Why did God do this to me? Job asks. And his friends come and tell him it was because he sinned. Job replies that he has been upright. He wants an audience with God for God has wronged him (19:6).
Then along comes Elihu, a younger companion. He is mad at Job for justifying himself instead of God (32:2). He is mad at Job’s friends for not answering Job well and yet condemning him (32:3).
There is a big dispute if Elihu is one of the friends who gets it wrong or if he gets it right. It’s fairly clear to me he gets it right. First, there is the commentary in 32:2-3 that hints at the author’s perspective: he is rightly mad at both Job and his friends. Second, at the end of his long speech he starts sounding the way God talks in chapters 38-41, referring to God’s power in nature. Third, why not another “younger brother” type in Scripture? One who (by God’s choice) surpasses his older generation in wisdom and faithfulness, like Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Jesus, etc. And last, Elihu is not rebuked at the end – only the other three friends are.
Elihu affirms the two truths at issue in the dispute, without going overboard and reacting poorly in a delicate situation. Truth one: yes, Job has been upright, but “in this you are not righteous” (33:12): in contending with God with Job’s “perfection” and claiming injustice. Job irreverently misapplies the truth of his upright faithfulness to what God owes him. Truth two: yes, God rewards the faithful and punishes the wicked as the friends are quick to point out. But there is not a one-to-one correlation between our morality and God’s providence in our lives at any given point (35:6-8). They cruelly misapply the general truth to Job’s current situation.
Each of these misapplications take place in part because of their sin, I’m sure. But the text shows us that such misapplication also occurs because on earth we see in a mirror dimly, and do not see all of God’s intentions in His providence. One application for us is to be still and wait patiently on the Lord.
But the last chapter is the kicker. Even though they are both speaking “off key,” God justifies Job. Why? Job repents of his words against God. His friends remain stuck in their rigid and cruel application of truth. Although they were technically “more right” than Job, they are called to repent, for they have not applied truth in ways that drew Job to God. Rather, they provoked Job to speak evil of God. They “have not spoken of [God] what is right” (42:8), though they spoke right words. God will put up with us when we suffer and we cannot be still and wait patiently on Him. He understands when we are full of words and frustrated at things. Check out Psalms 12 and 35 for examples. But He won’t tolerate people who know the truth, who know that they know it, and who use it in selfish or flippant ways that turn their audience against God instead of toward Him.