Job 21
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 21. Job’s Reply to Zophar

It is part of the Poet’s art no doubt to make Job wait till all the three have spoken and fully developed their case before he replies to it. But his art is also nature. Job at the beginning of each round of speeches is too much occupied with himself, with the broad general impressions which his condition and the conduct of his friends make on him, to be able for a time to attend to their special arguments. In the earlier part of the first colloquy he is overpowered by the thought that God has become his enemy. In the beginning of the second the thought that men also have turned against him crushes him to the ground. And under the weight of these feelings he seems unable to fix his mind on mere points of argument, he only knows that his friends are arguing against him. There is much humanity in Job, and his mind moves by preference in the region of human feelings, the rights of the wretched, the claims of sentient life, the mysteries of human existence and the riddles of the world, and it is unwillingly that he descends from this region into the arena of disputation. It is only the corrosive language of Zophar that awakens him on each occasion to the particular meaning of his friends’ addresses. Both times his challenge brings Job into the field, the first time with all the bitterness of sarcasm (ch. 12), and now with the trenchant force of an argument from facts.

Zophar began his speech with the astonished query, Dost thou know this to have been from of old that the triumphing of the wicked is short? (ch. Job 20:4-5), and closed his history of the wicked man suddenly cut down in the vigour of his life (Job 21:11) with the words, Lo! this is the portion of the wicked man from God (Job 21:29). These words from God call up before Job’s soul the great mystery with which he is struggling. According to his own former faith as well as that of his friends this should have been a true account of God’s rule of the world. But Job’s vision had been sharpened as well as widened by his own history, and he now observed much in the world which had formerly escaped him. He saw that this was no true statement of God’s dealing with wickedness. God dealt with it quite otherwise; and the mystery overwhelms him, and instead of chiding his friends he can only appeal to them to contemplate the awful riddle of providence, at the thought of which he himself trembles (Job 21:6).This riddle, the prosperity of the wicked in God’s hand (Job 21:16), their peaceful death (Job 21:13), and even the renown of their memory (Job 21:33), he then proceeds to unfold. The passage has these parts:

First, Job 21:2-6, some words of introduction, in which Job bids his friends be silent till he unfolds before them the mystery which weighs down his own soul and the thought of which makes him tremble—then they may mock if they have a mind.

Second, Job 21:7-34, the mystery itself, the prosperity of the wicked, in four turns:—

Job 21:6-16. The wicked are prosperous, themselves, their children, their possessions, and they die in peace. This is an undeniable fact of experience.

Job 21:16-21. On the other side, How often is it that they are seen overwhelmed by calamity? There is no such invariable principle. They do not die sudden and violent deaths as the friends represented.

Job 21:22-26. Why then should men—the friends—be wiser than God? Why should they impose their petty principles on God’s providence, and prescribe methods to Him which He does not follow?

Job 21:27-34. Finally Job turns to the insinuations of his friends—he knows the meaning of their indirect allusions, when they say, Where is the house of the prince (Job 21:28)? but they only shew their ignorance of the testimony of those who have travelled (Job 21:30), and their little sense of the unfathomableness of God’s ways, and even if possible less sense of the ways of men, who have no such horror of the wicked as the friends pretend, but who press forward in their footsteps, admiring their prosperity and forgetting their wickedness (Job 21:34).


Ch. 21. The great Mystery of Providence, the Prosperity of the Wicked

Job 21:2-6. Job begs his friends to give audience till he speak. This is the consolation he seeks from them meantime; when he has spoken they may mock, if they are able (Job 21:2-3). It is not of men that he complains, it is a deeper divine mystery, at which his flesh trembles when he thinks of it, and which will fill them with astonishment when he discloses it (Job 21:4-6).

But Job answered and said,
Hear diligently my speech, and let this be your consolations.
2. your consolations] They believed they were offering him the consolations of God (ch. Job 15:11); the consolation he seeks from them is that they listen to him.

