An Ancient Conception of Wickedness.
Zophar has drawn a dreary picture of the wicked man and the issue of all wicked action. His language has been incisive, picturesque, unmistakable as to emphasis and meaning. He thus speaks of the wicked man:
"His bones are full of the sin of his youth, which shall lie down with him in the dust. Though wickedness be sweet in his mouth, though he hide it under his tongue; though he spare it, and forsake it not; but keep it still within his mouth: yet his meat in his bowels is turned, it is the gall of asps within him" ( Job 20:11-14).
According to Zophar, the wicked man is not permitted to keep that which he has attained; he falls back from every point of supposed progress; he yields every assumed victory. "He hath swallowed down riches, and he shall vomit them up again" ( Job 20:15). He shall not be for ever rich. He may have the handling of much gold, but he will be a beggar at the last. He shall suck the poison of asps which lies in the hedge. He shall suppose himself to be enjoying a luxury, but he shall awake too late, to find that he has been feeding upon the poison of asps.
Zophar leaves the wicked man no point of redemption, no rag of reputation, no standing-ground in the assembly of the ages. He kindles a hell around the evil-doer, and burns him, so that there is nothing left of him but hot ashes. The judgment is complete, all-including, terrible in all its aspects and issues.
But all this might be taken as so much denunciation in words, were not some substantial moral reason assigned for all this visitation. Here is the strength of the Bible. We may stand and gaze upon its Niagara-like denunciations, we may wonder at the torrent of "woes proceeding from the gracious lips of the Son of God, and we may say, All this is eloquent expression: but is it anything more? Now, wherever there is denunciation there is explanation, and in all cases the woe never exceeds the moral reason; there is no excess of utterance; the reason is deep enough to hold all the torrent. We have that reason even in the speech of Zophar. Hebrews, not supposed by all commentators to be logical and coherent, strengthens his speech by a "because." If we can find in that "because" room enough for the judgment, we may turn again to the judgment and read its words with new significance and new appreciation:—
"Because he hath oppressed and hath forsaken the poor; because he hath violently taken away an house which he builded not" ( Job 20:19).
That is the reason! It is sufficient! This is a moral universe, governed by moral considerations, judged by moral standards. This is not a mere creation, in the sense of a gigantic framework well put together, excellently lighted, and affording abundant accommodation for anybody who may choose to come into it; this is a school, a sanctuary, a place of judgment, a sphere in which issues are determined by good conduct. Let us dwell upon this point until we feel much of its meaning.
What is it that excites all this divine antagonism and judgment? Was the object of it a theological heretic? Was the man pronounced wicked because he had imbibed certain wrong notions? Was this a case of heterodoxy of creed being punished by the outpouring of the vials of divine wrath? Look at the words again—"because he hath oppressed and hath forsaken the poor." His philanthropy was wrong. The man was wicked socially—wicked in relation to his fellow men. All wickedness is not of a theological nature and quality, rising upward into the region of metaphysical conceptions and definitions of the Godhead, which only the learned can present or comprehend; there is a lateral wickedness, a wickedness as between man and Prayer of Manasseh, rich and poor, poor and rich, young and old; a household wickedness, a marketplace iniquity. There we stand on solid rock. If you have been led away with the thought that wickedness is a theological conception, and a species of theological nightmare, you have only to read the Bible, in its complete sense, in order to see that judgment is pronounced upon what may be called lateral wickedness—the wickedness that operates amongst ourselves, that wrongs mankind, that keeps a false weight and a short measure, that practises cunning and deceit upon the simple and the ignorant, that fleeces the unsuspecting,—a social wickedness that stands out that it may be seen in all its black hideous-ness, and valued as one of the instruments of the devil. There is no escape from the judgment of the Bible. If it pronounce judgment upon false opinions only, then men might profess to be astounded by terms they cannot comprehend, by metaphysics that lie beyond their culture: but the Bible goes into the family, the marketplace, the countinghouse, the field where the labourer toils, and insists upon judging the actions of men, and upon sending away the richest man from all his bank of gold, if he have oppressed and forsaken the poor. Compare this with Christ"s judgment of opinions:—"When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats." And he shall say unto them on the right hand, You have had excellent opinions, you have been good judges of philosophy, you have been sharp-minded, keen-eyed; you have been very brilliant metaphysicians: therefore go into the golden heavens, and enjoy the New Jerusalem, and be at rest for evermore. How poorly the judgment would have read! And to them on the left hand the Judge shall say, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for you have been as owls in the sanctuary, seeing nothing of the mystery of daylight, you have been without cleverness, ability, mental astuteness; you know nothing about long