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157. Job 19:20-35 Moving on To Judgment, Essay One
Eliphaz now unleashes a tirade against the wicked person. Is he referring to Job when he describes the fate of the wicked person? Commentators are adamant—on both sides of the question! Some say Job certainly is in view; other say Job definitely is not in view. If we recognize that Eliphaz is largely using a thematic speech already prepared by someone else for another context, we almost see Eliphaz saying, ‘Here is a speech on the fate of the wicked. Try it on for size, Job!’ David Clines argues persuasively that the speech reflects the entire life course of the wicked person; Clines, therefore, is disinclined to see it pointing specifically to Job. I see it as a kind of, ‘If the shoe fits, wear it’-type of speech. Though Eliphaz develops a unique vocabulary here by and large, occasionally his language picks up on words used previously by Job.
We begin with a violent image in verse 20. The first part is easy to translate, but the second is rather opaque.
“The wicked person writhes all day long.”
The verb that moves the action here is chul, a 60x-appearing word that can mean “to begin” or “to be in anguish” or “to wait patiently” or “to writhe” or even “to dance.” Surely writhing in pain is in view here. It is a shocking and powerful verb, the same word used to describe Esther’s painful reaction when when she received devastating news about the treatment of her kinsman Mordecai (Esther 4:4). It is used in parallelism with ragaz(“to tremble”) in Deuteronomy 2:25.
Thus, the opening thought is that wicked people, whether or not Job is included, “writhe in pain” all their days. The second half is more difficult. Word-for-word we have,
“And the number of years is hidden/laid up as treasure to/for the oppressor.”
Some translators see this as suggesting that the number of years remaining for the wicked (i.e., the “oppressor”) is numbered or limited. Some reach the same conclusion but place the second part of the verse in apposition to the first: “the wicked suffers torment all his days, the ruthless person through all the years stored up for him. . .” Seow, ever the confident translator, sees the two statements saying the same thing, but with a chiastic construction: “the wicked man trembles all his days; the number of years stored up for the ruthless.” The wicked man, thus, is the ruthless person.
However one renders the second part, one has Eliphaz’s oracle beginning with the curious statement about the current pain of the wicked person. Such a person, rather than seemingly enjoying the fruit of a wicked life, is (secretly?) already experiencing great torment. That we have not misunderstood Eliphaz is confirmed by verse 21:
“The voice/sound of terror/fear is in his ears; in peace (i.e., while he is at peace) the destroyer comes upon him.”
Now these words may strike close to home for Job. Eliphaz uses the words “In peace (shalom is the word), the marauder/destroyer (shadad, 57x, means “to destroy), comes upon him." That is, the wicked, though he might be writhing on the ground in pain, is really “in peace” and in that situation of peace, the destroyer comes upon him. Can we hear more than an echo of that in Job’s next speech, when he says, “I was at ease (shalev) and the Lord broke/shattered me” (16:12)? Job will deny, of course, that he is a wicked person, but he may have found something in Eliphaz’s overcharged rhetoric that he found attractive to apply to himself. Yet, Eliphaz is going one direction and Job is going in another. . .
But we ought not let go of the seeming contradiction between verses 20 and 21. In verse 20 we have a picture of the haggard, pain-riddled wicked person. The torments he currently experiences may be both mental and physical, but he is “writhing.” Perhaps because of commentators’ embarrassment at facing the implications of that word, many have “softened” it, to “tremble” or even “to be worried.” I can’t go there. “Writhing” is the meaning of the verb chul.This approach to the current life of the wicked generally goes against the dominant Biblical approach which states that the wicked enjoy prosperity now, but their prosperity is only ephemeral because God has stored up judgment for them. After all, if the wicked are suffering terribly now and in the future,why would any sane person choose to be a wicked person?
You can imagine the pitch of recruiters for the cause of wickedness, if the life of the wicked is as described by Eliphaz in 15:20:
‘I call you to a rough calling today. It will be painful now; you will writhe in pain, both physical and mental. Nothing will work out for you. But, guess what? That is only the prelude. Your children will be upset; your houses will be lost; the pain of broken relationships and violence you experience will be enormous. And, then, you have the grisly possibility of hell to look forward to, where things will even be worse.’
Don’t you think that such a pitch would face strong recruiting headwinds?