Job 15-21 — The Second Cycle of Speeches

[Given time constraints in class–we will also cover Ecclesiastes this semester–the second (Job 15-21) and third speech (Job 22-27) cycles are only allotted one class period each.  Hopefully, at some point in the future, I will have opportunity to expand my posts on the these two cycles. But for now…this is what I have time to write.]

The friends continue their accusations. Job’s frustration with his friend’s lack of sympathy increases. The friends built their case on divine transcendence and fair play. Job does not even speak to God in the second cycle of speeches and he questions their theology.

The friends have at least three recurring themes.

1.  Job has misspoken. Each of the friends begin their response to Job with allusion to his “words”; they are scandalized by how he speaks about God.  Eliphaz stresses that Job’s language testifies against him and generated by the evil in his heart (15:5-6; cf. 15:12-13). “How long,” Bildad asks, “will you hunt for words?” (18:2). Zophar appears the most restless–he rushes to answer “because of the agitation within me” (20:2). The term “agitation” literally means “hasty, rushed.” Zophar pounces on Job because he feels insulted by Job’s “censure” (20:3).

The friends perceive several problems, as I will indicate below.  But, at bottom, they don’t believe Job is honest. Job is not confessing the sin that the wisdom of the ages tells them must be present to explain his calamity. To them Job belongs in the category of “godless” (15:34; 18:21; 20:5) and “wicked” (15:20; 18:5; 20:5). Eliphaz is the most direct. He accuses Job of “doing away with the fear of God” (15:4) and questions “why does [his] heart carry [him] away…so that” Job’s “spirit” turns “against God” (15:12-13). Job’s words and spirit epitomizes the “wicked” who stretch “out their hands against God and bid defiance to the Almighty” (5:25).  For Bildad, Job “does not know God” (18:21). According to Zophar, Job shares the lot of the wicked, and the wicked are those who “have crushed and abandoned the poor” (20:19)–something Job adamantly denies in Job 31.

Job needs to repent, but, more importantly at this point, he needs to shut up and stop talking. Job needs to stop lamenting, complaining and contending with God. Anybody ever heard that advice before? I have.

2.  God is so transcendent that humanity is viewed as nothing.  Theologically, I think one of the key problems with the friends is that their understanding of divine transcendence guts human dignity. Eliphaz illustrates this–and this the second time that he has raised the point. Previously Eliphaz noted that God does not trust his angelic host much lest those who belong to the dust (4:17-19). Here he goes further. Most certainly, he denies, since “God puts no trust even in his holy ones…how much less one who is abominable and corrupt, one who drinks iniquity like water!” (15:15-16). If God will not trust his angelic host, he certainly will not trust Job who drinks sin like water.

It appears that the friends have no sense of the sort of trust God can place in human beings that the Prologue evidences. God trusted Job. God invested in human beings. He created them from the dust but he also crowned them with glory and honor; he gave them a vocation. He gave them meaning and significance. Eliphaz’s heightened sense of transcendence undermines that human dignity. Humanity matters to God; and human actions are important to God. He is not so “other” that God is disinterested in the other. Surely God is “wholly other” but God is also immanently invested in the creation, particularly human beings, and specifically–in this case–Job.

3.  The wicked are always punished. Each friend emphasizes this point in lengthy, detailed–almost hymnic–poetry. Eliphaz begins with the announcement that the “wicked writhe in pain all their days” (15:20-35); Bildad begins with the confidence that “the light of the wicked is put out” (18:5-21); and Zophar begins with the traditional wisdom that “the exulting of the wicked is short” (20:5-19).  Most of their speeches are a third-person praise of God for his judgment of the wicked and an indirect application of the destiny to Job.  Well, maybe it is not so indirect.

The friends use language that points to Job’s own circumstance. The effect is: “This is what happens to the wicked, and we all know this is what happened to Job.” According to Eliphaz, “the destroyer” comes upon them “in [their] prosperity” (15:21b), they “despair of returning from darkness” (15:22a), “distress and anguish terrify them (15:24a), and “their wealth will not endure” (15:29a).Bildad even talks about skin disease as part of calamity of the wicked (18:12-13) and, insensitivily–as he did before in 8:4–calls attention to the fact that the wicked “have no offspring or descendant among their people” (18:19). Zophar alludes to Job’s loss of property:  “The possessions of their house will be carried away, dragged off in the day of God’s wrath” (20: 28). Job must be wicked because what happened to him happens to the wicked, right?

Job’s response to these points is fervent, painful and unyielding.

1.  Job must speak.  Job does not follow their advice. He continues to speak; he continues to complain about his circumstance and argue with the friend’s points. Their words are unhelpful, worse they are “empty nothings;” their “answers [are] but falsehood” (21:34). So, Job must speak since they will not speak for him or sit with him in his hurt. Job has every right to continue his complaint, and his complaint is not ultimately directed at the friends but to God (21:4).

