In chapter 21, Job anticipates chapter 27 and explores the idea of how can God be fair when wicked people do not always get punished in this life?
How can Zophar’s argument be true if Job has lost everything even though he did not commit any specific sin that he needed to be punished for? In fact, what Job has observed is that God seemingly treats the righteous and the wicked alike.
In the first few verses of the chapter, until we reach verse seven, Job takes a surprisingly calm tone. Usually he launches into an attack against his friends, coupled with some sort of insult to goad them on. However, here he is careful to avoid this initially. We can only speculate as to why. Perhaps, Job intends to shock them with the harsh reality: the wicked man does not suffer retribution in this life, rather he often does quite well. This totally disproves Zophar’s contention.
Before proving his point, Job as a righteous man makes clear that he reflects on this only in horror (Job 21:6). He finds the following disturbing:
Why do the wicked still live,
Continue on, also become very powerful?
Their descendants are established with them in their sight,
And their offspring before their eyes,
Their houses are safe from fear,
And the rod of God is not on them.
His ox mates without fail;
His cow calves and does not abort.
They send forth their little ones like the flock,
And their children skip about.
They sing to the timbrel and harp
And rejoice at the sound of the flute (Job 21:7-12).
God permits the wicked to live and prosper. While the Scripture says that the sins of the father will be returned to the third of fourth generation (Ex 34:7), observation may lead one to believe that this is not the case. For example, children benefit from the wickedness of their parents, at least financially.
After Job invokes these points to prove to Zophar that the wicked do not always live in constant fear of divine retribution, he then goes on to show that the wicked often die in peace (Job 21:13).
If Job just ended there, it would appear that all he did was created a foil of the caricature that Zophar (and his friends) made. However, the next section of the chapter makes clear that while evil is not always punished in this life, the wicked suffer from the lack of knowledge of God (Job 21:14-15) and from their own finitude (Job 21:16).
Yet, Job does not understand how this is entirely fair. Some wicked are destroyed, but others are not–is there any sort of ultimate punishment for them (Job 21:17-18)? Job does not have an answer for this. It would be unfair if the wicked simply just die and that their children inherit the punishment due to them (Job 21:19-21), an argument that Job anticipates Zophar will use against him (Job 27:14).
But in this Job, again, appears to be accusing God of injustice. The words appear innocuous: “Can anyone teach God knowledge in that He judges those on high” (Job 21:22)? However, what is Job really saying?
Joseph Caryl observed that Jewish interpreters thought what Job meant was, “Doth God need anyone to apologize for him…or need an advocate to plead His cause” (An Exposition… Chapters 18-21, p. 745)? Caryl himself interpreted the phrase more plainly, that it is presumptuous of man to think he can question God or “be His counselor” (Rom 11:34).
However, it is with pains that we diverge with Caryl on this point. Caryl’s observation is correct, it is seconded in Romans 11, but it is not likely this is where Job himself was coming from. Job takes issue with God’s might making right. He has already previously in this book “conceded” that God is just only because of His sheer power (Job 9:19). So, this means that Job is not saying it is foolish to try to teach God in verse 22. Rather, he is saying that it is impossible due to His highest position in the universe, that even those on high (kings? angels?) are stooped low.
“For though I were right, I could not answer, I would have to implore the mercy of my judge” (Job 9:15) obviously betrays a feeling in Job that he is right, God is wrong, but he cannot do anything about it.
How do we know that our interpretation is preferable to Caryl’s? Let’s observe the immediately subsequent verses where Job goes on to describe how God does not supposedly act rightly:
One dies in his full strength,
Being wholly at ease and satisfied;
His sides are filled out with fat,
And the marrow of his bones is moist,
While another dies with a bitter soul,
Never even tasting anything good.
Together they lie down in the dust,
And worms cover them. (Job 21:23-26).
The fat wicked one and the bitter soul given nothing meet the same end. So, the bitter soul is never given justice in this life and neither is the satisfied wicked one. Job’s point is clear: God allows this unfair turn of events to happen, yet He is fine with this. Again, Job justifies himself rather than God.
It is with this view Job sums up his critique of his friends, and implicitly God. “Behold, I know your thoughts,” says Job in verse 27, anticipating his friends next “gotcha” counterargument. “Where is the house of the nobleman and where is the tent, the dwelling places of the wicked” (Job 21:28)?
