One of the figures in the book of Job who has always been something of a mystery is Elihu. He first comes onto the scene quite late in the book, and then he speaks uninterrupted for the next six chapters. I would say that his speech is a “breath of fresh air” after the long winded and highly nuanced speeches of Job and his three friends, but to be honest, by the time one reaches chapter 32, even the most enthusiastic reader of Scripture is starting to lose his concentration.

Maybe that is why Elihu’s manner and message is so different to everyone else’s. That said, many commentators view Elihu negatively and think that he is essentially saying the same thing as Job’s three friends, except that he is younger and more impetuous.[1] Alternatively, Douglas Sean O’Donnell poses the pertinent question:

Is he a long-winded arrogant buffoon pushed on stage at the end of the drama for comic relief, or is he a wise prophet whose word we should heed, or is he something in between those two extremes?

O’Donnell himself comes to the qualified conclusion that “he is not a false prophet but a flawed one.”[2] Many people are not as gracious as O’Donnell and think that Elihu is brash, arrogant and most of all impatient. However, it is important to acknowledge that Elihu has been quietly listening to all of speeches from chapter 4 to 31 and he has not said a single word until now! So, it is not quite fair to say he is guilty of youthful impetuosity.

Recently, I have started to view the figure of Elihu much more positively than I once did. Christopher Ash (in Job: The Wisdom of the Cross, Crossway, 2014) gives the following reasons as to why we should view Elihu as not only a true prophet of God but a godly one as well:

First, unlike Job’s other three friends, Elihu is given a genealogy (“Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram” Job 32:2). Ash notes in an important footnote, “This is all the more so if the Buz here is the descendant of Abraham’s brother named in Genesis 22:21.” If this is indeed the case, then Elihu comes from a very godly pedigree reaching all the way back to the father of the Jewish nation.

Second, whereas Job’s other friends have three of their speeches recorded in the book—except for Zophar who only has two—Elihu is given a total of four speeches all recorded consecutively over six chapters. What’s more, they not only come in a critical section in the book—just before the LORD Himself speaks—but they are not interrupted or refuted by Job like the other three are.

Third, in contrast to many commentators say, Ash argues that Elihu brings a very different message to that of the three friends. In short, whereas Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar argue that Job is suffering because he sinned, Elihu says that Job is sinning because he was suffering. Elihu is performing an important function in confronting Job with the sin of his self-righteousness, something which Job will later ‘repent’ of when he meets the LORD (42:6). Once again, as Ash clarifies, “It is not true that he is suffering because he has sinned. But it is true that because he is suffering he has said some sinful things.” In particular, Job mocks God’s justice which even shows favour to the wicked (9:22; 10:3). Once again, Christopher Ash is helpful:

Near the end of the Old Testament period unbelieving Jews will be saying much the same: “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them” (Malachi 2:17).

Fourth, Ash says that Elihu functions as a “preparatory prophet” in bringing God’s Word to Job before he personally meets the LORD. Significantly, Elihu repeatedly claims to be divinely inspired throughout his speeches: 32:8, 18-19; 33:4; 36:3-4; 37:16. For example, Elihu says in 32:18-19 that “the spirit within me compels me; inside I am like bottle-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst” which is a description not so much of youth impetuosity as the supernatural experience of being the voice piece for God Himself (e.g. Jer. 20:9; 2 Pet. 1:20-21).

Fifth, following on from the previous point, Ash says that there is an important pastoral application behind what Elihu says and does. Much like the prophet Nathan did in confronting Kind David about his sin involving Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12), God sends human messengers to rebuke us and speak into our lives. In a similar way, just because Job claims to have a clear conscience, doesn’t mean that he is not guilty of sin (1 Cor. 4:4). Job’s suffering has brought the residue of sin which lay latent within him to light. Ash gives the following pertinent analogy:

Indeed, the human heart has been compared to a container of water with a residue of mud at the bottom. When all is calm, we see the clear water at the top and think there is just pure water within. But when the container is stirred and shaken, the mud swirls around and before long becomes visible, making it clear that all was not as pure as had been thought.[3]

The sixth reason to view Elihu positively is that not only does the LORD not include him in his rebuke of the three friends—neither is Job commanded to make atonement for him—but Elihu’s final speech is a beautiful summary of what the LORD God Almighty Himself is going to say in chapters 38 to 42. As Sean O’Donnell says:

Yes, Elihu prepares Job, as he also prepares the reader, to hear from God in chapters 38-41. And what does God talk about? He talks so much of what Elihu has talked about: his own majestic transcendence, his inexplicably mysterious providence, and his absolute moral freedom. So in this way Elihu is an Elijah-like figure who prepares the way for the Lord. And in a way he is like a burning bush, signalling to Job that he should think about taking off his sandals because he is about to have a close encounter with the living God!

