Wrestling with Suffering: Why do the wicked prosper?
Text: Job 21:7–16 ESV
Have you ever had a three or four-hour conversation with someone—a deep conversation about meaningful and thoughtful ideas—and then gone home to a spouse or gone out with friends and tried to summarize that conversation? It is never very easy. Sometimes we try to relay things chronologically. We start at the beginning and try to remember every word that someone said, relaying both their responses and ours. Usually that fails pretty quick as our memory proves as strong as a wet noodle and as quick as a college student getting out of bed at 5:00 AM. So, we switch to trying to summarize the discussion. We talk about the larger feelings, the larger topics and the final outcomes. This works okay, but we often have it jumbled and confused, and by this point both parties are usually exhausted just from the retelling of the story. A summary sentence is said, and everyone moves on.
Conversations often don’t work in a way where we can easily dissect one sentence at a time and make meaning from that one statement. Statements build and flow together with other statements. The whole makes sense of the parts. In fact, it is usually so rare that we have that one statement or a specific moment that crystalized and embodied an entire discussion’s worth of words that we can all remember that moment it happened in a conversation with a parent, friend, or professor. And you likely remember those moments to this day.
The amazing thing about Scripture is each word is the very word of God and worth spending time studying. And God is good to give us his words in ways very familiar to us. Much of Scripture works in the ways we just described. In the narrative sections of our Bible, much of the Old Testament and even into the Gospels, we see a point unfold over several sections of a chapter and perhaps across chapters as the authors help us see God’s movement among his people over a length of time. Wisdom literature like the Psalms are meant to be read in full that we might see the entire thrust of the writer’s point. In fact, the few parts of scripture that easily lend themselves to pulling out just a phrase or small sentence are the epistles and pastorals—letters to people where the author is slowly building an argument and they make it very easy to take each building block in turn so we can understand their thinking and the case they are building.
Remember now that we are reading through Job. This is a conversation between not just two people, but Job and his three friends, a bystander, Elihu, and eventually God himself. And Job calls these three friends “bad” counselors. They are not thinking clearly and so not always making clear arguments. In fact, Job is hard to preach because you often need to sum-up conversations that cross multiple chapters that build and crescendo at different points in the discussion.
For instance, even though Job starts out easy to follow, it doesn’t continue that way very long. From the beginning we easily saw that Job was questioning if God was there in the midst of his suffering. We saw how his friends offered both good counsel (through just being with him and caring) and bad counsel (pretty much everything else).
Yet, as the conversation progresses, we have to keep note that there are several strains of the conversation that develop as we go along. Job’s friends keep commenting that God must be mad at Job. That is what leads Job to admit he needs an arbiter in order that he might be in right relationship with God again. That is what Andrew preached on when he talked about the smile of God being upon you in Jesus Christ, using Job 9:33 as a summary for that thought.
Again, and again Job’s friends tell him he must be evil and deserves this punishment and suffering. In fact, it is right after our section today that Job’s friend Eliphaz moves from asking Job to look for whatever wickedness must be there to outright declaring Job is a very wicked man. This leads to Job’s moment of hope amidst suffering—as Luke Salik pointed out last week—in declaring that Job knows he has a redeemer and he knows he will see him face-to-face someday. It is a beautiful declaration of hope in Jesus Christ, our redeemer seen in Job’s statement in Job 19:25.
Our section today is a great one to examine exactly how this type of argument occurs within Job. The crux of the argument that culminates in Job 21 is about the wicked—do the wicked always and necessarily suffer on this earth? This argument starts clear back in Job 8:22, where Job’s friend Bildad says:
“Those who hate you [the righteous] will be clothed with shame, and the tent of the wicked will be no more.” (Job 8:22 ESV)
The argument is that on this earth you will always see retribution for wickedness. Their tents will be no more. They will be clothed with shame now—today.
Job’s friend Zophar picks up this argument in Job 11:20:
“But the eyes of the wicked will fail; all way of escape will be lost to them, and their hope is to breathe their last.” (Job 11:20 ESV)
Things will get bad for the wicked in this life, so much so that their only hope will be to die and “breathe their last.”
Eliphaz continues the disagreement in Job 15:20:
“The wicked man writhes in pain all his days, through all the years that are laid up for the ruthless.” (Job 15:20 ESV)
He goes further and declares that the wicked will always have difficulty.
