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205. Job 20:1-3, Zophar’s Introductory Words

 

1 Then Zophar the Naamathite answered,

2 “Therefore my disquieting thoughts make me respond,

   Even because of my inward agitation.

3 I listened to the reproof which insults me,

   And the spirit of my understanding makes me answer.

We might usefully divide Zophar’s second speech as follows:

 

20:1-3, Zophar’s Introductory Words

20:4-11, The Fate of the Wicked, Part I

20:12-23, The Poisonous Bite of Asps and Cobras

20:24-29, The Fate of the Wicked, Part II

 

There will be more than four essays in what follows, and so each of the subsections will be divided further in what follows.

 

As I have written elsewhere about this speech, Zophar’s opening words won’t win him the Nobel Prize for Clarity, even though we can discern in verses 2-3 a tone both of pique and urgency. One might have thought that Zophar would have begun with some words commending Job for his eloquence. Something like, ‘Hey, man, though I disagree with you, that Redeemer stuff was really powerful. I bet people will long remember it!’ After all, Job’s words in 19:23-27 are among the most memorable words he utters, still resounding powerfully down the corridors of time. But Zophar is in no mood for commendation. The fact that he doesn’t commend Job not only reflects the literary convention of our author not explicitly to tie speeches to their predecessors but also points to the sad reality in life that sometimes when we are doing our best work even our closest friends or companions don’t recognize it. We may be alone in our brilliant thoughts. At least that is how Job may have felt here.

 

Zophar’s opening word is laken, consisting of a preposition and an adverb. Its meaning is “so, thus, therefore.” Some have rendered it as an insistent plea for a hearing, as the NRSV (“Pay attention!”), but I concur with the NASB’s “Therefore.” I see the word as an attempt to express continuity with 19:29. Job had just used the word “judgment,” no doubt thinking of the fate of the friends, and then Zophar says, “Therefore. . .” as if he will flawlessly pick up the theme of judgment in his speech. He actually does this, beginning in verse 4, even if the word for judgment isn’t used. Job speaks of judgment (19:29). . .therefore (20:1). . .judgment it will be (20:4-29). The target of the judgment, however, is quite different in both speeches.  

 

We don’t know precisely how to translate the next two words of verse 2. Literally, we have “my thoughts make me return.” Most take that to that mean, “My thoughts compel me to speak,” and I can live with that. Many scholars also take the word “thoughts” (saiph, 3x) as “anxious” or “troubled” thoughts, because one other appearance of the term is where Elijah accuses the prophets of Baal of having “divided (troubled) thoughts” (I Kings 18:21), but I am a minimalist here. The second clause of verse 2 is likewise opaque. It seems to connect with the first thought by adding, “on account of my chush in me.” The two most likely renderings of chush are “hurry/urgency” or “feeling/(inward) agitation.” Scholars with far more patience than I go into long explanations for each of the four possible combinations of anxious thought/thought with hurry/feeling/inward agitation but I think that Zophar is just giving us a hint that though his major point will be clear (the wicked get clobbered), he will lay on us all kinds of unexpected and difficult-to-render minor phrases. I take it to mean here that Zophar feels he is pressured or in a hurry to get his thoughts expressed. 

 

Verse 3 is no better. Again we have, word-for-word, “I will hear the discipline of my humiliation,” and “the spirit (emerging from) my understanding causes me to answer.” The first part no doubt means that he has been listening to Job’s words that cast aspersions on Zophar or have humiliated him, and now he feels he has to respond. We don’t know if he is referring especially to the words of judgment of 19:28-29 or Job’s response to Zophar’s first speech (Job 11) in Job 12-13. It really doesn’t matter. Zophar feels shamed by Job’s words, and shame will speak. But it will be a spirit that speaks “from my understanding” (mibbiynatiy), an unusual phrase (that is, spirit "from my understanding”) that gives the impression that Zophar’s response, though motivated by shame and not a little anger, is going to be primarily driven by “understanding.” The word derives from bin, a central wisdom virtue. Zophar will claim to be maintaining his cool, speaking with wisdom-induced perception, as he speaks of judgment (vv 4-21). Introduction over—let's now get to the judgment!