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243. Job 24:18-25, Judgment on the Wicked, Continuing

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?”

 

The first three verses of this section (vv 18-20) emphasize the coming judgment; the second three (vv 21-23) stress the bad conduct of the wicked again. One more verse (v 24) speaks of their temporary glory before they are brought low. The chapter then concludes with a Shakespeare-type utterance to the effect that the author is not lying when he says this (I am thinking of the line from Sonnet 116  (“If this be error and upon me proved…”).

As has often been noted in this commentary, sometimes the meaning of a verse or section seems to be more in the sound than in the actual words. I think we have that in the first half of verse 18, a verse that has defied all attempts to render it in a satisfactory way.  Literally, we have, 

    “Swift/light/piece of straw/fleck is he upon the face of waters; cursed is their

    portion in the earth.”

We assume that we are talking about the wicked of verses 5-12 or the adulterers, murderers and robbers of verses 13-17, though the subject is never specified. It is emphatically singular at first (the third person masculine pronoun appears), and thus I disagree with most commentators who read it as “they,” even though the second clause has, unequivocally and confusingly, “Their portion.” We don’t know whether the movement of this unnamed singular person is being described (“quick/light”) or whether this unnamed person is being compared to a light object (“straw/fleck”) on the waters. We have no idea how or why waters enter into the picture since just seven verses earlier people were thirsty.  

When we run into meaning difficulty, we may receive help from looking at the form of the words; that seems to be the key here. The word for “swift/light” is qal; the word for “curse” is qalal.  Qal/qalalqal/qalal..  we could almost sing it like a do-be-do chorus.  But don’t try to figure out what “do” and “be” mean, even though they are discrete and meaning-carrying words in the English language. But, relenting a bit, there may be a glint of gleanable meaning in the words qal/qalal. The meaning may be that for someone (the unnamed “he”) there is some kind of curse, and that this curse may quickly be realized. 


Yet the third clause of verse 18 throws us for a mini-loop. “He doesn’t turn the way of the vineyards.” Well, this could be referring to the poor, who no longer turn back to the vineyards, where they were working as recently as verse 6. Maybe when he (the poor/needy) understands the cursed fate of the wicked, he figures he can malinger. Or, it may refer to the wicked, though in the singular, who doesn’t turn back to the vineyard because he realizes that the writing is on the wall and judgment impends. If this is the meaning, there may be a slight but attractive echo of the Sodom narrative from Genesis 19, where people are urged not to turn back to look at the city which will soon be engulfed in fire and brimstone. But, in the end, we say “Uncle.”  Someone is not turning to vineyards. People in California and Oregon would just think of all those unattended grapes!  

 

Verse 19 takes us to a different image. Perhaps because of unattended or unused vineyards, the author now is moving to other destructive or neglectful activity. Verse 19 is stated with aphoristic brevity and enormous attractiveness:

    “Drought and heat both rob the snow waters; Sheol (does likewise) for those who sin." 

The gnomic character of the verse comes out when we realize that the last thought is expressed in only two Hebrew words:  “Sheol (they) sin.” The New Testament stated it with like brevity:  “The wages of sin is death” (though it is six words in Greek).  Death is the result for those who sin. But, arrestingly, this is likened to the drought (tsiyyah, 16x) and heat (chom, 14x) that evaporate snow.  Note, however, that Job uses one of his Job 24-favorite verbs here, gazal (“steal,” 31x in Bible/3x in Job 24). Drought and heat actually “steal” the snow waters. We can see the snow disappear; so will the sinners disappear. We are right in the middle of the judgment theme, and I think this is fully compatible with Job’s questioning that theme beginning in Job 21.  He is wrestling with one of the central theological concepts in ancient Israel; give him some time and flexibility to wrestle!

Verse 20 concludes the first mini-section on judgment.  Again, we struggle for meaning.

    “The womb forgets him; the worm is sweet/sweetly feeds (on him). He is

    not remembered. And unrighteousness/wickedness is shattered as a tree.”

Here we have mixed metaphors, uncertain meanings, and unexpected thoughts cascading on top of each other.  The first clause isn’t difficult to translate, but its meaning is far from clear. Does that mean that the mother (“the womb”) of the wicked person won’t any longer associate with him? For some people that may even be a  blessing, but it is meant here as an aspect of judgment. Isaiah tells us that a woman can’t forget her sucking child (Isaiah 49:15), but this mother does. Yet, there is no indication here that the wicked is still at breast. Highly unlikely, actually.  


Job doesn’t start strong here.  Then, the worm (rimmah, 7x/4x in Job) does something to him relating to sweetness. Mathaq, the verb, is a hapax, but it is no doubt related to mathoq (5x), a verb that means “to be sweet/pleasant.” Job actually uses mathoq twice (20:12; 21:33), and so the concept of “sweetness” is eerily and unexpectedly present as the talk of judgment ratchets up. Zophar says that wickedness is sweet in the mouth of the wicked (20:12); Job concurs that even in death the dirt of the valley is sweet to the wicked (21:33).  

So, that leaves us in a bit of confusion here. Job is trying to show that the wicked will be forsaken, forgotten, judged. Now we have sweetness. But, as we realize, it is the worm which is connected with the sweetness. Perhaps because the wicked has stuffed himself with sweet things, the worm now gets the result of that—and his feasting on the wicked is sweet. This is truly an illustration of the childhood saw, “The worms crawl in; the worms crawl out. . .,” though here the worms seem to delight in the guts they are consuming rather than, as the chorus has it, “spit them out.” Compared to piercing swords and burning flames, the mere consumption of one’s innards by the worms sounds positively delightful—though Job doesn’t mean it to sound that way.  This is a good indication that he has lost his way here.


Undeterred, he continues. Such a wicked person is forgotten.  Fair enough.  One of the worst fears of ancient (and much of modern) society is that one’s memory will be fully erased. Yet a growing number of people I talk to these days are content with just fading away into the dark night and not being remembered. Finally, wickedness is shattered like a tree. We were kind of expecting that the wicked, rather than the abstract concept of wickedness (evel, 77x) would be shattered. Blunting the effectiveness of this thought still further is “being shattered” as a tree. Job had previously and powerfully used the image of trees, but in one memorable instance it  was of trees uprooted and not shattered. “He has uprooted (nasa, also “plucked up/torn up”) my hope like a tree” (19:10). But in 24:20 the unrighteousness is “shattered” like a tree.  We don’t really get a clear picture of how this might happen.  Do we have hunks of unrighteousness that can easily be shattered?  Of what consistency is unrighteousness? Viscous?  Wooden? Steel?  Maybe we can start our own metaphor, as “tough as unrighteousness.” I don’t think so. . .