Why do wicked people thrive while good people suffer?

Today we’re going to study Job 21 and learn why wicked people thrive while good people suffer. Job 21 tells us Job pondered this question back around 2000 BC. Job had lost his family, his possessions and his health, and in the midst of his suffering he asked, “Why do the wicked still live and become very powerful?”. Job asked this because he was a good man, but he had lost everything, and he wanted to know why the wicked were allowed to thrive. What Job wanted and what we really want is for God to prevent wickedness. However, what we’re going to learn today is that if God had prevented wickedness in Job’s lifetime and if God would prevent wickedness in our society, then we humans would not be free to choose obedience to God, which means we would not be able to love God.

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Text Version

At the beginning of Job’s story, he was healthy, wealthy, and righteous. Then there was a dialogue in heaven between Yahweh and Satan. Satan was given permission to test Job’s loyalty to God so Satan destroyed all Job’s possessions, killed his children, and afflicted Job with boils from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. Job did not abandon God, but he didn’t know why he had suffered this calamity.
Three friends came to visit Job and comfort him. Most of the book of Job records a dialogue that took place between these four men. The friends told Job he was suffering because of sin, but Job insisted he was innocent. After their dialogue ended, Elihu gave his opinion. Then at the end Yahweh spoke and restored Job’s health, wealth, and family. 
Job 21 records one of Job’s speeches.

Job 21

Job 21:1 Then Job answered,
Job 21:2 “Listen carefully to my[Job’s] speech,
And let this be your[Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar] way of consolation.

Notice the word answered. In the previous chapter, we read about Zophar’s belief that the wicked never prosper, meaning Job was suffering because he had sinned. In this chapter Job responded to that. Job believed the opposite of Zophar. He believed the wicked do prosper; in fact, in this chapter Job asked why the wicked prosper.
 The pronoun “this” refers to listening to Job’s speech. Notice the phrase “way of consolation”. Job’s friends were there to comfort Job about his loss; however, Job’s friends had kept accusing Job of being sinful. Here, Job said if they really wanted to console him, they should listen to him instead of talking.

Job 21:3 “Bear with me[Job] that I may speak;
Then after I have spoken, you[Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar] may mock.

Notice the word “mock”. Throughout this dialogue, Job and his friends had been trading accusations and insults. Here, Job assumed that once he was done talking, his friends would accuse him and mock him again.

Job 21:4 “As for me[Job], is my complaint to man?
And why should I not be impatient?

The first part of verse 4 is a rhetorical question. The answer is no, Job was not complaining about man, he was complaining about God. Throughout this dialogue, Job had been complaining that God was being unfair to him.
 In the second part of verse 4 Job was saying he had a right to be impatient because his suffering was undeserved and it had lasted longer than reasonable.

Job 21:5 “Look at me[Job], and be astonished,
And put your[Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar] hand over your mouth.

Look at the phrase, “Look at me”. At one time Job had been wealthy and respected, now he was penniless and reviled. Look at the word “astonished”. I suspect Job was saying his downfall was far greater than anyone else had ever suffered; therefore, his friends should be astonished at what he was going through. Notice the phrase “put your hand over your mouth”. Job was telling his friends they should be so astonished that they don’t know what to say.

Job 21:6 “Even when I[Job] remember, I am disturbed,
And horror takes hold of my flesh.

Notice the word “remember”. When Job remembered his former prosperity, he was disturbed.

Job 21:7 “Why do the wicked still live,
Continue on, also become very powerful?

This is Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry is all about repetition, which means a Hebrew poem can often be summarized in one or two statements. Verse 7 is the theme of this chapter. Job asked, “Why do the wicked still live, continue on, also become very powerful?” Job was asking this question because he knew he was not wicked, and yet he was suffering tremendously. Meanwhile, there were wicked people who were prospering and becoming very powerful. We see the same thing in our society. There are believers who follow Christ faithfully and yet have to suffer through money and health problems. Meanwhile, there are judges and politicians who are greedy, deceitful, abusive, pro-abortion, and/or pro-gay marriage, and yet they are prosperous and powerful. ISIS is murdering Christians and young children and yet they are growing more powerful. It is natural to ask why.

Job 21:8 “Their[The wicked’s] descendants are established with them in their sight,
And their offspring before their eyes,

The pronoun “their” refers to the wicked, particularly the wicked who become powerful. Notice the words “descendants” and “offspring”. Job was talking about the children and grandchildren of the wicked. Notice the word “established”. “Established” indicates the descendants of the wicked were successful and prosperous. We see the same thing in our society. There are people in our society who are sinful and abuse their power, and yet their children and grandchildren become successful and powerful.

