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206. Job 20:4-11, Judgment, Part I, Essay 1
4 “Do you know this from of old,
From the establishment of man on earth,
5 That the triumphing of the wicked is short,
And the joy of the godless momentary?
6 Though his loftiness reaches the heavens,
And his head touches the clouds,
7 He perishes forever like his refuse;
Those who have seen him will say, ‘Where is he?’
8 He flies away like a dream, and they cannot find him;
Even like a vision of the night he is chased away.
9 The eye which saw him sees him no longer,
And his place no longer beholds him.
10 His sons favor the poor,
And his hands give back his wealth.
11 His bones are full of his youthful vigor,
But it lies down with him in the dust.
We might further subdivide this section into a question in verses 4-5 and then a statement about the fleeting and sad life of a wicked person in verses 6-11. In an eerie sort of way, Zophar’s question in verses 4-5 mirrors Job’s sad statement about the brevity of human life in general in 14:1. Job had said that a human’s life is “short in days and full of trouble”; Zophar would warmly concur with that thought, though applying it to the fate of the wicked.
If we believe that Zophar’s thoughts, divided/conflicted or not (vv 2-3), were a result of Job’s harsh words of 19:29, we see the first words of Zophar’s question in verse 4 as a response to Job’s famous declaration of 19:25. Job had said, “I know. . .” (yada is verb, 19:25); Zophar’s response is “Do you know?” (yada is verb, 20:4). It is a skillful rhetorical trick to shift the focus of the debate. One side says, ‘I know X’ and the other says, ‘Well, but do you know Y?’ Now the focus is on Y and we tend to forget Job’s impassioned statement about his Redeemer.
Like the second speech of both Eliphaz (15:17-35) and Bildad (18:5-21), Zophar’s second speech now turns exclusively to the judgment awaiting the wicked. Once again, Zophar doesn’t want to base his statement simply on his own insight. So he appeals to what the reality of life has been from time immemorial. A paraphrase of his question is, ‘If you go back to “old times” (minniy-ad), or from the time that humans were first on the earth, don’t you realize that one lesson that clearly emerges is that the joyful shout of the wicked lasts only for a short time?’
Zophar poses a question, but it really isn’t a question. It is couched as an appeal to history, but it also really doesn’t care about history. In my own experience, I have frequently seen that those who make sweeping statements about what history “teaches” are those least interested in the study of history and least equipped really to take us through the events of the past. They see the purpose of the human story as imparting a few moralistic lessons to us, lessons that are seemingly so obvious that actual citation of instances is unnecessary. An appeal to history, without citation, then becomes a way of reinforcing a doctrine that for some other reason seems reasonable to you.
In this case the doctrine that seems reasonable for Zophar is the brevity of the wicked’s joy. He expresses this brevity in neatly balanced phrases in verses 4-5. The word for joy is renanah, only appearing three times in that form, but derived obviously from the 54x-appearing verb ranan, “to shout/shout for joy.” Job had used renanah once previously where, after cursing the day of his birth, he wanted no “joyful shout” to enter into it (3:7). This shout of joy in the first part of 20:5 is mirrored by the simchah, “gladness” of the final clause.
Whereas the joy was experienced by the “wicked” (rasha) in the first clause, the “hypocrite” (chaneph) feels it in the second clause. Most of the appearances of chaneph in the Bible (8/13) are in Job. Lots of hypocrite-talk in Job. All of the human speakers in Job use the word chaneph (“hypocrite/godless”) with Job using it thrice and Elihu twice. The joy of the hypocrite is qarob, which normally points to closeness in distance, but here, because of the parallel thought in the final clause, no doubt means short in duration. It is, literally, “to an instant/moment” (adey-rega). Zophar’s question to Job is a rhetorical one, “Don’t you really know X” really means that “any fool knows X.” It is obvious, needing no proof, a lesson screaming to us from the beginning of time.
Job might have agreed that the joy of the wicked was of short duration, but his response probably would have been that the joy of everyone is short. Life is short, prosperity is uncertain, family life can be taken away from you at any instant, sickness and infirmity can come unbidden in a moment. That is how Job might have wanted to respond. He wouldn’t have been alone. Doesn’t one of the most glorious Psalms say it similarly?
“You sweep them (humans) away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers,” (Psalm 90:5-6).