Hope in Suffering
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Job 32:1-5. So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. 2Then was kindled the wrath of Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the kindred of Ram: against Job was his wrath kindled, because he justified himself rather than God. 3Also against his three friends was his wrath kindled, because they had found no answer, and yet had condemned Job. 4Now Elihu had waited till Job had spoken, because they were elder than he. 5When Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouth of these three men, then his wrath was kindled.
Chapter 31 of the Book of Job is a poetic presentation of Job’s response to the lengthy accusations that he received from his three friends, Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz. The three sincerely believed that the disasters experienced by Job were a judgment from God in response to some grievous sin in Job’s life. Job’s response to their accusations was a detailed description of his utter innocence, presenting a personal testimony that reflected his life-long rejection of the types of sinful behaviors that they mentioned. He maintained that he had lived a life of integrity, and had done nothing to bring the wrath of God upon himself. His defense was adamant, well-stated, and gave the three friends no grounds for response. Since they were “friends,” they knew him, and could not mount a cross-examination since they knew that each of Job’s arguments was true. The silence of the three demonstrates the spiritual crisis that Job presented them with: is it possible that suffering is not a punishment for sin?
It is apparent that Job was not alone with the three friends during the dialogue of the first 31 chapters. Job was an important member of the community, and his circumstances would have been of great interest to those who knew him. It is most likely that this dialogue would have taken place in an area of his village where there were many others who could come by and comfort him.
In chapter 32 we are introduced to Elihu, one who is younger than either Job or his counselors, and clearly not listed as a “friend.” There is no intent of identifying Elihu with any of the several others by that name in the Old Testament including Hannah’s husband’s grandfather, one of Manasseh’s captains, a son of Shemaiah, and a brother of King David, as each of these lived many generations after the events in the book of Job. However, a contrast between Elihu and the others is given by his name that means, “My God is YAHWEH.” The implication of this may indicate the reason behind different message that Elihu brings to the conversation, one that is more compassionate, denies that all pain is a punishment for sin, and he refers to the providence of God. His name implies that he has placed his faith in God, and we can observe evidence of this as he suddenly, and without invitation, breaks into the discussion to defend God against what he thinks are Job’s blasphemies.
Unlike the three friends, when Elihu enters the dialogue, he makes no accusations of sin in Job’s life. However, as Job presented his defense, Elihu’s anger in response to what he was hearing grew to the point where he felt he had to enter the conversation. He perceived Job’s declaration of innocence as arrogant self-justification since he rejects their claims of his receiving punishment for his own sinfulness and makes no effort to beg for the LORD’s forgiveness. He is also frustrated by the inability of the three elders to refute Job’s personal testimony.
This impasse demonstrates the inability of their worldly culture (and ours) to accept the concept of a graceful God. Even today many argue that the God of the Old Testament has a different “personality” than the God of the New Testament, arguing that the Old Testament God is a God of wrath and judgment, and the God of the New Testament is a God of love and grace. The truth is that God is timeless and does not change, and His plan of salvation has always been (and always will be) the dispensation of His grace upon those who place their faith and trust in Him. Much of the Old Testament text is a narrative of the consequences of rejecting that faith, a choice that carries a necessary response of God’s righteous judgment. The New Testament text is a narrative of the gospel, the blessings of one’s placing their faith in God. It is not God who changed, it is the context of man’s behavior that is emphasized differently in the two parts of the Bible.
When we observe Elihu’s response, we find more compassionate counsel than that of the three elders. Certainly, Job’s circumstance was unique. He had no concept that his suffering was part of God’s purpose, a purpose he had no capacity to yet understand. Though people do suffer because of the consequence of sin, Job was quite accurate in his assessment that his suffering was not sin’s consequence. We also find examples of suffering that comes from God’s judgment upon those who He disciplines. Again, this is not what Job was experiencing. Consequently, the arguments made by these four counselors did not bring meaning or closure to Job’s situation. However, this is not true for the rest of us who experience suffering that may come from any of a myriad of different sources. Elihu’s counsel, seemingly coming from someone who has sincerely placed his faith in God, though not instructive for Job, can be instructive for all of us who experience suffering.
Job 33:13. Why dost thou strive against him?
for he giveth not account of any of his matters.