Suffer me that I may speak; and after that I have spoken, mock on.
3. mock on] This last word is sing. and seems addressed to Zophar the last speaker, whose pictures of the fate of the wicked deeply wounded Job. Having heard his account of the prosperity of the wicked, they shall have leave then to proceed with their bitter taunts and insinuations if they have a mind.

As for me, is my complaint to man? and if it were so, why should not my spirit be troubled?
4. is my complaint to man] Rather, of, or, concerning man. The whole first clause means, Is my complaint about man? my emphatic. The words may express a reason for their listening to him, it is not of them nor of men at all that he complains; it is of another, and of a moral riddle and evil that may well excuse his impatience.

And if it were so … troubled] Rather, or wherefore should I not be impatient? lit. should not my spirit be short?

Mark me, and be astonished, and lay your hand upon your mouth.
5. The mystery which he will lay before them if they will mark it will strike them dumb. To “lay the hand upon the mouth” is a gesture of awe-struck silence, cf. ch. Job 40:4.

Even when I remember I am afraid, and trembling taketh hold on my flesh.
6. When Job himself reflects on it he trembles. When I remember means, When I think of it.

Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power?
7. Wherefore do the wicked live] The question scarcely means, How is it, if your principles be true, that the wicked live? Job’s mind is engrossed with the great problem itself, and he asks, Why in the government of a righteous God do the wicked live? They not only live, they live to old age, and wax mighty in the earth.

7–16. The mystery is, Why do the wicked prosper? They live long, they see their children grow up, and their homes are peaceful (Job 21:7-9). Their cattle thrives (Job 21:10). Their children and they pass a mirthful life with music and dance (Job 21:11-12). And with no pain at last they die, though they had openly renounced God (Job 21:13-15). Yet it is God who bestows this prosperity upon them (Job 21:16).

7–21. This great mystery of the prosperity of the wicked in God’s providence Job now unfolds on both its sides: first, they and all belonging to them prosper, and they die in peace, although in conscious godlessness they bade the Almighty depart from them, Job 21:7-16; and second, negatively, examples of calamity befalling them are few, Job 21:17-21.

Their seed is established in their sight with them, and their offspring before their eyes.
8. They have the additional felicity of seeing their children grow up beside them—a pathetic touch from the hand of the man whose sons had been taken from him.

Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them.
9. Not merely themselves and their children but their homes and all in them are full of peace—another allusion to the rod of God which had fallen on all belonging to Job.

Their bull gendereth, and faileth not; their cow calveth, and casteth not her calf.
10. Their cattle thrives—no failure or barrenness assails them.

They send forth their little ones like a flock, and their children dance.
11. Their children, numerous like the flock and happy like the lambs, skip in their glee and sport.

They take the timbrel and harp, and rejoice at the sound of the organ.
12. And they themselves pass their days in gladness, surrounded with all the charms of life.

They take the timbrel] Rather, they sing to, i. e. to the accompaniment of, the timbrel and the lute; lit. they lift up the voice, cf. Psalm 49:4. The timbrel is the tambourine.

the sound of the organ] Rather, of the pipe, Genesis 4:21, cf. Isaiah 5:12.

They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave.
13. in wealth] i. e. weal, prosperity. The word has not here its modern meaning of riches, but its older, more general sense:—“in all time of our tribulation, in all time of our wealth … good Lord deliver us.” The Litany.

to the grave] Heb., to Sheol. They die in a moment without pain—there are no bands in their death, Psalm 73:4. This idyllic picture of a joyous untroubled life, rich in possessions and filled with all that gives a charm to existence, and having a peaceful close, forms the counterpart to the picture drawn by the friends of the troubled conscience, Job 15:20, the early death, Job 20:11, the childless solitariness, Job 18:19, and the disastrous end, Job 20:24, of the wicked man.

Therefore they say unto God, Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways.
14, 15. All this joy and prosperity they enjoyed though they had bidden God depart from them and renounced His service.

Therefore they say] Rather, though (lit. and) they said. Their godlessness was not merely that of passion, it was almost formal and reasoned. Coverdale’s rendering of the words, Who is the Almighty? is quaint and vigorous, “What maner of felowe is the Almightie that we shulde serve him?”

