribution [is] an essential aspect of every

system of mythological representation [and it] dominates primitive religion" (Job:

The Victim of His People [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 122).

17 Jerome D. Quinn, "The Scriptures of Merit," in Justification by Faith, ed. H.

George Anderson, T. Austin Murphy, and Joseph A. Burgess (Minneapolis: Augs-

burg, 1985), 84.

18 Edouard Dhorme, A Commentary on the Book of Job (Nashville: Nelson, 1984),


19 Robert Gordis states that the doctrine "was universally accepted throughout

the ancient Near East, from the Nile to the Euphrates. The concept of family soli-

darity was joined to that of lex talionis ('measure for measure') and became a car-

dinal principle in the legal system of the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hit-

tites" (The Book of God and Man [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 137).

20 David J. A. Clines, Job 1-20, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1989),

xxxix. Edward W. Glenny states it this way: "Retribution theology holds that there

is an automatic connection between a person's deeds and state of being" ("How Well

Do You Know God? The Dangers of Retribution Theology," Searching Together 23

[Spring 1995): 14). Glenny's use of the word "automatic" would move his definition

into the category of compensation theology.

21 Shimon Bakon, "God and Man on Trial," Jewish Bible Quarterly 21 (1993): 22.

22 Walter Eichrodt considered retribution as one of the characteristic peculiari-

ties that mark the Israelite religion: "Hence in Babylonia . . .we find a terrifying

uncertainty about the principle of God's dealings with men; but the Israelite is cer-

150                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1999


was instrumental in popularizing the term "retribution." The

term is so entrenched within present-day Old Testament theology

that it seems advisable to retain that term to represent the biblical

principle of retribution or retribution theology. The terms "com-

pensation" and "compensation theology," on the other hand, des-

ignate the misconception of the biblical principle of retribution.23



"Retribution" or "retribution theology" may be defined as de-

served reward or punishment that comes to an obedient or offend-

ing party when a divine requirement, agreement, verbal

promise, or covenant is kept or broken. That there could be verbal

requirements or verbal agreements between God and people is

clearly indicated by (a) the sacrifices Job offered (Job 1:5 and

42:8); (b) the phrases regarding God's "path," "command,"

"words of His mouth," in 23:11-12; (c) Job's oath of innocence and

list of virtues in chapter 31; (d) Elihu's insistence that God is in-

volved in individual human life (33:14-30; 34:14-15, 21-22, 25,

29; 36:5-12, 31; 37:13); and (e) God's speeches and the epilogue

(chaps. 38-42).

            Negatively, retribution is punishment for breaking a con-

tract or covenant (verbal or written) that was relation ally or

legally binding on two parties. Positively, retribution is reward

for keeping the commands and requirements of that same con-

tract or agreement. Retribution resulted from disobedience or

obedience, anticipated by the offending or obedient party, when

the verbal agreement, command, or covenant was broken or kept.

It was therefore fair and Just both legally and morally.

            However, the traditional wisdom of Job's day saw the concept

of retribution as a fixed systematic formula for judging the con-

dition of a nation or the life of an individual.24 Therefore it lim-


tain that God in his turn will act toward him in accordance with those principles

of law with which he himself is well acquainted" (Theology of the Old Testament,

Old Testament Library, trans. J. A. Baker [Philadelphia: Westminster, 19611,1:243).

The certainty of the Israelite, however, often turned to uncertainty when the for-

mula did not follow the expected course. Koch points out that It may have been

Gunkel who first recognized that from the beginning of Israel's history they held to

a belief in retribution (Klaus Koch, "Is There a Doctrine of Retribution in the Old

Testament?" in Theodicy in the Old Testament, ed. James L. Crenshaw [Philadel-

phia: Fortress, 19831, 57).

23 This is done with full awareness that the terms "retribution" and "compensa-

tion" could also be used interchangeably. However,. it seems preferable to use the

term "compensation" to represent the wrong doctrine, the wrong understanding,

the misapplication, or the "hyperdoctrine" of retribution, while maintaining that

the term "retribution" represents the biblical principles related to reward and

"punishment from God.

