Alfred Place Baptist Church

20 & 21 Why do the wicked prosper?

Let us turn again to the book of Job and chapters 20 and 21. We are now considering Zophar’s last speech. “Then Zophar the Naamathite replied: ‘My troubled thoughts prompt me to answer because I am greatly disturbed . . .”’ and so on to the end of chapter 21.

Now, we know from the Scriptures that all people know God, but they’re clamping down on their knowledge of God in their hostility and rejection of him. However, there’s an ineradicable knowledge of God, a sense of deity, that God has built into every human being, because people are made in God’s image and in his likeness. So everyone has a conscience and that is God’s monitor that commends us when we do well and rebukes us when we do ill. Also the things of God’s law have been written by God on the hearts of everybody on the planet, whilr his power and glory and his godhead are displayed in the order, design and beauty of the world that he has made. Men are surrounded by the grandeur of God so that they are without excuse, and in addition to that, in many parts of the world there’s been the influence of the Lord Jesus Christ, through his Word and through his people. So, I say, all men are without excuse when they ignore God. All people know that God is straight; they are perfectly aware that God is just, that God hates all that is mean, despicable and cruel. God is angry with the wicked every day. He is no indifferent sphinx-like figure.

So when disease and pain come into men’s lives their natural reaction is, “God is punishing me.” You go bowling with the young people from the church and you send one ball down and it fails to hit a single pin. It trundles into the gutter and a teenager cheerfully says, “Pastor, you’ve been bad this week, haven’t you?” In other words, he’s teasing me that I’m getting punished for my recent sins. When some accident occurs and we total the car then we can think, “Judgment on me for such and such bad actions.” A grandchild gets involved in an accident and end up in hospital and the grandfather thinks of the sins that he’s committed in the past year. He feels somehow guilty because this pain has come into a life he adores. When Norman Mailer heard that Bobby Kennedy had been shot, he says he was overwhelmed with guilt because that very day he’d been unfaithful to his wife. Men’s consciences say God is righteous, God punishes sin and then, when trouble comes into our lives, they feel, “I’m being punished.”

But Job was not being punished for an act of ungodliness, and Job was sure of it. Job knew that there was no single dreadful action for which now God was visiting him with this series of terrible calamities. Job refused to submit to these hapless comforters who all came with that one message: “It’s because of secret wickedness. We don’t know what it is, but you do know.That’s the reason why you’ve lost your children, you’ve lost your property and you’ve lost your health. Confess it, Job. Come clean, Job. Own up, Job,” they said. Four speeches have said this so far, and four times, eloquently and persuasively, Job has rebutted what they’ve said to him.

Now Zophar comes into the pulpit and he preaches yet another sermon to Job and Zophar for the second time, and he preaches the same theme once again. Can you believe it? He has been listening to all that Job has said, already answering Zophar once and also answering his two companions, but again we are going to hear this monotonous insistence on Job’s secret sins being punished, and again Job is going to reject those despairing counsels. What lies before us are just three more speeches, twice more Job answers them, then God speaks, Job sums up his own feelings humbly before God and then the book ends.

Now, the Holy Spirit has put this book in the canon of Scripture because of a worldwide conviction that our sufferings, man’s pains and losses, are a divine punishment for specific sins that men have committed, but the Bible is saying to us in this book of Job that that need not be the case at all, and usually it is not so. It was not so with Job and it is probably not so with you either. There’ve been difficulties that you’ve experienced, mountains and valleys you’ve had to traverse on your pilgrimage, but now providence has brought to read this message. The valleys have not been God punishing you because of the awkwardnesses of your character or the defiances that you’ve shown to God’s wise and good laws. Your sins will certainly be dealt with, of course, all our sins will have to be dealt with because we are living in a moral universe. “It is appointed unto men once to die and then the judgement” (Hebrews 9:27). We certainly are facing a judgement, but the days we live in are days of the longsuffering, tenderness, love and patience of God. It’s a day of grace. This is the day when Jesus Christ is offered to you to be your Saviour; your Prophet to teach you, your Priest to forgive you, and your Kingly Shepherd to guide and protect you all your life. You needn’t go on through life by yourself. You can have God as your God. This is a message to the most wicked of men, and to women who’re facing the biggest problems of their lives today. Today God is kind and loving, and that’s why he’s brought you to read these words.

