They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol. 14 They say to God, ‘Depart from us! We do not desire the knowledge of your ways. 15 What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him?’ Job 21:13-15
There’s two big questions Job deals with in this long, depressing book. The first is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Why were Job’s lands, livestock, and children all taken away, when Job had done his best to live a blameless and upright life before God?
But the second question may actually do more violence to our souls: “Why do good things happen to bad people?” I mean, MAYBE I could endure the suffering Job endured. Maybe the loss of everything else would drive me further into the arms of God. Maybe I could have the faith to say “When God is all I have, I realize God is all I need.”
Maybe. But I think it would only be if God took away my eyes and ears when He took away everything else. Because otherwise, I would still see the ease and comfort of other people. I would still hear the wicked boasting about their prosperity. And I would wonder why I got the raw deal I got.
That’s what is driving Job to despair in chapter 21. It’s bad enough that the devil has left Job with nothing. But when Job sees his pagan, God-cursing neighbor left with everything, it’s almost more than he can bear.
When I was trained as a disaster relief chaplain earlier this year, we were asked to role play different scenarios that were based on actual situations other chaplains had encountered on the field. Here’s the scenario my partner and I got:
You encounter a couple sorting through the wreckage of their home after a tornado. You notice that the house across the street is untouched. As you talk to the couple, they tell you that they have always gone to church and tried to be good Christians, but their neighbor across the street has no relationship with God, throws loud parties, and yells at his wife and children all the time. They want to know why their house was destroyed and his wasn’t.
I confess I got the easier of the two roles. I was the homeowner. My partner was the chaplain trying to convince me that God was faithful.
It’s an offense to our sense of justice to see the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. We see this, and something in our spirit says, “It ought not to be this way.”
Where does that something come from? Where do we get that sense of oughtness? The theologian Karl Barth offers this as a proof that there is a world beyond this one. We long for things to be a way that they never are, and never have been. Why? Because God has set eternity in our hearts. God has wired us to long for a world in which all wrongs are put right and all scales are balanced.
I think this is what the Psalmist meant in Psalm 37:
“For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous. The Lord knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will remain forever; they are not put to shame in evil times; in the days of famine they have abundance. But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.”
Psalm 37:17-20 ESV
The prophet Isaiah promised that there would come a day when “every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill will be made low, the crooked made straight, and the rough places made a plain” (Isaiah 40:4).
In other words, a level playing field. We won’t see it on this side of eternity. But the fact that we long to see it at all points to its existence. In Barth’s words:
This is the voice of our conscience, telling us of the righteousness of God. And since conscience is the perfect interpreter of life, what it tells us is no question, no riddle, no problem, but a fact — the deepest, innermost, surest fact of life: God is righteous.
Beloved, sometimes our only solace is that this life is not all there is. And as for the wicked, that is their greatest terror.
FURTHER READING: How Karl Barth Speaks to our Post-Pandemic Needs (Baptist Press)