More Heat Than Light
Preached by Ben Bechtel
If you are new here, my name is Ben Bechtel and I am the youth and music director at the church. I usually lead the music on Sunday mornings but I also preach about 4-5 times a year. That is a small enough amount of times and a novel enough event to warrant my parents and grandparents coming to our church on the mornings that I preach. Some people have joked that I have my own fan-club on these mornings. So, since they are here I thought that I would let you all in on one of our favorite family stories, that happened entirely at the expense of my Pap.
I can’t quite recall the context for the story, but with the holiday season rapidly approaching and the stress that sometimes accompanies family get togethers at that time I’m going to assume that this is a safe bet. My Pap was getting rather frustrated with my aunt Nancy, his sister-in-law. And out of this frustration, with an audience full of family in the kitchen, Pap says, “you know what I can’t stand about Nancy?” At this very moment Nancy opened the door from the basement and said, “I don’t know Fred, what can’t you stand about Nancy?” Now, hear me when I say this, my Pap is the wisest man I know and this is the only time I’ve seen him make a fool of himself.
But this story illustrates something for us that is crucial to understand about biblical wisdom: the difference between wisdom and folly is all about your posture and position. My Pap was made to look like a fool in this scenario because he did not know that Nancy was in the house, let alone the same room. He assumed a position that he did not have. This is precisely what the character Elihu does in the text before us this morning. This character shares a trait in common with you and I: in our foolishness we believe we can see others from the perspective of God. However, we will learn this morning that it is only from a posture of humility and submission before God that we can offer wisdom to those who are suffering in our midst. Elihu’s speeches cover six chapters of this book from chapters 32-37; the man can talk. But we will just read 32:1-5 here at the start (pg. 550):
1 So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. 2 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. 3 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. 4 Now Elihu had waited to speak to Job because they were older than he. 5 And when Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouth of these three men, he burned with anger.
1. The Portrait of a Fool
If you all were present for Jason’s sermon last week, then you will likely remember that Job has just finished his appeal to God. He has stated his case of innocence and sent his case to the higher court of God’s throne room. It is directly after this that we read in 32:1 that the three friends ceased to answer Job. They’re done trying to convince Job that his suffering is caused by his sin. And now this fiery, young man Elihu steps in out of nowhere and proceeds to speak for six chapters in an attempt to address the words of both Job and his friends. He is wordy and believes that he has the true solution to this problem of suffering in Job’s life that these older men couldn’t provide. And I too, the young man of the preaching team, come today to provide answers that Jason or Benjamin cannot provide.
That was a joke, but there is some truth to it. As many of you may know who are around our church, I am currently attending seminary. Our professors regularly warned us during my first several semesters there of something called first semester seminary student syndrome. This disease affects those who have learned enough theology to be dangerous but not enough theology or love to be helpful. These students charge back into their churches with zeal and anger to correct the theological teaching of their church before it’s too late. This is what Elihu is like. Or to put it another way, he is like a recent college graduate in their first year of a job who begins to point out all the ways that things are wrong and what must done to fix them.
The author of Job intends for the reader to see Elihu as a young fool who possesses some truth but completely misapplies it. Some see him as a kind of set-up man for God’s speech at the end of the book, especially since Elihu’s speech in chapter 37 sounds exactly like God’s speech in chapters 38-41. It is better rather, to see him as a satirical character who caricatures the “wisdom” of young men. 1 He is to be seen in some sense as comic relief in this book. There are many reasons I could give to show why we are to see him as a foolish character and some will be teased out throughout the sermon.
The main reason why he cannot be taken as a figure of wisdom but rather must be lumped in with the folly of Job’s friends is that his accusation is at bottom the same as theirs. Look at 34:7-8:
What man is like Job,
who drinks up scoffing like water,
8 who travels in company with evildoers
and walks with wicked men?
Do you see what he is doing here? Elihu, like the friends, contradicts the words of God in calling Job upright and claims that Job’s suffering ultimately results directly from his own sin. Think about this in context too? Job just got done pleading his innocence before God and now this man jumps right in and continues to call Job a wicked man. The friends are wiser to just shut up at this point!
Elihu says many true things about God in these six chapters, particularly towards the end of his speech. In fact, he says things that are much truer than the three friends a lot of the time. And throughout his speeches, Job has said many things that are not true of God. 2 Yet, Elihu is shown to be a fool because of the way he accuses Job not just of sinning in his speech but of living a life of sin that caused his suffering. The claim of Elihu is not the claim of God and it is not the claim of someone with a wise perspective. It is the claim of a fiery, longwinded, young fool.
