In 37th chapter of Job, Elihu prepares the stage for God’s dialogue. Included in the commentary of this chapter is a lengthy reflection on the nature of free will and the sovereignty of God.
Chapter 37 (For Previous Chapter Click Here)
Throughout this chapter, Elihu sticks with the imagery of lightning. What he discusses therein would not be anything that would rock Job’s world, because it is in many ways very similar to what he asserted in chapter 26.
Why? It appears this is because Elihu, like Job, has hit the limits of human knowledge. This sets the stage for direct revelation from God. After all, Job points out that the observations concerning evaporation, clouds, and lightning are merely “are the fringes of His ways” (Job 26:14). Oftentimes, we have to be content just knowing the fringes.
Ultimately, Job cannot understand lighting: “His mighty thunder, who can understand” (Job 26:14)? Elihu tries to peer into the fringes of this unknowable part of His creation.
The sound of it makes Elihu “tremble” (Job 37:1). In the Scripture, God’s voice many times is described as sounding like thunder (Ex 19:19, Ex 20:18, Job 40:9, and Ps 18:13). This is not because God literally speaks the language of thunder or something, but just as light obscures a clear view of God due to His greatness (Ex 33:18-23 and Ex 34:17), unimaginable thundering obscures the voice of the divine because when He speaks it is ineffable.
With God’s thundering voice comes creative power (“Doing great things which we cannot comprehend,” Job 37:5). He so wills and says it, and it is so (Gen 1:3). And so, God works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph 1:11), because “[t]he counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation” (Ps 33:11). This includes the weather (Job 37:6), the actions of men who tout the lie of their autonomy (Job 37:7), and the beasts who appear to be operated purely by instinct (Job 37:8).
Men react to the weather God has ordained using their reason, and so unlike the beasts do not react instinctually (perhaps rushing to the supermarket and grabbing as much break, milks, and eggs left aside). So, when compared to the animals they appear totally autonomous. However, God has put a “seal” on “the hand of every man” (Job 37:7). The Hebrew term for “seal” is חתם (châtham) means “to lock/stop.” For example, in Song 4:12 it speaks of a “spring shut up, a fountain sealed (châtham)…”
The hand of the man connotes his power to exercise his will (Gen 9:2, Deut 20:13, John 3:35). So, the seal on every man’s hand shows that God has inhibited man in some way. In modern vernacular we may say that a man’s “hands are tied” or he cannot “operate with a free hand.” The man indeed has a will of his own, but he is not autonomous. Even with the weather, the man makes a decision but it is predicated upon conditions God totally controls and is sovereign over, which by extension, makes Him sovereign over the man as well. A man “with his hands tied” may desire to make a different decision, but due to the circumstances, finds himself unable. This is not a foreign concept to us.
To quote an unpopular source in Reformed circles: “For the God of all must be held to work in all, so as to incite, protect, and strengthen, but not to take away the freedom of the will which He Himself has once given…God works all things in us and yet everything can be ascribed to free will, [and this] cannot be fully grasped by the mind and reason of man” (John Cassian, Conference 13, Chapter 18).
The free will of man, but at the same time his incomplete autonomy, is very difficult to grasp. Yet, let’s state what we do know. Men have free will to exercise what is within their capability, but that is it. Man can react to the weather as we may infer from the passage here in Job, but he cannot control the weather.
As it pertains to a Reformed understanding to how we are saved by God’s grace, man can react to grace and respond freely to it, but he cannot control it. The Scripture is abundantly clear that within the will of man, apart from grace, is a desire not to do good (Rom 3:10) and never to seek God (Rom 3:11).
A man can do this freely quite adeptly. This is why Christ teaches, “[U]nless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). In response Christ is asked whether man can bring about this process by his own power by climbing back into his mother’s womb (John 3:4). To this Jesus gives a rather lengthy response:
[U]nless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:5-8).