So, let’s look firstly then at Zophar’s speech in Job 20.

1. ZOPHAR’S SPEECH.

Zophar’s speech begins in the second and third verses with Zophar in effect saying, “You’re getting at me, aren’t you? You’re getting at me. You don’t agree, do you, that wickedness is punished by God in this world?” The penny has dropped, he’s got the message, you see. “I am greatly disturbed. My thoughts,” he says, “are troubled.” He’s troubled because Zophar feels that Job’s stubbornness in not acknowledging, “Yes, I have been . . . I have been bad; I’ve been wicked” dishonours God. That failure to confess his guilt, Zophar believes, results in Job affirming that God is dealing unrighteously with Job in sending these awful trials into his life; Job is making God out to be unjust. Zophar is certain that God can’t allow good people to suffer . . . surely not? “But, according to what you’re saying, Job, you are making God the author of sin, and that’s monstrous,” and so Zophar dismisses Job’s plea of innocence.

i] Zophar explains God to Job.

So, once again, and at length, and very particularly, and very vividly – Zophar is a very eloquent speaker, as the three men so far have been – he explains God to Job. Zophar thinks he knows about pain, he knows about providence, well, everyone does, he thinks. “Everyone knows about pain from ancient times,” he says. “They know this, that wicked people are killed by God.” That’s his philosophy. Men die and are forgotten. It’s all utterly simplistic, and so, in the most juvenile language, he spells it out. Everybody, even the children, can understand what Zophar has to say, and as Zophar speaks you can sense how wrapped up in his own words he is, and this is the answer given to Job. What he says in verses 4–9 is this: “Surely you know how it’s been from of old, ever since man was placed on the earth, that the mirth of the wicked is brief, the joy of the godless lasts but a moment. Though his pride reaches to the heavens and his head touches the clouds, he will perish forever, like his own dung; those who’ve seen him will say, ‘where is he?’ Like a dream he flies away, no more to be found, banished like a vision of the night. The eye that saw him will not see him again; his place will look on him no more. His children must make amends to the poor; his own hands must give back his wealth. The youthful vigour that fills his bones will lie with him in the dust.” So Zophar is appealing to common sense, and the fact that everybody’s always believed this from of old, he claims.

Can you imagine the scene? Here is Zophar, glowing with health. Do you see him? His eyes are sunk in his big fat cheeks and he’s wearing an embroidered garment, his coat of mourning that he’s brought out of his cupboard. He’s got his servants outside with his chariot to drive him home. He’s a picture of smug health and prosperity. He’s an advert for the fitness and wealth heresy, and he’s speaking to Job. Now, can you see Job? Job is just covered with boils. He’s on the dung heap and he’s got a piece of pot in his hand and he’s scraping the puss from his wounds. He thinks he can tell Zophar what God is like and all about pain. What insolence, thinks Zophar! “My troubled thoughts prompt me to answer because I am greatly disturbed,” he says in verse 2.