2. The Character of a Fool
With Elihu’s role in the book established, I want to jump around in these six chapters and distill four principles of wisdom from Elihu’s foolishness that will help us be better comforters to those suffering in our midst.
a. A Fool Provides More Heat Than Light
This is an idiom that I just recently ran across. It uses fire as a metaphor to describe someone who simply provokes a situation by what they say rather than providing illumination and insight. Our culture today illustrates this truth before our very eyes. We live in an age of perpetual outrage. There are so many things to care about and you have to speak up about all of them and if you don’t or you do in a way I don’t agree with I’ll get very offended and angry at you. Did I just describe all of your Facebook timelines? Our culture is king at stirring anger and outrage without facts and reasoned debate. However, much like Elihu’s words, some of the things that our culture is sparked about are true and demand action. Racism and sexual assault are actions against the image of God and must not be tolerated by the church. But in a culture of pure outrage we end up giving off more heat than light, especially as those who call ourselves Christians.
Elihu is like our culture on this point. Notice in those first five verses we read at the beginning, the author notes that Elihu “burned with anger” four separate times. That is significant. The basis for Elihu’s argument is not concern for Job in his situation or even the desire to correct him in this truth. The basis for Elihu’s argument is outrage. And he goes on and on and on about it. In fact 32:17-18a says, “I also will answer with my share; I also will declare my opinion. 18 For I am full of words,” to which one commentator replies, “certainly none would dispute this!” 3
The picture of Elihu as a hotheaded fool only grows when we recognize that he doesn’t argue anything substantially different from Job’s three friends. In certain sections such as 33:14-28 he does add in another potential purpose for Job’s suffering. He says that God may not be using suffering simply to punish Job but to lead him to repentance and trust in God in the future. Do you see the problem here though? Job’s sin is still seen as the ultimate cause for his suffering. There is still a direct correlation of Job sinned, therefore God sends him suffering. In the end, while seeming to be different and provide more insight, Elihu’s argument is the same as the friends. He doesn’t add anything new to the conversation; he is just angrier. He provides more heat than light.
Friends, there is something profound for us to learn here about the way in which we comfort others in suffering. It is very easy for us to be easily angered by people in their suffering. We can grow impatient and feel like they aren’t actually listening to us or our advice. We can get sick of hearing their same wrestling with God and their situation. We can grow tired of sitting in a hospital room or sitting with someone who has suffered loss. However, God calls us to be patient with the sufferer even if they are saying things that seem wrong or absurd to us. Don’t theologically trample on people who are in trouble! He calls us to continue sleeping over in the hospital. He calls us to respond to suffering not in anger but to comfort in love. Then we will actually shed light and hope on a situation rather than discouragement.
b. A Fool Claims to Speak for God
Listen to this statement made by Elihu at the beginning of chapter 36 (36:2-4):
“Bear with me a little, and I will show you,
for I have yet something to say on God’s behalf.
3 I will get my knowledge from afar
and ascribe righteousness to my Maker.
4 For truly my words are not false;
one who is perfect in knowledge is with you.
Again, we have to put Elihu’s words in the context of what has just come before. Job has just poured his heart and soul out before God and these friends. They have been going back and forth for many chapters and now Elihu steps in and says, “don’t worry guys, I’m here. I have all the answers.” Can you hear the sheer arrogance in these statements? Elihu claims to have all the answers and claims to speak from God authoritatively with all the answers. He clearly doesn’t however, because his accusations of Job go farther than God’s. He says things of Job contrary to what God says, namely that Job’s sin caused his suffering.
Some of you have experienced the destruction caused by people who claim such things in your suffering. Maybe some of you have been injured or had a life-threatening illness and have been told by someone that God is going to heal you and if he doesn’t that you don’t have enough faith. Maybe some of you have lost your job and are wrestling with what to do and that friend comes up to you and authoritatively tells you which option is right because they heard from God.
God does give us guidance in such matters. He does tell us how to live in the midst of suffering and loss. There are situations in which God is pleased to heal people of injuries and diseases. And God does speak to us authoritatively, only we are not the mouthpieces of that. Today, God speaks authoritatively and finally to us through his Son by his Spirit in his written Word. We do not have higher authority than that and to claim that we do only results in the harm of those around us. If you want to speak authoritative words of comfort and care to someone in suffering, do not claim to speak them for God. Open the Bible and let God speak for himself! Nothing comforts us like the word of God.
