68:21 Now when they rose at early morn, they called unto one another.
Lit., “when the shin[-bone] shall be bared”: i.e., when man’s innermost thoughts, feelings and motivations will be laid bare. The implication is that their erstwhile claim that whatever is “expedient” is morally justifiable (see note 19 above), shall be revealed in all its nakedness – namely, as something indefensible and spiritually destructive.
68:22 “Go early to your tilth if you want to harvest the fruit!”
i.e., willingly, gladly humbling themselves before Him.
68:23 Thus they launched forth, whispering unto one another.
i.e., to divine revelation in general, and to the tiding of resurrection and judgment, in particular – the implication being that God alone has the right to decide whether or how to chastise them.
68:24 “Indeed, no needy person shall enter it today [and come] upon you [unawares]”.
Lit., “without their knowing whence [it comes]”. The above sentence, as well as the next, (verse 45), are found in exactly the same formulation in 7:182-18.3
68:25 And early they went, strongly bent upon their purpose.
The term “subtle scheme” (kayd) evidently circumscribes here God’s unfathomable plan of creation of which man can glimpse only isolated fragments and never the totality: a plan in which everything and happening has a definite function, and nothing is accidental. (See in this connection note 11 on 10:5 – “None of this has God created without [an inner] truth”.) Indirectly, the above passage alludes to the question as to the reason why God allows so many evil persons to enjoy their lives to the full, while so many of the righteous are allowed to suffer: the answer being that during his life in this world man cannot really understand where apparent happiness and unhappiness ultimately lead to, and what role they play in God’s “subtle scheme” of creation.
68:26 But as soon as they beheld [the garden and could not recognize] it, they exclaimed, “Surely we have lost our way!”
Sc., “and that, therefore, they need not listen to divine revelation.” For the real significance of the term al-ghayb – of which the above is undoubtedly the earliest instance in the chronology of Qur’anic revelation – see surah 2, note 3. Its use in the above context is meant to elucidate and further develop the idea already touched upon in 96:6 – “man becomes grossly overweening whenever he believes himself to be self-sufficient”. More particularly, the present passage points to the fallacy of the arrogant belief that the solution of all the mysteries of the universe is “just around the corner” and that man-centered science – epitomized in the reference to its being “written down” – can and will teach its adepts how to “conquer nature” and to attain to what they regard as the good life.
68:27 [And then] “Nay, but we have been rendered destitute!”
This is a reference to the Prophet Jonah – see 21:87 and the corresponding notes 82 and 83. As mentioned in 37:140, “he fled like a runaway slave” from the task with which he had been entrusted by God, because his people did not all at once accept his preaching as valid: and so Muhammad is exhorted not to give in to despair or anger at the opposition shown to him by most of his contemporaries in Mecca, but to persevere in his prophetic mission.
68:28 Said the most right-minded among them: “Did I not tell you, ‘Will you not extol God’s limitless glory?'”
Cf. 37:143 – “had he not been of those who [even in the deep darkness of their distress are able to] extol God’s limitless glory”: i.e., who always remember God and pray for His forgiveness.
68:29 They answered “Limitless in His glory is our Sustainer! Verily, we were doing wrong!”
Lit., “while he was still blameworthy”, i.e., burdened with sin and unredeemed by repentance: implying that but for God’s grace he would have died as a sinner.
68:30 And then they turned upon one another with mutual reproaches.