Affliction in Verse: A Pox on Both Your Houses

Sermon by David Strain on May 13, 2018

Job 32-37

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Now let me invite you, if you would please, to take your Bibles in hand and to turn with me to Job chapter 32. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio, with his dying breath, utters his now famous curse denouncing both the Montagues and the Capulets, “a plague,” or as is more commonly misquoted, “a pox, on both your houses,” he says. “You’re both equally to be faulted.” That’s his last word on both the Montagues and the Capulets. So far, remember, Job has been defending himself against Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, his three so-called friends, each of whom have been arguing that Job is suffering because Job is a guilty sinner and he deserves it. And Job has been protesting vigorously and defending his innocence.


But in chapter 32, a new character by the name of Elihu, introduces himself for the first time. If you’ll look at the opening five verses of chapter 32 for a moment, page 438 in the pew Bible, you get a flavor of his position. It’s the same position, really, as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet – “a pox on both your houses,” that’s essentially what he says. You see that in verses 1 to 5?


“So these three men, we are told, “ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, burned with anger. He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God. He burned with anger also at Job's three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong. Now Elihu had waited to speak to Job because they were older than he. And when Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouth of these three men, he burned with anger.”


Alright, so you see his position. “A pox on both your houses. You’re all wrong.” He adopts that tertium quid, that third way. He has an alternative perspective for us. And in chapters 33 through 37, he outlines that third way in answer to Job’s sufferings. Essentially, he sets out to deal with three complaints that Job himself has articulated over the course of his debate with his friends. He’s engaged here in what we might call some popular apologetics, some practical apologetics, as he rebuts these common complaints that we sometimes face when we are confronted with suffering that is unexplained or inexplicable.


First, we sometimes argue that God is unjust in our suffering. God is unjust that we should suffer, and Elihu is going to respond to that. Secondly, we might feel that God is silent as we cry to Him in our suffering, and Elihu is going to respond to that objection also. And then thirdly, we might fear that God has abandoned us altogether in our suffering, and Elihu has a word for that in the third place. So those are three pretty common reactions in our own hearts, they’ve been the reaction of Job’s heart when suffering strikes. God is unjust, God is silent, and God has left us alone in our suffering. And Elihu is going to offer a response to each in turn in ways that, while generally helpful, critique the position both of Job and Job’s conversation partners. “A pox on both your houses,” he says. “You’re all wrong, and let me show you a better way.”


Before we read a portion of the chapters that are before us tonight, chapters 32 through 37, let me ask you first to bow your heads with me as we pray.


O Lord, as we begin to wrestle with the teaching of this part of Your holy Word, we cry out to You please for light, for illumination. Give to us anew the ministry of the Holy Spirit that we may enjoy the felt presence of Christ in the ordinances of Gospel worship, and in particular that He may address us and that we may hear Him, and hearing Him have life in His name. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.


Let’s read Job chapter 32, beginning at the sixth verse together. This is the Word of Almighty God:


“And Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite answered and said:


‘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 it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand. It is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right. Therefore I say, ‘Listen to me; let me also declare my opinion.’


Behold, I waited for your words, I listened for your wise sayings, while you searched out what to say. I gave you my attention, and, behold, there was none among you who refuted Job or who answered his words. Beware lest you say, ‘We have found wisdom; God may vanquish him, not a man.’ He has not directed his words against me, and I will not answer him with your speeches.


They are dismayed; they answer no more; they have not a word to say. And shall I wait, because they do not speak, because they stand there, and answer no more? I also will answer with my share; I also will declare my opinion. For I am full of words; the spirit within me constrains me. Behold, my belly is like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins ready to burst. I must speak, that I may find relief; I must open my lips and answer. I will not show partiality to any man or use flattery toward any person. For I do not know how to flatter, else my Maker would soon take me away.”


Amen, and we give thanks to God for His Word.


Now in just the portion we read together, we get a little bit of a feel for the kind of man Elihu is. On the one hand, he’s waited respectfully for his elders to finish their engagement with Job, but as he’s been waiting, his frustration has been growing. Like many a younger man, as he listens to what his elders are saying and he sees more clearly than they, his frustration eventually gets the better of him. And so he finally can stand it no longer and sort of lets rip. One of the things he confesses is that he is full of words, and he’s quite right about that. Unlike almost anyone else in the book, he goes on and on and on. And I shall try to restrain myself from falling into his error.


