12. Job’s Reply That the Wicked Go Unpunished (21:1–34)
Whereas Zophar filled his speech with illustrations of how the wicked are punished, Job filled this response with illustrations of how the wicked escape unscathed. This is the nub of the question and the irreconcilable difference between the friends’ view of retribution and Job’s sure conviction that he was an innocent sufferer.
(1) Request for Attention (21:1–3)
1Then Job replied:
2“Listen carefully to my words;
let this be the consolation you give me.
3Bear with me while I speak,
and after I have spoken, mock on.
As is typical of all the speakers, they demand attention; so at the beginning of this, Job’s sixth response, he insisted that he have an opportunity for rebuttal. Until the end of v. 3 he sounded polite, but before the introduction was over, he released one ironic jab.
21:1 See comments at 6:1.
21:2 “Consolation” here and in v. 34 frames the chapter. It is the multifaceted Hebrew word nāḥam in an unusual noun form that is seen elsewhere only in 15:11. With this word the friends came to “comfort” him in 2:11, and with it Job earlier upbraided them with the epithet “miserable comforters” (16:2). In effect, Job said that the best “comfort” they could give him was simply to listen.
21:3 “Mock on” is not only a sarcastic imperative but also Job’s assessment of their advice. He considered it mockery, ridicule, or scorn, the kind of thing that is irritating even if it is not true. They, for their part, considered his attitude arrogant, insolent, and even blasphemous.
(2) Exceptions to the Rule (21:4–26)
4“Is my complaint directed to man?
Why should I not be impatient?
5Look at me and be astonished;
clap your hand over your mouth.
6When I think about this, I am terrified;
trembling seizes my body.
7Why do the wicked live on,
growing old and increasing in power?
8They see their children established around them,
their offspring before their eyes.
9Their homes are safe and free from fear;
the rod of God is not upon them.
10Their bulls never fail to breed;
their cows calve and do not miscarry.
11They send forth their children as a flock;
their little ones dance about.
12They sing to the music of tambourine and harp;
they make merry to the sound of the flute.
13They spend their years in prosperity
and go down to the grave in peace.
14Yet they say to God, ‘Leave us alone!
We have no desire to know your ways.
15Who is the Almighty, that we should serve him?
What would we gain by praying to him?’
16But their prosperity is not in their own hands,
so I stand aloof from the counsel of the wicked.
17“Yet how often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out?
How often does calamity come upon them,
the fate God allots in his anger?
18How often are they like straw before the wind,
like chaff swept away by a gale?
19[It is said,] ‘God stores up a man’s punishment for his sons.’
Let him repay the man himself, so that he will know it!
20Let his own eyes see his destruction;
let him drink of the wrath of the Almighty.
21For what does he care about the family he leaves behind
when his allotted months come to an end?
22“Can anyone teach knowledge to God,
since he judges even the highest?
23One man dies in full vigor,
completely secure and at ease,
24his body well nourished,
his bones rich with marrow.
25Another man dies in bitterness of soul,
never having enjoyed anything good.
26Side by side they lie in the dust,
and worms cover them both.
In this major section Job vividly described the good life that the wicked enjoy. For all their ignoring God they seem to be blessed with children, cattle, long life, and happiness. All this was to counter what the friends said was the terrible lot of the evildoers. The way God treats people is more complicated than any of them understood.
THE UNCHALLENGED LIFE OF THE WICKED (21:4–16). Job asked his friends to consider the prosperity and merriment that wicked folks enjoy. Why, he asked, can those who have nothing to do with God be so blessed by him?
Introduction (21:4–6). Before describing the lucky lot of the ungodly, Job introduced the topic by warning them that he found it scary and that they should be prepared for a surprise.
21:4 The two questions that constitute this verse seem unrelated. The answer to the first is no; Job’s complaint was directed to God, not people. The second question, a negative one, anticipates a positive response. Yes, Job had every reason to be “short of spirit” or “impatient.” He expected comfort from his friends but received only criticism, indictment, and rebuke. He was a good man, and yet he was suffering, something that was not supposed to happen according to the general rules of retribution. For this gross departure from the standardized view of rewards, he wanted an explanation from God but so far had gotten none.
