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156. Job 15:17-35, Judgment Time

 

17 “I will tell you, listen to me;

    And what I have seen I will also declare;

18 What wise men have told,

    And have not concealed from their fathers,

19 To whom alone the land was given,

    And no alien passed among them.

20 The wicked man writhes in pain all hisdays,

    And numbered are the years stored up for the ruthless.

21 Sounds of terror are in his ears;

    While at peace the destroyer comes upon him.

22 He does not believe that he will return from darkness,

    And he is destined for the sword.

23 He wanders about for food, saying, ‘Where is it?’

    He knows that a day of darkness is at hand.

24 Distress and anguish terrify him,

    They overpower him like a king ready for the attack,

25 Because he has stretched out his hand against God

    And conducts himself arrogantly against the Almighty.

26 He rushes headlong at Him

    With his massive shield.

27 For he has covered his face with his fat

    And made his thighs heavy with flesh.

28 He has lived in desolate cities,

    In houses no one would inhabit,

    Which are destined to become ruins.

29 He will not become rich, nor will his wealth endure;

    And his grain will not bend down to the ground.

30 He will not escape from darkness;

    The flame will wither his shoots,

    And by the breath of His mouth he will go away.

31 Let him not trust in emptiness, deceiving himself;

    For emptiness will be his reward.

32 It will be accomplished before his time,

    And his palm branch will not be green.

33 He will drop off his unripe grape like the vine,

    And will cast off his flower like the olive tree.

34 For the company of the godless is barren,

    And fire consumes the tents of the corrupt.

35 They conceive mischief and bring forth iniquity,

    And their mind prepares deception.”

 

Job 15:17-19 introduces Eliphaz's oracle of judgment. Eliphaz’s long oracle of judgment does several things. First, it provides the clearest indication that the patience of the friends is wearing thin. All three friends had, in the First Cycle of speeches, touched on judgment but they alsofelt that better days were ahead for the “innocent person” (8:20) or for the one whom the Lord disciplined (5:17). Misery would be forgotten (11:16). Confident words ending a speech are an invitation for the conversation to continue so that the contours of that confidence or that future can be discussed and explored. But when the last words of someone’s speech are “evil” and “deceit” (15:35), one has abandoned the quest for finding common ground or understanding.   

 

Second, Eliphaz’s long judgment oracle gives permission to Bildad and Zophar also to dust off their rhetorical skills in this area and see what they can say on judgment. And, boy are they ready for it! Bildad will launch into a scathing seventeen-verse condemnation of the wicked in 18:5-21 and Zophar will even top that, with his twenty-five verse gem in 20:5-29. In fact, they become consumed with the topic of the judgment on the wicked. Once a conversation reaches that point, effective communication has ended. It just becomes literary piling-on, for which a 15-yard penalty might be assessed, but which certainly terminates any semblance of conversation.


Finally, a long judgment oracle shows that the friends have run out of ideas. The irony about speaking eloquently regarding the fate of the wicked is that such a speech at first gives the speaker a tremendous surge of energy, as if s/he can imagine participating in exterminating the wicked or at least deriving joy from watching it happen, but then that surge of energy quickly dries up. Once you have trashed the opponent with choice words, you have run out of things to say; it becomes a struggle even to say a few things about good people. I like to think about Deuteronomy 28 in this connection, where blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience to the covenant are addressed.  Perhaps realizing the psychological reality just described, the author begins with blessings—14 verses. But then, describing the judgment on disobedience takes the author 54 verses. He draws upon wonderful images of desperation, hopelessness and abandonment in these verses, while the 14 verses of blessing are, by contrast, rather bland.  

 

As has frequently been pointed out by scholars, the judgment oracle is probably a topos, or a traditional theme in poetry or literature of antiquity. Those trained in wisdom instruction or in literary pursuits would also be trained in how to formulate and deliver an oracle of judgment. It is just part of the curriculum. There are stock oracles lying around that one can dust off, change here and there and then apply to one’s case at hand. We can imagine a teacher looking at a student and saying, ‘Ok, Noah, 300 words on judgment. . .assume that your army has suffered an unexpected defeat. . .go ahead, right now!’ The best students can draw upon oracles they have studied and then apply those oracle to a situation at hand.  