Commentator Trempor Longman has this to say about claiming to speak for God:
Plenty of people…adorn their own thoughts with the assertion that God is speaking through them or the broader claim that they can name God’s purposes in the events of the day…before we claim that our beliefs are God’s by stating that the Spirit of God is speaking through us, we should stop, reflect, and pray. 4
These are wise words. We should only claim God’s words are our words when we are speaking directly in accordance with his written word and even then we should pause because the motives of our heart are infinitely deep and deceptive in citing his word! The Spirit does use us to speak wisdom, but not to stand above those who are suffering and proclaim “thus saith the Lord” statements over them. We must enter in, listen, cry, and offer spiritual wisdom as needed. This leads us into our next point…
c. A Fool Misuses the Words of God
With that said, there are also ways in which to misuse the word of God with people in suffering. Elihu illustrates this. He is a complex character in this book, even more so than the friends, because much of what he says about God is true. Listen to these words from 37:6; 10-12:
For to the snow [God] says, ‘Fall on the earth,’
likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour.
By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast.
11 He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning.
12 They turn around and around by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world.
God is in control of the weather. Sounds good to me! In fact, this sounds like the exact same theology that God speaks in the passage that we will study next week. How is it that we can say then that Elihu is foolish?
Let’s answer this question by way of a hypothetical story. This may not be so hypothetical for some of you. Let’s say that suddenly you are diagnosed with a fatal disease in which you have 6 months to live. Rightly, you are struggling with this diagnosis, what its purpose is, and why God would allow you to go through such a terrible tragedy. One day your Christian friend comes over and you spill your struggles to her. And being a good Christian friend, she reaches for her Bible and quotes the famous verse Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” She then concludes that you don’t really trust God because if you did you would believe this promise.
Notice what the friend does with God’s word here—God’s word is not used to comfort the suffering person it is used to heap shame and guilt upon them for genuinely working through their emotions about suffering. Friends, this is a huge problem for us. In our stream of the church, where most of us have not suffered very much if at all, we are quick to pull out God’s word in times of suffering, which is good. However, we only turn to certain sections and not others. We cite Romans 8:28 but ignore the Psalms of lament. We cite “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord,” but we ignore the poems of lament by Job that follow right after. While Romans 8:28 is true, Romans 8:28 alone without the full counsel of God is an incomplete theology and runs roughshod over our true emotions in the midst of suffering!
Elihu takes true words about God and misuses them so that he harms Job rather than heals him. Church, do we do this? Do we go into a situation of comfort as a theological Mr. Fix It? Do we simply rattle off verses from Scripture without listening to those in suffering? May we be a church with the spiritual wisdom to use the words of God to comfort one another and not to inflict further harm upon each other.
d. A Fool Assumes the Posture of God
This is the element in Elihu’s character that truly makes him foolish. He assumes to be able to see and do what only God can see and do. He postures himself to see Job’s heart and calls him a wicked man. He postures himself in the position of God, calling Job to account in chapter 37. Elihu acts as if he is God in the way that he treats Job and his suffering. It is this posture which makes Elihu’s final statement so ironic (37:24):
Therefore men fear him; he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit.
We all need to heed this lesson in wisdom, Elihu included. We all must recognize our posture as creature, as receiver from the giver of all things. True wisdom is to be found in the abandonment of ourselves and recognition of God as ultimate. Elihu sets himself in the position of God over Job and thus, fails to truly speak wisdom.
Elihu cannot lead us into true wisdom. But there is one who can. In John 9:1-3, we read this of Jesus:
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.
After this, in verse 7 Jesus heals the man. Clearly, the disciples still had the mindset of the friends and Elihu in asking their question. Jesus had a different mindset. You see, Jesus could have jumped in and accused this man or his family of sin. He could have directly related this man’s suffering to his sin but he didn’t. Rather than accusing this hurting man as Satan, the friends, and Elihu do, Jesus acted as his advocate.
Jesus acted as this man’s advocate by declaring this suffering happens because of the sovereign mysterious plan of God and not because of his suffering. He defends the man’s character before his disciples. And notice something else: when Jesus goes to the cross, he takes the false accusations of man upon himself. His friends not only speak ill of him and deny him, they utterly abandon him in his hour of suffering. In his humanity, in fear of the Lord Jesus submitted himself to death on a cross so that he might rise from the dead and act as the eternal advocate before the throne of God for all who would trust in him. Jesus understands your suffering. If you have faith in him, Jesus stands before the throne of God not to accuse your character but to plead your cause.
Friends, bow down before this great Savior! Do not attempt to posture yourself like God but trust your Savior by lowering yourself before him in the same way that he lowered himself before God the Father. By doing this, you will be exalted because you have one speaks for you before the Father, who lifts up your head and wipes away your tears. See hope in him today if you’re suffering! Only when we bow the knee before God, recognizing that he is God and we are not, can we truly minister to those who are suffering in our midst because we recognize the finite, but wise perspective we speak from. Only when we see the posture of God in Christ can we truly humble ourselves to show forth his wisdom and not our own.