Job 21:9 Their[The wickeds’] houses are safe from fear,
And the rod of God is not on them.

Here Job points out the wicked live in safety, even God leaves them alone and does not punish them for their sin.

Job 21:10 “His[The wicked’s] ox mates without fail;
His cow calves and does not abort.

Animals were a measure of wealth. Job pointed out the wicked are wealthy.

Job 21:11 “They[The wicked] send forth their little ones like the flock,
And their children skip about.
Job 21:12 “They[The wicked] sing to the timbrel and harp
And rejoice at the sound of the flute.

Job pointed out the wicked enjoyed a lot of entertainment.

Job 21:13 “They[The wicked] spend their days in prosperity,
And suddenly they go down to Sheol.
Job 21:14 “They[The wicked] say to God, ‘Depart from us!
We do not even desire the knowledge of Your ways.
Job 21:15 ‘Who is the Almighty, that we[The wicked] should serve Him,
And what would we gain if we entreat Him?’

Notice the single quotation marks before “depart” and after the question mark. All of this is what the wicked says to God. The picture here is of the wicked shoving their hand in God’s face and telling Him to leave them alone. We see this in our society. There are powerful, prominent people who claim God does not exist, in fact, they mock the notion that God exists.

Job 21:16 “Behold, their[The wicked’s] prosperity is not in their hand;
The counsel of the wicked is far from me[Job].

This verse is interesting. Amidst his long statement about how the wicked prosper, Job pointed out that the prosperity of the wicked is not in their control. That’s what it means when he says it is not in their hand. If it is not in their hand, it is not in their control. Furthermore, Job made a point of saying he was not following the advice of the wicked. The word “counsel” means advice.

Job 21:17 “How often is the lamp of the wicked put out,
Or does their calamity fall on them?
Does God apportion destruction in His anger?

This is another rhetorical question meant to point out the wicked rarely die as a result of their wickedness, meaning they usually get away with their wickedness.

Job 21:18 “Are they[The wicked] as straw before the wind,
And like chaff which the storm carries away?

This is another rhetorical question. Straw and chaff are very lightweight, meaning they would blow away and scatter very quickly in a storm. When Job asks if the wicked are as straw, he is asking if the wicked are scattered and blown away easily, and the answer was “no”, which was another way of saying the wicked prosper, are strong, and are well-established despite their wickedness.

Job 21:19 “You[Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar] say,
‘God stores away a man’s iniquity for his sons.’
Let God repay him[the wicked] so that he[the wicked] may know it.

Notice the single quotes in this verse. Job was quoting his friends. According to Job, Job’s friends said, “God stores away a man’s iniquity for his sons.” In other words a man sins, but his sons have to pay the price for his sins. Job’s response was to say let God repay the man who did the iniquity.

Job 21:20 “Let his[the wicked’s] own eyes see his decay,
And let him drink of the wrath of the Almighty.

This verse continues Job’s thought in verse 19. Let a sinful man see his own decay and endure the wrath of God himself, not his sons.

Job 21:21 “For what does he[the wicked] care for his household after him,
When the number of his months is cut off?

This verse tells us why Job wanted a sinful man to bear his punishment himself. Job asked if a wicked man cares for his household after he dies. The assumed answer was “no”.

Job 21:22 “Can anyone teach God knowledge,
In that He[God] judges those on high?

This verse seems a little random and out of place to me. It’s another rhetorical question and the answer is no one can teach God anything.

Job 21:23 “One dies in his full strength, Being wholly at ease and satisfied;
Job 21:24 His sides are filled out with fat, And the marrow of his bones is moist,
Job 21:25 While another dies with a bitter soul,
Never even tasting anything good.

Notice the word “while” in verse 25. This creates a contrast between the person described in verses 23-24 and the person described in verse 25. Some people die prosperous and happy, while others die bitter and poor.

Job 21:26 “Together they[rich and poor] lie down in the dust,
And worms cover them.

The pronoun “they” refers to the people described in verses 23-25. Both those who die prosperous and those who die poor lie down in the same dust and worms cover both of them. In other words, despite their earthly status, they both suffer the same fate: death.

Job 21:27 “Behold, I[Job] know your[Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar] thoughts,
And the plans by which you would wrong me.

Here, Job turns his comments back to his friends. Notice the word “wrong”. At the beginning of his speech, Job accused his friends of mocking him. At this point Job is about to stop speaking so he assumes they will start criticizing him again.