God is Unjust in My Suffering

However, he does generally have some pretty useful and insightful and much more balanced and thoughtful things to say to Job than the previous speakers who have engaged with him. And the first thing that Elihu sets out to deal with is the response of Job to his trials that says, “God is unjust in my suffering.” God is unjust in my suffering. That’s the thing we’re all occasionally tempted to suggest, or even to say, when the right set of circumstances befall us and we’re plunged into sufficiently severe trial. We find ourselves wondering, “Why in the world is God doing this to me? What have I done to deserve this? I haven’t done anything, and yet He’s not listening and nothing is changing and here I am still suffering.” We begin to wonder if perhaps God has somehow abdicated His role as a just Judge.


Well, I want you to notice with me how Elihu responds to that objection. Look at chapter 33, beginning in verse 8. Chapter 33, beginning in verse 8. Elihu is quoting Job’s point of view, “Surely you have spoken in my ears, and I have heard the sound of your words, Job. You say, ‘I am pure without transgression; I am clean, and there is no iniquity in me. Behold, he finds occasions against me, he counts me as his enemy, he puts my feet in the stocks and watches all my paths.’” So that’s Job’s perspective, isn’t it? “I’m innocent, and yet God is treating me unfairly.” Or if you look at chapter 34, beginning at verse 5; chapter 34, beginning at verse 5. He quotes Job similarly once again, “For Job has said, ‘I am in the right, but God has taken away my right. In spite of my right, I am counted a liar. My wound is incurable, though I am without transgression.’” So Elihu sees clearly Job’s point of view. He understands Job’s perspective. He gets Job’s argument – God is treating him unjustly in his suffering.


Job is a Sinner

And in response, Elihu reminds Job and he reminds us of three important truths. First, he reminds Job that he is still a sinner, and despite his claims to innocence, meriting this particular suffering as a punishment, he cannot entirely vindicate himself altogether. He’s not without any blame. The impatience and the dissatisfaction that Job has increasingly displayed toward God as the Lord deals with him in His providence, Elihu wants to point out really unmask the sin in Job’s heart. Now Elihu differs from his friends in this important respect – Job’s friends have been saying, “You are suffering, and that is proof that you’re a sinner. You’re suffering because you sinned.” Elihu isn’t saying that. He’s saying, rather, “You are suffering and that has led you to sin. The suffering that has afflicted you has become the occasion for sin in your life.”


And actually, that’s a profoundly inciteful point that we need to hear pastorally. Quite often, when we are innocently suffering, Satan will seek to take opportunity in our trials to bring us to a place where we harbor a grudge or bitterness begins to grow, where once there was no particular sin, he will seek to push us in the midst of our trial into transgressions that we had not previously committed. And that is what Elihu identifies in the heart of Job. Chapter 33 verse 12, Elihu tells him bluntly, "Behold, in this you are not right." There is a fine line between righteous self-defense and the self-righteous assertion that we are above all critique. Sometimes when we are suffering unjustly or unaccountably, and others are saying terrible things about our characters, we can overcompensate, we can overstate our own righteousness. We can begin to bristle at any suggestion that we might, in fact, have a lesson or two to learn after all. That was certainly Job's danger, and Elihu calls him on it.


God is Just

Then, notice that Elihu reminds Job not only about Job’s sin – “Yes, you may be innocent of a particular transgression meriting this affliction, Job, but do not claim to be beyond all sin entirely. In fact, your afflictions have caused you to stumble.” He reminds Job of his sin. He also reminds Job of the justice of God’s character. He’s warning Job here not to shake his fist at the heavens in his frustration and begin to impugn the character of the living God Himself. So chapter 33 verse 12, “God is greater than man.” Chapter 34 verse 10, “Therefore hear me, you men of understanding. Far be it from God that He should do wickedness, or from the Almighty that He should do wrong. For according to the work of a man He will repay him, and according to His ways He will make it befall him. Of a truth God will not do wickedly and the Almighty will not pervert justice.” That’s right on. And the remainder of chapter 34 is a strong statement that God is just, and though we may not be able to square that truth with our experience, we must confess it nevertheless. God is just. He is good and righteous altogether.


