Our world is not as simple as Elihu wants to make it.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Job 36:8-23
In this week's passage, Elihu reduces God to his agent of justice, ruling a world where all sin is punished and all punishment is used as a teachable moment (and God bribes repentance with blessing). Indeed, a final day of judgment is coming in which every sin is revealed! But our world is not that simple, and we must trust God's providence.
Look, God shows himself exalted by his power. Who is a teacher like him? Job 36:22
[Note: I spend more time talking about the concepts behind our passage than the words of the passage itself. That's because Elihu, who says these words, is speaking from the wrong perspective, and so I find the words less important than the concepts.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Idea 1: That's Not Fair!
I used this idea a few months ago when we were going through Luke -- there, the "that's not fair" was that we were supposed to do nice things to others even when they were mean to us.
Well, I think we can bring a version of that topic back up this week.
Have you had something happen in your life that made you say "that's not fair!"? Assuming that to be true, has the passage of time given you a different perspective?
When you were growing up, how did your parents respond to accusations of "that's not fair"? Your siblings? Your friends?
If you have kids, how do you respond to them? What life lessons have you learned when trying to help your kids deal with their notion of fairness?
I had rheumatism growing up, which (although not fun) enabled me to go to one of the most amazing places in the world -- the Texas Lion's Camp near Kerrville. It is a sleepaway camp for children with physical disabilities. (When I say it's amazing, I really mean that. They enable these kids to do things like swimming and horseback riding and archery and camping and dances and stuff that other kids might take for granted.) Anyway, my rheumatism eventually went into remission, which wasn't even a possibility for most of my friends.
That's always been where my mind goes when I hear "that's not fair". It's not fair that they have to spend their entire lives enduring these incredible challenges. It's not fair that I got "better" while they didn't. I still don't understand. But I will forever cherish the memories of our friendships those two weeks every summer. Even before I became a Christian, they were teaching me the importance of gratitude and humility. (And perspective! A friend of ours from Texas has done everything she can to help her daughter not think of herself as "disabled" but as "different abled". I love that.) Most importantly, those memories continue to help me quickly get over any thoughts of "that's not fair" in my own life.
My goal for this topic would be for you to see that "fairness" is always a matter of perspective. Bringing up more serious examples will help you stay sober minded about the things that go on in your own life.
Idea 1b: Independence Day
"Justice" is a loud cry in our country right now, and it's very important. But "social justice" means something different than the "divine justice" Job/Elihu had in mind. My recommendation: skip the politics this lesson. There are massive theological concepts to study. If you want to tie in Independence Day, celebrate what is good in our country and pray for its betterment. Do a thought exercise of what your life might be like if you were born in another country or another century. Is it "fair" that you were born where and when you were? You had nothing to do with it!
Idea 2: When God Brings Good Out of Tragedy
My guess is that you've already thought about this as we've gone through Job. But if you haven't talked about it, this would be a great place to bring it up.
Everyone hates experiencing a tragedy or a loss. It's painful and sorrowful and it leaves us a little less than we were before. But of all the Christians I have talked to about their own tragedies, every single one of them has taken a little solace from the idea that God could bring good from it. (Not saying that it made the tragedy better; it just helped them deal with it better.) Is that true of you?
What are some bad things you have experienced that you have also seen God bring something good out of?
You can address this without bringing up major tragedies. For example, maybe you got unjustly passed over for a promotion only for that to lead you to a better job. Maybe your best friend moved away, but it encouraged you to make a new friend that is now really important to you.
I can think of two very negative church experiences that directly led to positive church experiences. It didn't make the bad times any better, but it helped me appreciate and have a better perspective on the experiences to come. It also helped me believe the Psalmist:
For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor, a lifetime. Weeping may stay overnight, but there is joy in the morning. (Ps 30:5)
How might you be able to help someone believe this verse?
This Week's Big Idea: Can We Trust God's Justice?
