Job 20
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 20. Zophar’s Second Speech

Zophar breaks in upon the close of Job’s speech with a fiery haste and passionateness not quite easy to account for. No doubt Job had spoken of his friends as persecuting him and devouring his flesh. Then he had turned away from them and appealed to posterity against them (ch. Job 19:23 seq.). And finally he had threatened them with the sword and judgment of God (ch. Job 19:29). These and former reproaches (ch. Job 17:4) may rankle in Zophar’s breast, and he may not have forgotten the sarcastic treatment which Job gave his first speech. Perhaps, however, his irritation is due less to personal than to moral reasons. Job’s last speech was certainly ill to understand, as it has been found ever since. He had accused God of “wronging” him and being his enemy and with bringing him though innocent to the grave. And yet he had affirmed that he knew that God would vindicate his right after his death, and that he should see Him with his eyes in peace. In all this there seems to Zophar a lack of common understanding. Hence he draws an answer to it out of the “spirit” and “understanding” within himself (Job 20:3). Cf. Elihu’s references to his “spirit,” ch. Job 32:8.

Bildad (ch. 18) had enlarged upon the certainty of the sinner’s downfall from the moral order in the world and the moral sense in men, which rose up against wickedness. Zophar’s point is slightly different, it is the brevity of the wicked man’s prosperity, which arises from the fact that wickedness brings about its own retribution—sin, sweet in the mouth, turns into the poison of asps in the belly.

The Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to scourge us.

He illustrates this theme by drawing the picture of a rapacious, oppressive man of power suddenly brought to destruction and destitution in the midst of his days, with the hand of every one that is wretched against him, and forced to disgorge that which he had greedily swallowed. Job may understand that the fable is narrated of him. Zophar is too much of the “plain blunt man”; his meaning is so transparent that he commits himself and his friends into his adversary’s hands.

One general idea pervades the speech, the brevity of the wicked man’s prosperity.

Job 20:2-3. Zophar, in a brief preface, acknowledges that he is roused.

Job 20:4-11. This is because of Job’s reproaches, and because he seems unaware of the acknowledged principle that the triumphing of the wicked is brief.

Job 20:12-22. Sin brings its own retribution—after the manner of a man’s evil doings so is his chastisement.

Job 20:23-29. God sates at last with his judgments the sinner’s insatiable greed for wrong-doing.

Ch. 20. The prosperity of the wicked is brief; sin, sweet in the mouth, becomes the poison of asps in the belly

Then answered Zophar the Naamathite, and said,
Therefore do my thoughts cause me to answer, and for this I make haste.
2, 3. Zophar is roused to indignation by Job’s perverse blindness to unalterable principles experienced since the world was. The verses should perhaps read,

2.  Therefore do my thoughts make answer to me,

And because of this have I haste within me:

3.  I hear the rebuke that putteth me to shame—

But the spirit out of my understanding answereth me.

The words “therefore” and “because of this” refer to the first clause of Job 20:3.—I hear the rebuke that puts me to shame (i. e. Job’s last words), therefore do my thoughts make answer to me, and because of this have I inward haste, i. e. strong feeling. The speaker means that he feels driven to answer Job by the exasperating words of the latter, but he distinguishes between himself and his thoughts and speaks of them answering him. So (Job 20:3) his “spirit” answers him, drawing the answer out of his “understanding.” The answer furnished to Zophar by his spirit follows Job 20:4 seq. The last words of Job 20:2 are lit. “is my haste within me;” cf. their cord in them, Job 4:21, my help within me, Job 6:13. The word “check” in A. V. Job 20:3 means reproof;

“Now, by my life,

Old fools are babes again; and must be used

With checks, as flatteries.” Lear, 1. 3.

“Check’d like a bondman; all his faults observed.”

J. Caesar, IV. 3.

I have heard the check of my reproach, and the spirit of my understanding causeth me to answer.
Knowest thou not this of old, since man was placed upon earth,
4–10. The prosperity of the wicked is brief

4. Knowest thou not this old] i. e. knowest thou not this to be or to have been of old, lit. from for ever. “This” which is from of old and from the time man has been upon the earth is the fact that the felicity of the wicked is brief (Job 20:5). On “hypocrite” see ch. Job 8:13.