24 Roland E. Murphy states, "The book's most positive teaching is at the same time

negative. the application to Job of the traditional theory of divine retribution is not

                        Elihu's Theology and His View of Suffering                      151


ited God to predetermined actions in dealing with people's re-

sponses to Him. People "seek an explanation of suffering in

cause and effect. . . . They look backwards for a connection be-

tween prior sin and present suffering."25

            However, according to the Scriptures, within the true princi-

ple of retribution there is room for exceptions to a fixed formula

for the working out of God's justice in the lives of His people.26

"God's actions can at times suspend all dogmatic statements and

theories about God's own inner workings."27 This is not to say

that He is capricious or that the principle of retribution contradicts

His justice and freedom to act, but it does explain why people have

attempted to develop fixed formulas by which to try to explain or

predict God's actions.28 Even so, retribution theology remains a

tenet of God's justice and righteousness and does not violate God's

mercy, love, and grace toward His people (37:13).



"Compensation" or "compensation theology" is a belief system

based on human observation, presumption, prejudice, and dog-

matic traditional wisdom. Compensation is an airtight reward-

and-punishment system related to performance of the individual

within a set standard of assumed values. While there is evidence

that God communicated certain requirements related to the true

principle of retribution in the .Book of Job, there is no. evidence

the book that God followed this concept of compensation. God did

not agree to the assumptions of Satan, the three counselors, or Job

himself. There is no evidence of mutual agreement between the


relevant" (The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, Anchor

Bible Reference Library [New York: Doubleday & Co., 1990), 34),.

25 Francis I. Andersen, Job: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Tes-

tament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), 68. As an example of

this principle Andersen points to the man who was born blind "in order that the

works of God might be displayed in him" (John 9:3).

26 This is also true in reverse. Righteous servants of God have suffered unde-

servedly, such as Joseph, Elijah, David as a fugitive, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Daniel.

The New Testament also gives examples, such as Jesus Himself, the apostle Paul,

the apostle Peter, and early-church believers.

27 Koch "Is There a Doctrine of Retribution in the Old Testament?" 82. Richard

Rohr says, "The Book of Job proclaims from the beginning that there is no [fixed]

correlation between sin and suffering, between virtue and reward. That logic is

hard for us to break. This book tries to break it, so that a new logos, called grace,

can happen" (Job and the Mystery of Suffering (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 33).

28 J. A. Loader says, "The Book of Job has no objection to a connexion (sic) of deed

and consequence, but indeed objects to a doctrine of retribution into which reality

is forced" ("Relativity in Near Eastern Wisdom,” In Studies in Wisdom Literature,

ed. W. C. van Wyk [Hercules, S.A.: N.H.W., 1981), 54 [italics his]).

152                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1999


Lord and Job, nor a verbal or written covenant that promised that

the righteous would always prosper and never suffer. That is, Job

and his three companions had made an assumption, but God had

not validated it. Therefore it was neither legally nor morally

binding on the Lord.

            The terms "compensation" and "compensation theology" rep-

resent the fixed formula that became a distortion of the true prin-

ciple of retribution. For instance Job's accusers, holding to com-

pensation theology, communicated the idea that God is somehow

under obligation to exact payment according to a principle that

confines Him to the limitations of human interpretation of how

good or bad a person is or acts.29

            Therefore compensation theology is presumptuous and preju-

dicial. It is presumptuous toward the Lord in that it demands that

He act in accord with traditional wisdom. It is prejudicial toward

human beings in that it classifies their relationship with God and

their righteousness on the basis of having or not having material

prosperity. Job's suffering and the prosperity of the wicked pro-

vide clear evidence to the contrary.30 In contrast to compensation

theology, the biblical principle of retribution is neither presump-

tuous (forcing assumptions from human wisdom on the

sovereign God) nor prejudicial (favoring one person over an-

other; 34:19). The proper application of retribution theology

breaks down when wrong assumptions are placed on it. It then be-

comes a different theology, namely, compensation theology.


29 This may also be referred to as "the traditional theory of retribution." J. Clinton

McCann says, "By its rejection of the traditional theory of retribution, the Book of

Job reveals a God whose essence is love, and thus a God who suffers with, for. and

on account of humankind in the world" ("Wisdom's Dilemma: The Book of Job, the

Final Form of the Book of Psalms, the Entire Bible," in Wisdom You Are My Sister:

Studies in Honor of Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., on the Occasion of His Eightieth

Birthday, ed. Michael L. Barre, Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 29

[Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of Amenca, 1997). 21).

