Why do the wicked prosper? (Job 21)

Reading through the book of Job can seem like an arduous task, but for those who will persevere through the book and who will carefully consider the dialog among the characters, it will be a richly rewarding experience.

In my annual reading through the Bible, I recently found myself in the middle section of the book of Job. Job is the story of a righteous man who is suddenly devastated and loses all his wealth and all his children. He is left destitute, sitting in ashes as he scrapes the scabs off his skin. His three friends come from afar to comfort him and thus ensues a debate about the nature of God and about how He metes out His rewards and punishments. And here in this middle section, the dialog between Job and his friends intensifies as Job continues to assert his innocence despite his wretched circumstances and his friends insist that his suffering is irrefutable proof of his wickedness. According to the theology of Job’s three friends, “Everyone knows that, in this life, God always rewards and prospers the righteous and punishes and casts down the wicked.” And so, this fascinating theological drama unfolds, and the heat of the debate steadily escalates.

In this escalation, then, we come to chapters 20, 21 and 23. I want to talk about each of these chapters separately and reveal some insights out of each chapter. The last article was on chapter 20 as we examined “Zophar’s religion.” In this article we will read carefully through Job chapter 21 and see how Job responds to Zophar.

Job spends much of this chapter refuting Zophar’s claims about the earthly miseries of the wicked. As we saw in chapter 20, Zophar’s theology holds that God brings His judgment on the wicked while they live in this life. Job claims this is not so. On the contrary, in most cases the wicked live long and pleasant lives while they defy and even despise the living God. The wicked live brazenly lawless lives with apparent impunity. How do we make sense of this? Is life just arbitrary and random? How does this accord with God’s justice and His holiness?

In 21:7-13, Job describes the life of the wicked in this way: The wicked “live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power (21:7).” Their offspring prosper (8), and the houses of the wicked are safe (9). Their livestock never fail to breed (10), their children dance to the music of the lyre (11-12), and they spend their days in prosperity and die in peace (13). According to Job’s reckoning, Zophar’s prosecution collapses because his observations about the life of the wicked are flawed.

The truth is that, in this life, the wicked are seldom punished as their sins deserve (Psalm 103:10). Why is this? The wicked are not judged by God in this life, because, by God’s kindness and forbearance and patience, He may be leading these wicked people to repentance (Romans 2:4). Those who are now wicked may be among the Lord’s elect (2 Tim. 2:10) and may yet be shown God’s mercy (Romans 11:31) and be saved. So then, God delays His judgement: 1) to bring all His elect to salvation; and 2) to demonstrate His patience, even toward those who will eventually perish (Romans 9:22).


First, it should be noted that, contrary to worldly wisdom, a person’s earthly circumstances in life do not reveal the person’s spiritual condition. The righteous may be in the ghetto or the dungeon, while the wicked basks in luxury and ease. This is the case because God, and God alone, sovereignly determines out circumstances according to His divine will. He gives and He takes away as He sees fit for His glory (Job 1:21).

The second point is that our circumstances are not entirely a matter of mystery. What do I mean? In Job 21:23-26, Job observes the unfairness and disparity of life. “One dies in full vigor (23),” while “another dies in bitterness of soul, never having tasted of prosperity (25).” But then Job observes, “They lie down alike in the dust, and the worms cover them (26).” One is exalted while another is abased, but they both die to be eaten by worms. This sounds like Qohelet in Ecclesiastes, when he says that the same death awaits every man alike. But here is the key to this very difficult concept: The Lord God sovereignly determines our EARTHLY CIRCUMSTANCES according to His SECRET WILL (Psalm 115:3), but He determines our ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCES according to His REVEALED WILL. That is, the Lord gives us our EARTHLY CIRCUMSTANCES so that we will trust His goodness and pray for His blessing, but He determines our ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCES based on our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.


The conclusion of the matter, I think, comes down to this: Since our earthly circumstances are ordained by God and are given to us in His divine sovereignty, we who know the Lord should accept our circumstances and be content with them (Philippians 4:10ff), while we continually look to the Lord for His strength and wisdom, “making the most of the time, for the days are evil (Ephesians 5:15-16).” Those who know the Lord should also praise His name, that by His grace we have been delivered from the domain of darkness (Colossians 1:13-15) and have been seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:5-6) and our eternal circumstances have been forever secured by the work of Christ and by our faith in Him.

SDG                 rmb                 4/30/2020

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s