One of the responses that we might express when we suffer is to start playing the blame game, and sometimes that blame is projected towards the LORD. Instead of humbly leaning on God for comfort and guidance, we may take upon ourselves the authority to question Him. Job, in his suffering, and in his search for answers certainly questioned God, and to think less of him for doing so would be to ignore the human condition. Doing so is a normal response to grief, and the LORD in His omnipotence is not diminished by it. Elihu reminds us, that though our feelings and emotions may cause us to strive against God, He is not subject to our demands in any way. God does not bow down to, submit Himself to, or answer to any man. God is God; His wisdom and purposes are so much greater than ours that His wisdom and His purpose cannot legitimately be brought into question. We only bring our own perception of God down to our own level when we strive against Him.
Job 33:14-15. For God speaketh once, yea twice,
yet man perceiveth it not.
15In a dream, in a vision of the night,
when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed;
It is a miracle of God’s grace and love that He speaks to us, communicating to the heart of each individual. He shows us His purpose and will in many different ways including through the written words of the Bible, through the prompting and illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, through our understanding of circumstances, through the testimony and experience of other people of faith, and other ways. Still, our response to God can be anything from insensitivity to outright rebellion, and when we are blinded by our own sin, we may not sense His presence, His will, or His purpose. The vast majority of the people of the world summarily reject God’s purpose of grace through the atoning act of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary, and in that rejection, reject God Himself. They are deaf to His words. They cannot perceive of the truths of the gospel and find it utter foolishness.
Even people of faith often fail to hear the still-small voice of the LORD when they allow it to be drowned out by the noise of every-day life. Elihu reminds us that the LORD is patient, and repeatedly speaks to us in a variety of ways, yet we often fail to hear the message. We can let the emotions of the moment overwhelm our own sense of truth, and make choices that are based upon our worldly reaction to suffering rather than listen for the comforting and guiding Holy Spirit who will help carry us through so that God can, and will, use the experience for our benefit.
Job 33:16-18. Then he openeth the ears of men,
and sealeth their instruction,
17That he may withdraw man from his purpose,
and hide pride from man.
18He keepeth back his soul from the pit,
and his life from perishing by the sword.
Elihu then reveals a truth that typically only one who has placed their faith in God can say from the heart: it is the Holy Spirit who opens the ears of men so that they can hear His voice, and by hearing place their trust in Him. Elihu speaks of the “sealing” that comes from this type of understanding, and the benefits that the hearer receives from faith:
· that they are turned from the purposes of this world to the purposes of God,
· that the Holy Spirit leads them to shed worldly pride,
· the LORD saves their soul from eternal punishment,
· and provides them with His hand of protection in this life.
When we are experiencing suffering, we may turn our backs on the LORD, forgetting these benefits. Apparently Elihu thought that Job is doing this. Even in suffering, a gentle reminder of God’s providence can put our experience into perspective, and sometimes lessen the gravity that we have assigned to our circumstances.
Job 33:19-22. He is chastened also with pain upon his bed,
and the multitude of his bones with strong pain:
20So that his life abhorreth bread,
and his soul dainty meat.
21His flesh is consumed away, that it cannot be seen;
and his bones that were not seen stick out.
22Yea, his soul draweth near unto the grave,
and his life to the destroyers.
The “he” of verse 19 refers to the sufferer, and specifically to one who has faith in God. Elihu contradicts the counsel of the three elders who insist that all suffering is a punishment for sin. Elihu includes chastening of the faithful by the LORD as a source of suffering, as the LORD uses this experience to teach His purposes as well as strengthen and prepare the faithful for greater service. This is in full agreement with the first chapter of the New Testament book of James, as the writer advises that the sufferer bear their burden with joy, coupled with the knowledge that there is a good and God-led purpose behind it all.
Note that Elihu does not lessen the description of suffering that can be experienced by the faithful. In this example, Elihu describes one who is so overwhelmed by their circumstances that they have not been interested in their own basic needs, including the need to eat. Indeed, even the faithful can experience suffering that is debilitating.
Job 33:23-26. If there be a messenger with him, an interpreter,
one among a thousand, to show unto man his uprightness:
24Then he is gracious unto him, and saith,
Deliver him from going down to the pit: I have found a ransom.
25His flesh shall be fresher than a child’s:
he shall return to the days of his youth:
I once heard some excellent advice that was given to an individual who was depressed to the point of considering suicide. This person is a person of faith who was simply overwhelmed by her circumstances and was making decisions based upon emotion rather than upon faith. The counselor stated, “Our lives are a journey that, like a book, is made up of many chapters. You are currently experiencing only one of those chapters. Those that are yet to be written are filled with restoration and joy. God has a purpose for you that will be strengthened and emboldened by what you are going through now. Just trust in Him, and He can bring you through.”
