Many people struggle with this question. Some look at the world and see many people who blaspheme God, covet riches, teach false doctrine, and/or exploit others, accrue wealth, live lives of relative ease, and think, ‘Why are those people so well off?’ For others the thought becomes almost paralyzing. They can’t understand why God would allow such a thing and they, in turn, have a skewed view of who God is in light of what they see. Some, in their misdirected struggle to answer this question, paint with an incredibly broad brush, change the question into a statement and essentially make just about all the prosperous wicked. They say, ‘anyone who is rich is greedy and should [fill in the blank]’ – perhaps give more away or pay more taxes. It’s not hard to see how that kind of reasoning not only fails to take into account the godly wealthy of Scripture (i.e. Joseph of Arimethea, Abraham, Lydia, etc.) but it dodges the real issue. The real question is, “Why does God allow the wicked to prosper if He is in sovereign control of all the happenings in this universe?”
You might have thought this question belonged only to those of us who are not Spirit-inspired writers of Scripture, but this was actually the very question the prophet Jeremiah asked the LORD.
“Righteous are You, O LORD, when I plead with You; yet let me talk with You about Your judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” (Jer 12:1)
This was a genuine question. It’s not as though Jeremiah was doing some recreational, philosophical speculating and wanted to simply get God’s thoughts on the matter; rather, he was contending with men from his hometown who sought his life (Jer. 11:18-19) and he was living among a people who could have God ‘on their lips’ and at the same time far from their affections (12:2). He wasn’t sure how to reconcile their wickedness with their wellness.
As an aside, it’s worth noticing how Jeremiah framed the question in a God-honoring way. And even as he asked the question he proclaimed God’s perfection: “Righteous are you, O LORD” (vs.1a). You get the idea that although Jeremiah didn’t understand God’s judgments, he wanted to be sure to let God know that he knew God was altogether righteous. That posture is an immediate lesson in itself. When you have questions about God’s dealings in the world, vocalize those questions with reverence and humility in light of what you already do know about God.
God responded to Jeremiah in, what might be to some, a rather surprising way. He began His response by saying, “If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with horses?” (Jer 12:5a). In other words, as attested to by the verses that follow, and without going into an extended Jeremiah devotional, God proclaimed that things were going to get harder. Knowing the greater context of the book of Jeremiah, along with Habakkuk’s similar line of questioning, judgment was going to fall upon Judah and Jerusalem via the wicked and pagan Babylonians. So the prosperous wicked of Judah would soon be judged by the prosperous wicked of Babylon. In that we learn at least two things: (a) the prosperity of the wicked of Judah was not indefinite, and (b) Babylon’s’ temporary prosperity would only serve to be a means of judging the wicked of Judah.
Beyond that, when looking at the breadth of Scripture, we can see other reasons why the wicked prosper. Though not comprehensive, here are some of those reasons:
1. To demonstrate God’s grace. God makes His rain fall on the just and unjust (Mt. 5:45). He doesn’t have to; it’s unmerited. Human beings, prosperous or not, are by nature and choice sinners who have transgressed the Sovereign God of the universe. The only thing we deserve is judgment; yet, God, in His grace, gives men: additional breaths, jobs, rain, food, laughter, and much more. Those who are prosperous in this age and yet refuse to trust in the person and work of Christ for the forgiveness of sins will have more to be accountable for [materially] in that they were beneficiaries and stewards of more resources.
2. To demonstrate His judgment. The psalmist, Asaph, contended with the same kind of question in the 73rd psalm. He said his foot almost slipped when he was envious of the boastful and saw the prosperity of the wicked (vs.2b-3). He gives a long description of their ease and comfort, and contrasts it with his own feeling of futility, as he presents the ‘problem’ [or ‘apparent contradiction] of God’s goodness and the prosperity of the wicked. But then, as psalms of lament tend to do, the psalm turns and Asaph articulates the breakthrough he had. He said, “When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me – until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end” (vs.16-17). It’s the following verse that is very telling as it relates to the prosperity of wicked: “Surely you set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction” (vs.18). The ease and wealth and security of the wicked was, and is, really just an illusion! It’s a ‘slippery place’ that is in itself, not only an example of grace, but of judgment! Like an icy hill, wealth can increasingly hasten a person’s descent towards divine judgment by distracting their attention away from the brevity of life and the certainty of divine punishment without cross-bought forgiveness.
3. To instruct the church. The Scripture depicts the transient nature of the wicked’s prosperity, at least in part, for the instruction and edification of the church (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17). It’s as though when the Christian reads about the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel or the destruction of Jerusalem or the prediction of Babylon’s fall, he or she ought to be reminded that the wicked’s prosperity is temporary. Conversely, it should serve as an impetus to store up treasures in Heaven as opposed to Earth. In response to the way the wicked handle prosperity (see Luke 12:13-21) the Christian thinks: ‘I want to reflect the surpassing value of Jesus by not finding my joy in earthly treasures’ or ‘I don’t want to handle whatever prosperity God gives me like they do; I want to leverage it for His glory and His Name’s sake.’
Should you need further encouragement in this matter, let me direct you to the entirety of Psalm 37 and remind you of the glorious ‘prosperity’ freely offered to you in the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mt. 5:5; cf. Ps. 37:11; Rom. 8:17, 32; 1 Cor. 3:21; 2 Cor. 6:10).