Today you hear this kind of arrogance everywhere, don’t you, especially in the professing church? The sound of bruised reeds being snapped. You can hear it everywhere. Feeble, suffering lives being bulldozed, people dealt with so cruelly. We know how children can be cruel to other children who are different in some way. You understand what Zophar is doing now. He says this of Job, “Though evil is sweet in his mouth and he hides it under his tongue, though he cannot bear to let it go and keeps it in his mouth, yet his food will turn sour in his stomach; it will become the venom of serpents within him” (vv.12–14). What’s he talking about? Who is this man he’s talking about, this wicked man who hides his wickedness under his tongue? He’s talking about Job. “That evil that you’re hiding from me, it was so sweet to you, but when it goes down into your stomach and you start to digest what you’ve done, it will be like poison spreading to every part of your body,” he says. “You’re not going to enjoy your ill-gotten gains,” he says to this man who has been stripped of everything. “I’ll tell you why,” he says, and he describes the sort of thing he imagines that Job has done: “He has oppressed the poor and left them destitute; he has seized houses he did not build” (v.19). “But,” Zophar adds, “You’re not going to live to enjoy the fruits of your greed. God is going to vent his anger against you (v.23), he’s going to smite you. You know, one day you’ll be trying to escape, Job. You’re going to try to avoid the justice of God and very, very leisurely God will pick up his bow and he’ll take out his arrow with its brass tip; he’ll set the arrow in the cord and he’ll pull back. Then he’ll watch its whole flight and he’ll plot the whole trajectory. It will pierce your back and it will go through into your liver (vv. 24–25) and then there’ll be nothing left,” Zophar says, “but total darkness (v.26), and a consuming fire. The heavens say to men who are struck down like that in their wickedness, with illness and calamity, ‘You’re a wicked man and God has found you out.’ That’s what they’ll say, and the earth will unite with them and speak up at that time. The hills and the stones of your house and the wood of your bedroom and the furniture in every room will all speak up (v.27). The earth will supply the evidence against you and your whole house will be carried away. You’re just like the men who lived at the time of Noah and they wouldn’t listen and the flood came and took them all away and so it will be.” This is Zophar’s conclusion in v.29: “Such is the fate God allots to the wicked, the heritage appointed for them by God.”

That’s a comforter’s speech to a suffering man! We know of all that Zophar’s known of this man, this wonderful man, his godliness, his love for the Lord, his kindness to the widow, to the unrighteous, eyes to the blind, his giving, his transparent life of integrity; he is a blameless man. He’s never seen Job do one unworthy action, and yet Zophar’s philosophy is so locked in, his prejudice so deeply engrained, that he is insistent that Job must have done something wicked, and thus judgement has now come upon him.

ii] The errors in Zophar’s diagnosis of Job’s suffering.

What’s wrong with Zophar’s diagnosis? It is that he fails to take account of the patience and the longsuffering of God to sinners in this life. He is ignorant of the fact that God tries and tests his own people, sometimes in a way that makes men tremble, and one result is that they are ultimately stronger, weaned from all the glories of this miserable world. And Zophar fails to make a distinction between God’s rod of punishment and his rod of chastisement that he kindly and wisely, like any earthly father, brings to bear upon defiant children of his. Zophar fails to see that it is after death that the judgement comes, not here. There’s going to be a time when the great flock is going to be separated, the goats from the sheep. When his servants say, “Let’s do some separating now,” he will reply, “No, let the wheat and the tares grow together and when the harvest comes, then we’ll separate the two.”

And so Zophar finishes his sermon and he never speaks again in Scripture. That’s the end of his words in the Bible. His unpastoral theology is utterly exhausted in the two discourses he gives.

2. JOB’S REPLY.

Now let’s look at chapter 21 and Job’s reply to Zophar. “Please listen,” he says. That’s the first six verses. He’s just engaging with him (Zophar) but with the other two men who are sitting with him. “Please listen.” Because they’ve not been listening, have they? Because what Job is going to say, he’s said before. Because what they’ve said to him, they’ve said before. Four times he’s answering them. And the same message now is being thrown at Job. Now you know what the message is, unless our suffering is the just response of a righteous God towards sins that we have committed, then the whole world order is going to collapse. Because, then, if Job is being dealt with as a sinless man in this way by God then this is an unrighteous God and so we’ve got nothing left; if there’s cosmic malevolence dominating heaven and earth, we’re in a frightful state, the whole world is going to implode. Now, all these three men then are insistent that the punishments that come to us in our lives are for sins that we’ve committed. So Job says, “Read my lips. Listen carefully to my words. And if you listen carefully, then you’ll be true comforters to me or other believers who are under the same circumstances. Please bear with me. Don’t interrupt. Mock after I’ve finished speaking” (vv.2–3). “I’m not complaining now,” he says, “about the Sabeans and the Chaldeans who came and stole my herds and killed my servants. I’m not complaining about your incomprehension at my answers. What am I complaining about? Look at me, look at me. A God lover, a God servant, someone who’s pleased God, and look at me. Look at the state I’m in – skin and bones. See the condition of your holy friend. Look at me. Be astonished. Clap your hand over your mouth at what I’m going to tell you. Even,” he says, “when I think about it, I start to tremble. But I’m going to tell you one more time (vv.4–6).