This advice is similar to that which Elihu is giving to Job. It is difficult for us to see the “light at the end of the tunnel,” particularly when we are not even looking for it. Elihu reminds us that God’s purposes transcend our circumstances and when we turn from focusing upon ourselves and our own circumstances towards the LORD and His greater wisdom and purposes, we can find strength and direction that will not only bring us through, but will bring us to both salvation and restoration. This truth can be extremely encouraging and uplifting to those who are immersed in the “slough of despond.”
Job 33:26-28. He shall pray unto God,
and he will be favourable unto him:
and he shall see his face with joy:
for he will render unto man his righteousness.
27He looketh upon men, and if any say, I have sinned,
and perverted that which was right, and it profited me not;
28He will deliver his soul from going into the pit,
and his life shall see the light.
Elihu does not perceive that Job is praying to the LORD for forgiveness, and understands the necessity for us to do so. When we are experiencing tribulation we will often utilize prayer only as a last resort, saved until all else fails. The LORD would have us practice quite the opposite: that our hearts should be open to Him in prayer at all times so that we are in communication with him even when the tribulation starts.
Elihu describes the tremendous advantages that a person of faith has when they invoke the power of prayer.
· The LORD will look down on the individual with favor.
· The individual will sense the LORD’s presence and can respond with joy.
· The LORD will impart His righteousness upon the sufferer when
· The sufferer uses prayer to confess their sin and voice their true repentance.
· The sins of the sufferer will be forgiven.
Job is described in the beginning of the book as one who was in open communication with the LORD at all times, and through that open communication he was able to understand God’s purpose for him as well as God’s direction as he led his family and his large community in faith. There is no reason to think that Job ever stopped praying, and even when he shouted out in anger and desperation, he was simply praying, though rather loudly and emphatically. We can take the example of Job and seek to emulate that form of constant prayer, and by so doing, we invite the advantages that Elihu lists, and more, into our life’s experience.
Job 33:29. Lo, all these things worketh God oftentimes with man,
30To bring back his soul from the pit,
to be enlightened with the light of the living.
31Mark well, O Job, hearken unto me:
hold thy peace, and I will speak.
32If thou hast any thing to say, answer me:
speak, for I desire to justify thee.
33If not, hearken unto me: hold thy peace,
and I shall teach thee wisdom.
The wisdom of the LORD is not reserved for the aged. Having declared himself to be younger than Job or his three counselors, Elihu clearly demonstrates a godly wisdom that is lacking in the three counselors. Though Job is certainly wiser than those three counselors, even Job can learn from the wise counsel of another faithful man.
First, Elihu advises Job that his experiences are “common to man.” Job is not special in his suffering, nor does it separate him from the common human experience. Often when we suffer, the pain causes us to become the center of our own universe, thinking that nobody understands, nobody has experienced this, etc. We might be reminded of Paul’s words of agreement with Elihu:
1 Corinthians 10:13. There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.
Elihu also reminds us that, when we are immersed in the circumstances of suffering that we should both seek out and listen to others who are people of faith who bring counsel. None of us is so wise that we are not able to receive counsel from another, and many times we even bury our own wisdom with the debris of our circumstances. We need one another, and we need the love and counsel of a wise and trusted friend when we find ourselves in challenging situations.
Job 36:8-9. And if they be bound in fetters,
and be holden in cords of affliction;
9Then he showeth them their work,
and their transgressions that they have exceeded.
Though people of true faith are no longer characterized by a sinful lifestyle, nor can they be destroyed by the power of satan, they are still growing in their spiritual maturity as their faith is strengthened by many experiences, including the consequences of the sinful acts that remain. Those consequences can be dramatic. Elihu refers to one being bound and fettered and experiencing afflictions as some of those consequences, yet he reminds us that, even through these, the LORD shows us that we have stepped outside the boundaries of appropriate behavior. In this way, even those bounds serve to enable us to grow in faith, and grow closer to the LORD who shows us a better way. When one listens to the LORD, His instruction never stops.
Job 36:10. He openeth also their ear to discipline,
and commandeth that they return from iniquity.
If God were not loving and graceful, He could simply squash us like a bug for our continuing rebellion. Just as He spoke the universe into existence, He could speak it into utter destruction just as quickly. However, He has a purpose of redemption for those whom He has created, and as part of that He continually directs the faithful in the way they should go. When the faithful sin, the Holy Spirit communicates to their heart, convicting them of that sin, giving direction for repentance and redemption. One can be encouraged, even when engaged in ungodly behavior, that the LORD of this universe would reach down through time and space to encourage the return from sinfulness so that He can bless them rather than discipline them. This is the special blessing that is realized by those who place their faith and trust in God.