The Spirit goes where He wishes, which means it is a matter of God’s prerogative, not man’s. For a natural man cannot accept things pertaining to the Spirit for nothing good dwells in the flesh (1 Cor 2:14, Rom 7:18). Without the Spirit a man cannot confess Christ is Lord (1 Cor 12:3) and cannot be born again.
A man therefore is always saved by the divine initiative of God, and by giving man the Holy Spirit to tug on his heart and by hedging Satan, God can cause a man to accept Christ according to his free will, when apart from God’s grace he would never seek God nor be righteous in faith. In this way, God is totally responsible and sovereign over the salvation of the man, having so sealed his hand, but not chopping his hand off.
This is why the Scripture says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord, He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov 21:1). Indeed God can turn the heart of man however He wants, but He does not rip the heart of man (here meaning a man’s “free will”) out and turn man into a robot.
To quote John Cassian again:
The Divine protection then is inseparably present with us, and so great is the kindness of the Creator towards His creatures, that His Providence not only accompanies it, but actually constantly precedes it…And when He sees in us some beginnings of a good will [that He has begun], He at once enlightens it and strengthens it and urges it on towards salvation, increasing that which He Himself implanted or which He sees to have arisen from our own efforts (emphasis added, Conference 13, Chap 8).
Cassian is almost right, but he fails on a crucial point: never does salvation originate in our own efforts. Ever. This contradicts the Scripture and is not a tenable position. After all, God begins the work of salvation in us (Phil 1:6). Even after He begins, He is the cause of our acting and willing (Phil 2:13) so that by our own free will, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). So the hand of man does not disappear, but God sets the seal. He can stop it and He can empower it to do things it was never able. God is indeed the author and perfecter of faith (Heb 12:2).
As Chrysostom observes when speaking of Phil 2:13:
Be not affrighted, you are not worsted; both the hearty desire and the accomplishment are a gift from Him: for where we have the will, thenceforward He will increase our will. For instance, I desire to do some good work: He has wrought the good work itself, and by means of it He has wrought also the will…Here he shows, and makes it a ground of confidence, that He is sure to work in us, for it is His will that we live as He desires we should, and if He desires it, He Himself both works in us to this end, and will certainly accomplish it; for it is His will that we live aright. Do you see, how he does not deprive us of free will (Homilies on Philippians, Homily 8)?
The way the process works out is synergistic, but it is solely directed by God monergistically. God changes the heart of the believer to walk according to the Spirit. Being that the heart is changed, the heart now has a new desire to will things that it would never will before. So, even when by our own free will we desire and henceforward act rightly, it is God that is responsible for the desire, God that sustains it, and God by His Spirit through us that does it, all without contradicting free will. “Every good thing and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). Every good thing, for who would deny that faith is good?
Elihu makes a superb statement, asserting that a man’s hand is sealed by God so ”that all men may know His work” (Job 37:7). God has put limits on man so that he may know the presence of God! Man cannot stop the weather, so He knows that He is less than the one who works the weather. Man cannot be righteous on his own, so he looks to the One who can make him righteous. Man cannot believe on his own, so he knows that only God can work belief in his heart.
Limitations show us our God, point us to Him, and make clear our complete and utter reliance upon Him. Indeed, the fringes of God’s way as revealed in thunder are deeper than the depths of the oceans!
After making a general observation which would be obvious to those of us in the northern hemisphere (coldness originates in the north and storms from the south, Job 37:9), Elihu makes clear it is by God’s utterance the weather is commanded (Job 37:10-12).
The reason God controls the weather the way He does reflects why He acts in all situations: “Whether for correction, or for His world, or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen” (Job 37:13). Being that weather is a constant, ever-changing force, it would be inaccurate to view God as a master-architect that tinkers with His creation a little here or there. God is always at work in His creation, constantly dictating all things to fulfill His purposes.
So, sometimes the weather or whatever else is ordained to correct man. Other times, God causes things to happen the way they do to show His love. Further, God oftentimes does things “for His world,” which we take to mean as His general will to sustain His creation.