What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? and what profit should we have, if we pray unto him?
Lo, their good is not in their hand: the counsel of the wicked is far from me.
16. Finally Job adverts to the mystery: this prosperity of theirs does not depend upon themselves, it is not of their own making; it comes from another, from God. God prospers the wicked, and Job had elsewhere said that He mocked at the despair of the innocent, Job 9:23.

the counsel of the wicked is far] Or, perhaps, the counsel of the wicked be far from me! Having drawn in such attractive colours the prosperity of the wicked, a prosperity given from the hand of God, Job, even in the midst of his own misery, which is also from God, cannot refrain from repudiating their principles—far be from me the counsel (see ch. Job 10:3, Job 18:7) of the wicked, cf. ch. Job 22:18. The above seems the most simple and effective way of understanding this verse. Others take it as an objection of the three friends, which Job anticipates and answers; Lo! say ye, their good is not in their own hand; the meaning being that they cannot retain it, they have no certainty of tenure of it, it will speedily desert them (Hitzig). To this Job is then supposed to reply in the following verses: How often, then, is it seen to desert them? This gives a very good sense.

How oft is the candle of the wicked put out! and how oft cometh their destruction upon them! God distributeth sorrows in his anger.
17–21. The negative side of his theme is now illustrated by Job. In Job 21:7-16 he shewed that the wicked enjoy great, life-long prosperity; now he shews that they are free from calamity; such sudden and disastrous visitations of God do not come upon them as the friends incessantly insisted on. The interrogation, How often? means, What examples can be produced of such a thing? and goes to the end of Job 21:18.

17.  How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?

And how often doth their destruction come upon them,

And God distribute sorrows in his anger?

18.  How often are they as stubble before the wind

And as chaff that the storm carrieth away?

The A. V., by making How oft! an exclamation, gives a sense the opposite of that expressed by the speaker. The question in the first clause of Job 21:17 runs athwart Bildad’s assertions ch. Job 18:5-6, The light of the wicked shall be put out; the second clause contradicts ch. Job 18:12; with the third clause compare ch. Job 20:23.

The images in Job 21:18 are familiar for utter destruction. They are taken from the threshing-floor, which was high and open that the force of the wind might be caught in winnowing, cf. Psalm 1:4; Isaiah 17:13.

They are as stubble before the wind, and as chaff that the storm carrieth away.
God layeth up his iniquity for his children: he rewardeth him, and he shall know it.
19–21. A conceivable objection, and its answer by Job. The verses read,

19.  God (say ye) layeth up his iniquity for his children.—

Let him recompense it unto himself, that he may know it;

20.  Let his own eyes see his destruction,

And let him drink of the wrath of the Almighty;

21.  For what concern hath he in his house after him,

When the number of his months is cut off?

To his argument that the wicked suffer no calamities Job supposes that his friends may object, founding on the old doctrine of retribution, that if the man himself do not suffer, his children shall be visited for his iniquity (Exodus 20:5); and his answer is, Let the man himself suffer. The expression “that he may know it” means “that he may feel it.”

The word “concern” means “pleasure” as A. V., but also, interest in, care for; so Coverdale, For what careth he what become of his household after his death? The phrase “when the number of his months is cut off” means, when his life is ended. The words might also mean, when the (full) number of his months is dealt out, distributed to himself—when his own life is prolonged to its full measure. But it is not necessary to regard the wicked man as so abandoned as to be destitute of interest in his children even in his life-time, and indifferent to their fate provided his own days be prolonged. Job’s objection to the doctrine that a man’s iniquity is visited on his children is that this is no punishment of the wicked man himself, for he hath no concern in or knowledge of his children’s fate after his death (ch. Job 14:21). From the Prophetic Books of this age it appears that the ancient doctrine of retribution, the doctrine that the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge (Ezekiel 18:2), had begun to awaken questionings, cf. Jeremiah 31:29 seq., and in this book such doubts are, naturally, brought to a point.