words and difficult terms: therefore go down, and sink into eternal night. How unjust the judgment! We have not had equal chances in this matter. But the judgment shall run contrariwise, on a great broad human and social level—"I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat." Any man can divide his crust with another,—if not divide it in equal halves, divide it so that the other Prayer of Manasseh, aching with hunger, shall at least appease his desire. "I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink." Any one can hand a cup of cold water. The merit is not in the water, but in the cup and in the handling. The well is deep, and thou hast nothing to draw with, but I have a vessel with which I can draw; and if I see thee die of thirst, because I will not lend thee the vessel or show thee how to draw the water, I care not if I am as metaphysical as Athanasius and as learned as Augustine, there is no hell too hot and deep for me. This is the commandment of God: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, and thy neighbour as thyself." Where can we find in all the range of Holy Scripture a single instance in which a man was, so to say, promoted to heaven because he had clear views, because all his opinions were exquisitely right and were laid out in faultless intellectual mosaic? The Pharisees were men of learning: did the Lord ever pronounce a single eulogium upon them? The scribes lived in letters, all day they were writing words, explaining terms, reading the law; they were in very deed the literary men of their day: when did Christ gather them together in a common feast and say, Now shut the door, and let the ignorant be excluded, whilst we, wise men and learned, instruct one another in terms of brotherhood and love? To whom did Jesus Christ ever say, Whatever they say unto you, do it; because they sit in Moses" seat and their word is right enough: but do not follow their example? These were the learned men of the time! On the other hand, how often is conduct made the rule of judgment? There can be no difficulty in pointing out instances illustrative of this:—the poor woman who followed the Saviour into the house of Simon, stood behind him, and cried over him, and washed his feet with her tears, and dried them with the hairs of her head; she was forgiven all her sins: the poor widow who passed the treasury and dropped in all her living. "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me." That verse should be read backwards sometimes, so that the littleness of the deed may be seen in the littleness of the receiver: inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these—we fix our minds always upon the person receiving the benefaction: whereas we ought to say—If done to the least, it was the least that could be done, yet upon this minimum of excellence God sets the seal of heaven. We have stated this thus broadly and fervently, but if it went without modification it would present a totally incomplete and mischievous view of the case. Do let us beware of all half-truths. It is distressing to see how men will eagerly snatch at half a truth when it pleases them, and forget the other half that would modify it, and hold it in just proportion, and chasten the receiver, and keep him within the grip and discipline of God. A man"s conduct is not necessarily good because he has no opinions. A person is not necessarily of the very highest quality of character because he professes to know nothing about God, and the spiritual world, and the mysterious laws that are said to govern human motive and human destiny. It might be supposed from some eloquent speakers that if a man only endeavoured to be charitable, if he cared nothing for what people thought, if he opened his door to all sorts of men and never asked them a question about the law or the gospel, he would be an excellent person, and would be sure of heaven. Let us protest against this sophism; yea, let us call it more than a sophism: it is the deceit which men like; it is easy piety; it gratifies many a sensibility without bringing the whole soul under discipline, and under a sense of indebtedness to him from whom alone is every good gift and every perfect gift. Let us reason rather in some such way as this: here is a man who is endeavouring to do good; therefore God is working in him, though the man himself know it not; having begun by being charitable, he may end by being also truly spiritual: in the meantime, the charity is excellent, it is to be encouraged, a divine blessing goes along with it, without it there could be no piety; but in itself it is incomplete, yet, who knows? Persevere in doing the will, and at last you may know the doctrine: multiply your good deeds. Do not discourage yourself in sacrifice, in gift of every kind, in service of every range and quality, but proceed, and be abundant in good labours, because you are doing more than you think you are doing: you are undergoing a process of education, and some day there may strike you a new light, an illumination above the brightness of the sun, and you may then see the explanation which had never entered into your conception before. Let us resist the foolish suggestion that it is sufficient to be easy, genial, unsuspecting, even liberal in donation;—all that is right, good, invaluable: but unless the fountain be pure the stream cannot continue to be good; here and there it may be limpid enough, very attractive and most useful, but a clean thing cannot come out of an unclean; the stream is only right when the fountain is right; not until the heart is right with God can the hands—both of them, and all day—be right with society.
