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Bible Commentaries
Job 21

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-34



Job 21:1-34


WITH less of personal distress and a more collected mind than before Job begins a reply to Zophar. His brave hope of vindication has fortified his soul and is not without effect upon his bodily state. The quietness of tone in this final address of the second colloquy contrasts with his former agitation and the growing eagerness of the friends to convict him of wrong. True, he has still to speak of facts of human life troublous and inscrutable. Where they lie he must look, and terror seizes him, as if he moved on the edge of chaos. It is, however, no longer his own controversy with God that disquiets him. For the time he is able to leave that to the day of revelation. But seeing a vaster field in which righteousness must be revealed, he compels himself, as it were, to face the difficulties which are encountered in that survey. The friends have throughout the colloquy presented in varying pictures the offensiveness of the wicked man and his sure destruction. Job, extending his view over the field they have professed to search, sees the facts in another light. While his statement is in the way of a direct negative to Zophar’s theory, he has to point out what seems dreadful injustice in the providence of God. He is not, however, drawn anew into the tone of revolt.

The opening words are as usual expostulatory, but with a ring of vigour. Job sets the arguments of his friends aside and the only demand he makes now is for their attention.

"Hear diligently my speech,

And let that be your consolations.

Suffer me that I may speak;

And after I have spoken, mock on.

As for me, is my complaint of man?

And why should I not be impatient?"

What he has said hitherto has had little effect upon them; what he is to say may have none. But he will speak; and afterwards, if Zophar finds that he can maintain his theory, why, he must keep to it and mock on. At present the speaker is in the mood of disdaining false judgment. He quite understands the conclusion come to by the friends. They have succeeded in wounding him time after time. But what presses upon his mind is the state of the world as it really is. Another impatience than of human falsehood urges him to speak. He has returned upon the riddle of life he gave Zophar to read-why the tents of robbers prosper and they that provoke God are secure. {Job 12:6} Suppose the three let him alone for a while and consider the question largely, in its whole scope. They shall consider it, for, certainly, the robber chief may be seen here and there in full swing of success, with his children about him, gaily enjoying the fruit of sin, and as fearless as if the Almighty were his special protector. Here is something that needs clearing up. Is it not enough to make a strong man shake?

Mark me, and be astonished,

And lay the hand upon the mouth.

Even while I remember I am troubled,

And trembling taketh hold of my flesh-

Wherefore do the wicked live,

Become old, yea wax mighty in power?

Their seed is settled with them in their sight,

And their offspring before their eyes;

Their houses are in peace, without fear,

And the rod of God is not upon them

They send forth their little ones like a flock,

And their children dance;

They sing to the timbrel and lute,

And rejoice at the sound of the pipe.

They spend their days in ease,

And in a moment go down to Sheol.

Yet they said to God, Depart from us,

For we desire not to know Thy ways.

What is Shaddai that we should serve Him?

And what profit should we have if we pray unto Him?

Contrast the picture here with those which Bildad and Zophar painted-and where lies the truth? Sufficiently on Job’s side to make one who is profoundly interested in the question of Divine righteousness stand appalled. There was an error of judgment inseparable from that early stage of human education in which vigour and the gains of vigour counted for more than goodness and the gains of goodness, and this error clouding the thought of Job made him tremble for his faith. Is nature God’s? Does God arrange the affairs of this world? Why then, under His rule, can the godless have enjoyment, and those who deride the Almighty feast on the fat things of His earth? Job has sent into the future a single penetrating look. He has seen the possibility of Vindication, but not the certainty of retribution. The underworld into which the evildoer descends in a moment; without protracted misery, appears to Job no hell of torment. It is a region of reduced, incomplete existence, not of penalty. The very clearness with which he Saw vindication for himself, that is, for the good man, makes it needful to see the wrong doer judged and openly condemned. Where then shall this be done? The writer, with all his genius, could only throw one vivid gleam beyond the present. He could not frame a new idea of Sheol, nor, passing its cloud confines, reach the thought of personality continuing in acute sensations either of joy or pain. The ungodly ought to feel the heavy hand of Divine justice in the present state of being. But he does not. Nature makes room for him and his children, for their gay dances and lifelong hilarity. Heaven does not frown. "The wicked live, become old, yea, wax mighty in power; their houses are in peace, without fear."