One of the terrible effects of suffering is the way it can make our vision sort of collapse in on itself, our perspective turns inwards and we become more and more aware of our own pain and we grow till we fill the limits of our own whole horizon. And in those times when we loom so very large, God is diminished and it’s easy to begin to think harshly of Him. Job has rightly maintained his integrity in denying that his suffering is because he sinned. His friends have been pushing him toward the edge of the precipice on that side of the road and Job has been pushing back. But Elihu has pointed out that in his haste to avoid the idea that he’s suffering because of sin, Job has actually fallen off the road into the ditch on the other side. He’s quite right to insist that he’s not suffering because of sin, but his suffering has led him to sin, nevertheless, in the way he has spoken of the Lord his God. There is a narrow path between defending ourselves from false accusation and the self-righteousness that condemns God as unjust while we defend ourselves. And Elihu calls us to walk that narrow path, to maintain both the righteousness of God and the perplexity that we often experience in our trials.


Suffering Can be Sanctifying

There’s one more dimension to his response to the idea that God is unjust in our suffering. Not only does Elihu remind us of the danger of sin when we suffer, not only does he remind us to confess and embrace the righteousness of God when we suffer, he reminds us that suffering can actually be sanctifying and constructive in the hand of God as He deploys it in our lives. Look at chapter 33 beginning in the nineteenth verse. In 19 through 22, he characterizes suffering as rebuke or chastening or discipline. He says, “Man is also rebuked with pain on his bed and with continual strife in his bones.” Job would have seen himself in the picture Elihu paints there of terrible suffering. But notice he doesn’t call it punishment. He calls it rebuke or chastening. In verses 23 through 30 of chapter 33, he unpacks what that means. Look at verse 27 to 30 for example. Chapter 33 at verse 27. Here’s the outcome of the afflictions God has sent to Job. He sings before men, “I sinned and perverted what was right, and it was not repaid to me. He has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit, and my life shall look upon the light. Behold, God does all these things, twice, three times, with a man, to bring back his soul from the pit, that he may be lighted with the light of life.”


That last line, I think, is a sure anchor in the storm; a stable foothold in the quicksand of inexplicable suffering. Here’s what God is really doing. God does all these things, “twice, three times with a man, to bring back his soul from the pit that he may be lighted with the light of life.” That’s what God is doing. We do not ordinarily have a warrant to trace a connection between some particular sin and some particular suffering. We’re not able to say this caused that, but we do have Biblical warrants to interpret and make use of particular suffering and to see them as divine chastening, discipline, training, correction, that we might grow, that He might bring our souls back from the pit and light us with the light of life.


He’s really saying in his own way what the writer to the Hebrews more clearly says in Hebrews 12 at verse 7. Isn’t he? “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you’re left without discipline in which all have participated, you are illegitimate children and not sons.” So every Christian believer, every child of God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, will endure providential trial as discipline from the hand of their heavenly Father. Hebrews says, “Besides this, we have earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us, our earthly fathers, for a short time, as it seemed best to them. But he, our heavenly Father, disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness. For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”


“You see what God is about in your trials, Job?” You see what God is about in your trials, brothers and sisters? He’s training you, teaching you when you are plunged into the darkness of inexplicable suffering, to trust Him when you don’t see a way out and you don’t know the answer to “Why?” to cling to Him and to rest upon Him and to discover in the valley of the shadow of death that He goes before you, that He is with you, His rod and staff they comfort you, and He never will leave you nor forsake you.


Simone Weil, not someone I’d really commend to you for your study, but Simone Weil once said, “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.” It does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it. Instead of crying out, “Oh Lord, get me out of this!” maybe we need to cry out, “Oh Lord, teach me by this. Help me to make use of this trial, for your glory, that I may be more like my Savior, my suffering Redeemer, who lay it all down for me.” God is unjust in suffering, Job has been saying, but Elihu has important lessons to teach him by way of correction.


