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Job 21:16[ESV] Behold, is not their prosperity in their hand? The counsel of the wicked is far from me.

Job 21:16[NKJV] Indeed their prosperity is not in their hand; The counsel of the wicked is far from me.

How to reconcile? The ESV seems to be saying isn't their prosperity in their hand? but the NKJV states that their prosperity is not in their hand (indeed their prosperity IS NOT in their hand, it is in The Lord's hand).

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  • Simply pointing out the absolutely obvious: Since there are no punctuation signs (such as question marks, for instance) in biblical Hebrew, why would anyone be in the least surprised when translators are not able to tell whether a sentence was meant as an affirmation, or as an interrogation ?
    – Lucian
    Commented May 10, 2021 at 16:45
  • @Pattyde; Tony Lucian seems to be broadly correct, despite any details. However, where did "it is in The Lord's hand" come from… or is that not relevant? Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 23:24

3 Answers 3

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Apparently even Jews can't agree on how to read the Masoretic Text.

Rashi (11th c.) comments:

Behold, is not their prosperity in their hand: This is a question: Is not all their prosperity in their hand?

But the JPS Tanakh reads:

Their happiness is not their own doing. The thoughts of the wicked are beyond me!

The Septuagint (another Jewish source) reads (Brenton translation):

ἐν χερσὶν γὰρ ἦν αὐτῶν τὰ ἀγαθά, ἔργα δὲ ἀσεβῶν οὐκ ἐφορᾷ.

For their good things were in their hands, but he regards not the works of the ungodly.

One is tempted to recall the saying "Two rabbis, three opinions"

So unfortunately I think the answer is that they can't be reconciled. The Septuagint was the authority for early Christians, so perhaps the NKJV is closer to being "correct", if that is one's leaning.

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There is definitely a "not" לֹ֣א in the Hebrew. However, the sense of the sentence in Job 21:16 is still heavily debated as discussed by Ellicott:

(16) Lo, their good (i.e., their prosperity) is not in their own hand.—And that constitutes the mystery of it, for it is God who gives it to them; or the words may be a hypothetical answer to his statement, thus, “Lo, thou repliest, their prosperity is not,” &c.; and then the words, “the counsel of the wicked is far from me,” are Job’s indignant repudiation of all knowledge of their reasoning.

Benson is a little more helpful:

Job 21:16. Lo, their good is not in their hand — These words, says Chappelow, will be more consistent with what goes before, if read with an interrogation; namely, Lo, is not their good in their hand? that is, Is not every thing in their power? Do they not enjoy whatever they desire? To this purpose, he observes, is Sol. Jarchi’s comment. Most commentators, however, read the words without an interrogation, which is certainly more agreeable to the Hebrew text. And Poole, with Henry and several others, consider them as containing an answer to the foregoing questions, and a confutation of the ungodly opinion and practice mentioned Job 21:14-15, as if he had said, Wicked men have no reason to reject God, because of their prosperity, for their wealth is not in their hand; neither obtained nor kept by their own might, but only by God’s power and favour. Therefore I am far from approving their opinion, or following their course. “After the foregoing elegant description of the prosperity of some wicked men,” says Dr. Dodd, “Job proceeds, on the other hand, to confess what was likewise apparent in the ways of Providence, that some of them were as remarkably distinguished by their wretchedness, being exposed to the most dreadful evils and calamities. He knew that while he had been recounting the prosperity of the wicked, he had touched upon a tender point, to which his adversaries would be apt to give a wrong turn, as if he had been pleading the cause of iniquity. He therefore guards against their entertaining any idea of that kind, in this verse, in which he speaks to this purpose: ‘Do not imagine that because I say the wicked sometimes prosper, therefore, I believe their prosperity to be owing to themselves, or in their own hand or power.

Barnes has similar comments:

Lo, their good is not in their hand - Schultens, Rosenmuller, and Noyes, suppose, I think, correctly, that this is to be understood ironically, or as referring to what "they" had maintained. "Lo! you say, that their good is not in their hand! They do not enjoy prosperity, do they? They are soon overwhelmed with calamity, are they? How often have I seen it otherwise! How often is it a fact that they continue to enjoy prosperity, and live and die in peace!" The common interpretation, which Prof. Lee has adopted, seems to me to be much less probable. According to that it means that "their prosperity was not brought about or preserved by their own power. It was by the power of God, and was under his control. An inscrutable Providence governs all things." But the true sense is, that Job is replying to the arguments which they had advanced, and one of those was, that whatever prosperity they had was not at all secure, but that in a moment it might be, and often was, wrested from them. Job maintains the contrary, and affirms that it was a somewhat unusual occurrence Job 21:17, that the wicked were plunged into sudden calamity. The phrase "in their hand" means "in their power," or under their control, and at their disposal.

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https://biblehub.com/job/21-16.htm shows 28 translations. Only 2 versions translate it as a question. There is no interrogative particle in the original Hebrew.

How do we reconcile Job 21:16 in ESV & NKJV?

In this case, NKJV is more faithful to the original Hebrew.

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