From the climax of chapter 19, the speeches of Job seem to fall away instead of advancing. The author had one brilliant journey into the unseen, but the peak he reached could not be made a new point of departure. Knowledge he did not possess was now required. He saw before him a pathless ocean where no man had shown the way, and inspiration seems to have failed him. His power lay in remarkably keen analysis and criticism of known theological positions and in glowing poetic sense. His inspiration working through these persuaded him that everywhere God is the Holy and True. It is scarcely to be supposed that condemnation of the evil could have seemed to him of less importance than vindication of the good. Our conclusion therefore must be that a firm advance into the other life was not for genius like his, nor for human genius at its highest. One more than man must speak of the great judgment and what lies beyond.

Clearly Job sees the unsolved enigma of the godless man’s prosperous life, states it, and stands trembling. Regarding it what have other thinkers said? "If the law of all creation were justice," says John Stuart Mill, "and the Creator omnipotent, then in whatever amount suffering and happiness might be dispensed to the world, each person’s share of them would be exactly proportioned to that person’s good or evil deeds; no human being would have a worse lot than another without worse deserts; accident or favouritism would have no part in such a world, but every human life would be the playing out of a drama constructed like a perfect moral tale. No one is able to blind himself to the fact that the world we live in is totally different from this." Emerson, again, facing this problem, repudiates the doctrine that judgment is not executed in this world. He affirms that there is a fallacy in the concession that the bad are successful, that justice is not done now. "Every ingenuous and aspiring soul," he says, "leaves the doctrine behind him in his own experience; and all men feel sometimes the falsehood which they cannot demonstrate." His theory is that there is balance or compensation everywhere. "Life invests itself with inevitable conditions, which the unwise seek to dodge, which one and another brags that he does not know, that they do not touch him; -but the brag is on his lips, the conditions are in his soul. If he escapes them in one part, they attack him in another more vital part. The ingenuity of man has always been dedicated to the solution of one problem, how to detach the sensual sweet, the sensual strong, the sensual bright, from the moral sweet, the moral deep, the moral fair; that is, again, to contrive to cut clean off this upper surface so thin as to leave it bottomless; to get a one end, without an other end. This dividing and detaching is steadily counteracted. Pleasure is taken out of pleasant things, profit out of profitable things, power out of strong things, so soon as we seek to separate them from the whole. We can no more halve things and get the sensual good, by itself, than we can get an inside that shall have no outside, or a light without a shadow. For everything you have missed you have gained something else, and for everything you gain you lose something. If the gatherer gathers too much, nature takes out of the man what she puts into his chest; swells the estate but kills the owner. We feel defrauded of the retribution due to evil acts, because the criminal adheres to his vice and contumacy, and does not come to a crisis or judgment anywhere in visible nature. There is no stunning confutation of his nonsense before men and angels. Has he therefore outwitted the law? Inasmuch as he carries the malignity and the lie with him, he so far deceases from nature. In some manner there will be a demonstration of the wrong to the understanding also; but, should we not see it, this deadly deduction makes square the account." The argument reaches far beneath that superficial condemnation of the order of providence which disfigures Mr. Mill’s essay on Nature. So far as it goes, it illuminates the present stage of human existence. The light, however, is not sufficient, for we cannot consent to the theory that in an ideal scheme, a perfect or eternal state, he who would have holiness must sacrifice power, and he who would be true must be content to be despised. There is, we cannot doubt, a higher law; for this does not in any sense apply to the life of God Himself. In the discipline which prepares for liberty, there must be restraints and limitations, gain-that is, development-by renunciation; earthly ends must be subordinated to spiritual; sacrifices must be made. But the present state does not exhaust the possibilities of development nor close the history of man. There is a kingdom out of which shall be taken all things that offend. To Emerson’s compensations must be added the compensation of Heaven. Still he lifts the problem out of the deep darkness which troubled Job.