 

Eliphaz seems to do that here, though one may debate how skillful he is in this. Many of his references are to situations that we can scarcely imagine much less apply to the situation at hand. Some are downright confusing, such as when Eliphaz talks about the constant pains felt by the wicked in this life (vv 20-21). One normally thinks  that a person chooses the life of wickedness because of the (temporary) pleasures that it brings rather than for masochistic motives. . .

 

Eliphaz’a judgment oracle begins with an introduction (vv 17-19). We think this is a long introduction until we run into one ten times that long with Elihu in Job 32-33. That Elihu may have modeled at least the introduction to his longer speech(es) in Job 32-37 on Eliphaz’s oracle here is tantalizingly suggested when we realize that Eliphaz’s rare opening verb in 15:17 (chavah, 6x “to show/tell”) is used three times by Eliphaz in beginning his speech (32:6, 10, 17).  

 

Opening words of such an oracle are meant to set the mood for the somber message which is to come. Eliphaz tells Job that he is speaking not simply on his own authority (v 17) but also on the authority of those who have come before them (v 18).  His introduction concludes with the mysterious words of verse 19.  

 

The tone is matter-of-fact. Verse 17 has six words, four of which are verbs: “I will tell you,” “listen,” “I have seen,” “I will recount.”  Eliphaz immediately establishes his authority. Just has he had “seen” the terrifying night vision in 4:12-16, a vision that gave him authority to speak during the rest of his long speech in Chapters 4-5, so his having seen things here gives him credibility. We also note the euphonious character of two of the four verbs. He will “declare” (chavah) what he has “seen” (chazah). Neither verb is the most common way to say “declare” or “see,” but their joint use leaves a resonant echo in our ears.


Eliphaz doesn’t just appeal to what he has seen or heard; he also appeals to the past in verse 18. This is something which “wise people (chakam) have declared.” It was not “hidden” from their fathers. We have the threefold euphony of chavah, chazah, chakam. All the verbs of verse 17-18, save for the original chavah, appear at least thirty times in the Bible. Eliphaz is laying out in common, clear speech something of great importance which he has seen and the fathers have declared. Before we enter into that world, however, he adds in verse 19,

 

   “to them alone was given the land, and a stranger/sojourner/alien (zur) didn’t pass among them.”  

 

Where did this come from and what might it mean? On the one hand we might just attribute it to Eliphaz’s failure to remove the traces of a stock introduction he had taken over, an introduction that might have set the tone for a longer speech dealing with a continuing claim of some people to some land. But if we assume that Eliphaz uses it intentionally, we pause. Is he trying to suggest, in some form, that Job is a zur, an alien to whom the “land” really doesn’t belong? That, in some way, Job’s “claim” to the land was specious and that, therefore, whatever fate he suffered was, if not deserved, at least understandable?

 

Certainly this seems to be taking the word zur a little too far, but we do note that Job uses this 77x-appearing word four times in his speech in Job 19. Something stuck with Job about this word, and perhaps it is Eliphaz’s unexpected use of it in 15:19.  One of the verses in Job 19 where Job uses zur almost sounds like he uttered it a bit in self-defense: “Those who dwell in my house and my maids count me as a stranger (zur); I have become an alien (nakar) in their eyes” (19:15). Eliphaz seems to be using the reference to “no stranger (zur) passing among them” as a reference to the distant past, imagined by some, where the land belonged to a pure, unmixed group of people. We have no other tradition of the land of Israel, or the land east of the Jordan ever having just one people dwelling in it; yet this has never dissuaded imaginative people from imagining. . .Yet, Job may have heard the word zur as a judgment on his condition. It stung, even if only temporarily.