At first glance, it’s easy to envy their position.
The question that plagues me is not so much “Why do the righteous suffer?” but rather “Why do the wicked prosper?”
Why can one businessman cheat his customers and strike unethical deals and drive a new Cadillac – while a Christian committed to righteousness in the same field has to drive a beat up old car?
Why should a man who has been cheating on his wife for years have such nice children – while his Christian neighbor struggles with kids who are driving him crazy?
Why does my neighbor, who goes fishing every Sunday morning when I’m at church, catch the biggest fish – while I can hardly catch a thing on the other six days?
Such questions are not new. The psalmist Asaph struggled with the same issue.
As he confesses in Psalm 73, it created a tremendous spiritual instability in his life. “My feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:2, 3).
Envying the wicked puts us in a precarious place. Think of how many of God’s people have compromised themselves while trying to keep pace with the world. There is a great temptation to worship at the temple of prosperity. Too easily we begin to suspect that righteousness is less than rewarding.
If all we see is the world around us, we will surely fall. When Asaph compared his life to the prosperity of the pagans, he felt cheated. In his misery, he relates every detail of their gain.
People who are in the clutches of misery can always give detailed accounts of their problems. Over and over we rehearse our reasons for feeling so bad. In the process, our problems become exaggerated.
This is how it was with Asaph: “For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds knows no limits. They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. They say, ‘How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?’
This is what the wicked are like – always carefree, they increase in wealth” (Psalm 73:3-12).
In his pity, Asaph bemoans that his commitment to personal purity has netted him nothing (v. 13). A slight exaggeration – but when you’re in the midst of self-pity; it’s hard to be positive.
“Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed your children. When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me” (vv. 13-16).
Asaph sounds more interested in cash than in character. He wants his righteousness to pay off in tangible terms, in physical strength rather than in spiritual health. And because it hasn’t, Asaph is discouraged and ready to drop out. He is walking around defeated, pretending all is fine (v. 15).
Had I lived in Israel’s Northern Kingdom in Naboth’s day, about a hundred years after Asaph, I would have faced a strong temptation to struggle with the unjust prospering – at the expense of the just.
Naboth was a common Israelite who owned a vineyard near King Ahab’s palace. The king wanted Naboth’s land for a garden. But Naboth refused. It was his family’s land, his heritage. In that day, inherited land was a treasure to pass on for generations. Naboth was a man of true values. No price could buy it from him.
Ahab, a corrupt king, pouted in his bedroom. When his wife, Jezebel, found what was wrong, she saw that Ahab got his garden. She hired false witnesses who testified that Naboth had cursed God and the king. They seized Naboth and stoned him to death. Ahab had his garden (1 Kings 21:1-16).
On hearing Naboth’s fate, my heart cries out, “Where is God? Why do the wicked prosper?”
God’s Big Picture
In the scope of eternity, the wicked do not prosper. Ultimately, God did deal with Ahab and Jezebel. In the nick of time, Asaph looked to God for his answer. “It was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (Psalm 73:16, 17).
Life is far more than the here and now; it extends into eternity. When he looked to God, Asaph ceased envying the wicked and regained his spiritual stability.
I have a friend who says that if all you see is the here and now, you will misunderstand everything. Like Asaph, we must reject this two-dimensional focus and let God’s perspective be a part of our perceptions.
As a child, I enjoyed 3-D comic books. With each comic book came a special set of cardboard-framed glasses. Without the glasses, the pages were blurred. But with the glasses, they came alive with action and color. Seeing circumstances from God’s perspective will always give us an accurate assessment of life around us.
From God’s point of view, the wicked are not in an enviable position. As Asaph realized, “Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies” (vv. 18-20).
Is it a sign of prosperity to stand before God and hear Him say, “Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41)? As Christ said, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26).
In Luke 12, Christ told of a wealthy man who was so prosperous that he had to tear down his barns and build new ones. He said to himself, “‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” (vv. 19, 20). Christ concluded by saying, “‘This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God’” (v. 21).
When my children were younger, our family often vacationed in Florida. My plans were to hit the beach and relax. My children planned to play in the water and build sand castles. They usually succeeded in dragging me to the water’s edge, where plans for a phenomenal sand castle were begun. I reluctantly began to help (strictly parental duty), but soon found myself absorbed in the project. About halfway through, the kids were off somewhere else as I designed and built the most spectacular sand castle on the beach. Seaweed formed ivy on the walls. Flags topped each tower. Weeds from the dunes made trees for the landscape.
Then it was time to go back inside. I left the labor of my hands, the product of my creativity. The next day when we returned, my castle was gone, washed to sea.
So it is with the fleeting nature of earthly prosperity in the tide of God’s judgment. From God’s viewpoint, the wicked are not in an enviable position.
Yet why should they prosper even now? I am convinced that God designs it as proof of His mercy and grace. What a picture of God’s willingness to withhold judgment and give us what we don’t deserve. As we see the wicked prosper, our hearts should overflow with praise because we, too, are recipients of that mercy and grace.
But the prosperity of the wicked also proves to us the perversity of the human heart. God’s overflowing goodness drives some to greater independence, rebellion, and wickedness.
This prosperity will silence the objection of some who may seek to excuse themselves from judgment by saying, “If You had been good to me – If You had made me prosperous – I would have believed in You!” Not so. Mankind’s heart is “deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9).
Asaph comes before God embarrassed for envying the wicked. He admits, to his shame, “I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before You” (Psalm 73:22).
Then Asaph redefines prosperity. He affirms that in God he has true prosperity. That is why he begins his psalm with joyful acclamation: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart” (v. 1).
Asaph is prosperous because of God’s continued presence with him (v. 23). As the writer of Hebrews says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5). If God is with us, we have all we will ever need.
Asaph prospers because of God’s protection. “You hold me by my right hand” (Psalm 73:23). He prospers in the fact that God guides him (v. 24). Those who stand apart from God do not have the prosperity of His guidance. The best they can do is grope in the darkness.
Finally, God’s people prosper in the ultimate reward of their faith. “Afterward You will take me into glory” (v. 24). We will prosper in the certain reality of heaven. The time will arrive when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. When there will be no more death or mourning, crying or pain. When the old order passes away and we hear Him say, “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5).
Asaph concludes his discourse on true prosperity by rejoicing in his God:
“Whom have I in heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Those who are far from You will perish; You destroy all who are unfaithful to You. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all Your deeds (Psalm 73:25-28).
In God’s deep, eternal goodness to His people, we see true prosperity.
Dr. Joseph M. Stowell, Moody, July/August, 1991