That the triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment?
Though his excellency mount up to the heavens, and his head reach unto the clouds;
6. his excellency] Or, his height, or rising up (Psalm 89:9); cf. Isaiah 14:13-15, Obad. Job 20:4.

Yet he shall perish for ever like his own dung: they which have seen him shall say, Where is he?
7. like his own dung] Zophar is not the most refined of the three, cf. 2 Kings 9:37. On the last words of the verse cf. ch. Job 14:10.

He shall fly away as a dream, and shall not be found: yea, he shall be chased away as a vision of the night.
8. as a dream] Comp. Psalm 73:20, “As a dream when one awaketh; so, O Lord, when thou awakest thou shalt despise their image”; Isaiah 29:8, of the enemies of Israel.

The eye also which saw him shall see him no more; neither shall his place any more behold him.
9. See ch. Job 7:8-10; Job 8:18; Psalm 103:16.

His children shall seek to please the poor, and his hands shall restore their goods.
10. His children shall seek to please] Or, seek the favour of. The margin is possible, The poor shall oppress his children, but less suitable.

restore their goods] Rather, his goods. He shall give back his wealth which he has gotten by unlawful and violent means. The first clause of Job 20:10 is closely connected with Job 20:9, and paints the abject condition of the sinner’s children after his death; the second clause of Job 20:10 and Job 20:11 return to the idea of the sinner’s destruction and assume that he is in life.

His bones are full of the sin of his youth, which shall lie down with him in the dust.
11. full of the sin of his youth] Rather, his bones axe full of his youth, but it shall lie down, &c.; in the midst of his years, when his bones are full of his youthful strength, like a vigorous marrow, he shall be cut off, and his youth go down to the grave with him.

Though wickedness be sweet in his mouth, though he hide it under his tongue;
12. Sin is spoken of under the figure of a dainty which tickles the palate, and which one retains and turns in his mouth with delight.

12–22. His sin changes into his punishment.

Though he spare it, and forsake it not; but keep it still within his mouth:
13. forsake it not] i. e. do not let it go—do not swallow it.

Yet his meat in his bowels is turned, it is the gall of asps within him.
14. is turned] i. e. is changed,—it becomes the poison of asps in his belly.

He hath swallowed down riches, and he shall vomit them up again: God shall cast them out of his belly.
15. The same general figure of a delightful food particularized. The ill-gotten riches which he amassed do not abide with him; the wealth that he swallowed up he must disgorge. The figure is perhaps that of a food which the stomach cannot retain.

He shall suck the poison of asps: the viper's tongue shall slay him.
16. A slight change of the figure. The meaning is: that which he sucks shall prove the poison of asps.

He shall not see the rivers, the floods, the brooks of honey and butter.
17. the floods, the brooks of honey] The marg. the streaming brooks is unnecessary. The words “honey and butter” apply both to “floods” (streams) and brooks. The figure is common for fulness of blessings. Cf. Exodus 3:8, “A land flowing with milk and honey.”

17–22. That long time of enjoyment which he promised himself shall never come; according to his insatiable lust and greed shall be his utter destitution at last.

That which he laboured for shall he restore, and shall not swallow it down: according to his substance shall the restitution be, and he shall not rejoice therein.
18. That which he laboured for] i. e. that which he has acquired—the fruit of his labour; this he shall restore and shall not swallow down, or enjoy.

according to his substance] This half verse reads: according to the wealth which he has gotten he shall not rejoice, lit. according to the wealth of his exchange (cf. ch. Job 15:31). The meaning is, however great the substance be which by his evil he has acquired he shall not have the joy of it he promised himself.

The following verses read most naturally,

19.  Because he hath oppressed and forsaken the poor,

The house which he hath violently taken away he shall not build up;

20.  Because he hath known no rest in his belly,

He shall not deliver himself with that wherein he delighteth;

21.  There was nothing left that he devoured not,

Therefore his good shall not abide.