Here's where the book of Job is going: can we truly trust God's justice when it seems like the wrong person suffered? Or, the more common way of wording it, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"
We're going to start with the bigger picture question of "why is there evil at all in God's good world?". A common secular dismissal is humorously summed up in this quote from the theological bulwark, "The Princess Bride":
Answers to this question are called a theodicy, which basically means "God's justice", or -- how we attempt to justify the ways of God. I am going to summarize a summary of the topic found in one of my favorite resources, the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.
Every theodicy (i.e. every theory people have to explain the presence of evil in God's good world) has to deal with the apparent contradiction in these claims:
God is omnipotent.
God is all-loving.
Evil exists in the world created and ruled by God.
Most people conclude something to the effect of "God, is spite of His omnipotence, cannot remove evil from the world without contradicting His intention of giving people free will. Therefore, He is not morally responsible for evil's existence."
Example Explanation 1: the presence of evil is good. Here is an example of a theodicy (proposed by Gottfried Leibniz). God always desires to create the best possible world, and God always acts with sufficient reason. The best ("metaphysically richest") possible world contains the widest variety and diversity of being. This must mean that a world with good and evil is "metaphysically richer" than a world with good alone. [Note: Hopefully you can already spot the problems with this explanation, namely what that implies about heaven and also what it ignores about sin. The point is that there are lots of ways people try to explain the presence of evil.]
Example 2: free will (and bad choices) is a necessary good. A more common theodicy in the Augustinian tradition goes something like this. God is not obligated to create a "best possible world" but only a good world. God believed that giving humans free will was a highest order good (a world in which there are free beings and evil is significantly better than a world in which there is no evil but only automatons). Therefore, God is not responsible for evil in the world -- humans who abuse their free will are. But a world containing human-caused evil is still good compared with alternatives.
Example 3: experiencing evil builds character. Here is a less-common theodicy from an early Christian leader named Irenaeus. It's based on the idea that good and evil is determined by its results. (If God can bring good out of evil, than God cannot be blamed for the evil in the first place.) In this view, humans were not created perfect but in need of moral and spiritual development. What kind of world will be the most conducive to "soul-building": one that is perfect and easy, or one that involves obstacles and resistance? Therefore, God is not guilty for not removing evil because He can use evil for the betterment of people.
The article goes on to conclude that any attempt to explain evil in the world must have a clear understanding of "God", "evil", and "free will", each of which are incredibly complicated topics. As a result, Christians need to be extremely humble when studying this topic because all we can do is hypothesize about truths that are far beyond our comprehension and knowledge.
[END OF SUMMARY] [Believe it or not, I made that article easier to understand.]
So, let me tie all of this back into our study of Job. Job's friends are proposing a version of example 2: suffering exists in the world because God is punishing people who do evil. In other words, people are to blame for evil, but God is responsible for suffering (and in their view, God is justified for His responsibility). (Elihu, whom we meet today, mixes in example 3.)
We've talked about that idea a lot over the years -- the idea that we think we should live in a sin-and-consequences world. Many of us, when we hear of someone suffering bad things, immediately ask "did he deserve it?" We like to see when a "bad person" has "bad things" happen to him. But let's stop and think for a moment -- who are we to say whether or not someone "deserved" what happened to them? Do we know every moment of their life and the intimate details of their circumstances? Can we pass judgment on their actions? Have we not also sinned and deserve punishment?
Hopefully the answers to those questions are obvious to every Christian.
And that brings us to the monkey wrench in Job. What are we supposed to do when the person suffering has not done anything that should obviously bring about their suffering? The innocent child who was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time during a drive-by shooting? The innocent driver who was on the wrong road at the wrong time when the drunk driver came through? The innocent passenger who was on the wrong plane at the wrong time when the engine gave out? These are the unanswerable questions that a good theodicy must deal with.
I personally hold a version of that second example, that evil exists in the world because God wants us to have free will. But I try to take my version of my theodicy a little further into these uncomfortable questions. First, I want to utterly reject a statement in your Leader Guide: "Remind the group that not all suffering is a result of sin, but it is all part of God’s plan and purpose." No, all suffering is a result of sin -- it just might not be your sin. Even the corruption and violence and decay in the natural world exists because Adam introduced sin into our world ("sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin" Rom 5:12). Even those situations in which God is clearly punishing or disciplining sin happen because of human sin in the first place.
