Why do the Wicked Live, Reach Old Age, and Grow Mighty in Power?

Not everyone gets their just desserts.

 Job 21:1-26 (ESV)

Then Job answered and said:

“Keep listening to my words, and let this be your comfort. Bear with me, and I will speak, and after I have spoken, mock on. As for me, is my complaint against man? Why should I not be impatient? Look at me and be appalled, and lay your hand over your mouth. When I remember, I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh. Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their offspring are established in their presence, and their descendants before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them. Their bull breeds without fail; their cow calves and does not miscarry. They send out their little boys like a flock, and their children dance. They sing to the tambourine and the lyre and rejoice to the sound of the pipe. They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol. They say to God, ‘Depart from us! We do not desire the knowledge of your ways. What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him?’ Behold, is not their prosperity in their hand? The counsel of the wicked is far from me.

“How often is it that the lamp of the wicked is put out? That their calamity comes upon them? That God distributes pains in his anger? That they are like straw before the wind, and like chaff that the storm carries away? You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their children.’ Let him pay it out to them, that they may know it. Let their own eyes see their destruction, and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty. For what do they care for their houses after them, when the number of their months is cut off? Will any teach God knowledge, seeing that he judges those who are on high? One dies in his full vigor, being wholly at ease and secure, his pails full of milk and the marrow of his bones moist. Another dies in bitterness of soul, never having tasted of prosperity. They lie down alike in the dust, and the worms cover them.”

Job and his friends can’t argue about what they’d like to argue about, so they hit the next best thing. The issue is whether God could allow a righteous man to suffer as Job has. They can’t argue that; there aren’t other cases like Job’s. So they argue whether God would allow a non-righteous man to not suffer.

Do God’s blessings (in this life) always match what people deserve? By claiming that they do, Job’s friends have painted themselves into a corner.

If just some of the unrighteous have good lives, their thesis is disproved. Job makes that case easily.

All this back and forth between Job and his friends serves to hammer home an important point – not every turn of events is a sign from God. His higher purposes can make almost anything happen. Not every catastrophe is a punishment – not every blessing a reward.

Still, the “theology of just desserts” is so popular that it’s just assumed. In “The Sound of Music,” when Maria and Captain Von Trapp realize that they’re deliriously in love, Maria wonders aloud, “How can this be happening to me?” Then she sings, “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” She knows that God has just granted her heart’s desire, but she can’t figure out where in her “wicked, miserable past” she did something to deserve it – though it must be somewhere.

The idea that this is a gift hasn’t even crossed her mind. She can’t imagine that God just forgave her.

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Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.