Now that is the tantalizing introduction. What is he going to tell us? There’s a little irony here, but there’s great tenderness. Job is under the mandate, as all of us are, to love our enemies, and these men in their counsels have been the enemies of Job, but he answers so lovingly to them. What’s he going to say that’s so shocking? What’s the fruit, then, of the observations of this wise man who has walked with God for many, many years? What thoughts does he have? Now, are you ready to receive them? Well, he’ll tell you.

i] Job considers the wicked.

Far from the wicked being judged and punished by God for their evil deeds, this is what happens . . . (and he’s going to tell us in vv.7–16) . . . so, let’s read these truths. Now to us they’re evident, aren’t they? They’re so obvious, and the reason is that we have the whole of revelation. Job lived at the time of Abraham, even before Moses. He didn’t have much Scripture at all. He had a few of the deeds of the Patriarchs and Noah as his word from God, but you and I have got the Psalms and the Prophets, and we’ve got Jesus in the flesh in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and all the New Testament writings. We’ve got the fact that the holiest man on this earth was crucified and so no one can say, “Ah, well then, God always rewards with health and long life his people” because his own Son dies in his early thirties. So this is what he says: “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power? They see their children established around them, their offspring before their eyes. Their homes are safe and free from fear; the rod of God is not upon them. Their bulls never fail to breed; their cows calve and do not miscarry. They send forth their children as a flock; their little ones dance about. They sing to the music of tambourine and harp; they make merry to the sound of the flute. They spend their years in prosperity and go down to the grave in peace. Yet they say to God, ‘Leave us alone! We have no desire to know your ways. Who is the Almighty, that we should serve him? What would we gain by praying to him?’” (vv.7–15). All right, that’s what they say. Do you understand? Job is saying, “You’ve been turning a blind eye to this. Isn’t this obvious to you?” Godly widows suffer, don’t you see it? Thieves and murderers get away with it. The facts of the crimes are in a folder in a safe in the Police Station while the perpetrator is home working in his garden. Rapists get away with it. They walk the streets, they watch Match of the Day, they go out and drink their pints with their friends and they’ve got blood on their hands. They live long lives even though they’ve stolen and they’ve done well out of their theft. Job stands where Asaph stands in Psalm 73. Godly Asaph says, “God is good. Truly . . . surely he is; God is good to Israel, but the wicked prosper, don’t they? I’ve been plagued, then, all day long, while they’re free. I see them getting fat and sleek. What prosperity they enjoy! What burdens I carry, and I love God! And criminals never think about him from one day to the next. They live in defiance of his laws, but I’ve started to doubt God’s goodness.” We’re not getting our prayers answered; we’re not getting a husband; our loved ones aren’t being delivered from crippling illnesses. Why is God so good to unbelievers and not good to me? That’s Psalm 73 but the writer goes on and Asaph says, “But then I had this thought, that there’s an end that the wicked have.” This life that goes by like a weaver’s shuttle, it ends. They’re on a broad road and every road leads somewhere and the broad road leads to destruction. Then they face the justice of a God who said, ‘I gave you so much and I wrote my law in your heart and I sent you preachers. I sent you Asaph and you know what he believed and what he taught. I sent you Scripture and what did you do with your life? Come and answer to me. What’s this blood on your hands?’”

