Zophar’s Religion (Job 20)

Reading through the book of Job can seem like an arduous task, but for those who will persevere through the book and who will carefully consider the dialog among the characters, it will be a richly rewarding experience.

In my annual reading through the Bible, I recently found myself in the middle section of the book of Job. Job is the story of a righteous man who is suddenly devastated and loses all his wealth and all his children. He is left destitute, sitting in ashes as he scrapes the scabs off his skin. His three friends come from afar to comfort him and thus ensues a debate about the nature of God and about how He metes out His rewards and punishments. And here in this middle section, the dialog between Job and his friends intensifies as Job continues to assert his innocence despite his wretched circumstances and his friends insist that his suffering is irrefutable proof of his wickedness. According to the theology of Job’s three friends, “Everyone knows that, in this life, God always rewards and prospers the righteous and punishes and casts down the wicked.” And so, this fascinating theological drama unfolds and the heat of the debate steadily escalates.

In this escalation, then, we come to chapters 20, 21 and 23. I want to talk about each of these chapters separately and reveal some insights out of each chapter.

In chapter 20, Job’s third friend, Zophar, unleashes a withering series of pronouncements about the fate of the wicked. According to Zophar, the wicked and the godless man “will perish forever like his own dung (20:7).” His food turns into “the venom of cobras” in his stomach (14). “A bronze arrow will strike him through (24),” and “the glittering point comes out of his gallbladder (25).” Terrors come upon him; utter darkness; fire will devour him. It is truly a frightening list, but there are also some questions that come to mind as this list is considered.

The first problem is that, while the Bible consistently asserts, and our theology firmly holds to, the punishment of the wicked in the final Judgment at the end of the age, Zophar seems to be depicting the punishment of the wicked in this life. But even a casual glance at our world today or a review of world history will show that, in this life, the wicked often prosper and enjoy themselves till the day of their death (see Psalm 73, etc.). From this we can see that Zophar’s theology is disconnected from the Bible and from reality. Because his views are based on man’s philosophy of cause and effect (much like the Hindu idea of karma) and are founded on a righteousness that is merited, he is in error.

But another question also presents itself: “Why is Zophar giving this scathing diatribe about the fate of the wicked to Job?” Of course, the answer is obvious. Zophar is pontificating about the wicked for Job’s benefit, so that Job can be frightened out of his own wickedness and can thus escape from this horrible fate. It is painfully apparent that Job’s three friends, upon observing Job’s dreadful circumstances, have come to the conclusion that Job must be hiding grievous iniquity and must be persuaded to confess his sin so that God will remove all his suffering and will restore him to his previous prosperity. According to the three friends, “If Job is good, then God is obligated to give him good circumstances, but if Job is wicked, well, God must give him bad circumstances.” What is really at issue here? When we dig down to the root of the theological debate, we find out that the religion of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar says, “Good people go to heaven; bad people go to hell.” It is a religion of relative righteousness, where men and women work their way into favor with God by their best human efforts. Most damning of all is that this is a cross-less religion that does not require the slaughtering of the Lamb of God on Calvary’s tree. Jesus’ blood is not required for people who earn their relative righteousness. Thus, for those whose religion is like the religion of Job’s three friends, “Christ died needlessly (Galatians 2:21).”

REFLECTION:

The religion of Job’s three friends is common. In fact, this religion of relative righteousness is much more common than may be initially thought. The truth is that it is very possible to have this religion even if you are a professing Christian. Human wisdom says that all decent, upstanding people must be heaven-bound. Human wisdom holds tenaciously to the illusion that material prosperity is God’s blessing on a good life. Like the religion of Job’s friends, human wisdom declares that all people are basically good and states that all that is required to please God is a life that avoids the “big” sins and conceals the other, lesser sins under a veneer of polite decency.

What do we make of this? As long as our discussion about righteousness is an exercise in comparing one sinner with another, then we can debate long into the night and not tip the scale one way or the other. When Jesus enters the conversation, however, everything changes. Now we must deal with one who was absolutely righteous, who committed no sin. And, with Jesus’ violent death on the cross, we see the horror of sin and we see a vivid display of what God thinks of sin. As I gaze at the cross of Christ, all concept of working my way to a position of relative righteousness is crushed. My only hope is to confess my wretched unworthiness and to repent of my sin and to cry out to God to save me. So, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the solution to the warped wisdom of man.

SDG                 rmb                 4/27/2020

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