His eyes shall see his destruction, and he shall drink of the wrath of the Almighty.
For what pleasure hath he in his house after him, when the number of his months is cut off in the midst?
Shall any teach God knowledge? seeing he judgeth those that are high.
22. The emphasis falls on God—Shall any teach knowledge unto God? The principles of providence insisted on by the friends were not those according to which God’s actual providence was administered. They were substituting their principles for His.

seeing he judgeth] The clause emphasises the word God: Shall any teach knowledge unto God—God who judges those that are high? “Those that are high” are the inhabitants of the heavens; and to “judge” means to decide in regard to, to bring His judicial power to bear upon; the word does not mean to condemn. God judges the heavens, and shall one teach Him how to rule the affairs of earth? Cf. ch. Job 22:13.

22–26. By insisting on a doctrine of providence which did not correspond to God’s providence as actually seen in facts, Job’s friends were making themselves wiser than God and becoming His teachers—Will any teach knowledge unto God? Shall we insist on His method of government being what it plainly is not? This is what it is: One man dieth in his full prosperity,—wholly at ease and quiet. Another man dieth in the bitterness of his soul and has not tasted pleasure. They lie down alike in the dust and the worm covers them. Their different fortune is not determined by their different character. The one is not good and the other wicked. But God distributes to them as He chooses.

One dieth in his full strength, being wholly at ease and quiet.
23. in his full strength] lit. in his very perfection, or completeness, meaning, in the full enjoyment of all that made his lot complete, wanting nothing—as the second clause explains.

His breasts are full of milk, and his bones are moistened with marrow.
24. His breasts are full of milk] Perhaps, his vessels are full of milk; but the meaning is uncertain, the word rendered “breasts” not occurring again. The word however has analogies in the cognate languages, and may mean vessels, or troughs, marg. milk-pails, the reference being to the plenty and richness of the man’s herds and possessions, though this is a figure for plenty in general. By a slight alteration in spelling the word “milk” means fat, and the ancient versions so read, translating, his inwards, or sides, are full of fat.

his bones are moistened with marrow] Rather, and the marrow of his bones is moistened, lit. watered, i. e. made fresh and strong. If the first clause be translated with the ancient Versions this clause is parallel in sense; otherwise, it describes the effect of his plenty on the man himself.

And another dieth in the bitterness of his soul, and never eateth with pleasure.
25. A different history; cf. Job’s words of himself, ch. Job 3:20, Job 7:11.

never eateth with pleasure] Rather, and hath not tasted (lit. eaten) of good.

They shall lie down alike in the dust, and the worms shall cover them.
26. Wholly different in life the two are alike in death; cf. Ecclesiastes 2:15 seq.

They shall lie down] They lie down. Similarly, the worms cover.

Behold, I know your thoughts, and the devices which ye wrongfully imagine against me.
27. Job knows the covert meaning that lies under his friends’ talk of the fate of the wicked man.

27–34. Finally, still pursuing his argument, Job turns to the insinuations of his friends against himself, which lie under their descriptions of the fate of the wicked. He knows what they mean when they say, Where is the house of the prince? But their conclusions were against the testimony of those who had travelled far and seen much. These testified that the wicked man was preserved in the day of destruction; that he came to an honoured grave, and the clods of the valley lay softly on him; and that his example, so far from being shunned, was followed by the mass of men, as there were multitudes that preceded him in the way he walked.

For ye say, Where is the house of the prince? and where are the dwelling places of the wicked?
28. house of the prince] “Prince” here perhaps in a bad sense like the classical “tyrant,” cf. Isaiah 13:2.

the dwelling places of the wicked] Or, the tents in which the wicked dwelt, lit. the tent of the dwellings of the wicked. The question, Where is the house of the prince? implies that it has been swept away and has disappeared.

Have ye not asked them that go by the way? and do ye not know their tokens,
29. them that go by the way] The travellers; here those who have travelled far, or come from a distance, and are full of experience.

do ye not know their tokens] Or, regard. Their “tokens” are no doubt the proofs, or examples which they bring forward. The word “regard,” or have respect to, is so used ch. Job 34:19. In other places it means “not to acknowledge,” to repudiate; with this sense the meaning would be, and ye will not (surely) reject their tokens.

