In Chapter 33, Elihu gives us a picture into why God has ordained suffering. The topic of revelation, and how God uses it, is also addressed.
Elihu begins the chapter by making it clear that he is speaking specifically to Job (Job 33:1), and implicitly not the friends. Job did a fine enough job discounting their views, so Elihu does not see the need to address them specifically.
It is apparent that the words Elihu intends to speak to Job are not meant to be worldly wisdom, but rather prophecy by the Spirit:
My words are from the uprightness of my heart,
And my lips speak knowledge sincerely.
The Spirit of God has made me,
And the breath of the Almighty gives me life (Job 33:3-4).
Now, this is indeed an interpretive stretch, but there is a necessary connection between words coming from “the uprightness of my heart” and the assertion that “the breath [creative Word] of the Almighty gives me life.” Again, not “gave me life,” but “gives.” The Holy Spirit sustains him. This interpretation is consistent with Job 32:8 which more explicitly makes the same connection.
Because He speaks by the Spirit, he confidently challenges Job to refute him (Job 33:5). Then, probably with Job 10:8-11 in mind, Elihu makes clear he like Job is also a man made by God (Job 33:6), so if Job finds reason to disagree with his wisdom he should not hesitate from correcting him (Job 33:7). In Job 33:32-33, Elihu challenges Job to answer him. Because Job does not answer, we should understand that Job cannot contradict what Elihu is saying. Hence, he is agreeing, perhaps begrudgingly at first.
Elihu then paraphrases some of Job’s statements and addresses them to him in Job 33:9-11:
I am pure, without transgression;
I am innocent and there is no guilt in me. (“I am guiltless,” Job 9:21)
Behold, He invents pretexts against me; (“According to Your knowledge I am indeed not guilty…[Yet] You renew Your witnesses against me and increase Your anger toward me,” Job 10:7, 17)
He counts me as His enemy. (“His anger has torn me and hunted me down…My adversary glares at me,” Job 16:9; “Why do You…consider me Your enemy?,” Job 13:24)
He puts my feet in the stocks; (“You put my feet in the stocks,” Job 13:27)
He watches all my paths (“I know that this is within You: If I sin, then You would take note of me and would not acquit me of my guilt…if I am righteous, I dare not lift up my head,” Job 10:13-15).
As we can see, Elihu sums up Job extremely accurately. So, when he criticizes Job on a point, it is important that we take what he says in response to what Job has been talking about throughout the book very seriously.
Job’s complaints amount to saying that “though I did nothing wrong, He is not right in allowing my suffering.” Elihu’s response to this is telling: “Behold, let me tell you, you are not right in this, for God is greater than man” (Job 33:12). It would be as if he was saying, “Don’t even try to say that you can be right and God can be wrong in this or any situation, God is always greater than man!”
Elihu then gives two accounts. One of God teaching a believer through revelation to correct sin and the other where God brings suffering upon the man to bring him closer to Him.
Observers such as John Piper presume Elihu addresses Job specifically in this speech, presuming God made him suffer in order to discipline him for being a smug holy roller. The issue we have with this interpretation is that if God is trying to take care of a “hint of self-righteousness” that existed in Job before the events of the first two chapters took place, then God speaks wrongly to Satan when He stated that Job was afflicted “without cause.”
This begs the question: When Job asserts he is in the right and God afflicts him wrongly, would Job be self-righteous in saying this? Of course. Some might say Job was then self-righteous all along.
Here is an example: Imagine a bottle of water with its cap off. When the bottle is shaken, the water spills out. Why? Because there is water in it.
So, if Job is shaken by calamity and during this process he speaks self-righteously, it is not because he was suffering that he acted self-righteous. Instead, self-righteousness was always latent within him and it only came out when he was tried.
For this reason, God would have been in His right strictly to subject Job to suffering in order to correct him for this. However, because the text is not explicitly clear that the preceding lays behind God’s reasoning, we cannot take Elihu’s words as correction for Job’s self-righteousness.
Throughout the book, God uses suffering to bring Job closer to Him and strengthen his faith. It is in this way Elihu’s words ring true and are applicable, summed up elsewhere in the Scripture, “the Lord disciplines those he loves” (Heb 12:6). We shall see, Elihu differentiates between being corrected for sin by God’s revelation and experiencing suffering in order to strengthen the faith in Christ who is our Ransom.
“Why do you complain against Him that He does not give an account of all His doings,?” (Job 33:13) Elihu questions Job. “Indeed God speaks once, or twice, yet no one notices it” (“Twice” indicates the differentiation between the vision which is direct revelation from God and suffering as another means to convey God’s will, Job 33:14). Elihu first speaks of how God corrects the sins of man using revelation.
In a dream, a vision of the night,
When sound sleep falls on men…
He opens the ears of men,
And seals their instruction,
That He may turn man aside from his conduct,
And keep man from pride;
He keeps back his soul…from passing over into Sheol (Job 33:15-18).
In a time before we had the written revelation of the Scripture, God spoke directly to some men like Abraham or through prophets. Even when the Old Testament was finished, God still spoke through prophets such as those mentioned in Acts of the Apostles and 1 Corinthians. Jesus Christ Himself gives instructions on judging which prophets we should follow. Without speaking dogmatically on whether prophecy is quite as vibrant today as it was in past days, the important lesson we should understand is that prophecy is revelation from God and revelation from God is indisputably in the Scripture. No revelation from God would contradict the nature of God He has revealed to us in the prophetic Biblical Canon.
