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In the interaction between Job and his friends, we have witnessed his counsellors grow increasingly agitated with him. They had come to him with a very neat systematic theology, which explained all his afflictions. It was tried and tested. The oral tradition of wisdom affirmed it. Job was simply too sinfully stubborn to receive it.

For his part, Job grew increasingly frustrated at the empty accusations cast at him. Zophar’s second speech had argued that he would receive exactly what the wicked receive, for he was among the wicked. Job 21 records Job’s response to Zophar, which uncovers the shallowness and folly of his exhortation.

In vv. 1–6, Job expresses his hurt at his friends’ approach. He desperately wished that they would remain silent, as they had for the first seven days when they had come to him (2:11–13). He longed for the days of silent comfort rather than the barbed words that were being cast at him now. He knew that his friends would continue to “mock” when he finished this particular appeal, but he pleaded with them to listen to him, anyway.

Zophar had confidently asserted, as an inviolable law, that godless people inherit brevity of life, fleeting pleasure, and painful death. In response, Job argued that this was not always true. On the contrary, it appeared that the godless often inherited the good life for which he longed. In this chapter, he shows that the godless are often happy (vv. 7–16), rarely punished (vv. 17–26), and prosperous in death (vv. 27–33).

It may be helpful to note that Job’s response assumes the same form of Zophar’s accusations. Zophar was basing his theology on what he saw and experienced. Job fires back in the same vein.

If it was true that the wicked inherit brevity of life, as Zophar suggested (see 20:5), “why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (v. 7). Job was not the only person in Scripture to ask this question. Jeremiah (Jeremiah 12:1) and Asaph (Psalm 73) asked similar questions as they wrestled with God. The seeming moral disorder of his world perplexed him, though, as we have seen, it did not ultimately destroy his faith.

In vv. 8–13, Job offers a vivid, poetic description of the prosperity of the wicked. Unlike him, their lives were characterised by prosperity, and they seemed, frequently, to die peacefully in their sleep. According to Zophar’s systematic theology, people who experience these blessings must be godly, but Job described their godless character and lifestyles in vv. 14–16. Why did those who resisted God’s authority prosper so?

Job’s response continues in vv. 17–26 as he argues, contrary to Zophar, that, in this life at least, the wicked seem to easily escape punishment. Far from being wheat blown by the chaff, it appeared that the godless were firmly established in this life. Unlike Job, the wicked too often experienced death in “full vigour” while “being wholly at ease and secure,” with “pails full of milk and the marrow of his bones moist.” This certainly did not fit with Zophar’s description of God’s swift, decisive action against the godless.

To make matters worse, while the godly were often quickly forgotten in death, experience taught Job that the wicked often prosper in death (vv. 27–33). “The evil man is spared in the day of calamity” and “rescued in the day of wrath.” Moreover, “when he is carried to the grave, watch is kept over his tomb.” Job’s friends were so cocooned in their own systematic theology that they were ignoring the realities to which any eyewitness could bear testimony. Far from leading lives of pain and misery, the godless too often lived the good life.

Job concludes with a stinging rebuke: “How then will you comfort me with empty nothings? There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood” (v. 34). Their counsel was useless. It did nothing for him. Their “truths” were utter “falsehood.”

Job’s response is important for those who wish to respond to suffering brothers and sisters as Christ, the Good Shepherd, would. Prosperity and happiness are no sure sign of a person’s spiritual state. We dare not immediately conclude that suffering is evidence of godlessness. We need to learn to enter a person’s story rather than drawing half-baked, superficial conclusions based on what we can see in their lives.

As you meditate on Job 21 this morning, as God for this shepherdly wisdom. Ask him to give you the grace to walk with those who are suffering in a way that seeks to understand their situation before you pass superficial judgement.