Not only does the rhetoric of the discussion continue to ramp up throughout their conversation, but it also gets longer. In Job 18 Bildad spends most of the chapter, verses 5–21 talking about the sure fate and suffering of the wicked here and now. Here is just a taste of what he says in Job 18:5:
“Indeed, the light of the wicked is put out, and the flame of his fire does not shine. The light is dark in his tent, and his lamp above him is put out. His strong steps are shortened, and his own schemes throw him down.” (Job 18:5–7 ESV)
Zophar continues to pile on the accusations in chapter 20 by spending the entire chapter proclaiming that the wicked surely suffer here and now, and it is the sure sign that we can identify someone who is wicked by their suffering. Here is what he says in Job 20:27–29:
“The heavens will reveal his iniquity, and the earth will rise up against him. The possessions of his house will be carried away, dragged off in the day of God’s wrath. This is the wicked man’s portion from God, the heritage decreed for him by God.” (Job 20:27-29 ESV)
The earth “will” rise up. His possessions will be dragged away. It is certain, it will happen now on this earth, and the fact that Job is suffering is the proof that he is one of these wicked people. As I already mentioned, Eliphaz finishes this argument out in the next chapter (Job 22) by outright declaring Job’s guilt. There is no more questioning, no more persuading, they have judged that Job is suffering because he is a wicked man.
These are his friend’s comments up to our passage this morning. But Job hasn’t been silent throughout this discussion. In fact, he is often replying to each of these statements. If we go back and follow Job’s statements, he starts in Job 9:24 saying:
“The earth is given in to the hand of the wicked; he [God] covers the faces of its judges—if it is not he, who then is it?” (Job 9:24 ESV)
Job is saying to his friends that even if this is true, that the wicked should find suffering in this life, it isn’t happening. That God must be “covering the faces of its judges” so they can continue in their wickedness. In Job 10:3 Job says to God himself:
“Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the designs of the wicked?” (Job 10:3 ESV)
Job doesn’t see that the wicked “get theirs.” Instead, he sees God oppressing those whom he has created, redeemed, and sanctified—namely himself—and he doesn’t understand it. Again, in Job 12:6 he says in response to his friends:
“The tents of robbers are at peace, and those who provoke God are secure, who bring their god in their hand.” (Job 12:6 ESV)
Job’s main response to his friends comes here in chapter 21. Start at verse 7 with me:
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.
[Job goes on to mock his friends here…]
“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? [Implied: not always, or not surely]
(Job 21:7–18 ESV)
Jobs friends have been using a logic that is very familiar to us all, which is why it seems very hard to dismiss from the get-go. If a=b and b=c then a=c—it’s called the Transitive Law. If that bird flying out there in the sky is a duck, and all ducks have webbed feet, then that bird has webbed feet. Job’s friends are saying that all wickedness receives suffering, you are suffering, then you must be wicked. Job realizes that he can’t just say he isn’t wicked, who would necessarily believe that. Of course a wicked person is going to say they aren’t wicked! Instead, he demonstrates that their premise doesn’t work. If we see wicked people who never see suffering in this life, couldn’t we also assume that we will see righteous people in this life who will likely see suffering? Look down to Job 21:27:
“Behold, I know your thoughts and your schemes to wrong me.
For you say, ‘Where is the house of the prince? Where is the tent in which the wicked lived?’
[His friends are saying the wicked don’t even have a place to live their suffering is so great]
Have you not asked those who travel the roads, and do you not accept their testimony that the evil man is spared in the day of calamity, that he is rescued in the day of wrath? Who declares his way to his face, and who repays him for what he has done? When he is carried to the grave, watch is kept over his tomb. The clods of the valley are sweet to him; all mankind follows after him, and those who go before him are innumerable. How then will you comfort me with empty nothings? There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.””
(Job 21:27–34 ESV)
Job asks his friends, “Can you not even see what those who travel about see? The evil man is often spared calamity, and many revere the evil and follow them.” But Job isn’t just interested in getting a good grade in his logic class by pointing out the logical fallacy here (I think it is a Hasty Generalization fallacy). Rather, Job is intent on knowing the wisdom of God. Look back up to Job 21:19:
You say [Job’s summary of his friend’s argument], ‘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?
[Response to ‘them’] Will any teach God knowledge, seeing that he judges those who are on high?