30 See, for example, Job's remarks in Job 12 and 21.

                        Elihu's Theology and His View of Suffering                      153

                        ELIHU'S INSIGHTS INTO SUFFERING

                         COMPARED WITH OTHERS' VIEWS

Ancient Near Eastern View                   Elihu's View

1. Worshipers held a general                 1. Elihu held a belief in true

     belief in some form of me-         retribution that was fairly

     chanical compensation: the        and justly administered by

     automatic connection be-                      God. It was not mechanical

     tween one s deeds and state                   nor were one's deeds neces-

     of being. Compensation was                  sarily connected to its oper-

     governed by the god(s)                          ation. God does not govern

     somewhat capriciously.31                        capriciously (34:10-12).

2. This theology became a uni- 2. True retribution is a correc-

     versal human philosophy of      tion of the distorted views

     cosmic order for explaining      of human philosophy and is

     individual destinies, suffer-         explainable only by God

     ing, and prosperity.                   Himself (34:12-15; 36:5).

3. As a result of belief in this                  3. While the principle of retri-

     principle, misfortunes were        bution is observable, nei-

     always the result of sins                         ther suffering nor prosper-

     and misdeeds. Suffers were      ity is always predictable.

     not therefore truly "inno-                       Suffering is not always due

     cent" but were ignorant and      to sin, nor prosperity to

     in need of enlightenment.                       righteousness (36:6-8, 15;

     34:28; 36:27-31).

4. Therefore worshipers could   4. Reward and protection can-

     expect reward and protec-                    not be guaranteed by dedi-

     tion based on a life dedi-                       cation of life to God. The

     cated to their deity. Being                      righteous suffer undeserv-

     righteous” and “innocent,         edly for purposes known to

     meant the person was obe-      God. Being "righteous" or

     dient to the human expla-                      "innocent" means a person

     nations regarding the will                       is obedient to the will of

     of the deity. "Wise men"                        God. "Wise men" were to

     then became the inter-                           clarify and announce the

     preters of divine will.                             will of God but not presume

     on His prerogatives.

5. When suffering, the person    5. Elihu agonized with the C

     (or sage) would simply ac-                    sufferer over the paradox of

     quiesce to the situation, be-      undeserved suffering and

     cause the god(s) were usu-      God's retributive justice

     ally aloof and detached.                        (33:6). Also Elihu said God

                                                                 is personally involved in the

                                                                 lives of sufferers (34:14-15).

6. Since suffering was evi-                     6. Since suffering is not al-

     dence of sin, the only re-                      ways evidence of sin, suffer-

     course was to admit guilt,                      ers are allowed to ask why,

     praise the deity, and plead                     but not to blame God (33:12;

     for mercy. 36:22-26).

31 For a discussion of the capriciousness of ancient Near Eastern gods, see Larry

J. Waters, "Elihu's View of Suffering in Job 32-37" (Ph.D. diss., Dallas Theological

Seminary, 1998),218-63.

154                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1999


Satan's View                                                 Elihu's View

1. Suffering is a tool to use              1. Suffering is allowed by God

    against both sufferers and                 for His own purposes and

    God with the ultimate ob-                 for the benefit of individu-

    jective being that people                   als (33:14, 19, 23-24).

    curse God (1:9-11; 2:4-5).

2. Suffering is a tool to manip-        2. Suffering is allowed by God

     ulate sufferers into doubt-               to strengthen sufferers'

     ing the goodness and justice           faith in the goodness and

     of God.                                              justice of God (34:12; 37:23).

3. Suffering generally has two         3. Suffering has many objec-

    objectives: to induce suffer-            tives, all of which are de-

    ers to blame God for what                signed to guide sufferers to

    Satan does, and to motivate              a closer relationship with

    sufferers to sin.                                 God and a better under-

                                                                standing of themselves and

    God (36:5, 22, 24).

4. Satan's objectives in his                4. God's objectives in His use

    misuse of suffering are rein-           of suffering are in perfect

    forced by the false principle            harmony with His gracious

    of compensation.                               administration of the true

                                                                principle of retribution (36:2-7).

5. Satan uses undeserved suf-           5. Suffering is designed by God

    fering to cause loss of per-               to sharpen perspective, cor-

    spective, disillusionment,                  rect weaknesses, and

    and discouragement.                          strengthen one's faith

                                                                 (33:15; 34:31; 37:13).

