DO THE WICKED PAY?
Job 15–21“How often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out? How often does calamity come upon them, the fate God allots in His anger?” (Job 21:17)Though Job’s friends insisted differently, we all know, as Job knew, that every wicked man is not repayed in this life for his evil deeds.
The fate of the wicked. Both Testaments describe God as a moral Judge who punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. Job and his friends shared this view of God. But Job’s friends assumed God must punish the wicked in this life. Thus it seemed to them that since Job was suffering so greatly, he must have sinned greatly. Job knew he was innocent. And he had observed wicked people who prospered in this life. Their theology was nonsense, for it was contradicted by evidence they refused to even consider. As the New Testament emphasizes, God does punish the wicked and reward the righteous. But not necessarily in this life. Yes, the books will be balanced. But this will take place only at history’s end. In this dialogue only Job seems to have eternity in view as he said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (19:25–26). How tragic that some Christians adopt the simplistic view of Job’s friends, and see all suffering as punishment for sin. God does permit innocent saints to suffer at times, and at times the wicked do prosper. The day of judgment, when all will be made clear, lies in the future. Until then we need to comfort, not accuse, our suffering brothers and sisters.
Eliphaz insisted that the wicked suffer terror and distress in this life, implying that Job must be wicked (15:1–35). Job replied that he had been upright, yet was assailed by God (16:1–17:16). Bildad picked up Eliphaz’s theme, graphically describing the fate of the wicked (18:1–21). Job, upset by his friends’ attacks, again shared feelings of abandonment (19:1–20). Yet he concluded with a magnificent affirmation of faith (vv. 23–27). Zophar added his own poem describing the ghastly fate of the wicked (20:1–29). Job, after quoting his accusers, argued that in fact the wicked often prosper. The clichés his counselors used to imply Job is wicked were nonsence (21:1–34).
Understanding the Text
“Man, who is vile and corrupt” Job 15:1–35. Eliphaz was angry at Job for what he saw as arrogant self-defense. Eliphaz viewed man as sinful, while God acted as if bound by some fixed law, forced invariably to punish the rebel. There was no room in Eliphaz’s theology for the notion that flawed human beings have value to God, or that God is moved by love rather than by a mechanical sense of justice which forces Him to react to each sin with appropriate, measured punishment. Eliphaz’s dialogue was filled with barbs hurled directly at Job. Again and again he brought up things that had happened to Job to illustrate punishments God directs against the wicked (cf. vv. 21; 1:17; 15:30, 34; 1:16; 15:28; 1:19; 15:29; 1:17). Nothing causes us to rethink our concept of God like suffering. When suffering comes to us or to loved ones, we need to remember that our God is a God of love. “Even now my witness is in heaven” Job 16:1–17:16. Job feared that he would die before his friends acknowledged his innocence. Thus he begged the earth not to cover his blood. Yet he was confident that witnesses in heaven knew he was right. Even though he felt devastated that “God assails me and tears me in His anger,” he had hope that a heavenly friend and intercessor would testify to his righteousness and that he would be vindicated. It’s hard when friends wrongfully accuse us or misunderstand us. Then our hope, like Job’s, is that ultimately we will be vindicated by the God who seems to attack us when we suffer. “The lamp of the wicked is snuffed out” Job 18:1–21. Bildad continued the friends’ effort to impose their views of God on Job. Once Job accepted their premise, that God only and always punishes the wicked, Job’s defenses would crumble. He would doubt his own innocence, and no longer hold to what he considered his “integrity.” The image here is a powerful one. In Old Testament times a small lamp was kept burning in even the poorest homes all night long. A house with a snuffed-out lamp was an abandoned, empty house. Building on this image of desolation, Bildad described the calamities that befall the wicked. We too are often tempted to use our theology—or a Bible verse—as a club to beat down the defenses of others. Surely Job’s friends were wrong to attack Job in this way, rather than encouraging him with reminders of the love of God. Let’s not err as they did in our use of God’s Word. “Those I love have turned against me” Job 19:19. Job’s suffering, and his insistence that he had been wronged, had alienated not only his friends but even his loved ones. Rather than treat Job with respect, even little children ridiculed him. His servants paid no attention to him, and his intimate friends detested him. One of the most painful aspects of an illness or any other personal disaster is the impact it has on others’ attitudes. The very time supportive love is most needed, friends and acquaintances back away. It may be uncomfortable for us to spend time with persons like Job. But, as Job cried out, it is while people suffer that they have the greatest need for friends who will “have pity on me.” Again we’re reminded that when another person is hurting is no time for theological discussion. What a hurting person needs is a hand to hold, a caring voice to listen to, and some evidence from friends that he or she is still loved and valued. It is striking that Job, deserted by his friends, continued to have a strong faith in the God he felt has misused him. “I know that my Redeemer lives,” Job affirmed. One day, long after this life was over, Job expected that “in my flesh I will see God.”
The Blessed Bad Guy (Job 21)
Just now our newspaper is filled with reports of a battle between a man and his ex-wife over a multimillion dollar Lotto win. Scan the reports, and the impression grows that both these winners are “bad guys.” From what each one says about the other—and I suspect both are right—each is a moral loser, selfish, and sinful. It’s just one more illustration of the bad guy striking it rich, while the poor, deserving Christian has to keep on struggling. Of course, if Eliphaz or Bildad or Zophar read our local paper, they’d never see that article. All three were careful to reject any evidence that might call their theology into question. That’s what exasperated Job in the end, and led him to confront his friends. God always punishes the wicked? Honestly, “How often is the lamp of the wicked [really] snuffed out?” God crush the evil man? Be honest now! “Have you paid no attention” to the fact that the world over “the evil man is spared from the day of calamity”? What Job finally shouted was, in effect, “Why don’t you get real! Why don’t you face facts? Why don’t you consider what we all know, that sometimes bad guys actually are blessed? That the bad guys often hit the Lotto jackpot, while God’s good guys struggle to make a living?” Job’s point was a good one. His friends preferred to distort reality in order to hold on to a flawed theology. Later God would speak to Job’s friends, and condemn them because “you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has” (42:7). Job, who struggled to understand God despite confusing and even contradictory evidence, had “spoken of Me what is right.” Job had been willing to challenge, not God, but his beliefs about God. Job’s three friends took their beliefs for God Himself, and refused to reexamine them, even when clear evidence in their society called those beliefs into question. This too is a lesson for you and me. Our trust is to be in God, not in our theology. Life constantly calls us to reexamine our beliefs about God, while holding firmly to the conviction that God exists, loves us, and is a rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6). We can trust God completely. We should not have that same trust in our understanding of God’s ways. As Job’s friends finally learned, the bad guy sometimes is blessed in this life, while the good guy suffers. When facts like these don’t fit our theological pigeonholes, it’s time to discard the holes and develop a better understanding of our Lord.
Don’t be afraid to question your beliefs. God won’t be upset. Really.