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204. Job 20, Zophar’s Second Speech, Introduction

 

This is a good place to pause to consider the scope and nature of the friends’ speeches thus far. After Job 20, each of the three friends will have spoken twice. Though they sometimes seem only to repeat each other with monotonous regularity, there not only are differences among the friends but also a distinction between the First and Second Cycle of speeches.  

 

To paint things in broad strokes, the friends seem to go from most to least sympathetic (Eliphaz to Zophar) and from encouragement of Job to consider better days (First Cycle) to a brutal recognition of the inevitably painful and multiform disaster awaiting the wicked (Second Cycle).  Eliphaz posited at first that Job’s distress was temporary and was best understood under the wisdom rubric of divine discipline (5:17-27). Bildad and Zophar were more clipped, and more sharp, in their attacks in their first speeches. Yet they also held out hope for Job (8:20-22, Bildad), though that hope was conditioned on Job’s “stretching out hands” to God (i.e., repenting, 11:13-14, Zophar).  

 

Yet, by the time of their Second Cycle speeches (Job 15 for Eliphaz, Job 18 for Bildad, Job 20 for Zophar), things have changed. Gone are references to the divine discipline; gone are cheery and optimistic references to Job’s blessed future state. After the seemingly obligatory opening words of each speech, duly criticizing the windiness or lack of skill of Job’s words (15:2-3, Eliphaz; 18:2, Bildad) or pointing out Job’s defectiveness in thought (15:4-6, Eliphaz; 18:3-4, Bildad), each of the two previous speakers launched into the most vicious and dire warnings regarding the fate of the wicked. We often see hints or more direct reference to Job and his life in these diatribes, but they really are amazing verbal presentations about the miserable fate awaiting the wicked.  

 

We might go one step further: for Eliphaz, this misery has already begun for the wicked. They “writhe in pain all their days” (15:20). Bildad speaks in more general terms of the terrible fate of the wicked, using images of nets (18:8-10), diseases, famine and other ghastly things. Zophar, as we will see in Job 20, is no different. Rather than nets, Zophar seems to have a thing for swords and snakes, which will either pierce the entrails or deposit their venom into the wicked person. The cumulative weight of the warnings against wickedness in the Second Cycle of friends’ speeches is to make us step back and say, ‘Oh, my, why does anyone choose to be wicked?  It is just so obvious that it is an unwise choice!’ We tend to say that, however, through muffled laughter or barely-suppressed smiles.

 

Why muffled laughter or barely-suppressed smiles? Because we can analyze the dynamics of conversation and see what is happening. Friends who believe they possess either a portion or a great deal of the truth (and we all have friends like this; sometimes we are such a “friend”) want to help another friend whose problem may be attended to or even solved by the expertise or truth which the first friend possesses. Thus, if one rather clueless and helpless friend complains about a flat tire and another friend not only has a jack but also a spare and has changed tires previously, the second friend can go from friendly advice to actual provision of help for the clueless friend.

 

The illustration may be perceived as trite. Let’s go deeper. When a friend is going through a personal crisis, new to them, the most helpful thing might be to “get one’s bearings” from more experienced friends. Often if someone can say to us, with confidence, ‘I have seen/experienced this before and this is how it works out,’ we are grateful for such a friend. People will pay a lot of money even to non-friends who tell them these things. Yet we also run into a lot of people who seem not to listen to anything we, as friends, might say. They might be deaf to us for a number of reasons. Perhaps they are shellshocked and immobilized by their pain; perhaps they are arrogant or confident in their own methods of solving their own problems; perhaps no one ever taught them how to listen.

 

But if we feel our friends are going down paths that are harmful to them, and are failing to see some of the basic realities of their situation, we can sometimes become more insistent. Our prolix or friendly or avuncular advice can become brief and minatory. If we are particularly broad-minded, we might say, ‘You don’t have to listen to everything I say, but you are wrong, buddy, and you really need to do X or Y to extricate yourself.’  We struggle with ourselves as we decide the best approach with our erring friend.  


This kind of reality is especially painful if a friend is falling under the power of noxious addictions. It is utterly clear to others what is happening—the affections are being diverted from the healthy channels of family, spouse, friends and work, to the immediate lure of something that induces the most pleasant, but transient and harmful, feelings.  But friends are often powerless to stop the seemingly downward spiral into oblivion. Dire warnings might be interspersed with gentle coaxing, but frustration boils over.  Such a situation is made all the more difficult if the addicted friend is intransigent or has developed an explanation of life that not only provides room for the new addiction but says why it is helpful for life. What do you do with a (former?) friend like this? It sometimes is all you can do to keep from consigning them to their inevitable doom.

 

If we use this as background to understand the friends’ conversation with Job, we can say that they, certainly, believe they have a large portion of the truth. To be clear, they have very good grounds for believing this. They see their friend, Job, in need and want to express hope for his future. But the friend (Job) doesn’t seem to be grateful either for all the time they have taken off work to be with him or for their words when they get together. Rather than thanking them for their love, Job attacks them for their narrowness, their deception, their lack of skill in comforting. To make matters worse, Job begins to play with the sacred categories of the tradition, the TRUTH as they all have received it, and begins to wonder whether these categories are still true. It would be like going into a friend’s house and taking the priceless china from the shelves (the china which was never could be mentioned without the direst warnings to children never to touch it), feeling it and then questioning its genuineness or saying outright that you believed it was a fake. Even broad-minded friends will not accept this kind of treatment.

 

Thus, in my way of reading Job, the focus of the friends’ Second Cycle speeches on judgment rather than rehabilitation or hope, is easily explicable from the nature of human relationships, especially those that were founded on some shared notion of ‘truth’ and the perception that this ‘truth’ is under attack. Zophar will continue the theme of certainty of judgment for the wicked in Job 20. Job no doubt hears Zophar’s speech directed against him, even if Zophar’s references are, in general, just to the wicked. 

 

Two things are especially noteworthy about Zophar’s speech. First is his use of Job’s actual words in 20:9 (Job had used them in 7:8) unmistakably to show that this generic judgment on the wicked applied to Job. Second is his graphic way of depicting the fate of the wicked. Rather than Eliphaz’s hard-to-believe statement that the wicked writhe in pain all their days, or Bildad’s six words for trap into which the wicked will fall and entangle himself, Zophar has the most wonderful image of the wicked’s having a bronze arrow piercing his/her body with the glittering point emerging from the vulnerable gall bladder (vv 24-25). You have to wonder, ‘How does he come up with such a picture?’ It is a strange way to bring a friend back from the brink of physical and intellectual disaster.