So, here is a brief summary of my version of the theodicy:
All evil and suffering in the world is a consequence of human sin.
Some suffering is a consequence of God's punishment for sin.
Humans sin because God has given all humans true free will.
Human free will is a highest-order good and part of "the image of God".
God is so great and loving as to bring about good from evil.
The greatest good God has wrought is helping us see our need for salvation.
Jesus suffered the eternal consequences of sin, making it possible for us to be forgiven and given a place in heaven, free from the presence of sin.
When there seems to be "senseless suffering", we can mourn the consequences of human sin and trust that God will bring good out of it.
That last one is the hardest. It's the one that makes us ask (like Job did) "why me?" or "why her?" or "why that child?" and conclude "that's not fair". And we will probably never have a full answer in this lifetime. We can look at the eventual positive outcome for Job at the end of his story (new children, new riches), but his first ten children and all of their servants are still dead. Was it fair for them?
Evil exists in the world because people have chosen to listen to Satan rather than God. That rebellion always produces suffering and tragedy. Some people seem to experience the "worst" of it compared with others. But all suffering in this life in miniscule compared with the joy (heaven) or pain (hell) that waits us in the next -- depending on how we respond to Jesus. All we have to do is accept the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf.
I don't think any theodicy is complete without including the gospel, how God understood and joined us in experiencing (and redeeming) the pain of sin and gave us a way back. When we suffer because of our own sin, we should rejoice that God loves us enough to discipline us (Prov 3:11-12 "Do not despise the Lord’s instruction, my son, and do not loathe his discipline; for the Lord disciplines the one he loves, just as a father disciplines the son in whom he delights.") And when we suffer for any other reason, we should pray for God to bring good out of it and rejoice that heaven awaits us. The greatest tragedy is the person who suffers in this life and then dies without Jesus.
I covered this a little more when we studied Paul's "thorn in the flesh" in 2 Corinthians. Whatever that thorn was, it was debilitating. Paul pleaded with God to take it away from him. Here's Paul -- selfless sharing the gospel through great danger and toil, and God won't spare him from this incessant suffering. If anyone felt like he should get a break from God, it's Paul, right? Well, Paul accepted his situation:
I summarized all of that in its own article:
Where We Are in Job
Welcome aboard, Elihu.
So, here comes Elihu, flying in off the top rope, as they say in wrestling. He has apparently been there the whole time, keeping his mouth shut due to his young age. We don't know anything about him other than being of the family of Ram (which really doesn't help us).
It seems like he's here as a kind of comic relief. Job and his friends have exhausted their debate. The stage is set for God to enter the scene and speak. But instead of God, who shows up? Good ol' Elihu! "Don't worry God, I GOT THIS." (He actually says that he is speaking "in God's behalf" 36:2.) Indeed, one of his motivations is the idea that youth can be wiser.
It's really kinda funny. He doesn't add anything new; he just rehashes the statements already made (well, except adding the argument that God uses suffering to teach His people). But because he's louder and angrier, he feels like he's contributing something of value. [He's not.] (Do you know people who think that louder = more right?) His presence is so inconsequential that no one even acknowledges or responds to him!
Anyway, we're in the final cycle of speeches:
Cycle 1: Will God answer a righteous sufferer's questions? (chs 4-14)
Cycle 2: Does the fate of the wicked prove God's justice? (chs 15-21)
Cycle 3: Can a sufferer ever know God's will and way? (chs 22-28)
Cycle 4: Job and Elihu (chs 29-37)
Job's closing statement: Let God answer my complaint (chs 29-31)
Elihu can't leave well enough alone
Elihu, part 1: all four of you are wrong, so listen to me (chs 32-33)
Elihu, part 2: Job cannot be innocent because God's justice is perfect (ch 34)
Elihu, part 3: God does not listen to the complaints of the guilty (ch 35)
Elihu, part 4: God uses suffering for moral correction (ch 36-37)
Again - no one even bothers to respond to Elihu.