But speaking does not alleviate the “pain”–it never leaves him (16:6).  He sits with his tears and his flesh is a sackcloth for mourning (16:25-16). His complaint goes unanswered. Instead, God continues to oppress him (16:7-14), even target him (16:12-13), and specifically God has given him “up to the ungodly” and cast him “into the hands of the wicked” (16:11). He has no community–no friends, no family, no relatives (19:14-19).  He shares the lot of the wicked even though his “prayer is pure” and “there is no violence on [his] hands” (16:17).

Job wants comfort or pity from his friends (cf. 19:21), but they do not have those resources within them. They are “miserable comforters” (16:2).

2.  If humanity is nothing, why is Job a target? Why does God pursue Job? Why does God keep up the pressure.  The litany in Job’s response to Bildad identifies the multiple ways in which God assaulted him (19:8-13) and pleads with the friends to recognize that “God has put me in the wrong and closed his net around me” (19:6).

Theologically, the question is why did God pursue this agenda and why does God continue it? How can Job be this important to God? Why is Job a “target” (16:12)? “Why” does God “pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh” (19:22)? For Job this is confusing, bewildering and disheartening. It sucks his life dry. He has no energy except to continue his lament. He has no other option.  The theological question is important but it has no answers.  If God is so transcendent and so beyond, why does God even bother (cf. 7:17-21)?

There must be some meaning or significance to this? Does Job suffer for no reason, for no purpose? That is the question of every sufferer whether voiced or not. And it is the question that few, if any, sufferers can ever answer.

3.  The wicked are not always punished; sometimes they die in peace and prosperity.  While there are hints in previous speeches, Job goes for the jugular on the central point of the friends in his response to Zophar (Job 21). Practically the whole speech is dedicated to the question “why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (21:7). It is a question many believers have asked, including Jeremiah (12:1) and the Psalmist (37 and 73). Job is not the first to notice this even though traditional wisdom seeks to rationalize it. Indeed, Job responds to one such rationalization: “their children will suffer if he does not.” But this makes no sense to Job as it is the wicked, not the children, who must suffer for their evil (21:19-22).

As far as Job can see, the wicked  “spend their days in prosperity and in peace they go down to Sheol” (21:13).  Their homes are “safe from fear” and their children dance and rejoice (21:8-9, 11). There appears no rhyme or reason to the prosperity or the loss the wicked or righteous experience.  One lives in prosperity and dies in peace and another dies in the bitterness of soul (like Job?), but they both end up as dust (21:23-26). What’s the point? What is the meaning of this?

Whatever it may mean, the simplistic traditional wisdom of the friends does not pass the test of experience. They cannot lean on this point because it simply is not true since “the wicked are spared in the day of calamity and are rescued in the day of wrath” (21:30). What supposedly was Job’s lot because of his wickedness (divine wrath expressed in calamity, cf. 18:12; 20:28) does not happen to the wicked!

Nevertheless, Job maintains his ground.

1.  His prayer is pure and his ethics are authentic. Job continues to maintain his innocence–his prayer is pure (16:17). In one of the most poignant texts in the dialogues, Job expresses his commitment to God. Even though the wicked are safe and prosperous, he will not side with the wicked. The wicked, according to Job, say to God “Leave us alone! We do not desire to know your ways!” (21:14). In fact, they question the “profit” in serving God. “What profit do we get if we pray to him?” (21:15). In this moment the wicked echo the question of the satan in 1:9–doesn’t everyone, even Job, serve God for profit?

Job’s answer is a statements of Job’s integrity and dedication to God.  Will Job join the wicked in their mocking now? Will he join their chorus? No, he will not.  He answers (21:16): “But their prosperity is not in their own hands, so I stand aloof from the counsel of the wicked” (NIV). Interestingly, the language of “stand aloof” or “far from me” (ESV) or “repugnant to me” (NRSV) has been used by Job previously.  God, he says, had put his brothers “far from me” (19:13) and asked God to withdraw his hand “far from me.”

Though Job wants God to let him die (withdraw his hand), Job does not buy into the wisdom (counsel or designs) of the wicked. Job remains committed to God even though he laments his circumstance and has no explanation for his troubles.

2.  He knows his Redeemer, his witness, lives. Twice in this cycle Job alludes to some sort of resolution, some kind of hope. In both contexts he uses oath language, the language of a courtroom or a lawsuit (16:18; 19:23). He wants his trouble noted and his complaint registered. Job wants, as we all want, to be heard; to know that God is listening. Job wants to understand. Job wants his case heard. Job wants vindication.  He “pours out tears to God” in the hope that God “would maintain the right of a mortal with God, as one does for a neighbor” (16:21).

Job, however, recognizes that he has a “witness in heaven” (16:19) and a “redeemer” (19:25). Both express a wishful hope, perhaps a shaky confidence, that Job does not voice his complaint for nothing. God does have a response, and Job has a redeemer and a witness. Job has someone who will stand with him and stand up for him.

Reading canonically, perhaps we can see some Christological allusions here, but within the context of the narrative this person seems to be God.  Ultimately, Job believes (hopes against hope) that God will hear him, speak with him, and vindicate him.

Knowing the end of the book, we know that Job’s hopes are realized. And that is our hope as well.

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