21:5 In 17:8 Job had said that “upright men are [or should be] appalled at” the sight of a man suffering as he did. The same verb translates “astonished” here as Job again asked them to consider what he had been going through and to act with compassion rather than with censure. Out of respect for Job the elders in the gate used to “cover their mouths with their hands” (29:9), something he now asked his friends to do (cf. 13:5). In the end (40:4) Job did the same in the presence of God.
21:6 The situation Job was about to describe terrified him. He responded in the same way to the prosperity of the wicked that Bildad did to their destruction (18:20). Upon reflection it was a frightening thought to realize the wicked “live on” and “increase in power” while Job knew that he would soon die, since he felt himself growing weaker. The outcome of such a process is a world filled with wickedness and totally bereft of righteousness.
It Seems They Get Only Good (21:7–16). Job described the beatific life of the wicked in terms of long life, many children, healthy herds, music and dancing, and a peaceful passing. That is astonishing. The description is similar to the way the friends described the blessings of the upright (cf. 5:24–25).
21:7 The section on the blessed wicked begins with a rhetorical question for which the friends would have no answer. Jeremiah asked similar questions (Jer 12:1–2), and so might we. The question points to cases in which Zophar’s description of the fate of the wicked is observably false. The “mirth of the wicked” is not always “brief” (20:25).
21:8 The NIV’s turning the prepositional phrase “before them” into a verb, “they see,” is a neat way of handling the problem of two prepositional phrases in a row (cf. KJV “in their sight with them”). Some translations leave out the phrase “with them” (RSV, NEB, NJPS, NRSV); others omit “before them” or some representation of it (AB). Having children was very important, and everyone hoped to live long enough to see grandchildren (Ps 127:4; Gen 45:10). Job, we must remember, had no children at this point. He was contradicting Bildad, who had asserted that the wicked would die childless (18:19).
21:9 Job had wished in 9:34 for “someone to remove God’s rod.” Now he said that “God’s rod” is not on the wicked. Unlike the house that collapsed on his children, the “home” of the unrighteous has “safety” (šālôm) and not “fear” (pāḥad) such as came upon Job (3:25). He could point to many cases in which the wicked man was not “torn from the security of his tent” (18:14; cf. 5:24).
21:10 The good fortune of the wicked extends to their cattle. Both genders succeed in their respective assignments. The bulls effectively inseminate, and the cows deliver live calves. “Breed” translates the very common verb ‘ābar, “pass over,” and is either a euphemism or a special use of this term.
21:11 From v. 8 Job picked up the theme of “children.” Not only do the wicked have “a flock” of children, but those children appear happy.
21:12 “They sing” translates the common verb “to lift up,” conveying the idea of lifting up their voices. “Tambourine/timbrel” and “harp/ zither” are frequent enough to be certain, but “flute” is relatively rare and possibly some other kind of wind instrument. All three classes of instruments are represented here: percussion, strings, and winds. It had been a while since Job had had reason to “make merry.”
21:13 The NIV has paraphrased in v. 13, but not without precedent and warrant. “Years” are really “days,” and “in peace” is, as the margin indicates, “in an instant.” The point is that even in death the godless have it good. Theirs is no lingering death, no months of excruciating pain, no ongoing agony and protracted grief for the family. At the end of a long and fulfilled life, they die quickly and painlessly (cf. 29:18). The return to the theme of long life and prosperity for the wicked (v. 7) suggests that vv. 7–13 is a unit, and the question “Why?” applies to the whole. Their response to such blessings is given in the following verses.
21:14 Those Job had been describing were not simply wicked but also godless in the true sense of that word. They did not care what God thinks and preferred him to absent himself from their lives and consciences. Though they seem to have believed in his existence, they were practical atheists. “Know” is broader than simple cognition but involves obedience, honor, and practice of the “ways” of God. Eliphaz would use the first half of this verse in 22:17.
21:15 The quotation Job framed to express their resistance to God continues through v. 15, where it takes the form of two rhetorical questions. The first question sounds like the one Pharaoh asked of Moses (Exod 5:2). The second would be its corollary. There will always be prosperous and powerful individuals who will ask these questions, but the religion of Job’s friends had no answers. The two questions together seem to strike at the heart of the issue in the book. If religion were purely a matter of recompense and retribution, what would this say about the nature and character of God, his worthiness, and his beauty? Is God to be worshiped for gain? If this were the case, why would the prosperous ever submit to his will and worship and commune with him?