God is Silent in My Suffering

What about the objection, secondly, that God is silent in my suffering. Job is crying out to God and God doesn't seem to be listening. Many of us have felt at times like the heavens were as brass. We are praying, and…nothing. We're crying out for deliverance, and…nothing. It seems to us as though God had turned a deaf ear on our desperate cries. Have there been moments – there have been in my Christian life – when you cry out for help and from our point of view at least it's as though God were distant. It's as though there were a cosmic dial tone and that's all, a busy tone. I'm crying out and all I get is a busy tone, as if the Lord had no time to take our calls. Well, Elihu has something to say to that experience. Look at chapter 33 at verse 13. Chapter 33 at verse 13, "Why do you contend against him," God, "saying, ‘He will answer none of men's words'? For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, while they slumber on their beds, then he opens the ears of men and terrifies them with warnings.” God is talking, Job. The question isn’t, “Why doesn’t God answer me when I cry?” but “Am I listening when He speaks? Am I willing to hear what He says? Am I listening in the right places for His voice?”


Might it not be the case, when we feel God is not responding to our prayers and He seems silent in our suffering, that what is really happening is that we are not listening, are not willing to listen in the right places. We want answers so often. We want answers in a particular form, on a particular timetable, in the manner that we prefer. We want solutions according to our prescribed pattern. And when that doesn't happen, as we have hoped, we wonder if God is indifferent to us. Perhaps we need to stop demanding that God respond our way and start looking to the ordinary patterns and paths of God's self-disclosure where He speaks to us. Elihu was pointing to the ways in which God spoke to men in the particular period of salvation history in which they lived – visions and dreams in the night; direct revelation. God doesn’t speak to us that way anymore today.


Look Where God Speaks

But Elihu’s point, I think, still remains. "You need to learn to look where God really is speaking, Job." Look at the normal places of divine revelation. Hebrews 1 verse 1 says that, "In the past, God spoke to our fathers at different times and in different ways by the prophets, but in these last days" where has God spoken? "He has spoken to us" – how? Let's see if you can answer me, if you're still awake. "In these last days, He has spoken to us" – how? "By His Son." You want to know what God has to say to you in your suffering? You should learn to look to Jesus Christ. He is God’s Word to you in your trials, one who has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities, who has plumbed the depths, plumbed the depths of the darkest trial. We need to learn to listen where God really is speaking. Open your Bibles. Open your Bibles. That’s where you will come face to face with Jesus Christ. As you have descended into trial and the darkness of your suffering and you’ve become absorbed with yourself, perhaps, maybe you’ve withdrawn and pulled back and you’ve become increasingly isolated. Have you neglected the assembling of yourselves together as some are in the habit of doing so that you’re not hearing the Word of God preached and proclaimed? You’ve not been at the Lord’s Table, the places He has ordained, to speak to you and to show Himself to you in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is God’s Word to you, the Lord Jesus Christ, and He has been speaking all along. Perhaps you haven’t been listening.

And so, Elihu tells Job as he suggests that God is silent, that “Job, you haven’t really been listening at all, have you?”


Reasons for No Answer

To be sure, not everything Elihu has to say is helpful or good. Look at chapter 35, beginning at verse 9 for a moment. Chapter 35 at verse 9. Job is aching for clear answers to his prayers. He feels that God has been silent in his suffering. Elihu has helped him in some ways, or at least is seeking to do so, and yet here in this portion of the Scriptures, chapter 35 at verse 9, I think he falls far short of the wise, pastoral help he has been giving so far. He sounds more like Job’s other friends in his pessimism and in the counsel he gives. Essentially, he says, “There are various reasons why your prayers haven’t been answered, Job.”


First, there’s pride. Verse 12, “They cry out but he does not answer because of the pride of evil men.” Then, there are wrong motives. Verse 13, “Surely God doesn’t hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it.” Job is guilty, according to Elihu, of speaking without really meaning it, of using prayer as sort of an exercise in cosmic manipulation. Another reason prayer is unanswered, Elihu says, is “your terrible sense of entitlement, Job.” Verse 14, “How much less when you say you do not see him that the case is before him and you are waiting for him?” Elihu falls back to the same tired arguments of Job’s other so-called friends. He says at this point, doesn’t he, “The reason God is silent, Job, is all your fault.”