[God’s wisdom] 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 21:19–26 ESV)
In God’s wisdom, some people die in vigor while at ease and secure, another dies in bitterness and poverty—regardless of their righteousness or wickedness. This is all Job says he can know at this moment of God’s wisdom. You might be saying, I agree with that statement. I can’t tell what is going on because I am convinced bad people live good lives and righteous people seem to have awful things happen to them. We might all agree with Hannah who says in 1 Samuel 2:7
“The Lord makes poor and makes rich, he brings low and he exalts.” (1 Samuel 2:7 ESV)
We might agree with the preacher in Ecclesiastes who writes:
“In my [fleeting] life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.” (Ecclesiastes 7:15 ESV)
You might be saying, “This is exactly what I see, but it doesn’t help me one bit. How can a good God allow righteous people to suffer here on earth and wicked people live comfortably?”
It is Job’s last line in the section we just looked at that I think helps us with that perpetual question: “They lie down alike in the dust, and the worms cover them.”
This is why I think Job’s friends fail in their argument: it’s due to a Hasty Generalization fallacy. A Hasty Generalization fails to look at all the data, and his friends have forgotten a crucial reality—we all die, but that is not the end of the story.
When we look at scripture we see an indictment against all of us: Romans 3:23 says
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23 ESV)
And Romans 6:23 continues:
“For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a ESV)
We are all sinners and we will all be judged (Revelation 20, Matthew 25:31–46). A righteous judge would do that to all of us immediately, but we have a very patient and merciful God. The good news of Romans 6:23 is the same good news Job is looking for. Job proclaims again and again he needs an arbiter, a mediator, a redeemer. And Romans 6:23 finishes:
“but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b ESV)
Christ came and offers you and me mercy, grace, and eternal life through his righteous life on the cross. But Christ brought more than that! For the unbeliever, Christ has bought patience as God leads us to repentance. If I was to write Romans 2:4 as a command, it would say this:
“Do not think lightly of His kindness and tolerance and patience, knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance.” (Romans 2:4, reworded as a command)
Romans 9:22–24 says it this way:
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:22–24 ESV)
What if God’s patience with the wicked—vessels destined for destruction—has continued generation upon generation, to get to you—a vessel of mercy? Caligula, Genghis Kahn, Hitler, Pol Pot, that you might have a chance to know God…to walk into the glory that he prepared for you in Christ Jesus to know true Joy? What if, even now, your engagement in suffering is for the sake of those still around you to possibly know God themselves?
Everything changes for us in Christ Jesus related to suffering! Not only do we have assurance that he will judge rightly everyone at the last day, but we know that we are found righteous in him and will ultimately be spared that judgement, even if we experience suffering today.
Jesus call us to enter into this world that still allows suffering for the sake of those to come after us, during our lifetime and beyond. Listen to what he says in Matthew 5:45
“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:44–48 ESV)
We live a life of loving God and his commandments because they are good (Psalm 19:6–11) and because we have an opportunity when things are not going well to show that we live and love a perfect God who is above all. God gets glory when we glorify him through our suffering! And we find our joy! Matthew 6:19–21 says we are storing up for ourselves treasure—Joy—in a future hope. One that is greater than any suffering we could ever endure here, and an eternal inheritance that is great—a life with our God forevermore!
Friends, don’t be quick to make judgements based upon outward blessings or sufferings. As Job says in 21:33 many “clods of the valley” and much of mankind have followed the wicked because outwardly things look good. The wicked may prosper and the righteous may suffer, but both of their ends are sure—both for righteous judgement and for joy for those found in Jesus Christ!
Come with us to communion this morning and celebrate the patience and wisdom of God that would allow suffering to still happen here on earth that he might save some, including you! The suffering of previous generations has brought us to the place where you and I can praise his wonders in Jesus Christ this morning. Our suffering today that might point others to a final hope in Christ Jesus. Most importantly, God knows this intimately. He allowed horrific suffering to happen through Jesus Christ on the cross that he might bring the ultimate joy to each of his sons and daughters. As we pass out the elements, the cup and the bread, hold it and we will take it together.
If you are here this morning and you have been thinking about the suffering you see, around you and in your life, could God be calling you this morning to repentance? That the suffering you see is meant to point you to the only hope you have for ultimate salvation from the suffering of righteous judgement. Please, let the plates pass and come not to a remembrance but to repentance and trust in Jesus Christ alone!