‘Pay attention! My thoughts urge me to answer, because of the agitation within me. I hear censure that insults me, and a spirit beyond my understanding answers me. Do you not know this from of old, ever since mortals were placed on earth, that the exulting of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless is but for a moment? Even though they mount up high as the heavens, and their head reaches to the clouds, they will perish for ever like their own dung; those who have seen them will say, “Where are they?” They will fly away like a dream, and not be found; they will be chased away like a vision of the night. The eye that saw them will see them no more, nor will their place behold them any longer. Their children will seek the favour of the poor, and their hands will give back their wealth. Their bodies, once full of youth, will lie down in the dust with them.
‘Though wickedness is sweet in their mouth, though they hide it under their tongues, though they are loath to let it go, and hold it in their mouths, yet their food is turned in their stomachs; it is the venom of asps within them. They swallow down riches and vomit them up again; God casts them out of their bellies. They will suck the poison of asps; the tongue of a viper will kill them. They will not look on the rivers, the streams flowing with honey and curds. They will give back the fruit of their toil, and will not swallow it down; from the profit of their trading they will get no enjoyment. For they have crushed and abandoned the poor, they have seized a house that they did not build.
‘They knew no quiet in their bellies; in their greed they let nothing escape. There was nothing left after they had eaten; therefore their prosperity will not endure. In full sufficiency they will be in distress; all the force of misery will come upon them. To fill their belly to the full God will send his fierce anger into them, and rain it upon them as their food. They will flee from an iron weapon; a bronze arrow will strike them through. It is drawn forth and comes out of their body, and the glittering point comes out of their gall; terrors come upon them. Utter darkness is laid up for their treasures; a fire fanned by no one will devour them; what is left in their tent will be consumed. The heavens will reveal their iniquity, and the earth will rise up against them. The possessions of their house will be carried away, dragged off on the day of God’s wrath. This is the portion of the wicked from God, the heritage decreed for them by God.’
It is Zophar’s turn again. He’s greatly agitated by the way Job is trying to undermine everything that Zophar believes by his arguments; and his rhetorical question to Job in v.4 is almost contemptuous. This begins a poem that divides neatly into three sections.
In the first he argues that although the wicked might seem to prosper, their success is only short lived and they suffer a premature death. Not only does human experience suggest that this is false – history records many unsavoury characters who have lived to a ripe old age – but more dangerously Zophar’s words can seem to imply that an early death is the consequence of wickedness. This is the conclusion of a simplistic understanding of a doctrine of divine retribution; and it should be vehemently rejected.
The second section (vv.12-19, 20-23) is full of metaphors about eating. It suggests that wickedness, depicted as ill-gained riches, might taste sweet but it is like a poison within. The latter verses change the metaphor to argue that the insatiable greed of the wicked results in there being a general shortage of resources, which brings its own end to their prosperity. Can we relate these words to the ways in which the developed world has raped the earth of its mineral resources at the expense of the poor? Do we recognise the ecological problems which face us as a consequence of our greed? Zophar suggests that God’s wrath will finally fill the stomachs of the wicked.
The poem concludes with violent images of how God’s wrath might be experienced including a graphic description of a mortal wound received in battle and a more supernatural picture of being consumed by an unquenchable fire (an image often used to portray the idea of torment in hell, which probably derives from the ancient practice of burning rubbish in a valley outside the city).
Job isn’t mentioned in the body of the poem but it picks up on many words and images used by Job in earlier chapters to describe how God is treating him. Zophar applies them to express God’s response to the wicked and so makes clear that he regards Job as among them. Let us never try to claim that we are merely engaging in a theoretical discussion when, in truth, we are directing an attack at the other party.
God of truth, human language is able to express much truth through images and metaphor; but help me to see how false and hurtful it can also be when thoughtlessly used. Preserve me from using words deceitfully, or from throwing back at others words that they have uttered in the heat of the moment. May I treasure the beauty of language and use it always with the intention of making known the gospel of Christ in richer, engaging ways. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.