21:16 At the end of this section Job stepped aside from the position he had been taking and disclaimed any affiliation with those godless words he had just spoken. He believed that “their prosperity” came from God even if they did not acknowledge it. And he distanced himself from the kind of “counsel” he had just put into their mouths.
THEY ESCAPE PUNISHMENT (21:17–21). Despite their defiance of the deity, the godless often seem to go through life with his blessing and without any obvious discipline or punishment. None or few of the tragedies that struck Job ever befall them. They seem immune to God’s judgment and wrath.
21:17 This and the next verse are rhetorical questions, “How often?” Job’s answer would be, “Not very often” or “Not often enough to support Zophar’s premise that the wicked are always punished.” The first line contradicts Bildad’s statement in 18:5 that “the lamp of the wicked is snuffed out.” The phrase speaks of a sudden death. But even while alive they are seldom the victims of “calamity.” “The fate” of the third line translates a root with multiple meanings, so some prefer “sorrow” (KJV, ASV, MLB), “pains” (RSV, AB, AAT), “suffering” (NEB), “snares” (AT), “portion” (NAB), “lot” (NJPS), “destruction” (NASB). The NIV’s “fate” (like “portion/lot”) reads ḥebel in the sense of what is measured by a “cord” (another meaning of the word is reflected in the AT’s “snare”).
21:18 The illustrations of v. 18 are reminiscent of Ps 1:4, which says the wicked “are like chaff that the wind blows away.” Psalm 1 is in the wisdom category, and as such it speaks in the same generalities Proverbs does, not addressing the exceptions as Job, the lament psalms, and Ecclesiastes do. Normally the wicked are destroyed like chaff, but Job asserted by this question that he rarely witnessed it. The figures of “wind” and “gale” bring to mind the way Job’s children died (1:19).
21:19 Verse 19a is a proverb that is out of character for Job, so even the RV in 1885 introduced it with an italicized “Ye say” by analogy with v. 28. Indeed, it sounds like the three friends and not like Job (cf. 5:4; 20:10). The exact phrase is nowhere else in the Bible, but it reflects Jer 31:29 and Lam 5:7, which probably were based on a misunderstanding of Exod 20:5–6 (cf. Ezek 18:2). Job rejected the principle and insisted that God “repay the man himself” rather than defer punishment to his descendants.
21:20 These two imprecations elaborate on the one in v. 19b. The defense against Job’s criticism (i.e., that there were many wicked who prospered) was that their children would pay for their sins. This, Job thought, would be unfair and ineffective as a deterrent to evil. The translation “destruction” (with KJV) is uncertain, since the word occurs only here and has no certain cognates. The motif of drinking God’s wrath is repeated throughout Scripture (Pss 11:6; 75:8; Isa 51:17, 22; Jer 25:15; 49:12; Ezek 23:31–34; Matt 26:39; Rev 14:10; 18:6).
21:21 One of the signs of consummate selfishness and wickedness would be not to care for the world or the family left behind. King Hezekiah evidenced it when, after Isaiah’s rebuke and announcement of future exile, he said in effect, What do I care since I’ll be gone when the invasion comes? (Isa 39:8). As long as the punishment did not affect the guilty but fell on the successive generations, people would sin wantonly. Ezekiel denounced that viewpoint and announced, “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezek 18:4). That is not good news for sinners.
GOD’S APPARENT ARBITRARINESS (21:22–26). Job had been overstating the case as he disputed with his three friends. More on balance he would not say the evil are blessed and the righteous are cursed but that God seems not to be active in the distribution of rewards for behavior. All people, good or bad, receive similar treatment (cf. Matt 5:45). In vv. 22–23 Job described the death of a healthy man and in v. 24 that of a miserable man. Death is the great leveler.
21:22 The answer to this question must be negative. No one can teach God anything. It is a way of saying that God is all-knowing. If he “judges even the highest,” meaning angels (?), surely there is no way for a mortal to contest his rulings (cf. Ps 82:1; Isa 40:13–14).
21:23 First, Job portrayed a healthy and wealthy man who dies. He was, to give a literal translation, “with unblemished bones” and “completely at ease and secure.”
