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221. Job 21:27-34, No Judgment for the Wicked
27 “Behold, I know your thoughts,
And the plans by which you would wrong me.
28 For you say, ‘Where is the house of the nobleman,
And where is the tent, the dwelling places of the wicked?’
29 Have you not asked wayfaring men,
And do you not recognize their witness?
30 For the wicked is reserved for the day of calamity;
They will be led forth at the day of fury.
31 Who will confront him with his actions,
And who will repay him for what he has done?
32 While he is carried to the grave,
Men will keep watch over histomb.
33 The clods of the valley will gently cover him;
Moreover, all men will follow after him,
While countless ones gobefore him.
34 How then will you vainly comfort me,
For your answers remain full offalsehood?”
Though these verses are little known and sometimes hard to understand, what happens in them is profound. Job here will decisively reject the system he inherited regarding how to determine the ultimate fate of people and adopt a new approach to the issue. That is, he inherited a system that taught him that the wicked are punished and the righteous flourish—in this life. The proper role of the believer was to accept that doctrine, teach it and perhaps even find examples in one’s own experience that confirm it.
But in this passage Job will reject that doctrine by saying, in language that could have been said more clearly, “Have you not asked those who travel the roads?” (v 29). That is, the source of theological doctrine regarding the fate of the wicked will not be revelation but will be the experience of common people. Job is starting to explore something that at times seems inimical to religious faith—gathering data to determine the “truth” of theological statements. Job’s willingness to push back against the tradition here will embolden him to do other things that would terrify far lesser souls, especially as he continues to hang on to his innocence and seek an explanation from God for this suffering.
We may further subdivide this section into verse 27-28, Job’s questions to the friends; verses 29-33, the “report” from the passersby about how judgment works in the world; and verse 34, Job’s concluding statement to the friends. Though the passage isn’t free from translation controversy, the conclusion I will reach below is that Job agrees that the evil person is spared from the kind of judgment that the tradition eagerly taught.
After discussing the common fate of humans (vv 22-26), Job turns to address the friends (vv 27-28). The actual words of verse 27 are more vehement than most translations let on:
“Lo, I know your thoughts; your devices work violence against me.”
Most translations render the final verb chamasas “to wrong,” “to injure,” or to “wrongfully imagine,” so that the friend’s “devices” (word is mezimmah, 19x) “injure” Job. First a word on “devices.” The verb underlying the noun is zamam, 13x, which can mean simply to plan or purpose to do something, but it also carries with it the notion of scheming or plotting something evil. Thus, when we see mezimmah to describe the friend’s activities with respect to Job we wonder if we should read the noun in a neutral (plans) or negative (schemes/plots). Since they actually do violence to Job, I think we are on good grounds to render them “plots” or “evil designs.”
But rarely do we see the last clause rendered as “do/work violence against me.” The verb is chamas (8x), though the corresponding noun chamas appears much more frequently (60x). Its first appearance in the Bible captures its basic meaning; in Genesis 6:11, the author lamented that the earth “was filled with violence (chamas).” By keeping the meaning of “violence” in Job 21:27, we see that Job is not just mildly irritated by his friends’ treatment of him. On the contrary, he actually feels attacked and beset. Job points to a painful reality of the process and results of some theological disputations—It simply is a verbal way of inflicting violence. He feels that is what the friends have done to him.
Job doesn’t, figuratively speaking, fold his tent and go home. Rather he stays to fight. He attributes words to the friends in verse 28 that are hard to understand and have no precedence in the Book of Job.
“For you say, ‘Where is the house of the prince? Where is the tent where the
Job argues here that the friends have pointed to the houses of both princes and wicked alike, houses that are no longer there. They do so to illustrate their point—that the judgment against the wicked happens in this life. The friends’ point seems to be that since one no longer sees these houses and tents, that God has done the work of judgment, a work that continues to this day.
This explanation of verse 28, given by most commentators, may be right but is difficult to swallow. Why would Job pick an obscure line from what they had allegedly said (of which there is no record in the Book of Job) rather than a clear statement of Eliphaz or Bildad from Job 15 or Job 18 about the certain judgment of the wicked? And why are the princes and the wicked placed in apposition to each other? There is no tradition in ancient Israel of attributing evil to all princes; indeed, some of the Kings of Judah, for example, were good kings. And why use the word nadib (29x), which may just be rendered “nobles” rather than “princes”? What is their relationship to the “wicked?” I generally agree that verse 28 is used by Job to illustrate the friends’ commitment to the doctrine of certainty of divine judgment in this life, but it is an odd argument.