So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. Then Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became angry. He was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God; he was angry also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, though they had declared Job to be in the wrong. Now Elihu had waited to speak to Job, because they were older than he. But when Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouths of these three men, he became angry.
Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite answered:
‘I am young in years, and you are aged; therefore I was timid and afraid to declare my opinion to you. I said, “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom.” But truly it is the spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding. It is not the old that are wise, nor the aged that understand what is right. Therefore I say, “Listen to me; let me also declare my opinion.”
Those who have sense will say to me, and the wise who hear me will say, “Job speaks without knowledge, his words are without insight.” Would that Job were tried to the limit, because his answers are those of the wicked. For he adds rebellion to his sin; he claps his hands among us, and multiplies his words against God.’
The Almighty—we cannot find him; he is great in power and justice, and abundant righteousness he will not violate. Therefore mortals fear him; he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit.’
Chapters 32-37 are a long monologue spoken by Elihu, introduced by a brief explanation of who this young man is and implying that he has been silently observing everything since arriving at the scene with Job’s friends.
Elihu is angry; angry at the friends and angry at Job. The friends have failed to answer any of Job’s arguments adequately and Job has had the effrontery to question God’s justice and power; so Elihu offers himself as the arbiter. In many ways he is a stereotypical ‘angry young man’ who is ‘no respecter of age’ and arrogant. Much of what he says engages with the earlier dialogues. Sometimes he quotes directly; sometimes he distorts what was said and displays his own prejudices. He dares to suggest that he can teach Job wisdom, if he’ll listen to him (33:33); and he makes a staggering claim that he is able to speak on God’s behalf with ‘perfect … knowledge’ (36:4).
However, before older readers start saying something like: ‘that’s the trouble with the young, they think they know it all’, or younger readers despair at one of their generation being presented in such a negative way by the author of Job – and some commentators have suggested (wrongly in my opinion) that Elihu is presented as a ‘fool’ – we do well to heed some important truths about God that are put into Elihu’s mouth. We also need to realise that he has been listening carefully; he doesn’t enter the debate with a total disregard for what has gone before. How often are we so concerned to make our own point that we fail to listen to what others are saying?
Elihu teaches us that God grants wisdom to humans irrespective of age (32:8-9); we are the ones who foolishly regard age categories as having significance with regard to the things of God. Secondly, we cannot demand an answer from God to any of our questions; we need to acknowledge that God chooses how and when to communicate and that there is a possibility that we don’t perceive God’s response when it is made (33:13-15).
Elihu also reminds us that God is our Maker; that ‘God is mighty and does not despise any’ (36:5); that God ‘does great things that we cannot comprehend’ (37:5) and that ‘around God is awesome majesty’ (37:22). He affirms the mystery of God and urges us to treat God with reverence.
Holy God, forgive us when we are ageist in our consideration of others. Help us to look beyond the physical manifestation of years to see the person created in your image, our brother or sister in Christ. May we neither seek, nor give, deference on the basis of age; but listen respectfully to all who want to join in our debates, hoping that we might discern your voice in words of young and old alike. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.