Pastoral Tone

There may even be an element of truth to that when we are not walking in obedience. Sometimes, part of God’s discipline is to leave us with a “not-yet” or a “not-now” or even a “no” in answer to our prayers. But think about the pastoral tone. That’s the problem with Elihu’s response. Job is hurting in agony, longing for help, and all Elihu has to say to him is, “It’s your fault, Job, and you need to get your act together.” That’s Elihu’s mistake. We can, I hope we should do better and realize that sometimes when God says “no” or “not-yet” to our prayers it’s not because He is punishing us, but He is a Father who knows better what is good for us. And His “no” or His “not-yet” is always better than our desired “yes” when we cry to Him. Do you believe that? His “no” or His “not-yet” is always better than the desire that we have for a “yes” as we cry to Him in our trials because He knows what’s best because He sees the whole plan from beginning to end and we see only a tiny portion of it and we do not see as He does.


God has Left Me Alone in My Suffering

“So God is unjust in my suffering,” Job says, and Elihu responds to that so helpfully. “God is silent when I cry to Him,” Job says, and Elihu corrects Job there also. Finally, “God has left me alone in my suffering.” That’s one of the most common feelings we can encounter when we’re struggling and hurting. Isn’t it? The sense of complete abandonment and isolation, of being alone; that “Nobody gets me. Nobody understands.” That has been Job’s cry. Look with me at chapter 33 at verse 23. Elihu has a very helpful answer for Job to the question, “Has God really left me alone?” Chapter 33 at verse 23, “If there be for him an angel, a mediator, one of the thousands to declare to man what is right for him, and he is merciful to him and says, ‘Deliver him from going down to the pit, I have found a ransom,’ let his flesh become fresh with youth; let him run, let him return to the days of his youthful vigor. Then, man prays to God and he accepts him. He sees his face with a shout of joy and he restores to man his righteousness.”


“You’re not alone, Job. God has a mediator.” Elihu thinks of this mediator as some angelic being, perhaps, who will intercede on Job’s behalf. And here’s what Elihu imagines that mediator saying. “Deliver him from going down to the pit. I have found a ransom, atonement, satisfaction on Job’s behalf that he might be delivered.” Of course we know such a Mediator has been provided, don’t we? Not an angel, not an angel, but the Lord Himself who has taken flesh and come down in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and borne our reproach and endured dreadful affliction and secured for us a ransom. “I have found a ransom” can be our song. “I have found a ransom that I may be delivered from the pit.” You are not alone, suffering Christian. There is a Mediator who knows, who sees, and who understands.


The Heidelberg Catechism, in its first question and answer, it’s famous first question and answer, I think sums up the message here wonderfully. It asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Listen for the place of the Mediator. In the trials of life and in the challenge of death, “What is your only comfort?” “My only comfort in life and in death,” in pain and sickness and sorrow, “My only comfort is that I am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who, with His precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins and delivered me from all the power of the devil and so preserves me that, without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head. Indeed, all things must work together for my good and for my salvation. And therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing from now on to live unto Him.” I have a Mediator, a ransom, a perfect Savior, and because of Him, I have hope. You can have hope in the darkest night because of Jesus Christ.


God has provided for you a Deliverer who will, one day, transform the darkness into the brightness of the light of life as you cling to Him. Have you found that wonderful comfort in life and in death? Have you? You find it in Jesus? Perhaps you need to turn and look there and listen where God is speaking to you, speaking to you in His Son.


Let’s pray together.


Father, we praise You for the Lord Jesus Christ whom You have provided to be our Rescuer and Deliverer, our Ransom, our Mediator, who has plumbed the depths of the full horror of human suffering and triumphed over it, that into His victory, we, all of us who trust Him, may be swept up one day. Help us when our day comes to walk through the valley of the shadow of death to do it clinging to Him. For we ask it in His precious name, amen.

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