Zophar gives a view of the wicked which is very significant:—
"In the fulness of his sufficiency he shall be in straits" ( Job 20:22).
That is a marvellous instance of divine judgment. A man may have much, and yet be in poverty. We have heard of some such instances in actual life Men are said to have quite an abundance of property, and yet they cannot meet an immediate obligation: their property is consolidated; it is not immediately available, so that comparatively rich men have sometimes to ask favours of their friends. All this may be good in commerce, perfectly intelligible in business relations; it involves no dishonour whatever: but take it as a suggestion of something far beyond itself. Here is a man who has "fulness of sufficiency," and yet he is in straits. He has plenty of the wrong stuff. A man at a toll-gate who has a million-pound note is as badly off as the man who has not a single halfpenny: neither of the men can pass through the toll-gate. There may be a poverty of wealth as well as a poverty of destitution. So the wicked man may be in straits of all kinds; he may have plenty of money, and not know how to spend it; he may have an abundance of property, and be without thoughts, impulses of a heavenly kind, aspirations that seek the skies. The bad man may have no explanation of the miseries which torment him; he may be mad with impatience because his spirit has never been chastened by heavenly experience. The good man may have nothing, and yet may abound; he may be hungry, and yet may be satisfied: his affliction is a sanctified sorrow; he says, This is for the present, and "no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby;" and the Lord may come tomorrow, or on the third day he may be here: one look, and I shall forget my lifelong trouble; one vision of Christ, and all earth"s tragedy will be sunk in oblivion. The good Prayer of Manasseh, whose whole estate is in God, can never be in straits; he meets a mystery, and hails it, turns it into an altar, and under its darkening shadow prays his mightiest prayers The good man entertains as a guest black affliction, weird grief, awful sorrow, and says to the guest, You are not welcome for your own sake, but a blessing shall come even out of you: God sent you: you may eat my flesh and my bones, and drink my blood, and seem to conquer, but inasmuch as I believe God, and in God, and live in God, you cannot hurt me; I have a word singing in me now, and this is what it says—"Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do:" stop as long as God wants you to stop: your victory will be your failure; when you have conquered in your little purpose, you will have but cut the tether, and given me all the room of heaven. "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their"s is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted." "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake Rejoice, and be exceeding glad; for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you." "Moses... refused to be called the son of Pharaoh"s daughter... esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt." Liberty is in the mind; freedom is in Christian hope: he who is in Christ, and seizes the future in Christ"s spirit and in Christ"s name, is not poor, cannot be poor; he is rich with unsearchable riches.
So Zophar has described the estate and condition of the wicked. Who will be wicked now? Who will dare this fate? We know it to be true; we need no logician or rhetorician to prove this truth and drive it home upon us: we know it to be true. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God;" "Our God is a consuming fire;" "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God." "The wicked shall go away into everlasting punishment." We cannot tell the meaning of these terms; we have never pretended to define them; if they could be defined they would be weakened: let them stand there, in all their dumb significance, too vast for language, too awful for metaphor. If this be the fate of the wicked, it follows that the fate of the righteous must be otherwise. "Le me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his." "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." I would rather die with Christ by my side in the poorest hovel in creation, than die without him in a king"s palace, with regiments of soldiers gathered in serried ranks around the royal walls. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord; they rest from their labours, and their works do follow them: "they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes;" they shall serve God day and night in his temple, and his name shall be in their foreheads, and a white stone of mystery in their palm. May this be our sweet fate! That it may be so we must adopt the divine means for securing the gracious end: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." "Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out" "If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink." Seeing that we have to face: the future, that every man has to read the dark book for himself, who says that he will refuse the light of Christ"s presence,—the joy of Christ"s comfort?
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Job 20". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week after Epiphany