Because he hath oppressed and hath forsaken the poor; because he hath violently taken away an house which he builded not;
19. and hath forsaken] Abandoned them, after oppressing them, to their destitution. Thus, though joining house to house (Isaiah 5:8) and dispossessing the poor, the houses which he robs he shall not build up—as Is. says, Many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair without inhabitant (ch. Job 5:9).

Surely he shall not feel quietness in his belly, he shall not save of that which he desired.
20. quietness in his belly] Rather as above. The belly is the seat of appetite; the words mean, because he felt and displayed a restless insatiable greediness.

There shall none of his meat be left; therefore shall no man look for his goods.
21. his goods] This may mean his prosperity. In all these verses the retribution corresponds to the sin—the insatiable greediness is recompensed by utter loss and want.

In the fulness of his sufficiency he shall be in straits: every hand of the wicked shall come upon him.
22. In the moment of his great abundance his straitness comes suddenly upon him.

every hand of the wicked] Rather, of the wretched (ch. Job 3:20, him that is in misery). All those in destitution, and the lawless, both those whom he has oppressed and those perhaps who make common cause with them, shall rise up against him and make him their prey. The picture is similar to that drawn by Eliphaz, ch. Job 5:5.

When he is about to fill his belly, God shall cast the fury of his wrath upon him, and shall rain it upon him while he is eating.
23.  His belly shall be filled!

God shall cast the fury of his wrath upon him,

And shall rain upon him his food.

The food which the sinner shall be sated with is the terrible rain of judgments which God shall shower upon him; cf. Psalm 11:6, Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone and a burning tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup.

23–29. His insatiable greed shall be satisfied at last. God shall fill him full of his judgments.

He shall flee from the iron weapon, and the bow of steel shall strike him through.
24. His inevitable destruction: seeking to escape one form of death he shall flee into another. The figure changes. The judgment of God is no more a rain from heaven, it is an attack on all hands of armed inexorable foes; cf. the same idea of inevitable destruction set forth under different figures, Amos 5:19. For bow of steel read bow of brass.

It is drawn, and cometh out of the body; yea, the glittering sword cometh out of his gall: terrors are upon him.
25. It is drawn] Rather, he draweth it forth—that is, the arrow (Job 20:24).

the glistering sword] Rather, the glittering shaft (Isaiah 49:2), or, more generally, the glittering steel; what is meant is the arrow that strikes the sinner through (Job 20:24). He draws it out hoping to save himself, not knowing that he is mortally stricken, but with the drawing of it out there fall on him the terrors of death. The picture, particularly the last isolated sentence “terrors are upon him,” is graphic.

All darkness shall be hid in his secret places: a fire not blown shall consume him; it shall go ill with him that is left in his tabernacle.
26.  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.

“Darkness” is a figure for calamity; cf. ch. Job 15:22-23. “Laid up,” i. e. reserved, destined, for. “Him that is left” may also mean “that which is left,” Job 20:21. A fire “not blown” by mortal breath or man’s mouth, but the fire of God, consumes him; or, it may be a fire which kindles itself,—an allusion to the self-avenging nature of sin; cf. ch. Job 15:34.

The heaven shall reveal his iniquity; and the earth shall rise up against him.
27. Heaven and earth conspire together against the sinner. There may be allusion to Job’s appeal to the earth, ch. Job 16:18, and his pretended assurance of having a witness in heaven, ch. Job 16:19, Job 19:25. Heaven “reveals” his iniquity in the chastisements, e.g. the fire of heaven, ch. Job 1:16, that fall on him; and earth rises up against him in the hostility of men, ch. Job 1:15; Job 1:17, cf. ch. Job 17:6.

The increase of his house shall depart, and his goods shall flow away in the day of his wrath.
28. The increase] i. e. the gain, possessions.

his goods shall flow away] lit. things washed away; his possessions shall be swept away with a flood in the day of God’s wrath.

This is the portion of a wicked man from God, and the heritage appointed unto him by God.
29. Like all the speakers in this second round of debate Zophar concludes by pointing with an impressive gesture to the picture he has drawn. Job should see himself there. He finishes by saying “from God.” This forces Job into the arena; he has no help, however unwilling he may be, but face this argument (ch. Job 21:27), and he shews that that which comes “from God” (ch. Job 21:22) is something very different.

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