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207. Job 20:4-11, Judgment, Part I, Essay 2
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.
Zophar really isn’t looking for a debate here. He is stating a point, through a question, that is blindingly obvious to him. The next six verses (vv 6-11) then describe the brief reign of happiness of the wicked person. Zophar uses some effective rhetorical flourishes here, but sometimes he leaves us laughing or even bewildered.
Verse 6 begins in a rhetorically powerful way. We might translate,
“Even if his excellency (the hapax si) rises to the heavens, and his head scrapes/touches the clouds. . .”
We might have expected him to speak of human pride or ambition, using the typical words for it: gaah/gaavah, but he decides on a word (si) no doubt derived from nasa, “to lift up” with a more neutral ring than gaah/gaavah. It might also mean “height” or “loftiness.” It is a great way to describe, without judgment, soaring human ambition. Some have heard an echo here of the soaring ambition of humans in building the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, but there seems to be no literary or theological connection that Zophar makes to that story.
But then Zophar proceeds to undermine his rather eloquent words of verse 6 in verse 7. Such a person, however lofty, shall “perish forever like his dung” (gelel, 4x). The word gelel is no doubt derived from the verb galal, which means to roll out, or roll along. Round things roll. Ah, we have a “ball of dung.” But Zophar is ineffectively mixing metaphors here. He wants to show the immediacy of reversal in the life of the wicked person, but the image of dung may connote worthlessness or shame. Perhaps Zophar also thinks that the wicked are shameful, but he is working on the image of transience. Yet dung wouldn’t even isn’t a good choice to illustrate transience since, as we know, dung is often very long-lasting and is very useful for fertilizer. In his haste to show the shameful condition of the wicked, he has lost his potentially useful image of their brevity. “Perishing like dung” doesn’t pass the smell test of an effective image here.
Because of Zophar’s ineffective use of “dung” in verse 7, the question at the end of verse 7 (“Those who have seen him (roav) ask ‘Where is he?’”) might receive the response, ‘He is piled up with the rest of the dung in a stercorary awaiting spreading in the spring. . .’ But then Zophar returns to eloquence in verses 8-9. Using imagery that is also reflected in the Psalms (73:20), he speaks of humans “flying away like a dream and not being found.” “They fly forgotten as a dream, dies at the opening day” is a famous line from a Christian hymn, though I don’t think that Isaac Watts was quoting Zophar. The second half of verse 8 repeats the thought of the first; “He is chased away as a vision of the night.” The verb here is nadad (28x), “to flee, depart, retreat.” Here it appears in the passive voice. The word for “vision” (chizzayon) appears 9x in the Bible, four of which are in Job. Eliphaz (4:13), Job (7:14) and Elihu (33:15) also use the word.
Zophar’s words so far have been generic. No specific wicked person is in view. Yet in verse 9 we hear more than an echo of Job’s earlier words. I see it as an unmistakable allusion to Job as a wicked person. The words on their face don’t point to Job, “The eye (ayin) which saw him (the rare shazaph, 3x) shall not again see him; nor shall his place look on him (shur, 16x) again.” On one level it is just a way of expressing a similar thought to verse 8, that the wicked will soon perish.
But when we put it alongside Job 7:8, things look different. There Job was saying that his time was quickly running out. His life was a mere breath. Then he says, “The eye (ayin) of one seeing me (roiy) shall see/regard (shur) me no more.” In Job 7:8 Job is speaking of himself. In Job 20:9 (along with the use of “those who see him” from v 7) Zophar is speaking of the wicked. Eyes that see Job will not see him. Eyes that see the wicked will not see him. You do the math. Job will disappear like the wicked, flourishing in great joy for a while, but then perishing like dung. He soared high, indeed, but the eyes of those who see him will not see him anymore. No one will behold his place. Eliphaz had said that he cursed the place/habitation (naveh) of the wicked (5:3); no cursing is needed here, as the place (maqom) of the wicked simply will simply not be seen.
Now that some clarity has been established, accompanied by some soaring rhetoric, Zophar is free to descend into unclarity. He kindly does that for us in verse 10-11. We thought we were talking about the wicked, but now all of a sudden we are speaking about his children. The first clause isn’t clear mostly because the verb ratsah (57x) can mean “seek the favor of, be favorable toward, be pleased with, enjoy.” Often the context helps bring the term into focus, but when we leap a generation here to talk about the wicked person’s children we don’t know if they will seek the favor of the poor (for the bad deeds no doubt perpetrated on them by their wicked parent) or will accept the poor favorably (reversing the behavior of the parent). We don’t know why the children would be going to the poor people in the first place.
So, verse 10 jars us in the first clause and then fully prostrates us in the second clause. It says, “and his hands shall restore/return/relinquish (Clines’ translation)/appease (Seow’s translation) his strength/wealth/vigor.” Are we talking about the kids now or the wicked person, who has suddenly come back to our picture? And what is he doing with the poor? Is he making restitution? If so, he isn’t such a bad guy. Is he giving up his wealth, recognizing the way he treated the poor? Then he also isn’t a bad guy. But he is wicked—that is why he is being judged. Thank you, Zophar, for reminding us that a good portion of the Book of Job is just mindless unclarity, destabilizing us by making us realize that we may have the main points wrong, too. . .
Then, in verse 11, we seem to be back to the wicked, with his children having left us. “His bones are full of youth, but she/you will lie down with him in the dust.” We are totally confused here. If the first part refers to the wicked person’s bones, then for a while he flourishes and is strong (alum is a rare noun meaning “youth/youthfulness”). So, we get the impression that the wicked person is strong. Psalm 73:4-7 said it better. The last clause of verse 11, can either be, “it/she (3rd person feminine) shall lie down with him in the dust” or “you (2nd person masculine) will like down with him in the dust.” Both translations leave us following imaginative trails that probably aren’t helpful now. If, for example, we are to read the verb as a third person singular feminine, we have the sense that the wicked is lying down with some woman, which also might not be a bad idea from his perspective. If it is a second person masculine, we don’t know who the “you” is. Let’s leave it in confusion. Zophar has given us the obligatory two clear thoughts. He is entitled to confuse us.