6. Satan used undeserved suf-          6. Suffering solidified a sense

    fering to attempt to frus-     of God's destiny for the life

    trate God's destiny for Job.              of Job (36:22-37:24).

The View of Eliphaz,

Bildad, and Zophar                         Elihu's View

1. Job's suffering was de-                 1. Job's initial suffering was

    served; only the wicked suf-             not deserved (Elihu limited

    fer. Job was suffering;                      his argument to present

    therefore Job was wicked                 faults like pride; 33:17-18,

    (4:8; 11:6, 11; 18:5-21;                   29-30). Job was not wicked,

    20:25-29; 22:2-11, 21-30).             but he had sinned during ~

                                                                the debates and was in a

    precarious position (32:14; 33:12).

2. Job's suffering was divine            2. Job's suffering was not due

    judgment or chastisement                 to sins committed before the

    for sins committed before his          initial suffering began;

     suffering began (chap. 22).               rather he sinned in his

     speeches and attitudes

     (34:35-37; 35:16).

Elihu's Theology and His Suffering             155

3. The solution to Job's suffer-        3. The solution to Job's suffer-

    ing was to confess his sin                  ing was humble submission

    and repent; his prosperity                  to God's work in his life. He

    was the motivation for re-                 was to return to being oc-

    pentance, because prosper-               cupied with God and with

    ity is always assured to the                what He was doing in his

    repentant (5:8, 27; 8:5;                      affliction. Prosperity is not

    11:13-14; 15:20-35; 22:21-             the motivation for true re-

     23).                                                     pentance; it is only a possi-

     ble consequence (36:8-15; 37:14).

4. The three held firmly to a             4. Elihu defended the true

     traditional compensation                 principle of retribution that

     theology that dictated the                was fairly and justly admin-

     relationship between God                 istered by God for Job's

     and sufferers and obligated              benefit (34:10-15; 36:2-26).

     God to administer justice ac-           God is not obligated by the

     cording to its precepts                      interpretations of "wise

     (chaps. 15, 18, 20, 22).                     men" or by the precepts of

     man-made theology (37:15, 19, 23).

5. The certainty of com pens a-       5. Elihu was concerned for

     tion theology was more im-             Job, compassionately moti-

     portant to the three than                    vated to help him regardless

     their duty to Job as friends               of Job's conflict with tradi-

     and comforters during his                 tional wisdom (33:4-7, 32).

     suffering (6:14, 21; 17:1-5).

6. The three drew wrong con-          6. Elihu rejected the premise

     clusions from Job's situation           that all suffering is de-

     and thus made erroneous                  served. He affirmed that the

     applications: (1) Job was sin-          cause for Job's original

     ful and therefore deserved                suffering was a mystery

     suffering. (2) Job could have           known only to God. How-

     previously fallen unknow-                ever, Elihu realized that

     ingly into sin, so suffering               Job had sinned during the

     was deserved. (3) Job's suf-             debates and that the con-

     fering was disciplinary be-               tinued suffering was al-

     cause of previous sin; there-            lowed for several reasons

     fore it was deserved.                         that were irrelevant at the onset of

     his suffering (33:12; 34:10, 12, 35).

Job's View                                        Elihu's View

1. Job viewed his suffering as          1. Elihu agreed and therefore

     undeserved and unexplain-               concentrated on Job's present sit-

     able by the theology of com-           uation, offering no explanation for

     pensation (9:21; 21:7).                     Job's undeseverd initial suffering.

2. Job associated his suffering         2. Elihu associated Job's suf-

     with his past and related it               fering with the present and

      to his present situation                   related it to his future

      (7:17-20; 9:17-20).                        (33:12; 34:10; 37:14).

156 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA I April-June 1999

3. Job observed that the righ-                3. Elihu agreed, but did not

     teous often suffer and the                     connect this to the false

     wicked often prosper, con-     principle of compensation

     trary to the belief system                      that viewed Job as wicked

     held by the three friends                      (view of the three) or that

     and to some extent by him-    God was unjust (Job's view;

     self (chap. 21).                                    34:10, 12, 21: 36:5, 26).

4. Job's suffering caused a                     4. Elihu, as a fellow human

    dilemma in his thinking                           being, shared in the

    with regard to traditional                      dilemma, but did not allow

    wisdom. He was unable to                   it to undermine his belief

    reconcile his suffering with         and trust in God's retribu-

    his exemplary life (7:20;                        tive justice (33:6-7; 37:23).