Finally, even after taking into consideration all of the above reasoning, many people view Elihu negatively simply on the basis of his perceived ‘tone’. Elihu is definitely different to Job’s three friends. And that’s because he is a prophet who has himself had a divine encounter with the LORD and has come to communicate a message from God to Job. Elihu’s authoritative and commanding ‘voice’ rubs a lot of people the wrong way, especially when it comes from someone who acknowledges that he is so young (Job 32:6-9)! However, Christopher Ash offers the following helpful qualification:

It is often said that Elihu’s style is diffuse, verbose, bombastic, and pretentious. But this is a very subjective argument and one that betrays a certain cultural arrogance. Who are we, with our particular cultural canons of style, to pronounce on Elihu’s style? How are we to know if his culture would have regarded him as bombastic or impressive, as pretentious or significant? No doubt some of us might find the style of some canonical prophets, such as Ezekiel, not to be to our tastes, but the problem lies with us rather than with the text.

I think the arguments of O’Donnell, and especially Christopher Ash, are compelling. And as Hywel Jones also says, Elihu “has suffered from bad press and needs to be rehabilitated.” Much like John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord Jesus Christ, the figure of Elihu prepares the way for Job—and for ourselves as the reader—to meet with the LORD.

This is something which, the LORD God Almighty does repeatedly in Scripture (Mal. 4:5-6). He does not just appear unannounced, catching us by surprise, so that we are not spiritually ready. But in His mercy, wisdom and grace He sends messengers ahead of His appearing so that we can properly prepared when He does (Matt 24:42-25:13).

What’s more, the fact that he deliberately sometimes chooses someone who is young (like Elihu was) is also a providential rebuke to the pride of we who are older, and usually, wiser (2 Kgs 22-23; 1 Tim. 4:12). As the Lord Jesus Himself says in Matthew 21:16—quoting from Psalm 8:2—about the prophetic role of the youth:

 From the lips of children and infants who have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.

Could it be that Elihu is both an encouragement, as well as a rebuke, not only to Job and his three friends? For as a prophet from God, He brings to us all a divine message leading to repentance so that we experience the LORD’s blessing and favour rather than His judgment and wrath (Isa. 40:3-5; Lk 3:1-17).

Ultimately, Elihu points us to the promised Messiah. For instance, there is an intriguing section at the end of chapter 33 where Elihu refers to an angel (heavenly messenger) acting as a mediator to save a man from God’s judgment and consequent death. He even talks about a “ransom” being found to renew a person’s flesh and restore them to a right relationship with God.

While the book of Job’s Christology is not as developed as elsewhere, there are still stunning glimpses of what is yet to come. Even Job himself is given a prophetic revelation of a divine / human redeemer who will gain victory over the grave for those who believe in Him (see Job 19:23-27).[4]

I believe that Elihu acts as a similar kind of foreshadowing. A godly prophet who tells of the “mediator-messenger-messiah” to come; the One who would lay down His life as a ransom for our sins, saving us from God’s holy wrath and judgment such that we do not get what we truly deserve (Job 33:27-28). And as such, Christopher Ash has done a great service in helping us see the value of Elihu’s pivotal role in the book of Job.

 Mark Powell

[1] Bryson Smith only has this to say about Elihu in the St Matthias Bible Study notes on the book Job, “On the other side, there is a surprising twist. A young man named Elihu appears out of the blue to enlighten everyone with what he claims is a superior argument (Job 32:14-18). For all his big talk though, Elihu doesn’t really say much that is new. He rightfully defends God’s righteousness and justice, but he mistakenly assumes that Job is wrong in claiming to have no secret unconfessed sin.” Eye of the Storm, 41.

[2] O’Donnell says that Elihu is a flawed prophet for four reasons: a) he speaks from anger b) his pleading to be heard is annoying c) he is not only longwinded but also is often arrogant and d) his accusation is off.

[3] Ash goes on to say, “It is therefore possible to have a clear conscience and to walk in daily repentance of known sin, while yet being a sinner at heart. This is the case for Job, and it explains how he can at the same time be affirmed and rebuked, indeed affirmed for speaking rightly of God while being rebuked for speaking wrongly about God!”

[4] It’s outside the scope of this article, but Christopher Ash has an excellent section in his commentary on why this figure is a foreshadowing of the person and work of Christ.