Job 21:28 “For you[Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar]
say, ‘Where is the house of the nobleman,
And where is the tent, the dwelling places of the wicked?’

Notice the single quotes. Job was quoting his friends again. Job’s friends kept insisting the wicked do not prosper, and this was Job’s reminder to them of their belief.

Job 21:29 “Have you[Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar] not asked wayfaring men,
And do you not recognize their witness?

This is a response to the quote in verse 28. In verse 28 Job reminded his friends that they keep insisting the wicked do not prosper. Here in verse 29 Job asked his friends if they ever ask the opinion of those who travel around and have seen the world. Job’s point was the wayfarers would agree with him.

Job 21:30 “For the wicked is reserved for the day of calamity;
They will be led forth at the day of fury.

Notice the phrases “day of calamity” and “day of fury”. This refers to a future judgment. Job did not have the Bible so he didn’t have all the end time prophecies that we have, but he still had a concept that at some point in the future there will be a day of judgment. Job’s point here is that the wicked prosper during their lifetime on earth because their punishment is being delayed until the day of judgment. Job was not inspired when he said this. Biblical inspiration and Biblical inerrancy refer to the author of scripture and Job was not the author of Job. Inspiration and inerrancy mean this is an inerrant account of what Job said, but that doesn’t mean he was correct when he said it. Sometimes inspiration and inerrancy mean the Bible accurately recorded a lie.

Job 21:31 “Who will confront him[the wicked] with his actions,
And who will repay him for what he has done?

This is another question. Who will confront the wicked? The answer is no one because the wicked are too powerful.

Job 21:32 “While he[the wicked] is carried to the grave,
Men will keep watch over his tomb.

This verse illustrates why no one can confront the wicked. The wicked are so powerful, men even keep watch over them when they are carried to the grave.

Job 21:33 “The clods of the valley will gently cover him[the wicked];
Moreover, all men will follow after him, While countless ones go before him.

This is simply a statement that the wicked will die and be buried just like everyone else. “All men will follow after him” means every person that will live in the future will be buried just like the wicked. “Countless ones go before him” means every person who lived in the past was buried just like the wicked.

Job 21:34 “How then will you[Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar] vainly comfort me[Job],
For your answers remain full of falsehood?”

This is the last verse. Job once again challenges his friends, this time with a rhetorical question. Job’s friends had come to comfort him, but Job asks how they can comfort him since they keep saying things that aren’t true.

Let’s go back to verse 7.

Job 21:7 “Why do the wicked still live,
Continue on, also become very powerful?

Job’s main point in all of this was to ask, “Why do the wicked still live and become very powerful?”

Why do the wicked become powerful?

We ask this in our society. Why does God allow ISIS to become powerful? Why did God allow Hitler to become powerful? Why does God allow child abusers to ruin the lives of young children? Another way this gets expressed is religious skeptics will say something like, “If God is real, wouldn’t he prevent child abuse? Wouldn’t He prevent horrific human tragedy?” The implication of this question is the reality of tragedy proves God is not real. In our society we also see judges and politicians who support abortion and gay marriage, but they become prosperous and powerful. Why does God allow that?

Freedom to obey means we are free to be wicked.

The answer to all this is if God would prevent wickedness, then we humans would not be free to choose obedience. Imagine a man walks into his house, picks up a doll, pulls a string on the back of the doll, and the doll says, “Hi, Daddy, I love you.” Is that gratifying? No, because the doll did not choose to love, it simply did what it was programmed to do. Now imagine a man walks into his house and his young daughter wraps her arms around his neck and says, “Hi Daddy, I love you.” That is very gratifying because the child chose to love.
However, the downside to children is they can also choose to disobey, rebel, or reject us, and that results in pain. We as parents have children and take the risk of pain because the reward of having children is worth the risk.

Let’s apply this to God and humanity. God could have created humans as machines that would always obey Him, just like a doll, but that would mean nothing to God. Instead, God created us with the ability to choose to love Him because that is more gratifying. However, just as children can choose to disobey parents, so too humans can choose to be wicked. Humans can choose to murder, steal, and abuse. If God did not allow wickedness, then humans would not truly be free to choose righteousness.

John 14:15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
John 14:21 “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me;

Why do wicked people thrive while good people suffer?

God allows wickedness so that we humans are free to choose between Godliness and wickedness. If God prevented wickedness, then we humans would be mere machines who simply do what God programmed us to do. God allows wickedness so that we humans are free to choose to love God.


“Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.”

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