    10:2; chaps. 29-31).

5. Though tempted by the of-                5. Like Job in the prologue,

    fer of return of prosperity                       Elihu recognized that both

    and social status, Job re-                        prosperity and suffering can

    jected this and maintained                      be gifts from God (2: 10).

    that. even though prosper-                     God, not circumstances, is

    ity was given by God, it is                      to be the focus of one's life

    not the incentive for service        (36:24; 37:13-14, 24).

    to God (he rejected all calls

    for his repentance).

6. Suffering caused Job to con-             6. Elihu maintained that God's

    tend with God and to at-                       actions, though inexplica-

    tempt to explain His actions       ble, are perfectly good, just,

    by human reason (7:17-21;       and fair (34:10,12; 37:5, 23).

    9:22-24; 33:8-11, 13).

7. Suffering caused Job to                     7. Elihu saw suffering as pre-

    misunderstand God's plan,        ventive, correctional, and

    accuse God falsely, arro-                      educational. It was meant

    gantly challenge God, and                     to clarify Job's misunderstandings-

    criticize the operation of                        correct his false accusations, reveal

    God's justice.                                        his arrogance, and counter his crit-

               cism of God's justice.

8. Job's suffering made him an-             8. Elihu presented suffering as

     thropocentric, focusing on         glorificational, revelational,

     the injustice of his situa-                        organizational, and rela-

     tion and the ramifications of       tional. Job’s suffering was

     his losses (chaps. 3, 29-31).                  to make him theocentric, fo-

     cusing on God's justice and

     the positive aspects of his

     situation (35:5, 36:5, 22, 26; 37:14).

9. In Job's discourse on wisdom            9. Elihu shared this conclu-

     he recognized that it is pos-      sion with Job (32:7-9; 36:16;

     sible to be closer to true                        37:24).

     wisdom during times of suf-

     fering and pain (28:20-22).

     But it is still God who gives

     the wisdom necessary to understand

     and deal with such suffering wisely.


Elihu's Theology and His Suffering 157

God's View                                       Elihu's View

1. The reason or cause of un-           1. Elihu similarly attempted to

     deserved suffering is known            convince Job to respond

     only to God, but the effect              properly to his situation

     is felt by people, who are al-           rather than react to unde-

     lowed to respond or react to           served suffering (36:25-26;

     their particular circum-                   37:5, 14, 23).

     stances (38:4, 33).

2. Although people cannot                2. Elihu dealt directly with

     fully understand the cause               these faults and developed

     and reason behind suffer-                principles that were neces-

      ing, God allows suffering to           sary for Job to comprehend

      reveal defects that surface              and apply before God ap-

      when believers suffer unde-           peared (33:8-11; 34:5-6, 9;

      servedly (38:2; 40:2; 41:11).         35:2-3).

3. God uses elements in na-             3. Elihu presented the princi-

     ture (e.g., rain) for disci-                 ple of ds,H, ("loyal love") in

     pline or punishment, for His           37:13. Rain can be viewed

     own pleasure and enjoy-     as an expression of God's

     ment, and as an expression              judgment or of His grace

     of His covenant love (38:25-28).  and mercy.

4. God also rejected the inflex-       4. Elihu did not answer Job

     ible theology of compensa-            according to the arguments

     tion, pointing the three                    of the three (32:14); he up-

     friends and Job to the grace            held the true principle of

     and sovereign operation of              just retribution (34:10-12;

     His retributive justice                      35:4-8). And he indicated

     (41:10b-11).                                     that God provIdes for all

    people (36:31).

5. Job's suffering was impor-           5. Elihu concurred (37:1-18).

     tant to God, but Job was

     not the exclusive object of

     His concern; His purposes

     often extend beyond the

     needs of people (38:26-27).

6. The divine speeches influ-           6. Elihu recommended several

     enced Job to repent of atti-             actions that Job should

     tudes and sins developed                 take to advance beyond his

     during the debates mainly                occupation with his unde-

     by causing him to concen-               served suffering: ponder

     trate on God's work in cre-              and praise God's work (35:5;

     ating and sustaining the                    37:14), and revere Him

     world (chaps. 38-41).                      (36:24; 37:24).