So, whether God teaches us in a dream because we have no access to the Scripture, through a sermon or admonishment from another Christian who by the Spirit speaks rightly, or through the Scripture itself (the only source in which we know to be truly of God, while the other sources can be counterfeited); the important part is that God does correct us for our pride and conduct. The Law in the Scripture condemns us for our sin, pointing us to our need of God’s grace. Further, its admonishments indicate to us what sort of walk the Christian should have to God’s glory.
Remember, Eliphaz had a dream with a false prophecy. Therefore, Elihu does not endorse every dream. However, let it be known, God reserves the right to speak to us through revelation.
If Job 33:14-18 is about God using suffering to teach man, as the episode in Job 33:19 does, we may infer the purpose in Job 33:17. God can keep a man from pride and turn his conduct before a man like Job, left to himself, might have taken the wrong path. We can see this in 1 Cor 11 when God made those who took the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner become sick and even die. Sometimes, it is better to be sick or die before staying on the same path and end up sinning against God.
If Job 33:14-18 perhaps speaks of how God accomplishes His purposes is suffering, the next verses certainly do. “Man is also chastened with pain on his bed,” Elihu says (Job 33:19). Here, he refers to suffering that is the result of physical illness (Job 33:20-21). “Then,” as the illness gets worse, “his soul draws near to the pit and his life to those who bring death” (Job 33:22). The point that Elihu is trying to convey is that God ordains for men painful terminal illnesses. Why?
If there is an angel as mediator for him, (This angel is not Christ, it points to Christ)
One out of a thousand, (Christ is not one out of a thousand, the term would not be special enough for Him)
To remind a man what is right for him, (What is “right” is to know Whom one hopes in when experiencing suffering, 1 Peter 3:14-15)
Then let him be gracious to him, and say, (The angel, when delivering this prophecy to man is gracious. Angels are mediators for prophecy throughout the Old Testament and the New.)
‘Deliver him from going down to the pit, (Here, the imagery of “those who bring death” in verse 22 is made clear. Apparently, the ones who bring death whether by disease or incident are demonic and an angel of God here delivers man from demonic forces which for a while, God ordained for that man to be exposed to so that the man can learn of the “Ransom” in the following phrase. See the discussion of how God regulates Satan’s activity by using a “hedge” in Chapters 1 and 2 for more detail on how God can expose man to evil for good and effectively control the whole process, without Himself being the author of evil or doing the evil.
I have found a ransom;’ (Here, the Ransom is Jesus Christ, Mark 10:45. Christ is our Ransom that delivers us from those who bring death. We deserve the death that they bring, because of our sin against our God. The man is reminded of “what is right for him,” that is to put his faith in his Ransom.
Let his flesh become fresher than in youth,
Let him return to the days of his youthful vigor; (The one who once suffered terminal illness is totally restored. Now, this does not always happen when we are ill, for once we have found our Ransom in some ways it is better “to die and be with Christ,” Phil 1:23. However, in this case, the restoration occurs so as to glorify God in its own way.)
Then he will pray to God, and He will accept him, (The one who suffered, having been reminded of his hope in the Ransom now responds in faith by praying. We should be confident that God is pleased with and will accept such prayers. Apart from the Ransom we cannot be accepted by God.)
That he may see His face with joy, (God is pleased when we are joyful in knowing Him)
And He may restore His righteousness to man (We are at all times in right standing with God, because of an alien righteousness He gives us. It never belonged to us to begin with, so only God can “restore” it as we can see here; Job 13:23-26).
When Christians suffer cancer, car accidents, and other bouts of suffering God can prevent, it is clear that God does not do it always to punish us or for no reason at all. Rather, in His grace, a reason He may have for it is to point us to Christ as the episode above shows.
It is interesting to note that while God uses His revelation (i.e. the Scripture) to correct the believer for sin, Elihu does not assert God uses suffering for the same reason. It is our assertion that Elihu does this to instruct Job what the true reason behind his suffering was: to help him look to a Mediator, a Ransom, that is Jesus Christ, for his right standing with the Father. Only then can Job be made righteous.
However, didn’t Job already know his Savior? Even though Job spoke wrongly about God, he did hope in Him and looked to Christ as his Redeemer.
Perhaps what Elihu taught is more a lesson to others than to Job himself. Or, without going through such suffering to the point of death, Job would have not experienced such faith (even when it was mixed with error).
If it takes suffering to increase faith and rid error from us, then let’s “consider it pure joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
Now, we should reserve for God the right to use suffering to teach and discipline believers. “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore…make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (Heb 12:11-13).
Now that we have established that God uses suffering to point those He loves back to the Ransom, what is the natural response of the redeemed person?
He will sing to men and say,
‘I have sinned and perverted what is right,
And it is not proper for me.
‘He has redeemed my soul from going to the pit,
And my life shall see the light’ (Job 33:27-28).
Just as Job later responds in repentance, which can be hard to do when wallowing in self-pity which often occurs during suffering, so does the redeemed man in Elihu’s example. It is because we are redeemed we can see light. Indeed, Christ is the light of the world (John 8:12).
Because our understanding of our own inadequacy and need for God is so clear, we cannot help but confess our own sin and know that grace is totally undeserved, unmerited favor from God. God loves us, not because of anything notable or impressive in us, but rather because He simply chooses to (Deut 7:7-8).
Elihu finishes his point by saying God does such things (using revelation and suffering to bring us closer to Him) “often” (Job 33:29). Apart from God’s grace of revelation, we do not know our own sin. Without suffering, we do not look to God to sustain us. Without repentance and faith, we are dead in our sins and our souls inevitably would be in “the pit” (Job 33:30), that is Hell.
Thank God for suffering. Men cause others to suffer out of maliciousness. God works all thing for good for those who love Him. Surely, God is greater than man!