If God makes a thunderstorm occur on a desert island where no one lives, God is not acting in vain. He is sustaining His whole creation, including its minutia. Especially in the modern era where we are now aware of how large the universe really is, the fact that God is at work sustaining the unimaginable complexities via physical laws in far out places, should blow our minds. Everything from the quarks of an atom to the depths of a black hole in a middle of a supernova testify to the fact that His sustaining hand is unimaginably powerful and unlike the sealed hand of man.
It is useful to think that every time gravity does what it is supposed to do, and photons uniformly travel at the speed they do, and all the predictable things of nature do as they do that we not take this for granted. God uses each and every instance of the world acting predictably as if by perfectly designed laws which govern its existence as an occasion to show what He does “for His world.” A Deistic universe is impossible. This Occasionialism reflects the truth that God is involved in all things, working all things in accordance with His will.
As Elihu asks Job to consider this greatness of God (Job 37:14), he then flabbergasts Job by showing he does not know how God makes things in nature work (Job 37:15-16). If one does not even know how God does what He does due to intellectual limitations, how can one be intellectually capable of judging God’s motives behind these same things?
It is not only a matter of lacking understanding as in the preceding, but also that a man like Job simply cannot do the things God does (Job 37:18). He is powerless to stop the effects of the weather (Job 37:17). Therefore, man cannot even do the good which he thinks God should do. On what basis then could man question God?
Elihu then says, “We cannot arrange our case because of darkness” (Job 37:19). As God is light, we hate the light because we live in darkness. We do not even know what is good, so who are we to know “what to say to Him” (Job 37:19)? Indeed “men do not see the light” (Job 37:21), for they cannot discern spiritual things, only by God’s grace can we see the light. Man is finite and is blown away by the wind (Job 37:21), because he is fragile and destined to die.
In this, Elihu exhibits humility. He asks, “Shall it be told [to] Him that I would speak” (Job 37:20)? Does he deserve any praise or merit for speaking rightly concerning God? By no means, as he knows he is a finite, sinful man and has only scratched the surface. This is why he thinks it is more fitting for him to be “swallowed up” (Job 37:20). For he as a man is nothing. Let him who boasts boast only in the Lord and not in himself (1 Cor 1:31)!
What has any of this to do with God’s justice? If God works all things, then the suffering we experience does not escape His notice. He ordains it. He disciplines us with it, sometimes. Other times, He shows us His love in it that we would otherwise never see. Sometimes, it is part of God’s purposes for the universe and we must stand in awe of Him that sustains all things. He uses His unimaginable power to fulfill a purpose far above us, the glorification of His name.
Suffering is part of existence, but God ordains it. God has good reasons for it, so its existence even when it affects us is righteous.
The remainder of the chapter, Elihu is graced by God with the opportunity to announce His coming on the scene to definitively settle the matter of Theodicy. God comes from the north appearing “golden” (Job 37:22), because His face has the appearance of lightning (Dan 10:6). This connotes His power and justifies the use of the name El Shaddai, God Almighty.
The Almighty—we cannot find Him (We cannot find him for we cannot know the unknowable nor do we desire to seek Him apart from His grace.)
He is exalted in power (Unlike us, there is nothing in us to exalt.)
And He will not do violence to justice and abundant righteousness (For all His ways are right and kind, He does no wrong, because He created righteousness; Job 37:23).
“Therefore men fear Him, [because] He does not regard any who are wise of heart,” warns Elihu in Job 37:4. Oh God, have mercy on us, for our thoughts are wicked and we are arrogant. We think of ourselves wise whenever we question you, but “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (1 Cor 1:21)! Father, give us humility and so we may accept the “foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor 1:21) in Your Son Jesus Christ. Have us not live under the delusion that we can save ourselves or that what you teach in your revelation is unfair, as if we are wiser and more righteous than you. Prepare us in our hearing of your revelation to Job!