So, in verse 16 Job begins to examine the wicked Mr. Cool. Mr. Cool isn’t so cool after all. Mr. Cool isn’t in control of all his finances. Moth and rust corrupts what he’s got, what his wife has got, her lovely mink in the wardrobe; her Gucci dresses, they’ve got holes in them, moths have got into them and rust has got under his Rolls. And thieves break through the alarm system that he’s installed and they steal. The Stock Market collapses. A September 11th comes along and he loses so much. So Job says in v.16, “I distance myself from the counsels of the wicked: I don’t sit with them in their clubs. I don’t go on holiday with them. I don’t have any part in their plans and in what they make with their money. I don’t. Let me tell you what else I’ve seen. How often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out? Very rarely. How often does calamity come upon them, the fate God allots in his anger? Very rarely. How often are they like straw before the wind, like chaff swept away by a gale? Very rarely (vv.17–18). You can say, Job says, as both Eliphaz and Zophar have said in their earlier speeches, God has missed out in punishing them. Right, we recognise that, but is he going to punish their children (v.19)? Then he says, “No, no, that’s wrong. Man will be punished. He himself is going to die and he’ll know it. His own eyes will see it (v.20). He’ll drink fully the wrath of Almighty God, and he’ll be so full of that that he won’t be worrying about what’s happening to his children (v.21). Death is going to come. It’s certainly going to come. It’s an appointment that God has made with every wicked man. Here’s one man,” he says, “and he dies in full vigour, completely secure and at ease, his body well nourished, his bones rich with marrow” (vv.23–24). Yes, that’s the rich man in Jesus’ parable. “Another man dies in bitterness of soul, never having enjoyed anything good” (v.25). Yes, that’s the poor man, Lazarus, in Jesus’ same parable. Side by side they lie in the dust and worms cover them both. They’re both dead, but their souls are not in the same place, are they? The souls of the godly are under God’s altar and they’re crying, “Oh, Lord, how long?” and somehow, in heaven, they know how despite and blasphemy is brought on the name of God’s child in this world and they’re longing, they’re longing deeply for the full glory of Christ to be revealed and his name to be honoured and his truth vindicated. They’re saying, “Lord, how long? How long will the blood of the martyrs be poured on this earth?” So both have died, but after death there’s the great separation. So, in v.27 to the end, Job looks at his three comforters and they’ve all said to him, “You must be a very wicked man to have experienced everything you’ve gone through,” and Job says, “I know full well what you are thinking, the schemes by which you would wrong me. You say, ‘Where now is the great man’s house, the tents where wicked men lived?’” (vv.27–28). You see, they’re saying, “Who is he to tell us anything about God? He’s penniless and he’s so sick!” And Job says, “What a little rut you live in! Have you never got outside that creek? Have you never questioned those who travel? Have you paid no regard to their accounts? (v.29). What do people who’ve been to Africa tell you about Africa, or those who’ve been to Asia or those who’ve been to Europe when they’ve come back? Zophar, Bildad, Eliphaz, tell me, when travellers come and talk to you telling you about the situation there, is it any different? The evil man is spared from the day of calamity. Everywhere in the world crooks are being delivered from the day of wrath. Who denounces the criminal’s conduct to his face? Who repays him for what he’s done? He’s carried to the grave in a big, impressive funeral procession, the crowds lining the streets and a watch is kept over his tomb. They stand there, the soldiers, in the place he lived where the soil in the valley was sweet to him. All men follow the hearse; a countless throng goes before him,” he says (vv.30–33). That’s the end of the wicked. “What a great life, and a wonderful state funeral” men say. So, the last words Job says to Zophar are: “How can you console me with your nonsense? Nothing is left of your answers but falsehood!” (v.34).