In summary, there's a kernel of truth in what Elihu says, but he has no concept of the bigger picture, and so we have no choice but to dismiss his claims.
Frankly, I'm flabbergasted that Lifeway chose to use this passage as their focal passage. Over and over again in the leader guide, the commentators have to say things like "explain that Elihu is wrong". I worry about the teachers around the country who don't put a lot of time into prep and won't see any of that and will teach this passage as if it's God's honest truth. No, this passage is an example of what people get wrong about God (in this life, at least). My hope for this study is that it will force us to confront similarly wrong attitudes we have about God and why God does things in this world.
Part 1: Purposeful Discipline (Job 36:8-11)
8 If people are bound with chains and trapped by the cords of affliction, 9 God tells them what they have done and how arrogantly they have transgressed. 10 He opens their ears to correction and tells them to repent from iniquity. 11 If they listen and serve him, they will end their days in prosperity and their years in happiness.
What Elihu says here can be true. That's why I quoted Proverbs 3 above ("the Lord disciplines those He loves"). God always accepts true repentance (can you explain the difference between true and false repentance?). The problem is that Elihu makes this a universal claim about all suffering and all of God's actions. His conditional statements are made as "always true". But the entire book of Ecclesiastes refutes this claim (we start studying that in a couple of weeks) -- arrogant, wicked people can seem to "get away with it" and good people can suffer. Elihu has no concept of that.
Elihu (and perhaps us as well) likes to think that he lives in a world where righteousness is always rewarded and wickedness is always punished. Well, who defines righteousness? Who defines wickedness? And who defines what makes a consequence appropriate? (And which one of us thinks we've never sinned or don't deserve punishment?)
Because this attitude is common, let's examine it.
Sometimes, when people suffer, it is a direct consequence of their own sin. When it is one of God's children (eg: a Christian), the Holy Spirit always convicts them of that sin and encourages them to repent. Sometimes, after they have repented, they receive some form of physical blessing.
A second problem is his assumption that all of your suffering is a direct result of your own sin. In my theodicy, I try to explain that that simply isn't true. Additionally, we all know of examples of a person repenting but still experiencing suffering or further consequences. (For example, the person who comes to Jesus on death row still faces the death penalty.) Finally, I would suggest that God has even given non-Christians a conscience that He can "prick". I know of non-Christians who came under conviction of sin because of consequences they suffered.
Before we move on, I want to explain a way in which Elihu is correct: God's perfect, eternal justice. We have said this before: people might think they can get away with sin in this life, but they cannot get away with it in death. In other words, after we die, we face judgment. But those who have trusted in Jesus for their salvation will be justified before God, and they will enter into an eternal reward.
Unfortunately, that's not what Elihu had in mind. He is clearly speaking about the fleeting years of this life.
Do you harbor the attitude that God should always punish wickedness? But do you also think that God should be gracious when you or a loved one is responsible for that wickedness? Today is a great chance to realize why God wants us to fall on the side of grace and mercy. Let Him deal with wickedness.
Part 2: Judgment Coming (Job 36:12-16)
12 But if they do not listen, they will cross the river of death and die without knowledge.
13 Those who have a godless heart harbor anger; even when God binds them, they do not cry for help. 14 They die in their youth; their life ends among male cult prostitutes. 15 God rescues the afflicted by their affliction; he instructs them by their torment.
16 Indeed, he lured you from the jaws of distress to a spacious and unconfined place. Your table was spread with choice food.
So, yeah, more of the same.
"Cross the river of death" is the best translation for this phrase (other versions have very different translations). The idea is that death is a point of no return. "Die without knowledge" further cements that idea -- they will no longer know how to repent and be saved.
But some people refuse to heed God's call to repentance. The claim that they will die among cult prostitutes is dramatically specific. (Unfortunately, this implies that such practices were common long before the Greeks made it popular throughout their empire. It was common practice to go to a temple and have sex -- ostensibly to encourage the gods to make the people and land fertile (but I have my doubts). Men would be the ones to do this because it was a male-dominated society. There's no polite way to say this: this verse means that men in Job's day would violently rape boys as part of their religion.)