29, 30. Travellers give a different account of the fate of the wicked; they tell that he is spared in the day of destruction:

29  Have ye not asked them that go by the way,

And do ye not regard their tokens,

30  That the wicked is spared in the day of destruction,

That they are led forth in the day of wrath?

That the wicked is reserved to the day of destruction? they shall be brought forth to the day of wrath.
30. they shall be brought forth to] Rather, they are led forth in, i. e. led away in safety from the destroying wrath, parallel to “spared” or withholden, in the first clause; cf. Isaiah 55:12 (led forth), or “conducted,” Psalm 45:14.

Who shall declare his way to his face? and who shall repay him what he hath done?
31. The person spoken of in this verse seems most naturally the wicked man. It is doubtful however whether the testimony of the travellers is here still carried on, or whether the present words are not those of Job himself. The history of the evil man is proceeded with: his power makes him irresponsible and extorts the homage of men, who do him honour in death (Job 21:32). Others suppose the verse to be spoken of God, in which case the words are almost parenthetical, the history of the sinner being resumed in Job 21:32. If said of God the verse refers to the inscrutable dealings of His omnipotent power (Job 21:30), dealings against which the moral sense of mankind reclaims indeed, but of what avail are the reclamations of the moral sense against omnipotence? cf. ch. Job 9:12, Job 23:13. The language, however, seems less appropriate if spoken of God.

Yet shall he be brought to the grave, and shall remain in the tomb.
32. Yet shall he be brought] Rather, and he is carried, as above. Comp. ch. Job 10:19, where Job uses the same language of his own burial. The word is that used in Job 21:30 (led forth, cf. reff.), and suggests the pomp and slow solemnity of his interment.

shall remain in the tomb] Rather, as above, keep watch over his tomb, lit. his heap (ch. Job 5:26 of a heap of sheaves), meaning the monument raised over him. This may have been first a heap of stones, but naturally the word might be used in a wider sense of any sepulchral monument. This is watched against desecration. In the Sidonian inscription on the tomb of Eshmun‘azar that monarch utters deep curses against any who shall violate his grave. Instead of “they keep watch” others render “he watches,” considering the reference to be to the effigy of the deceased graven upon his sarcophagus. The practice of making such an effigy was common in Egypt, and the Author of the Book might be familiar with it. But the practice was not unknown elsewhere. The sarcophagus of Eshmun’azar has such an effigy, the inscription of 22 lines being cut upon the breast and body of the figure, and again in part around the head. The Author of the Book is fond of alluding to customs and things not specifically Hebrew. At the same time, whether we render “they watch over,” or “he watches upon,” the words might be used in a less precise sense, meaning in the one case that they looked with respect or reverence to his place of sepulture, and in the other that his memory and life were perpetuated in the monument upon his tomb.

32, 33. The wicked man is buried in honour; and his example followed.

32  And he is carried to the grave,

And they keep watch over his tomb;

33  The clods of the valley are sweet unto him;

And all men draw after him,

As there were innumerable before him.

The clods of the valley shall be sweet unto him, and every man shall draw after him, as there are innumerable before him.
33. After life’s fever he sleeps well. Eurip. Alces. 462,

κούφα σοι

χθὼν ἐπάνω πέσειε γύναι.

Sit tibi terra levis, Light fall the dust upon thee.

draw after him] The prosperous wicked man has innumerable successors and imitators, just as he was preceded by countless others whom he resembled, Ecclesiastes 4:15-16.

How then comfort ye me in vain, seeing in your answers there remaineth falsehood?
34. Job feels he has refuted the theories of his friends in regard to the pretended calamities and misery of the wicked man, whether in life or death. Hence their attempts to comfort him by this line of thinking are vain.

there remaineth falsehood] i. e. there is left (only) falsehood. When Job’s proofs to the contrary are subtracted from the answers of his friends, there is left in them only the wrongful, false disposition they shew towards him.

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