And with respect to the high position and success bad men are allowed to enjoy, another writer, Bushnell, well points out that permission of their opulence and power by God aids the development of moral ideas. "It is simply letting society and man be what they are, to show what they are." The retributive stroke, swift and visible, is not needed to declare this: "If one is hard upon the poor, harsh to children, he makes, or may, a very great discovery of himself. What is in him is mirrored forth by his acts, and distinctly mirrored in them. If he is unjust, passionate, severe, revengeful, jealous, dishonest, and supremely selfish, he is in just that scale of society or social relationship that brings him out to himself. Evil is scarcely to be known as evil till it takes the condition of authority." We do not understand it till we see what kind of god it will make, and by what sort of rule it will manage its empire. Just here all the merit of God’s plan, as regards the permission of power in the hands of wicked men, will be found to hinge; namely, on the fact that evil is not only revealed in its baleful presence and agency, but the peoples and ages are put heaving against it and struggling after deliverance "from it." It was, we say, Job’s difficulty that against the new conception of Divine righteousness which he sought the early idea stood opposed that life meant vigour mainly in the earthly range. During a long period of the world’s history this belief was dominant, and virtue signified the strength of man’s arm, his courage in conflict, rather than his truth in judgment and his purity of heart. The outward gains corresponding to that early virtue were the proof of the worth of life. And even when the moral qualities began to be esteemed, and a man was partly measured by the quality of his soul, still the tests of outward success and the gains of the inferior virtue continued to be applied to his life. Hence the perturbation of Job and, to some extent, the false judgment of providence quoted from a modern writer.

But the chapter we are considering shows, if we rightly interpret the obscure 16th verse (Job 21:16), that the author tried to get beyond the merely sensuous and earthly reckoning. Those prospered who denied the authority of God and put aside religion with the rudest scepticism. There was no good in prayer, they said; it brought no gain. The Almighty was nothing to them. Without thought of His commands they sought their profit and their pleasure, and found all they desired. Looking steadfastly at their life, Job sees its hollowness, and abruptly exclaims:-

"Ha! their good is not in their hand:

The counsel of the wicked be far from me!"

Good! was that good which they grasped-their abundance, their treasure? Were they to be called blessed because their children danced to the lute and the pipe and they enjoyed the best earth could provide? The real good of life was not theirs. They had not God; they had not the exultation of trusting and serving Him; they had not the good conscience towards God and man which is the crown of life. The man lying in disease and shame would not exchange his lot for theirs.

But Job must argue still against his friends’ belief that the wicked are visited with the judgment of the Most High in the loss of their earthly possessions. "The triumphing of the wicked is short," said Zophar, "and the joy of the godless but for a moment." Is it so?

"How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?

That their calamity cometh upon them?

That God distributeth sorrows in His anger?

That they are as stubble before the wind,

And as chaff that the storm carrieth away?"

One in a thousand, Job may admit, has the light extinguished in his tent and is swept out of the world. But is it the rule or the exception that such visible judgment falls even on the robber chief? The first psalm has it that the wicked are "like the chaff which the wind driveth away." The words of that chant may have been in the mind of the author. If so, he disputes the doctrine. And further he rejects with contempt the idea that though a transgressor himself lives long and enjoys to the end, his children after him may bear his punishment.

"Ye say, God layeth up his iniquity for his children.

Let Him recompense it unto himself, that he may know it.

Let his own eye see his destruction,

And let him drink of the wrath of Shaddai.

For what pleasure hath he in his house after him,

When the number of his moons is cut off in the midst?"

The righteousness Job is in quest of will not be satisfied with visitation of the iniquities of the fathers upon the children. He will not accept the proverb which Ezekiel afterwards repudiated, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, the children’s teeth are set on edge." He demands that the ways of God shall be equal, that the soul that sinneth shall bear its punishment. Is it anything to a wicked man that his Children are scattered and have to beg their bread when he has passed away? A man grossly selfish would not be vexed by the affliction of his family even if, down in Sheol, he could know of it. What Zophar has to prove is that every man who has lived a godless life is made to drink the cup of Shaddai’s indignation. Though he trembles in sight of the truth, Job will press it on those who argue falsely for God.