After first conceding that wicked will be judged “at the day of fury” (Job 21:30, i.e. the day of judgement), Job argues that in the present life there is no justice. No one confronts the wicked or rights their wrongs (Job 21:31) and they end their lives being buried in peace (Job 21:32). The result of God’s supposed inaction is that “men will follow after him, while countless ones go before him” (Job 21:33) in which the cycle of injustice merely continues.
At this point, particularly in light of verse 30, we can observe that Job entertains the idea of retribution in the afterlife. He views Sheol as a place of peace and apparently agrees with Bildad that the wicked will stand before the “King of Terrors” (Job 18:14). However, waiting until the next life to make right of anything is not good enough for Job. Why does God wait? Is he asleep at the wheel?
Before this occurs, we will see Eliphaz’s final attempt to answer the question of suffering using his wisdom.
Lastly, it is worth taking another look at Job’s invoking of the wicked being “fat” in verse 24 and a very similar discussion in Psalm 73. Asaph observes concerning the status of the wicked in this life and appears to initially feel just like Job, thinking that God is unfair in His dealings:
But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling (Why?)
For I was envious of the arrogant
As I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Asaph fell into the sin of envying how the wicked profited in this life and did not make the sacrifices that the faithful did, as if being faithful profited him nothing.)
For there are no pains in their death,
And their body is fat. (He envied that they died in peace and lived lavishly.)
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like mankind. (They lived the easy life.)
Therefore pride is their necklace;
The garment of violence covers them. (Yet, their life was colored by unrepentant sin.)
Their eye bulges from fatness;
The imaginations of their heart run riot. (While their outside appearance reflects their prosperity, their hearts and minds are drenched in sinful inclinations and thoughts.)
They mock and wickedly speak of oppression;
They speak from on high.
They have set their mouth against the heavens,
And their tongue parades through the earth… (Yet, God allows these sinful men to curse Him with the whole world as witness! Why doesn’t an all-powerful, just God stop this?)
Behold, these are the wicked;
And always at ease, they have increased in wealth.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
And washed my hands in innocence (What benefit is there in being good when being evil gets you ahead in life?)
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
Behold, I would have betrayed the generation of Your children. (Now, Asaph confesses that he would have sinned even greater if he would have taught his congregants that there is no benefit in being righteous and God implicitly smiles upon the wicked by letting them prosper.)
When I pondered to understand this,
It was troublesome in my sight (Just like in the Book of Job, the idea of the Lord not always punishing the wicked and blessing the righteous seemed to go against what he thought made sense about God.)
Until I came into the sanctuary of God;
Then I perceived their end. (Asaph now understands, thanks to revelation, that though their life is ease at the “end” they are punished eternally.)
Surely You set them in slippery places;
You cast them down to destruction. (These are euphemisms for Hell.)
How they are destroyed in a moment! (In the lake of fire their bodies are burned to a crisp.)
They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! (From the hands of the King of Terrors, who we know with them will experience damnation with them in the lake of fire!)
When my heart was embittered
And I was pierced within, (Embittered and pierced with envy.)
Then I was senseless and ignorant;
I was like a beast before You. (In his sin, he was ignorant of the ways of God.)
Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You have taken hold of my right hand.
With Your counsel You will guide me,
And afterward receive me to glory. (God is with the righteous, like Asaph, and when he will be received into “glory” and experience his union with Christ for eternity.)
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. (God is the only true God and we should pursue only Him in this life, not the wealth and ease of wickedness.)
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Our sinful flesh often conflicts with the Spirit, the spirit in us is willing but our flesh is weak, but it is upon God’s righteousness we stand. It is the Lord who sustains us and gives us strength. Those in union with Christ will “forever” be sustained by Him, He will be their light in the New Jerusalem.)
For, behold, those who are far from You will perish;
You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You. (Again, Asaph reiterates the wicked will be damned. This is their ultimate punishment and shows that from an eternal perspective there is no profit in evil.)
But as for me, the nearness of God is my good… (Our reward for righteousness is not external blessings. Asaph at first did not understand this. Job’s friends didn’t. Job himself did not! Asaph now realizes: walking with God, even through the shadow of death and suffering, is its own reward. “Though He slay me now, I will place my trust in Him.” Amen.)