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242. Job 24:18-25 Judgment on the Wicked, Introduction
18 “They are insignificant on the surface of the water;
Their portion is cursed on the earth.
They do not turn toward the vineyards.
19 Drought and heat consume the snow waters,
So does Sheol those who have sinned.
20 A mother will forget him;
The worm feeds sweetly till he is no longer remembered.
And wickedness will be broken like a tree.
21 He wrongs the barren woman
And does no good for the widow.
22 But He drags off the valiant by His power;
He rises, but no one has assurance of life.
23 He provides them with security, and they are supported;
And His eyes are on their ways.
24 They are exalted a little while, then they are gone;
Moreover, they are brought low and like everything gathered up;
Even like the heads of grain they are cut off.
25 Now if it is not so, who can prove me a liar,
And make my speech worthless?”
This is one difficult passage. We have the double blessing of unexpected content as well as unclear Hebrew here and there in the passage. The content is unexpected at this point because it presents Job as unequivocally affirming a belief in the coming judgment against the wicked. Sheol will snatch them away (v 19); their memory will perish and they will be broken like a tree (v 20). For a little while they seem to flourish, but then they are utterly cut off (v 24). Yet, Job has spent the last two speeches seeming to say the opposite. Rather than being judged, the wicked flourish. It is the poor and needy who suffer the most in life. Job has spent the last few chapters laying out the case for divine moral confusion in running the universe; now he seems meekly to return to the standard orthodoxy of the wicked’s getting their just desserts in the end.
To make matters worse, some of the verses are almost opaque in their generality. We may not be able to make much headway, for example, in understanding the language of verse 23 (“He gives him in safety and he rests; and his eyes are upon his paths”) or other verses.
Faced with these dual challenges, many scholars remove these verses from their present location and give them to Zophar or Bildad to speak. That is, many scholars see the Third Cycle of speeches as so hopelessly truncated and mixed up that it almost invites them to rearrange its parts so that everyone is saying what they are “supposed” to say. Though many scholars have taken this route, their lack of unanimity on anything probably should give us pause before heading down the same road. For example, Clines says that 24:18-24 fit far more appropriately in Zophar’s than Job’s mouth. Thus, he moves them to the mid-part of Job 27 so that Zophar will have a real third speech, which the present form of the Book of Job seemingly takes away from him.
I am not convinced. The approach of this commentary is to try to explain the text, as well as the text order, as received. There is some weight, no doubt, in the argument that a disordered Third Cycle is of literary design rather than happenstance, in order to show that communication has fully broken down by this point in the conversation, but I am also not convinced that we have a fully disordered Third Cycle here.
Two ways of reading Job 24:18-25 that yield good meaning without rearranging the passage are either to see these words attributed to the poor/needy by Job or to see them as reflecting Job’s continuing (and unspoken) struggle with his theology of divine judgment. If we see them as really the words of the poor/needy, then we would have to add, beginning in verse 18, the little words “they (the poor/needy) say. . .” That is, the poor and needy, which had been on the receiving end of the wicked’s actions for several verses, would now be getting their verbal revenge.
I slightly prefer the second alternative, where these words are spoken by Job, but by a Job who is wrestling internally with his own theology of divine fairness and judgment. No doubt his own experience has made him question God’s justice towards him. We see that in spades beginning in Job 6. This experience has also made him question whether God is really just towards the rest of the world, but this idea was only explored by Job beginning in Job 21 and 23-24.
But such is the importance of the doctrine of divine retribution to the Wisdom tradition and to Israelite theology in general that abandoning it, if that is what Job will actually do, is generally not something one does at one moment. When the claws of a doctrine like this have grabbed one in one’s mental space, one can only gradually pry them loose. I have seen this repeatedly with people who have left their childhood expressions of religion for what they consider a more mature expression of it as an adult. Normally, you just don’t toss it out all at once; it gradually becomes less convincing to you or, alternatively, it gradually takes on a new meaning as you mature.
In the meantime, however, you often reaffirm your belief in the traditional formulations, even if they might ring a little hollow to you. I see much of Job’s words in the Third Cycle as his attempt to come to grips with the inner theological struggle created by the absurdity of his personal situation. He will remain defiant, no doubt, and he will desire an explanation for his suffering. He will arm himself not only with arguments but also with a Redeemer of his Life. But old belief patterns, especially those what you have championed for years in your own conduct, are usually hard to break. Let’s see these verses, then, as Job’s own statement of the traditional belief. But don’t believe for a moment that this is his considered or final position. He is evolving theologically as the text unfolds.