158 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1999


7. Without the occurrence of           7. This was one of Elihu's ob-

     underserved suffering Job                jectives throughout the

      would not have known and               discourse: to bring Job to a

      appreciated the magnitude               better understanding of the

      of God's greatness (40:2) or           greatness of God (34:10-12;

      recognized his own limita-              36:5; 37: 14, 23) and to a

      tions (38:2).                                      humble position before Him

     (33:6; 37:24).

8. God's speeches demon-                8. Elihu agreed (37:6, 9-10,

     strate that He is the                          15-16). He had made no

     source of everything on                   pretense of understanding

     earth (38:28), and He has                the preexistent reason or

     control, ability, power,                    and cause for Job's undeserved

     knowledge over nature                     and suffering. That knowledge

     all life (38:34-38). To un-               rests with God alone.

     derstand undeserved suf-

     fering fully, one would

     have to be God.


Worshipers of the ancient Near Eastern gods, Satan, Job, and his

: three antagonists-all these believed that suffering originated

from a "tit for tat,"32 "measure for measure," compensation theol-

ogy, which governs the correspondence between righteous behav-

ior and prosperity, and sinful behavior and misery. However,

Elihu showed that neither he nor God supported this theory. Under

God's justice, suffering comes to people for several reasons,

many of which are unrelated to compensation theology. There-

fore Elihu uniquely declared that God's presence is seen precisely

in the one place Job had claimed it was not, namely, suffering.33

Suffering may be, and often is, God's voice to His highest cre-

ation. This in fact could be one of the most important contribu-

tions Elihu made to the theology of suffering: God speaks to hu-

mankind through various categories of suffering. And He is not

limited to compensation theology.

Something apparently happened to Job while he was listening

to Elihu. "With the help of Elihu, Job's confrontation with God be-

came a revealing and healing experience, and he realizes that it

is not only safe, but actually necessary to relinquish his insis-

tence on his loyalty, his purity, his righteousness."34 Prepared by

Elihu, and then confronted by God (chaps. 38-42), Job refocused


32 Tikva Frymer-Kensky, "Tit for Tat: The Principle of Equal Retribution in Near

Eastern and Biblical Law," Biblical Archaeologist 43 (Fall 1980): 230-34.

33 David Arvid Johns, "The Literary and Theological Function of the Elihu

Speeches in the Book of Job" (Ph.D. diss., Saint Louis University, 1983), 147.

34 Walter L. Michel, "Job's Real Friend: Elihu," Criterion 21 (spring 1982): 32.

Elihu's Theology and His Suffering 159


on God, recognized who he was in relation to his Creator, and un-

derstood the proper function of retributive justice. He ceased his

insistence that God had acted with injustice, that he would ap-

proach God like a "prince," and that God had to act in a prescribed

manner. Job was no longer overwhelmed by his suffering and the

injustice of it; he was no longer verbal and defensive; he was no :

longer proud of his righteousness, orthodoxy, and purity; instead

he was willing to let go of his security in a false theology.35

Job's response to God, recorded in 40:4-5 and 42:5-6, demon-

strates this observation. In his response he acknowledged two

things. First, Job recognized a basic principle about his sin: "I am

unworthy. . . I put my hand over my mouth. ..I will say no

more" (40:4, NIV). Second, he recognized the nature of God and

responded with a humility, love, and godly fear for God's

sovereignty (42:1-2); he realized God's inscrutability (42:3);

reflected on God's superiority (42:4); refocused on God's intimacy

(42:5); and repented of serving God from wrong motivations or

presumption (42:6).36 Satan was silenced in chapter 42, because

Job's response (42:1-6) proved that God's confidence in him was

not unfounded (1:8; 2:3). Though God needs no vindication, the

Book of Job shows that undeserved suffering, accepted and borne

by a child of God, does, in a sense, vindicate God's gracious plan

for His saints.

Crenshaw states that "true wisdom, like God, defies human

reason."37 Therefore true wisdom defies the wrong concepts of

compensation theology, and when properly applied during unde-

served suffering, godly wisdom becomes a living demonstration

of God's grace. Job could say, "My ears had heard of you but now

my eyes have seen you" (42:5, NIV), partly because of the help of

Elihu, who opened the way for Job to have a better understanding

of God and His ways.


35 Ibid.

36 Steven J. Lawson, When All Hell Breaks Loose (Colorado Springs: NavPress,

1994), 245--48.

37 James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction (London: SCM,

1982), 123.


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

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