And with the sense of the inscrutable purposes of the Most High burdening his soul he proceeds-

"Shall any teach God knowledge?

Seeing He judgeth those that are high?"

Easy was it to insist that thus or thus Divine providence ordained. But the order of things established by God is not to be forced into harmony with a human scheme of judgment. He who rules in the heights of heaven knows how to deal with men on earth; and for them to teach Him knowledge is at once arrogant and absurd. The facts are evident, must be accepted and reckoned with in all submission; especially must his friends consider the fact of death, how death comes, and they will then find themselves unable to declare the law of the Divine government.

As yet, even to Job, though he has gazed beyond death, its mystery is oppressive; and he is right in urging that mystery upon his friends to convict them of ignorance and presumption. Distinctions they affirm to lie between the good and the wicked are not made by God in appointing the hour of death. One is called away in his strong and lusty manhood; another lingers till life becomes bitter and all the bodily functions are impaired. "Alike they lie down in the dust and the worms cover them." The thought is full of suggestion; but Job presses on, returning for a moment to the false charges against himself that he may bring a final argument to bear on his accusers.

Behold, I know your thoughts,

And the devices ye wrongfully imagine against me.

For ye say, Where is the house of the prince?

And, Where the tents in which the wicked dwelt?

Have ye not asked them that go by the way?

And do ye not regard their tokens-

That the wicked is spared in the day of destruction,

That they are led forth in the day of wrath?

So far from being overwhelmed in calamity the evildoer is considered, saved as by an unseen hand. Whose hand? My house is wasted, my habitations are desolate, I am in extremity, ready to die. True: but those who go up and down the land would teach you to look for a different end to my career if I had been the proud transgressor you wrongly assume me to have been. I would have found a way of safety when the storm clouds gathered and the fire of heaven burned. My prosperity would scarcely have been interrupted. If I had been what you say, not one of you would have dared to charge me with crimes against men or impiety towards God. You would have been trembling now before me. The power of an unscrupulous man is not easily broken. He faces fate, braves and overcomes the judgment of society.

And society accepts his estimate of himself, counts him happy, pays him honour at his death. The scene at his funeral confutes the specious interpretation of providence that has been so often used as a weapon against Job. Perhaps Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar know something of obsequies paid to a prosperous tyrant, so powerful that they dared not deny him homage even when he lay on his bier. Who shall repay the evildoer what he hath done?

"Yea, he is borne to the grave,

And they keep watch over his tomb;

The clods of the valley are sweet to him,

And all men draw after him,

As without number they go before him."

It is the gathering of a countryside, the tumultuous procession, a vast disorderly crowd before the bier, a multitude after it surging along to the place of tombs. And there, in nature’s greenest heart, where the clods of the valley are sweet, they make his grave-and there as over the dust of one of the honourable of the earth they keep watch. Too true is the picture. Power begets fear and fear enforces respect. With tears and lamentations the Arabs went, with all the trappings of formal grief moderns may be seen in crowds following the corpse of one who had neither a fine soul nor a good heart, nothing but money and success to commend him to his fellow men.

So the writer ends the second act of the drama, and the controversy remains much where it was. The meaning of calamity, the nature of the Divine government of the world are not extracted. This only is made clear, that the opinion maintained by the three friends cannot stand. It is not true that joy and wealth are the rewards of virtuous life. It is not always the case that the evildoer is overcome by temporal disaster. It is true that to good and bad alike death is appointed, and together they lie down in the dust. It is true that even then the good man’s grave may be forsaken in the desert, while the impious may have a stately sepulchre. A new way is made for human thought in the exposure of the old illusions and the opening up of the facts of existence. Hebrew religion has a fresh point of departure, a clearer view of the nature and end of all things. The thought of the world receives a spiritual germ; there is a making ready for Him who said, "A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth," and "What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life?" When we know what the earthly cannot do for us we are prepared for the gospel of the spiritual and for the living word.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Job 21". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/job-21.html.
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