21:24 While all agree on the overall meaning of the first line, several options exist for the word translated “his body,” which is said to be literally “full of milk.” In ancient times the success of the rich often was obvious in their corpulence. Extra weight was a proud token of material success. This verse thus describes one who is well fed and well heeled.
21:25 The dark side of the picture is of the man who “dies in bitterness of soul” (cf. 10:1). “Enjoyed” is actually “eaten,” so there is contrast between the one whose rich diet was obvious and this one who “ate nothing good.”
21:26 Job concluded the long central section of this response with the depressing observation that in death all distinctions about earthly bliss disappear. The “worms” enjoy equally the wicked and the righteous, the rich and the poor.
(3) Request for Friends to Consider This (21:27–33)
27“I know full well what you are thinking,
the schemes by which you would wrong me.
28You say, ‘Where now is the great man’s house,
the tents where wicked men lived?’
29Have you never questioned those who travel?
Have you paid no regard to their accounts—
30that the evil man is spared from the day of calamity,
that he is delivered from the day of wrath?
31Who denounces his conduct to his face?
Who repays him for what he has done?
32He is carried to the grave,
and watch is kept over his tomb.
33The soil in the valley is sweet to him;
all men follow after him,
and a countless throng goes before him.
Job expected his friends to counter him with illustrations of the demise of the wicked in order to champion their views. But he said that they simply had not traveled widely enough and that their observations were limited. Job contended that the wicked wealthy, even in death, enjoy a measure of luxury and respect.
21:27 Since the debate was well along, each party knew the positions of the others, so Job anticipated what Eliphaz, whose turn it was next, might say. Indeed, in 22:16–18 he took this very position, that the godless die young. The term “schemes” well reflects Job’s assessment of their often-sinister opinions and reasoning.
21:28 Although these words cannot be found in the speeches of the friends, the quotation certainly encapsulates their view of theological retribution. By this rhetorical question put into their mouths, Job had them say that the “houses” and “tents” of the “great” and “wicked” are no more. Job’s contention was that the opposite is true, “their homes are safe and free from fear” (v. 8).
21:29 Now Job impugned their experience or their learning. Even if they had not witnessed the injustice of which he spoke, surely they should have heard from those who traveled more widely.
21:30 The “accounts” that Job cited form the substance of v. 30. Just as Eliphaz’s vision in 4:12–21 supported his view, so Job’s hearsay from travelers advanced his, that is, that evil people escape “the day of calamity” and “the day of wrath” (cf. 20:28).
21:31 With these two questions Job implied that no one challenges the arrogant wicked or demands accountability of them for their actions. The rich can be so imperious and overbearing that none dare confront them with their sin. So they continue in their prosperous impiety, thinking that no judgment will ever come.
21:32 Instead of being carried off by some calamity, the wicked are “carried to the grave.” As Gordis has noted: “The Wisdom writers were particularly exercised by the fact that after a lifetime of ill-gotten prosperity, there is no moment of truth for the evildoers even at the very end. Their true character is not revealed even then, but high-flown obsequies of praise are offered before they are taken to their graves.”
“Grave” is plural in Hebrew, indicating a measure of opulence. “Tomb” (gādîš) in its other three occurrences is translated “shocks of grain” or “sheaves,” so this may refer to some kind of funerary mound (cf. KJV margin, AAT).
21:33 As evil was “sweet” (according to Zophar, 20:12) to this archetypal sinner, so now the “soil of the valley is sweet to him” as well, according to the scenario Job was spelling out. Even death is an enjoyable affair to the one who had an inordinate share of joy in life. The procession consists of “a countless throng” before him and “all men” (certainly hyperbole) after him.
(4) Denunciation of Friends (21:34)
34“So how can you console me with your nonsense?
Nothing is left of your answers but falsehood!”
21:34 Job concluded his sixth response with one of the most acidic criticisms found anywhere in the book. In no uncertain terms he judged their “comfort” (2:11) to be “nonsense” (Eccl 1:2) and their “answers” to be “falsehood.” This last term could be stronger: “treachery/fraud/perfidy.” The possibility that Job and his friends could arrive at some understanding seems more and more remote. Eliphaz and Bildad each spoke once more, but the rift between them and Job widened before the talks broke off altogether.
—New American Commentary