Elihu goes on to conclude that God uses that affliction to rescue people from their affliction (i.e. by making them want an escape). There's a kernel of truth to this, but Elihu's wording has some major problems in it. The word for "lured" is always negative in connotation. It means "to entice" or "to seduce". Most commentators try to explain this away by translating it as "woo" or the like, but why don't we just say it like it is? Elihu is wrong. God does not play a game with us like Satan does. Indeed, in verse 18, Elihu uses this same word in its proper negative connotation: sin lures us with riches. That is not how God works!
God is not tempted by evil, and he himself doesn’t tempt anyone. James 1:13
That is how the prosperity gospel infects people -- "God wants you to be rich! Become a Christian and have all the comforts you could ever want" -- and it's a lie. The way of Jesus goes through the cross. God does not bribe potential followers with a nice steak dinner.
Aside: the River Styx
In Greek mythology, the River Styx flowed between the worlds of the living and the dead. When you died, the boatkeeper Charon ferried your soul across the river to Hades, the afterworld.
I haven't seen anybody else write about this, so I won't make a big deal about it. The earliest reference I know of to the Styx is Homer's Iliad, which is 8th century BC. Think about that for a second -- Job was written some 1,200 years earlier than that. The imagery of crossing a river in death was around long before the Greeks used it. I would love to know who first used this image in the Ancient Near East (but my time is short this week).
Part 3: Justice Seen (Job 36:17-23)
17 Yet now you are obsessed with the judgment due the wicked; judgment and justice have seized you. 18 Be careful that no one lures you with riches; do not let a large ransom lead you astray. 19 Can your wealth or all your physical exertion keep you from distress? 20 Do not long for the night when nations will disappear from their places. 21 Be careful that you do not turn to iniquity, for that is why you have been tested by affliction.
22 Look, God shows himself exalted by his power. Who is a teacher like him? 23 Who has appointed his way for him, and who has declared, “You have done wrong”?
Once again, there is truth in what Elihu says. A wicked person cannot bribe God like he would a corrupt judge. If you are wicked, you will be judged at your death. That cannot be escaped. Elihu turns Job's previous request -- that he could die and have his audience with God -- on its head, saying in verse 20 that Job should not long for that "last day" when God judges the earth. He will not be able to stand before the withering stare of the mighty judge.
So, what's the problem with all of this?
Elihu has removed all personality and compassion from God. Elihu has turned God into his agent of justice.
And that's just not how it works.
As God will explain (next week!), we cannot presume to understand God's purposes. His ways are above our ways, His thoughts above our thoughts. Indeed, God is not obligated to explain His ways to us! Paul says it like this in Romans 9:
14 What should we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not! 15 For he tells Moses, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 16 So then, it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy.
Here's what I think is the juicy irony of Elihu's words. He's telling Job that Job cannot possibly know what God's ways or intentions are. Verses 22 and 23 quite literally summarize what God is about to say in chapters 38-41 . . . which by definition equally applies to Elihu. Elihu has no right to claim to speak for God. If Job doesn't know why God does what He does, neither does Elihu.
Here's the rest of the story (not based on what Job and his friends thought but based on what the rest of the Bible tells us):
Is God perfectly just? Yes.
Do people experience the just consequence of their actions? Yes.
Does all of that happen in this life? No.
That's the key truth: we need to not think of life as the few years we live on this earth. God, who has all of eternity in His mind, is not limited by the categories of life and death.
That's why it should be easier for us to trust God when we don't understand the justice we do or do not see in this lifetime. That's where the saying goes -- "I don't know what tomorrow holds, but I know Who holds tomorrow."
To me, this lesson is about learning to trust God's actions, even when we don't understand them. Sometimes, God is doing something specifically to discipline/instruct us. Sometimes, the world is just suffering the fallout of sin. All the time, God is working:
We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
God isn't restricted to houses or vacations -- He's talking about the home in heaven that Jesus is preparing for those who love God. We must trust Him.