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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Job 20

 

 

Verses 1-29

XVII.

IGNORANT CRITICISM OF LIFE

Job 20:1-29

ZOPHAR SPEAKS

THE great saying that quickens our faith and carries thought into a higher world conveyed no Divine meaning to the man from Naamah. The author must have intended to pour scorn on the hide bound intelligence and rude bigotry of Zophar, to show him dwarfed by self-content and zeal not according to knowledge. When Job affirmed his sublime confidence in a Divine Vindicator, Zophar caught only at the idea of an avenger. What is this notion of a Goel on whose support a condemned man dares to count, who shall do judgment for him? And his resentment was increased by the closing words of Job:-

"If ye say, How may we pursue him?

And that the cause of the matter is in me-

Then beware of the sword!

For hot are the punishments of the sword.

That ye may know there is judgment."

If they went on declaring that the root of the matter, that is, the real cause of his affliction, was to be found in his own bad life, let them beware the avenging sword of Divine justice. He certainly implies that his Goel may become their enemy if they continue to persecute him with false charges. To Zophar the suggestion is intolerable. With no little irritation and anger he begins:-

"For this do my thoughts answer me,

And by reason of this there is haste in me-

I hear the reproof which puts me to shame,

And the spirit of my understanding gives me answer."

He speaks more hotly than in his first address, because his pride is touched, and that prevents him from distinguishing between a warning and a personal threat. To a Zophar every man is blind who does not see as he sees, and every word offensive that bids him take pause. Believers of his kind have always liked to appropriate the defence of truth, and they have seldom done anything but harm. Conceive the dulness and obstinacy of one who heard an inspired utterance altogether new to human thought, and straightway turned in resentment on the man from whom it came. He is an example of the bigot in the presence of genius, a little uncomfortable, a good deal affronted, very sure that he knows the mind of God, and very determined to have the last word. Such were the Scribes and Pharisees of our Lord’s time, most religious persons and zealous for what they considered sound doctrine. His light shone in darkness, and their darkness comprehended it not; they did Him to death with an accusation of impiety and blasphemy-"He made Himself the Son of God," they said.

Zophar’s whole speech is a fresh example of the dogmatic hardness the writer was assailing, the closure of the mind and the stiffening of thought. One might not unjustly accuse this speaker of neglecting the moral difference between the profane whose triumph and joy he declares to be short, and the good man whose career is full of years and honour. We may almost say that to him outward success is the only mark of inward grace, and that prosperous hypocrisy would be mistaken by him for the most beautiful piety. His whole creed about providence and retribution is such that he is on the way to utter confusion of mind. Why, he has said to himself that Job is a wicked and false man-Job whose striking characteristic is outspoken truthfulness, whose integrity is the pride of his Divine Master. And if Zophar once accepts it as indisputable that Job is neither good nor sincere, what will the end be for himself? With more and more assurance he will judge from a man’s prosperity that he is righteous, and from his afflictions that he is a reprobate. He will twist and torture facts of life and modes of thought, till the worship of property will become his real cult, and to him the poor will of necessity seem worthless. This is just what happened in Israel. It is just what slovenly interpretation of the Bible and providence has brought many to in our own time. Side by side with a doctrine of self-sacrifice incredible and mischievous, there is a doctrine of the earthly reward of godliness-religion profitable for the life that now is, in the way of filling the pockets and conducting to eminent seats-an absurd and hurtful doctrine, forever being taught in one form if not another, and applied all along the line of human life. An honest, virtuous man, is he sure to find a good place in our society? The rich broker or manufacturer, because he washes, dresses, and has twenty servants to wait upon him, is he therefore a fine soul? Nobody will say so. Yet Christianity is so little understood in some quarters, is so much associated with the error of Zophar, that within the church a score are of his opinion for one who is in Job’s perplexity. Outside, the proportion is much the same. The moral ideas and philanthropies of our generation are perverted by the notion that no one is succeeding as a man unless he is making money and rising in the social scale. So, independence of mind, freedom, integrity, and the courage by which they are secured, are made of comparatively little account.

