There are many great examples for preachers in the Bible. Ezra's passion to study and obey God's Word (Ezra 7:10), Jeremiah eating the scroll (Jer. 15:16), Ezekiel's forehead "like emery harder than flint" (Ezek. 3:9), Paul's simple focus on Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2), Stephen's fearlessness (Acts 7), and - of course - Jesus' authority (Mt.7:29). But God recently showed me another example for preachers to follow: Elihu.
For twenty-nine chapters, Job debated with his friends (Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar) about the right way to interpret his hardships. Unbeknownst to the reader, a fourth friend was waiting in the wings. Finally, after Job finishes his final defense, the young Elihu steps up to the microphone. Despite scholarly debate regarding him, it seems fairly clear that Elihu is now giving the correct interpretation of Job's hardships (note that God never corrects Elihu but seems to finish what Elihu starts). In proclaiming the righteousness of God, Elihu strikes me as a great example for those who preach God's Word.
Elihu knew how to listen - "I said, 'Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom.'" (32:7) Elihu listened well, genuinely seeking to understand what Job and the senior counselors were saying. His attentiveness meant he was able to interact with the hearts of his audience and their deepest held beliefs - a lesson yet to be learned by some preachers! John Stott put it well: "The best preachers are always diligent pastors, who know the people of their district and congregation, and understand the human scene in all its pain and pleasure, glory and tragedy." (Between Two Worlds, 192) Preachers, especially young ones, need to be excellent listeners.
Elihu knew that God's Spirit overcomes the weakness of youth - Though young and quiet for a time, Elihu was still willing to speak up amongst his seniors: "But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand." (32:8) Reflecting Paul's wise words to Timothy to "let no one despise you for your youth" (1 Tim. 4:12), Elihu reminds young preachers that those who have the "breath of the Almighty" are qualified to speak His Word, regardless of their age. In truth, youth does come with a fair share of weakness--but God's Spirit overcomes. As he started to get into the meat of his message, Elihu showed his dependence on God's Spirit in 33:4 by repeating, "The Spirit of God has made, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life."
Elihu had a holy anger and a passion to defend God - We are told that Elihu "burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God" and at the friends "because they had found no answer" (32:2-3) No one wants to be known as an angry preacher, but those who know and love God ought to burn with holy frustration at times--if nothing's wrong, why would we preach? Elihu's anger is a good reminder that anger and love are not opposites, but that anger is one necessary fruit of love. Those without any anger are those without love. But those who love God and love people will be driven to see God's Word correct wrongfully directed minds and hearts.
Elihu spoke sincerely - "My words declare the uprightness of my heart, and what my lips know they speak sincerely." (33:3) Elihu spoke without deceit or pretense or hypocrisy. He spoke what he believed, not whitewashing the truth or trying to make himself look good. Because people can intuitively sense insincerity from miles away, few things will sink a sermon faster than a lack of sincerity.
Elihu was willing to confront and to stand by his convictions - "Answer me, if you can; set your words in order before me; take your stand." (33:5) Knowing he was filled by the Spirit, believing what he was about to say, Elihu had the courage to speak clearly and even confrontationally. Here in 33:5 is a foreshadowing of the same confrontation God will have directly with Job; this is itself a reminder that much of true preaching is confrontational in nature. When the Word of God is spoken into this world, it will always meet with resistance. It will always be seeking to tear down idols, to confront wrong thinking, to change hardened hearts. Though it should be done with kindness, preachers must accept their call to confront.
Elihu was sympathetic toward those he was confronting - "Behold, I am toward God as you are; I too was pinched off from a piece of clay. Behold, no fear of me need terrify you; my pressure will not be heavy upon you." (33:6-7) Though boldly confrontational, Elihu proved himself to be humble and sympathetic toward Job and the friends. What he shows is what many preachers struggle to learn: although we proclaim God's Word with authority, we are simultaneously under that Word, just as the rest of the congregation is. In truth, the confrontation of preaching isn't between us and the congregation, but between God and all of us, pastor included. Praying for this humility and sympathy will lead to preaching that brings God's people into God's presence.
Pastors, let's add Elihu to our list of preaching heroes! He is a powerful example of someone so captured by God, convinced of his message, humble enough to confront in love, and he was able to used for God's good purpose. May God do with our sermons what He did with Elihu's.
Some of these reflections owe a debt to the Preaching the Word commentary on Job by Christopher Ash (Crossway, 2014).