Job 36:11. If they obey and serve him, they shall spend their days in prosperity,
and their years in pleasures.
The LORD promises an abundant life for those who place their full faith and trust in Him. Some would misuse this statement from Elihu to argue that faith produces a guarantee of worldly riches. We must remember that Elihu was immersed in a culture that believed this. However, the promise of the LORD is not referring to worldly riches, but rather “abundance” in life. True prosperity and pleasure will never be found in the things of this world, but rather are found in the overwhelming peace and joy that comes from placing those worldly objects in their proper place as we are stewards of all that is on this earth, but children of the LORD.
The LORD promises His hand of protection over those who have faith in Him. No such promise is made to those who are in rebellion against God:
Job 36:12. But if they obey not, they shall perish by the sword,
and they shall die without knowledge.
Not knowing the integrity of Job as his three friends do, Elihu is convinced that Job’s testimony of innocence is unfounded. Meant as instruction that would lead Job to repentance, Elihu’s statement is true, nonetheless. He is referring to those who have never sincerely placed their faith and trust in God. These are truly without hope, for salvation is given by the LORD only to those who turn to Him in faith and trust, a decision that is evident by a sincere desire for obedience to God’s Word. The consequence of rejecting the LORD has a serious consequence in this life: the self-dependent person who does not desire the protecting hand of the LORD does not receive it. They are subject to all of the consequence of their sin and the sin of those around them. Instead of immersing themselves in the hope of salvation, they are immersed in this violent world, taking part in its godless and violent behavior. The tragedy truly is found when they die without ever having placed their trust in God. They will receive exactly what they desired: eternal separation from God.
Job 36:13. But the hypocrites in heart heap up wrath:
they cry not when he bindeth them.
14They die in youth,
and their life is among the unclean.
The “hypocrites” are those who claim faith in God with their words, but fail to have that faith in their hearts. Again, this is a veiled claim by Elihu that Job’s testimony has convinced him of Job’s hypocrisy. Knowing Job, we understand that Job’s testimony was truthful and had no mixture of hypocrisy. However, this is still a relevant argument for many in this world who claim to be “right with God” based upon a plan of salvation that is formulated by man’s rules, rites, and religions, rather than by God’s Word.
Unlike the three friends of Job, Elihu is quite astute in the truths of God’s Word. He understands the LORD’s plan for the salvation of man, and he understands the suffering that we can experience in this world when we choose to follow the way of sin. He simply does not know Job. Still, his instruction is quite consistent with God’s Word, and his assessment of the some of the reasons for suffering is quite relevant.
Why do we suffer? Elihu has mentioned several reasons for suffering:
We suffer when we experience the consequences of the sins of those who have influence on our lives.
We suffer when we experience the consequence of our own sins.
We suffer when we depend upon ourselves rather than on God.
We suffer when we focus on the pain rather than on the LORD.
We suffer when we take ourselves out of the hands of the LORD’s protection.
We suffer when we reject the promptings of the Holy Spirit as He guides us to obedience.
We suffer when we experience the LORD’s discipline as He works to bring us back into fellowship with Him.
We suffer when we live in hypocrisy, espousing faith with our words, but rejecting it in our hearts.
The question of suffering is one that has vexed humanity from the very foundation of its creation, and the answers will always escape those who have rejected the offer of salvation and redemption that God provides. To those who have turned to God in faith, their suffering will not always end, but it its context will change as the LORD provides strength and direction to help us through. Sometimes suffering is easier to bear:
When we can understand that there is a good purpose behind it.
When we lean on the LORD for His provision.
When we accept the wise counsel of Christian friends.
· When we can find Hope in the LORD.
Regardless of the source of our suffering, those who have placed their faith and trust in God will always have an advocate in the LORD, one who will guide, instruct, and bring us through the toughest of times. There is truly hope in suffering, hope that comes from the loving and graceful heart of the LORD who promises a great reward for our faithfulness. That reward is only enhanced when we, through the upholding and uplifting power of the Holy Spirit, bear the pain. When we do we will find ourselves strengthened, better able to counsel others who are in pain, and closer to the LORD and His purpose for our lives.
 1 Samuel 1:1.
 1 Chronicles 12:20.
 1 Chronicles 26:7.
 1 Chronicles 27:18.
 Romans 8:28-29.
 This is not a verbatim quote, but rather what I remember as the salient points, most notably the “chapter” metaphor.
 John Bunyan, (February 1678). The Pilgrim’s Progress.
 1 John 5:18.
 Psalm 32:8; Psalm 107:7;
 John 10:10.