It will be said that if things were rightly ordered, Christian ideas prevailing in business, in legislation and social intercourse, the best people would certainly be in the highest places and have the best of life, and that, meanwhile, the improvement of the world depends on some approximation to this state of affairs. That is to say, spiritual power and character must come into visible union with the resources of the earth and possession of its good things, otherwise there will be no moral progress. Divine providence, we are told, works after that manner; and the reasoning is plausible enough to require close attention. There has always been peril for religion in association with external power and prestige-and the peril of religion is the peril of progress. Will spiritual ideas ever urge those whose lives they rule to seek with any solicitude the gifts of time? Will they not, on the other hand, increasingly, as they ought, draw the desires of the best away from what is immediate, earthly, and in all the lower senses personal? To put it in a word, must not the man of spiritual mind always be a prophet, that is, a critic of human life in its relations to the present world? Will there come a time in the history of the race when the criticism of the prophet shall no longer be needed and his mantle will fall from him? That can only be when all the Lord’s people are prophets, when everywhere the earthly is counted as nothing in view of the heavenly, when men will seek continually a new revelation of good, and the criticism of Christ shall be so acknowledged that no one shall need to repeat after Him, "How can ye believe which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour: that cometh from God only?" By heavenly means alone shall heavenly ends be secured, and the keen pursuit of earthly good will never bring the race of men into the paradise where Christ reigns. Outward magnificence is neither a symbol nor an ally of spiritual power. It hinders instead of aiding the soul in the quest of what is eternally excellent, touching the sensuous, not the divine, in man. Christ is still, as in the days of His flesh, utterly indifferent to the means by which power and distinction are gained in the world. The spread of His ideas, the manifestation of His Godhead, the coming of His Kingdom, depend not the least on the countenance of the great and the impression produced on rude minds by the shows of wealth. The first task of His gospel everywhere is to correct the barbaric tastes of men; and the highest and best in a spiritual age will be, as He was, thinkers, seers of truth, lovers of God and man, lowly in heart and life. These will express the penetrating criticism that shall move the world.

Zophar discourses of one who is openly unjust and rapacious. He is candid enough to admit that, for a time, the schemes and daring of the wicked may succeed, but affirms that, though his head may "reach to the clouds," it is only that he may be cast down.

Knowest thou not this from of old,

Since man was placed upon earth,

That the triumphing of the wicked is short,

And the joy of the godless but for a moment,

Though his excellency ascend to heaven,

And his head reach to the clouds,

Yet he shall perish forever like his own dung:

They who saw him shall say, Where is he?

Like a dream he shall flee, no more to be found,

Yea, he shall be chased away like a night vision.

As a certainty, based on facts quite evident since the beginning of human history, Zophar presents anew the overthrow of the evildoer. He is sure that the wicked does not keep his prosperity through a long life. Such a thing has never occurred in the range of human experience. The godless man is allowed, no doubt, to lift himself up for a time; but his day is short. Indeed he is great for a moment only, and that in appearance. He never actually possesses the good things of earth, but only seems to possess them. Then in the hour of judgment he passes like a dream and perishes forever. The affirmation is precisely that which has been made again and again; and with some curiosity we scan the words of Zophar to learn what addition he makes to the scheme so often pressed.

Sooth to say, there is no reasoning, nothing but affirmation. He discusses no doubtful case, enters into no careful discrimination of the virtuous who enjoy from the godless who perish, makes no attempt to explain the temporary success granted to the wicked. The man he describes is one who has acquired wealth by unlawful means, who conceals his wickedness, rolling it like a sweet morsel under his tongue. We are told further that he has oppressed and neglected the poor and violently taken away a house, and he has so behaved himself that all the miserable watch for his downfall with hungry eyes. But these charges, virtually of avarice, rapacity, and inhumanity, are far from definite, far from categorical. Not without reason would any man have so bad a reputation, and if deserved it would ensure the combination against him of all right-minded people. But men may be evil hearted and inhuman who are not rapacious; they may be vile and yet not given to avarice. And Zophar’s account of the ruin of the profane, though he makes it a Divine act, pictures the rising of society against one whose conduct is no longer endurable-a robber chief, the tyrant of a valley. His argument fails in this, that though the history of the proud evildoer’s destruction were perfectly true to fact, it would apply to a very few only amongst the population, -one in ten thousand, leaving the justice of Divine providence in greater doubt than ever, because the avarice and selfishness of smaller men are not shown to have corresponding punishment, are not indeed so much as considered. Zophar describes one whose bold and flagrant iniquity rouses the resentment of those not particularly honest themselves, not religious, nor even humane, but merely aware of their own danger from his violent rapacity. A man, however, may be avaricious who is not strong, may have the will to prey on others but not the power. The real distinction, therefore, of Zophar’s criminal is his success in doing what many of those he oppresses and despoils would do if they were able, and the picturesque passage leaves no deep moral impression. We read it and seem to feel that the overthrow of this evildoer is one of the rare and happy instances of poetical justice which sometimes occur in real life, but not so frequently as to make a man draw back in the act of oppressing a poor dependant or robbing a helpless widow.