Now, what is the nonsense, and what is the falsehood? It is that our pain (you are growing weary of this now) and our punishment is the inevitable response of God to secret sins on our part. Yawn! “That,” Job says, “is nonsense, it is falsehood.” Let’s all of us have that deep confidence in our hearts that it is untrue, that we’re not punished by God when sickness and handicap come into our lives because of some sin on our part. It does not mean if you live a long, rich, healthy life then you have had God’s blessing, and that God’s hand is upon you. The flashy worldly woman who has spent a fortune on plastic surgery, with her big bank account, house and car, and all the men and possessions that she says she needs in life is not being blessed by God because of all that stuff. “If you think so you are believing nonsense,” Job says.

3. CONCLUSION.

Let me come to our little conclusion about these two chapters. The whole theme of the book of Job is not suffering, the whole theme of the book of Job is the nature of God. Who is God? What is God like? It’s all about God, this book of Job, and that’s what we’re left with, and that’s what we will be left with. We are left with the Living God.

i] God is wonderfully good and longsuffering.

The first great fact about God is his wonderful goodness and longsuffering. Why do the wicked spend their days in prosperity? Well, because God is patient with them, that’s why. God is giving them years to experience his kindness, he’s giving them time to repent. That’s what he’s doing. He’s giving them months, years, radio broadcasts, tracts, announcements in the paper, their conscience suddenly aroused by something. He’s giving them opportunity after opportunity that they’ll repent, and they’ll turn to God. Men are evil, but God loves them and gives good things to them. He causes the sun to shine on them, the rain, their farms prosper. Not just Christian farmers’ farms, but the old, blaspheming farmer who laces his speech with all of the intolerable execrations of the wicked. God is good, God is loving to that man. You, sinner, God has been so good to you. You haven’t thought of God, it’s been years since you went to church, and you’ve been brought here to be told about the grace and the love of God to you, that he’s spared you until now. He’s been kind to you, that he’s sent his Son into the world and in his love he’s brought you to hear that Jesus can be your Saviour. How good God has been to you, hasn’t he? So, you’re without excuse if you read these word and still reject my Saviour. You are without excuse. You’ve been a beneficiary of every wonderful thing you’ve had in your life. God has given all those things to you. And he’s brought you to read this that you should know that, and that you should turn from your sins and believe in him.

ii] God dealt in a unique way with Job.

The second great fact about God is that how he dealt with Job was unique. The sufferings that Job knew were unique in the degree, intensity and duration of them, as the godliness and god-fearingness of Job was again unique. There wasn’t a man in all the world that could compare to Job. And these things are permitted to be done by Satan to Job in order for all the universe to know God can keep his people in the worst of circumstances. He will keep us by his power. We won’t experience what Job experienced. None of us will. No other man has experienced all the loss that Job went through. But Job clung to God by his fingertips through deep doubts and anguish and so will you. He will keep you fast for your Saviour loves you so. He will. He will do that.

iii] God is benevolent.

And the third great fact about God here is that he is a benevolent God. He’s a kind and loving God, especially to his own people. He does not afflict willingly. God is love. God is a gracious Father. I would plead with you not to be like the prodigal when you return to him. Don’t make excuses and start saying to your Father, “Make me like a servant.” What a pathetic view! This Father knows all about you and he’s willing to take you back as his son, unconditionally, not because you are worthy, but because he loves Jesus Christ so much it will give him honour and glory, and he loves to give glory to his Son. He does that when he saves people and he changes them into his own dear son. But you must come in repentance for your sins and cast yourself on this Lord

So I’m saying to you, “Do not doubt the love of God for you. May his love draw you back to himself todat. Be confident in God!” God stops us from having much pain because our faith couldn’t take it, and God knows this, so he delivers us from certain circumstances. If I was like Job I’d have cursed God and died. I’d have committed suicide. God has saved me from the predicaments that Job was in. But he was with Job and he’ll be with you and he’ll keep you. He’ll keep you in the future and he allows awful things, terrible things, things that take our breath away, to come into our lives. He permits those things because it seems good in his sight to do so. And that is the highest solution to the problem of human pain, “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.” We can say that about everything that happens to us. “If it’s possible, let this cup be taken away from me, nevertheless not my will but thine be done.”

27th January 2002 Geoff Thomas