WHY DO THE WICKED PROSPER?
Before we seek biblical answer to the question, “Why do the wicked prosper?,” we need to define this adjective ‘wicked.’ The Oxford dictionary uses three words to define ‘wicked’ in relation to people: bad, wrong and immoral. In biblical terms, ‘wickedness’ or ‘evil’ is that which is not in harmony with the divine order, both moral and physical. (Read Romans 1:18-32 where the apostle Paul describes ‘wicked people’ and their sinful practices.)
The root cause of man’s disharmony with God’s absolute standards is the sin-nature inherent in every human, born after the fall of Adam and Eve. “When Adam sinned (disobeyed God), sin entered the entire human race. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
This sinful nature of man manifests itself in his thought, speech and action which are detestable to God. Gossip, slander, hatred, jealousy, dishonesty, self-righteous attitude, selfishness, lust, deceit, etc., are some of the products of man’s sin-nature that cause evil in our society, in our world. By whatever name man may call these manifestations of the sin nature within him, the LORD declares, “The human heart is most deceitful and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? But I know! I, the LORD, search all hearts and examine secret motives” (Jer. 17:9,10).
Scene-I – between BC 612 and 589 (Hab. 1-3)
Prophet Habakkuk had a vision in which he poured out his heart to God, asking Him questions concerning the triumph of evil over good. Habakkuk saw a dying world (Judah, where he lived), and it broke his heart. “How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but You do not listen, or cry out to You ‘violence!,’ but You do not save?” (Hab.1:2-4). Violence, misery, destruction, fighting, injustice, perverted justice, lawlessness, bribery, deceit and idolatry abounded in Judah about 2500 years ago. Apparently, there were powerful and influential people in Judah who misused their positions by indulging in bribery, deceit, corruption and idolatry; and there were those who were unjust, violent and merciless in their dealings with the people. And they prospered! Don’t we see history repeating itself in our own day? Don’t we often ask God, “Why, Lord?” as Habakkuk did?
While the other prophetic books brought God’s word to the people, Habakkuk brought people’s questions to God. He was amazed and saddened at the triumph of the wicked in Judah and God’s ‘indifference.’ He asked God why the wicked people of Judah were not being punished for their sins. He could not understand why a just God would allow evil to exist and prosper; yet he was willing to wait and watch patiently for God’s answer, trusting God to avenge the enemies of His people (2:1 and 3:16).
The Lord’s answer to Habakkuk is even more baffling! He tells Habakkuk that He will raise up the Babylonians, a more wicked and violent nation, against the evil people of Judah! (1:5-11). Habakkuk was appalled that God would use a nation, more wicked than Judah, to punish the people of Judah for their wickedness (1:12-17). The Babylonians were flourishing and winning victories, but they did not know they were being used by God to help Judah return to Him, and Babylon’s pride in its victories would be its downfall. Although Habakkuk’s initial reaction to God’s answer is shock and disbelief, he concludes his book with a prayer of triumph. With questions answered and a new understanding of God’s power and love, Habakkuk rejoices in who God is and in what He will do (3:18). He trusted God completely and affirmed, “The Sovereign LORD is my strength” (3:19).
Our God is in control! In this chaotic world, nothing happens without His knowledge (Lam. 3:34-37). The wicked flourishing and prospering is also a part of His great plan for you and me. Even though injustice is rampant, it should not cause us to doubt God; rather, we need to believe that God is working out His plans and purposes in favour of His people. Habakkuk wanted to be in the best position to receive God’s message and was willing to wait patiently for God’s time to avenge the wicked (2:1).