In all sincerity Zophar speaks, with righteous indignation against the man whose rum he paints, persuades that he is following, step for step, the march of Divine judgment. His eye kindles, his voice rings with poetic exultation.

He hath swallowed down riches; he shall vomit them again:

God shall cast them out of his belly.

He shall suck the poison of asps;

The viper’s tongue shall slay him.

He shall not look upon the rivers,

The flowing streams of honey and butter.

That which he toiled for shall he restore,

And shall not swallow it down;

Not according to the wealth he has gotten

Shall he have enjoyment,

There was nothing left that he devoured not;

Therefore his prosperity shall not abide.

In his richest abundance he shall be in straits;

The hand of every miserable one shall come upon him.

When he is about to fill his belly God shall cast the fury of His wrath upon him

And rain upon him his food.

He has succeeded for a time, concealing or fortifying himself among the mountains. He has store of silver and gold and garments taken by violence, of cattle and sheep captured in the plain. But the district is roused. Little by little he is driven back into the uninhabited desert. His supplies are cut off and he is brought to extremity. His food becomes to him as the gall of asps. With all his ill-gotten wealth he is in straits, for he is hunted from place to place. Not for him now the luxury of the green oasis and the coolness of flowing streams. He is an outlaw, in constant danger of discovery. His children wander to places where they are not known and beg for bread. Reduced to abject fear, he restores the goods he had taken by violence, trying to buy off the enmity of his pursuers. Then come the last skirmish, the clash of weapons, ignominious death.

He shall flee from the iron weapon,

And the bow of brass shall pierce him through.

He draweth it forth; it cometh out of his body:

Yea, the glittering shaft cometh out of his gall.

Terrors are upon him,

All darkness is laid up for his treasures;

A fire not blown shall consume him.

It shall devour him that is left in his tent.

The heaven shall reveal his iniquity,

And the earth shall rise against him.

The increase of his house shall depart,

Be washed away in the day of His wrath.

This is the lot of a wicked man from God,

And the heritage appointed to him by God.

Vain is resistance when he is brought to bay by his enemies. A moment of overwhelming terror, and he is gone. His tent blazes up and is consumed, as if the breath of God made hot the avenging flame. Within it his wife and children perish. Heaven seems to have called for his destruction and earth to have obeyed the summons. So the craft and strength of the freebooter, living on the flocks and harvests of industrious people, are measured vainly against the indignation of God, who has Ordained the doom of wickedness.

A powerful word picture. Yet if Zophar and the rest taught such a doctrine of retribution, and, put to it, could find no other; if they were in the way of saying, "This is the lot of a wicked man from God," how far away must Divine judgment have seemed from ordinary life, from the falsehoods daily spoken, the hard words and blows dealt to the slave, the jealousies and selfishness of the harem. Under the pretext of showing the righteous Judge, Zophar makes it impossible, or next to impossible, to realise His presence and authority. Men must be stirred up on God’s behalf or His judicial anger will not be felt.

It is however when we apply the picture to the case of Job that we see its falsehood. Against the facts of his career Zophar’s account of Divine judgment stands out as flat heresy, a foul slander charged on the providence of God. For he means that Job wore in his own settlement the hypocritical dress of piety and benevolence and must have elsewhere made brigandage his trade, that his servants who died by the sword of Chaldaeans and Sabeans and the fire of heaven had been his army of rievers, that the cause of his ruin was heaven’s intolerance and earth’s detestation of so vile a life. Zophar describes poetic justice, and reasons back from it to Job. Now it becomes flagrant injustice against God and man. We cannot argue from what sometimes is to what must be. Although Zophar had taken in hand to convict one really and unmistakably a miscreant, truth alone would have served the cause of righteousness. But he assumes, conjectures, and is immeasurably unjust and cruel to his friend.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Job 20:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/job-20.html.

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