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219. Job 21:17-21, Finishing Up On The Wicked’s Arrogance

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?

 

In verses 14-15, Job had just imagined the wicked raising a question to God. Now he is emboldened to ask a few questions about the wicked. Verses 17-18 may be read in two ways, either as two/three questions in verse 17 and one in verse 18 or as two/three questions in verse 17 and a statement in verse 18. It all amounts to about the same thing.  

 

Job has just declared that he wants none of the counsel (etsah is the common term in the wisdom tradition for wise advice) of the wicked (v 16); now he asks why God takes so long before snuffing out the lamp of the wicked. One would think if God favors obedience and judges disobedience that there would be clear enough indications in the world that this is the way that life works. But Job asks, “How/how often is the lamp of the wicked extinguished?” (v 17). The verb rendered “extinguish” is the same rare verb, daak, used twice by Bildad in 18:5, 6.  In that passage Bildad had spoken with great certitude: “Also/surely the light (or in 18:5, rather than the ner, lamp, of 21:17) of the wicked is extinguished.” Job directly confronts Bildad’s optimism with his question in 21:17. In fact, Job seems to be more concerned in Chapter 21 with Bildad’s speech in Job 18 than either Eliphaz’s or Zophar’s most recent speeches (Job 15; 20). It may be that Job perceives Bildad’s speech as the most articulate and challenging of the three, requiring greatest attention.  

 

Bildad had confidently stated that the “light” of the wicked would be extinguished, but Job’s skepticism is reflected in the first question of verse 17, “How often?” Job doesn’t relent. The next question implies a “how often,” as it says “How often do their calamities (ed, 24x, 5x in Job) come upon them?” It really is the same as the first question. But the third question of verse 17 is difficult and unclear. Clines has “that he apportions them destruction in his anger?,” while Seow, our other authoritative source, declines to see it as a question but connects it with the following verse so that it says, “As for measures (God) metes out in his anger. . .” 

 

We can see that we can quickly become mired in the Slough of Translation Despond. I am inclined to see these last three words of verse 17, literally, “cords he distributes/apportions in his anger” as epexegetic, that is as explaining more precisely the question that was just asked. Job had just asked how often destruction comes upon them, that is, (how often) are the cords (of distress) distributed in the divine anger?  The word chebel (62x, “cords” or “region” or “band” or a variety of other things) is neatly linked with distress or death or Sheol in Psalm 18:4, 5. That is how I read it here. Thus, there are really only two questions in verse 17, with the second one being,

 

     “How often does calamity come upon them, with God apportioning in his anger the cords (of            death) for them?”

 

It is a bit strained, but every reading of this possible third question or clause is strained. I see it as consistent, then, with the meaning of the preceding question.

 

I think it is a matter indifferent whether verse 18  is a question or a statement, but I believe it makes slightly more sense to see it as a question— “Will they be like straw (the common teben) before the wind and chaff (the rare mots, 8x) that the storm steals (ganab) away?” The answer assumed is, “No.” Just as the light of the wicked isn’t extinguished, so they really don’t become chaff before the wind. That is, it is unfortunate for Job that the rule of God in the world isn’t manifested clearly enough in the world.  I mused earlier why ganab (to steal) didn’t appear in Zophar’s speech (20:19) when he was talking about stealing. He used gazal instead. Perhaps just as Job’s God is storing up wrath for the wicked (so Job hopes), so the author of Job was storing up ganab for its appearance in 21:18, though the phrase “as the chaff the storm steals” perhaps isn’t the most felicitous phrase in the Book of Job.  

 

Job so wishes that things were different! That is the burden of the next three verses (vv 19-21). Like the friends, Job wishes that the judgment on the wicked would be swift and visible. But what is the reason for delayed judgment? Some may say, “God treasures up the iniquity of his children” (i.e., is storing it up until it reaches the breaking point); Job’s response to that approach is, “Let it be requited to him that he might know” (21:19).

 

Job chooses the verb shalam (often rendered as “to be peaceful” but also “to requite”) to express his desire for the divine judgment to be shown. Earlier in the chapter (v 9) Job used the noun form of that word, shalom, to describe the peace that characterizes the life of the wicked. The dual use of the same root captures Job’s desire that their “peaceful” condition be “requited,” and that destruction should come. The last word in verse 19 (literally, “And he will know”) has no object, but the reader is left to imagine one. What will the wicked “know” when final recompense comes? Perhaps that the way of wickedness was a bad choice or that there is a moral governor in the universe. But in the meantime, the wicked really don’t “know.” All evidence, as Job has just finished showing, points to the opposite conclusion—that there really is no moral force governing the universe.

 

Verse 20 continues the thought of verse 19.

 

     “Let his eyes see his destruction (the hapax kiyd); let him drink (from) the rage of Shaddai.”

 

This verse is an unexpected little gem buried in Job’s long speech. Rather than having the wicked simply “know” something, once their judgment has taken place, Job wants them to “see” something and “taste/drink” something. Job wants the senses fully engaged so that the full contours of the judgment may be felt. Clines has a marvelously learned note on the hapax kiyd before concluding that the traditional translation of it as “ruin” or “destruction” is ok. Of course the biblical authors were probably not aware as they were writing that they were selecting a unique word (‘Hmm. . let me choose a hapax here. . .’), but one wonders sometimes about the appearances of hapaxes—whether the word in fact was more widely known but just uniquely used in the text under consideration or whether the author truly was inventing something new. In this case the meaning of “ruin” or “destruction” is suggested because of the parallelism with “wrath” in verse 20b.  

 

Job doesn’t want to see the wrath of God stored up against the wicked, perhaps to be released a few generations later; he wants its full scope to be demonstrated now. After all, Job asks in verse 21,

 

      “For what is his pleasure (concern) in his house after him?”  

The several appearances of the third person singular masculine possessive (his, his, his) lend a note of insistence to Job’s words. The wicked one doesn’t really care about the future. Even (good) King Hezekiah, when he received the word from Isaiah that judgment was going to happen in the days of his sons, said, “‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days’” (Isaiah 39:8). Good kings and wicked people alike are primarily concerned with peace in their own days, and have little concern for days after they have passed. That the word “his pleasure” (chaphets is word) is used here may not be happenstance. The wicked had earlier said to God, “We have no pleasure (chaphets) in the knowledge of your ways (21:14). Perhaps Job is subtly pointing out that they have very little real pleasure in life—they don’t know God; they don’t want to know the future of their house.  


The last words of verse 21 reinforce or explain the question of the first part of the verse. The “number of his months is determined/cut off.” Our translation is difficult; the verb chatsats is rare; it only occurs in two places beyond Job 21:21, and the translations in those two places yield no real clarity. The classic dictionary (the BDB) says it means “to divide/cut in two.”  The meaning is probably just reinforcing the first part of the verse.  As with many passages in Job, however I think most of the meaning may simply be in the sound. We have chaphets/chatsats.  We have a general meaning in verse 21b (the wicked’s unconcern for the future).  Why do we need to get meaning out of the second half of the verse when we can just luxuriate in the sounds?