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210. Job 20:18-23, More Bleak Days Ahead for the Wicked

 

18 He returns what he has attained

   And cannot swallow it;

   As to the riches of his trading,

   He cannot even enjoy them.

19 For he has oppressed andforsaken the poor;

   He has seized a house which he has not built.

20 Because he knew no quiet within him,

   He does not retain anything he desires.

 

This next mini-section is the least satisfying segment, from the perspective of literary elegance and content, of Zophar’s second speech. As we expect, the wicked will suffer, but it isn’t the pain of poison in the bowels or, as we will later see, the searing horror of arrows piercing the body. Here it is humdrum pain, of losing possessions, of opposition by others. We begin with the vomiting theme, though with different words from verse 15, even though here Zophar won’t actually be clear if food is swallowed before it is vomited or not.  

 

As mentioned above, my division of Zophar’s speech is rather arbitrary; he doesn’t gives us the neat and natural breaks as some of the earlier speakers, such as Job in Job 3 or Eliphaz in Job 4-5.  Verse 18 immediately presents us with a problem: does the wicked person actually swallow what is vomited or not? It is not a problem whose answer determines the fate of the free world, but it is a question raised by the text. The general meaning of verse 18 is similar to verse 15, that the wicked will disgorge his possessions, though the individual words present problems. Literally, we have:

 

            “The return of his weariness/what he has labored for he shall not swallow;

             he shall not rejoice at the wealth of his recompense.”

 

Ok, now that we have established that the individual words, in combination, yield no good English sense, we need to massage the translation. The first phrase is unique, consisting of the hiphil of a common verb (shub, to return) and a noun hapax (yaga) which means “weariness,” because we see that it is derived from the verb yaga (26x) which means “to toil” or “grow weary.” But since it is placed in the same half-verse with “and will not swallow” (we have just seen bala, “to swallow,” in v 15), we interpret the verse in connection with the unfortunate human experience of vomiting.

 

So the “return of his weariness” no doubt means the “fruit of his toil shall be returned” or “that for which he labored shall be given back.” Both Seow and Clines no doubt go in the right direction, “That which he labored for shall be given back” (Seow) or “He disgorges the gains” (Clines). Yet even this “clear” translation confuses us because this “giving back” or “disgorging” is done without swallowing (“and he will not swallow”).  Seow has the wicked person giving back that for which he labored, but without swallowing it, while Clines has a person who cannot “keep it swallowed.”  

 

Zophar has led us to a swallowing crisis. The wicked vomits up what he swallows in verse 15; here he apparently disgorges things he has not swallowed, though Clines, recognizing this little conundrum Zophar has created for us, solves it by talking about being unable to “keep” something “swallowed.” The Holy Bible thus encourages us to think more precisely about the experience of swallowing and puking. Good people may differ about whether food ingested was actually swallowed before it came rushing up the wrong way. Some might argue that it has to go beyond a certain esophageal point, and lodge temporarily in the stomach, in order for it to be genuine vomiting, while another might say that even if it touches the back of the throat and then is expelled it counts for vomiting. Zophar reflects this deep division of people on the theory of vomiting. Sometimes, as in verse 15, the wicked person actually swallows things; here he doesn’t actually swallow things, but in both instances the food seems to come rushing back out. Again, when some people get to heaven they might want to ask about the fate of the wicked or the meaning of some event in human history, but I will want to know what constitutes a genuine swallow and vomit. Zophar has led me to want to pose this question.

 

Now that Zophar has confused us in verse 18a, he simply says that the person (that is, the wicked) won’t rejoice (the rare alas, 3x). But the first part of 18b is also confusing. Literally it says, “as the wealth/like the wealth of his recompense/reward (recompense is a noun taken from the verb mur,“to exchange”). We need to read the “like” or “as” as “from,” however, in order for things to make sense. Thus, we get tolerable clarity if we say that the second part of verse 18 means

 

           “And he will not rejoice from the wealth that he has gotten.”

 

It is all a stretch, and when combined with unclarity about whether stuff was actually swallowed, makes us marvel at Zophar rather than try to learn from him.

 

Undeterred, Zophar presses on. We rejoice with exceeding joy, not because the wicked will get their comeuppance, but because Zophar will now make sense—for a few words, at least. Verse 19 reads,

 

            “Because he has oppressed, forsaken the poor. He will not build the house

            he has violently taken away.”

 

We have no idea what this really means, and whether Zophar has anyone specifically in mind as he says this verse, but Eliphaz will also pick up on the “oppress the poor” theme as a shortcoming of Job in chapter 22, and Job defends his treatment of the poor both in Chapters 24 and 29-31. Thus, Zophar may be giving the others a talking point about how the wicked (either in general or applied to Job) oppress the poor.  

 

The Hebrew Bible provides us with a wide vocabulary of oppression. Interesting to me are that three of the verbs translated “to oppress” (lachats, yanah, ratsats (used here)) all appear 19x in the Bible. I doubt if anyone has ever made a big deal of that interesting fact. But ratsats also carries with it a “crushing” meaning, much like the daka in Eliphaz’s mouth in 4:19; 5:4. Ratsats' most memorable usages are in Judges 9:53, where the skull of Abimelech is crushed; Psalm 74:14, where God crushes Leviathan and, most memorably, in Isaiah 42:4, where the Servant of God will not break a crushed/bruised reed.  

 

The wicked also forsake (azab, 211x) the poor, though this is done without an intervening conjunction. Thus, he “crushes forsakes” the poor, though it is reasonable to assume that an “and” is implied between the two verbs. Azab is very common, and was even used by Zophar seven verses previously to talk about the lozenge under the wicked’s tongue—he “forsakes/leaves” it there, while its slow-release poison does its malefic work.  

 

It doesn’t stop there. The wicked have also robbed (gazal, 31x) houses, though one might have thought that using ganab (the verb in the Ten Commandments for “stealing”) would have been more powerful. But gazal also carries with it the idea of violent tearing away or seizing, and that seems to fit here. The wicked person seizes houses which he has not built. In the background we might hear a faint echo of Proverbs 22:16, “Oppressing the poor (dal, same word as in Job 20:19) to enrich oneself. . .will surely lead to poverty.” Our unfortunate wicked person will certainly find that to be true.  

 

Zophar then explains why the wicked seemingly do this. Literally it is “because he didn’t know quiet (shalev) inside his belly” (beten, v 20).  The word beten is especially beloved of Job; nearly one-fourth of its 72 appearances are in Job. But this verse seems to be more of a stock indictment of the wicked than a veiled reference to Job because Job says that he was shalev, or was “at ease” before God shattered/broke him (16:12). Wicked people, in contrast, aren’t at ease. We get the impression that the wicked have a long history of being in dis-ease. 

 

Verse 20 concludes with the thought that “In his greed/desire (chamud, derived from the 28x-appearing verb, chamad, "covet”), he will let nothing escape.” Or, “he will not let go of anything he desires.” We scratch our head. Earlier the pictures were of vomiting which, by definition, means that you let things go. But here stuff is brought in by the wicked and he won’t let it go. But perhaps we could translate the last phrase of verse 20 as, “in his greed he will not escape,” pointing to the wicked person and not his possessions. 

 

The translation funk into which we have descended is well captured by comparing Seow’s and the NASB’s translation of Job 20:20b. The NASB, above, has, “He does not retain anything he desires,” which is consistent with the vomiting theme. He lets it all go; he loses everything. Seow renders the same words, “He does not let go of anything he wants.” Last time I checked, not retaining and not letting go were opposite expressions. Let’s face it, the wicked person is just such a mess in Zophar’s telling, and Zophar contributes to it by his somewhat messy language.