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217. Job 21:14-21, The Arrogance of the Wicked
14 “They say to God, ‘Depart from us!
We do not even desire the knowledge of Your ways.
15 Who is the Almighty, that we should serve Him,
And what would we gain if we entreat Him?’
16 Behold, their prosperity is not in their hand;
The counsel of the wicked is far from me.
17 How often is the lamp of the wicked put out,
Or does their calamity fall on them?
Does God apportion destruction in His anger?
18 Are they as straw before the wind,
And like chaff which the storm carries away?
19 You say, ‘God stores away a man’s iniquity for his sons.’
Let God repay him so that he may know it.
20 Let his own eyes see his decay,
And let him drink of the wrath of the Almighty.
21 For what does he care for his household after him,
When the number of his months is cut off?
This segment, apart from verse 16, is fairly clear. Job emphasizes both the confidence or arrogance of the wicked, who declare they have no need for God (vv 14-15), as well as his own desire that the wicked will experience judgment (vv 17-21). The latter point is important to note. Just because Job believes that God’s moral rule of the universe is upside down doesn’t mean that he wants it that way. He, like the friends, would like to see the wicked put in their place. The only problem is that God seems either powerless or unwilling to do this.
We begin, then, with the wicked’s arrogant indifference to God. Either while they are in the midst of their raucous parties (vv 11-12) or after they have all calmed down, they decide to speak to God. Yet their address to God isn’t in the form of a prayer or supplication for help. Rather, they say, “Depart from us! We have no pleasure in the knowledge of your way” (v 14). The sentence is as jarring as it is clear and needs little comment. It is almost as if the wicked have taken a page from Job’s playbook, where he earlier had requested of God that God “cease” from him (10:20). The wicked’s prosperity and fruitfulness seems unrelated to a blessing of God. So, why not ask God to depart from them?
The concepts of departing and pleasure, using the same words of sur and chaphets, also appear in close proximity in Psalm 37. But everything is different there. “It is from/of the Lord that the steps of a human are established” (kun, the same verb used to describe the wicked’s “establishing” their way in Job 21:8); “He (God) delights in his/her way (using the same chaphets, as well as derek, in Job 21:14). God delights in human ways in Psalm 37; the wicked find no delight in divine ways in Job 21. But there is more. In Psalm 37:27, God urges people to “depart” (sur, same verb as in Job 21:14) from evil and do good. In Job 21, the wicked urge each other to “depart” (sur) from God. The pleasant universe of the author of Psalm 37 has been turned upside down by the wicked.
Verse 15 continues the thought of the preceding verse. With brazen words that the faithful would be loath to utter, the wicked ask, “What is Shaddai/the Almighty that we should serve him? What profit is there in approaching/praying to him?” The first question of this verse sounds perilously close to Pharaoh’s sardonic question of Moses and Aaron in Exodus 5:2, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” Pharaoh received his comeuppance in short order; Job wishes that the wicked, too, would likewise be schooled. The second question invites closer consideration. The wicked, who no doubt spend most of their lives thinking of (economic) profit, easily transfer that concept into the theological realm. The verb “profit” is yaal (23x) and primarily appears in Isaiah and Jeremiah (15/23 appearances), though Job uses it four times. It is sometimes used in reference to economic gain, but usually it refers simply to a benefit in life. What benefit is it, really, that one worships idols?, Habbakuk asks (2:18). In Job 21:15, the wicked want to know what benefit or profit “approaching/praying" (paga, 46x) to God yields. There are lots of words for “praying” in Hebrew, but Job chooses one that usually means “to meet” (Genesis 32:1; Exodus 5:20) or arrive/come to a place (Genesis 28:11). It appears in the ancient Hebrew law code in the regulation about “meeting” or “encountering” an enemy’s ox that has strayed (Exodus 23:4). It more rarely means “pray,” such as in Jeremiah 7:16 or Ruth 1:16. Jeremiah 7:16 gives us a primer on language for prayer: “Therefore don’t pray (hithpael of palal) for this people nor lift up a cry or prayer (nasa rinnah, tephillah) nor make intercession (paga) to me…” Perhaps the wicked of Job 21 are now so secularized in their approach to life that they can’t even bring themselves to use the usual words for “prayer” as they contemplate God.