Scene-II – between AD 35 and 60 (Acts 13:38-52)
When the apostles Paul and Barnabas were in Pisidia, Antioch, they went into a Jewish synagogue to worship. There were devout Jews and Gentiles in the synagogue, worshipping the God of Israel. After reading from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word to Paul and Barnabas, saying, “Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak.” Paul took the opportunity to speak to them about the good news—the message of God’s gift of salvation. Even though the Jews and Gentiles were devout people, worshipping the living God, they were ignorant of God’s offer of forgiveness of sins and His plan of salvation. They did not recognise Jesus as God’s Son (the Messiah) who died and rose again, through whom there is forgiveness of sin for all who believe in Him and are justified in the sight of God (Acts 13:26, 32-39, Rom. 10:1-4).
Having given them the good news, Paul warned them that their unbelief and dependence on their observance of the Law of Moses to be justified in the sight of God, could land them the same fate as that of the wicked people of Judah who continued to prosper till they were overtaken and destroyed by the ruthless Babylonians! (Compare Acts 13:38-41 with Hab. 1:5-11). The message of Paul and Barnabas resulted in the conversion of many devout Jews and Gentiles when they heeded Paul’s warning and believed the good news. However, the Jewish leaders brought theological arguments against Paul and Barnabas. Luke tells us that the real reason for their hostility was that “they were filled with jealousy” (Acts 13:45).
The warning and threat of destruction that applied to the wicked people of Judah applied also to the devout Jews and Gentiles with whom Paul and Barnabas shared the good news of salvation, unless they repented and turned from their sins to God.
Scene-III – 21st Century God’s warning and threat of destruction went out through His prophets to the Jews and Gentiles, to the wicked as well as the devout and religious people in the Old and New Testaments. The same warning and threat apply to us in the 21st century, unless we stop trusting in our theological degrees and religious observances and humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. The ‘wickedness’ of the devout Jews and Gentiles was their preoccupation with the ritualistic observance of the religious law, ignoring God’s revelation of a new covenant relationship with Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ the righteous.
God waited patiently for the people of Judah to repent of their sins and turn to Him for forgiveness. But when they refused to repent, and continued in their wicked ways, He used the more wicked and ruthless Babylonians to punish them (Hab.1:12). (This did happen when the nation of Judah was invaded and overthrown by the Babylonians in 605 BC, 597 BC and 586 BC. Prophet Daniel was one of the captives taken during the first invasion.)
Today, God is waiting patiently for those who are still rejecting Christ and depending on their religious rituals to please God. He is waiting for the devout and religious Christians of the 21st century whose rebellion, though not akin to that of the people of Judah, is equally offensive to Him—offensive because they refuse to humble themselves and be reconciled to God through a personal faith in Christ. “God sets Himself against the proud, but He shows favour to the humble” (I Pet. 5:5b). It was the spiritual pride of Lucifer that caused his downfall, resulting in sin that has devastated mankind.
The Final Scene – God’s Wrath
God’s wrath that devastated Judah through the Babylonian invasion during Habakkuk’s time is but a foreshadow of the Day of the Lord when God’s wrath is bound to fall on all who reject Jesus Christ. (Read Rev. 18 and 19 for prophecy regarding Babylon’s complete annihilation and God’s judgment on the wicked). John 3:36 says, “And all who believe in God’s Son have eternal life. Those who don’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life, but the wrath of God remains upon them.”
The sovereign God will certainly execute His judgment and justice, but at the time appointed by Him. Let us not be like the rebellious Judah, or like the stiff-necked, self-righteous Jewish religious leaders who failed to heed God’s warning and loving call to turn from evil and be reconciled to Him.
God’s Chastening And Discipline
May we never forget that God chastises and disciplines His people when they go astray in order to bring them back to His fellowship; He reserves His punishment for the wicked who refuse to humble themselves and give up their wicked deeds.
As we remind ourselves of the Psalmist’s words, “Don’t worry about the wicked. Don’t envy those who do wrong. For like grass they fade away. Like springtime flowers they soon wither” (Psa. 37:1,2). We Christians need to give the reins of our lives to Jesus, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, daily. We need to wait patiently in prayer and service, as Habakkuk waited, for the salvation of the Lord (Hab. 3:16-18).