Job 20 – “Zophar’s Second Speech”

snakeHebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Zophar responds to Job with a lecture about the fate of the wicked. He asserts that the wicked, who enjoy brief moments of prosperity, are eventually destroyed by God.

II. Photo
Zophar dogmatically describes the fate of the wicked: “He sucks the poison of cobras; The tongue of the viper kills him.” (v. 16)

III. Important Verses
vv. 4-7: Do you not know this, that from time immemorial, Since man was set on earth, The joy of the wicked has been brief, The happiness of the impious, fleeting? Though he grows as high as the sky, His head reaching the clouds, He perishes forever, like his dung; Those who saw him will say, ‘Where is he?’

IV. Outline

1. Introduction
2-3. Opening remark
4-29. Homily: the wicked are punished by God

V. Comment
Zophar’s second speech consists of an introduction (vv. 1-3) and a homily about the wicked (vv. 4-29). The speech, which contains many metaphors and similes (e.g. vv. 6, 7, 8, 14, 17, 23), parallels many other passages in the books of Job, Psalms, and Proverbs.

Zophar begins his speech with an appeal to traditional knowledge, “Do you not know this, that from time immemorial, Since man was set on earth, the joy of the wicked has been brief, The happiness of the impious, fleeting?” (vv. 4-5) This has been a common theme in the book. For example, Bildad says in 8:8-10: “Ask the generation past, Study what their fathers have searched out — For we are of yesterday and know nothing; Our days on earth are a shadow — Surely they will teach you and tell you, Speaking out of their understanding.” Eliphaz also appeals to tradition in 15:17-19. It is interesting to note that Job mocks the idea of tradition when he condescendingly asks, “Is wisdom in the aged And understanding in the long-lived?” (12:12)

In v. 19 Zophar mentions the sin of the wicked: “Because he crushed and tortured the poor, He will not build up the house he took by force.” Clines writes (p. 482): “Throughout the entire depiction, which is almost wholly metaphorical, only one verse gives any specifics of the wicked man’s wrongdoing: in v 19 we learn that he has crushed the poor and seized the houses of others (but cf also v 15a). This is confirmation enough that Zophar is not speaking expressly of Job. It is a signal too, since there are more kinds of wickedness than this, that what we are reading in this speech is a topos, an illustrative portrait of a single but typical individual.”

While Clines is convinced about this interpretation, there is room to believe that Zophar’s speech is in fact a description of Job. This is because Eliphaz explicitly accuses Job of wronging the poor in 22:5-9: “You know that your wickedness is great, And that your iniquities have no limit. You exact pledges from your fellows without reason, And leave them naked, stripped of their clothes; You do not give the thirsty water to drink; You deny bread to the hungry… You have sent away widows empty-handed; The strength of the fatherless is broken.” Also, in 29:12-16 Job feels the need to reject such accusations: “For I saved the poor man who cried out, The orphan who had none to help him… I gladdened the heart of the widow… I was eyes to the blind And feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, And I looked into the case of the stranger.” Also see 31:13-23. All in all, it seems that the friends accuse Job of a grave sin, and Job denies those claims.

Zophar ends his speech in v. 29 with what some call a “summary appraisal”: “This is the wicked man’s portion from God, The lot God has ordained for him.” This type of summary is common in the book. For example, see 18:21: “These were the haunts of the wicked; Here was the place of him who knew not God.” Also see 8:19: “Such is his happy lot; And from the earth others will grow.”

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Clines, Proverbs 1-20 (Word Biblical Commentary)
Photo taken from  http://teacher.scholastic.com/dirtrep/friction/img/snake.jpg

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