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211. Job 20:21-23, A Few More Words on Judgment

 

21 Nothing remains for him to devour,

   Therefore his prosperity does not endure.

22 In the fullness of his plenty he will be cramped;

   The hand of everyone who suffers will come againsthim.

23 When he fills his belly,

   Godwill send His fierce anger on him

 

If I were Zophar I would have given up by now. But one thing we learn about all of the speakers in Job is that they don’t mind carrying on long after we think they should have shut up. Zophar even seems to rise to a mini-peroration in verse 21, where he says, “Nothing remains for him to eat; therefore, his well-being will not endure.”  If truth be told, however, and if I were a wicked person, I would have lost all appetite for food, knowing that there would be poison in it or that I would just end up disgorging it. But the problem this creates for the wicked is that he will begin to be hungry.


The word I translate as “noting left” is really “nothing survives,” and the choice of sarid (literally, “survivor”) might be felicitous. The wicked is on the brink of perishing, and nothing “left” means, really, that he won’t be a “survivor” of the wickedness he has perpetrated. The second half of verse 21 uses the verb chul to express the thought of something persevering (in this case his “good” won’t last/persevere), though chul  can also be rendered “to be in anguish, whirl, dance, wait, tremble, pierce/be wounded, fall/rest upon, give birth.” It is among the most multi-purpose verbs in the Bible. Eliphaz used the word in 15:20 to describe how the wicked “is in anguish/writhes” all his days; here it seems to mean that the prosperity/good (the common word tob) of the wicked will not last.


Verse 22 confuses us, even though some meaning might be gleaned from it.  Perhaps the best way to look at it is to connect it with verse 23 by the use of the verb male,“to be full” at the beginning of both verses.  As we saw, the wicked will be going hungry in verse 21, but this hunger is transmuted into a fullness—of judgment—in verses 22 and 23. That is a nice literary touch. This will be the kind of “fullness” in verse 22 that will cause distress. It is either a fullness of self-sufficiency or a fullness of mockery; no one is quite sure how to render the rare sepheq in verse 22. If it is derived from the verb saphaq (10x, “to clap/slap”), it might suggest the clapping of hands in mockery and judgment which we will see in Job 27:23.Yet it seems to makes most sense in the context if it is in the fullness of his (so-called) self-sufficiency where he meets distress. The second half of the verse then follows—“Every kind of misery will attend him.” The text literally says that “Every hand” of misery  will come upon him. Clines neatly cleans it up by rendering it, “When in full abundance, he is suddenly thrown into distress, all the strength of misfortune assails him.” Though one can come up with a passable or even elegant English rendering of the verse, my preference is to keep the jagged nature of the original as I try to get at meaning. 

 

The movement of the last verse of this subsection (v 23) is from the outside to the insides of the wicked person. We begin with the same verb that began verse 22 (male,“to fill”). In the previous verse, the “fullness” of the wicked person really showed the straits  or the “emptiness” (yetser) he confronted. Now that “fullness” will be in his belly (beten, as in v 20).  

 

But, if we think about Zophar’s image for just a second, we see its ludicrousness and unhelpfulness. He has just finished describing, in somewhat gory details, how the wicked can’t hold anything in his stomach—he vomits everything (vv 15, 18). The vomiting theme is important for Zophar because it connects directly to the poison of asps passages of verses 14 and 16. The wicked person is one who can’t keep anything in the stomach. He has no quietness within (v 20), probably because his stomach is constantly rumbling and disgorging things.

 

Now, as we conclude the mini-section, we find that God is somehow “filling” him with things. One might argue that once the wicked person is emptied of all the potentially good things in life (riches, chayil, v 15), then he is ripe for being filled up with the judgment of God, but Zophar’s language isn’t elegant enough to make that clear. Let’s try to translate verse 23:

 

            “It shall be for the filling of his belly. He (God) shall cast in him his fierce anger;

            and rain shall come upon him into his loins/as his food.”  

 

The verse is obscure; Clines, for example, has six explanatory notes in order to try to understand the ten Hebrew words. Seow has an impressive digression on the final rare word lechum, which is either derived from the root for “food/bread” or “war,” even though the only other place where it appears in the Bible (Zephaniah 1:17), it appears to mean “flesh.” In my judgment, if any meaning might be descried here it is in connecting the first verb (male) with a succession of prepositions or nouns that each take us further “inside” the wicked person. 

 

Recall, however, that the wicked person has just puked his guts out; we are thus a bit surprised to find now that he will be filled. As a matter of fact, we are downright perplexed. Zophar has run out of steam; he needs another image of viciousness to get him out of his verbal doldrums. He will find that image (arrows piercing the wicked person) beginning in verse 24 but, until then, we have to try to make sense of his mumblings.

 

We don’t know what “it” refers to here. Seow, almost alone among interpreters, has rendered it as a jussive: “Let it be for the filling of his belly,” but that doesn’t solve the burning question of the “it.” “It” probably refers to the straits of verse 22. In these straits there shall be a fullness in the belly. We are confident that has no meaning, but the noun is important—this has to do with his belly. We are inside the wicked person. Then, God “sends” (the common shalach) the fierceness (charon 41x) of the divine wrath (aph, common word) “in him” (bo). Most interpreters render the bo as “against him,” but it can just as easily be rendered “in,” and it fits the interiority of the verse.  

 

So, once the wicked has spewed out his riches, God will fill him with the fierce divine anger. The verse concludes with a three-word phrase about rain both coming upon something and into something. That is, the prepositions in the final two words are somewhat contradictory. Rain definitely falls “upon” the wicked (aleymo), but then the rain somehow ends up “in his lechum,” which either means his bread/food or his hostility or, as I have it, following the BDB, his insides/intestines. If the final suggestion is correct, we have the weird picture of the rain not just falling on the wicked but into the wicked. Perhaps he has his mouth open and is looking skyward as it rains. Don’t put such an idea past Zophar; he could easily be saying that. Clines and Seow solve the problem by taking the three base Hebrew letters—l-ch-m—in different ways from me and from each other. It is a fitting way to close my treatment of an utterly unimpressive six verses.