The issue of suffering and prosperity in life and their relationship to the righteousness of individuals is one that is both important and complex. What can I expect if I choose to diligently follow God's will in my life? Will my righteousness result in more or less suffering? Will it result in more or less prosperity? We all want to understand, as well as minimize, the amount of suffering in life, and to understand as well the sources and legitimate role of prosperity in life.
This issue is addressed more deeply and directly in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament than in any other section of scripture. In particular, understanding the message of the book of Job and how it relates to the issues of suffering, prosperity, and righteousness is a substantial but rewarding task. In the process of investigating these issues, there are also questions of consistency to resolve. Consider these passages:
"The tents of the destroyers prosper, and those who provoke God are secure..." Job 12:6
"Why do the wicked still live, continue on, also become very powerful? Their descendants are established with them in their sight, and their offspring before their eyes, their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God on them. His ox mates without fail; his cow calves and does not abort. They send forth their little ones like the flock, and their children skip about. They sing to the timbrel and harp and rejoice at the sound of the flute. They spend their days in prosperity, and suddenly they go down to Sheol. And they say to God, 'Depart from us! We do not even desire the knowledge of your ways. Who is the Almighty, that we should serve him, and what would we gain if we entreat him?'" Job 21:7-15
"For I was envious of the arrogant, as I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pains in their death; and their body is fat. They are not in trouble as other men; nor are they plagued like mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; the garment of violence covers them. Their eye bulges from fatness; the imaginations of their heart run riot. They mock, and wickedly speak of oppression; they speak from on high. They have set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue parades through the earth." Psalms 73:3-9
These are three examples of a theme found in the wisdom literature. The claim is that prosperity, far from being associated with righteousness, is actually associated with wicked behavior. It is not difficult to find confirming examples from the history of humanity. But consider these:
"It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich, and he adds no sorrow to it." Proverbs 10:22
"Adversity pursues sinners, but the righteous will be rewarded with prosperity." Proverbs 13:21
"Much wealth is in the house of the righteous, but trouble is in the income of the wicked." Proverbs 15:6
"The reward of humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, honor and life." Proverbs 22:4
"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." Proverbs 24:3-4
"How blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments. His descendants will be mighty on earth; the generation of the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in his house, and his righteousness endures forever. Light arises in the darkness for the upright; he is gracious and compassionate and righteous. It is well with the man who is gracious and lends; he will maintain his cause in judgment. For he will never be shaken; the righteous will be remembered forever. He will not fear evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. His heart is upheld, he will not fear, until he looks with satisfaction on his adversaries." Psalms 112:1-8
These seven quotes trace a theme found most noticeably in Proverbs, but which as we see is also present in the Psalms (and actually in the book of Job) as well. This claim is that righteousness results in prosperity and deliverance from suffering. Here too it is possible to find concrete examples in our own lives which confirm this notion.
Coming to a thorough understanding of the teaching of the wisdom literature on this subject brings an awareness of the unity of this material in these issues, as well as providing practical insights for living in this world.
It is important to begin with some brief definitions of our key terms.
The word means right-ness; in the biblical context it means having the quality of being right as measured by the standard of God's moral character.
In the book of Job, as well as in the wisdom literature and indeed in the Bible as a whole, righteousness has two senses which could be described as absolute and relative.
For example, consider the use of the term in these passages:
"What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?" Job 15:14
"For Job has said, 'I am righteous, but God has taken away my right.'" Job 34:5 (A fair summary by Elihu--see Job 10:14 and 13:23
"Better is the little of the righteous than the abundance of many wicked." Psalms 37:16
"For the arms of the wicked will be broken; but the Lord sustains the righteous." Psalms 37:17
"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser, teach a righteous man, and he will increase his learning." Proverbs 9:9
The first use of the term is in an absolute sense. Numerous passages in scripture using this and other related terms like sin affirm that no human being but Christ himself is righteous in this absolute sense. Only by God's forgiveness, in which, in response to faith, God imparts his righteousness to people, can anyone be righteous in this sense.
The remaining passages are examples of the by far more common usage of the term throughout the wisdom literature (literally hundreds of such passages) in which righteousness is a relative term. While it is not moral perfection, yet it is substantially different and clearly distinguishable from wickedness. Job chapter 31 is an excellent extended description of it; verse after verse in Psalms and Proverbs reference this quality of relative righteousness.
As absolute righteousness is beyond our ability to achieve in this life, and also because the relative usage is by far the most common one in our passages, our discussion will focus on this term in its relative sense.
Prosperity in the context of this discussion refers not only to having the necessities of physical existence (a sufficiency of food, shelter, clothing), but also to at least modest material wealth, physical health, as well as some basic relational well-being, including a family and social respect. Job's situation serves as the primary model. The book begins with the list of the elements of his prosperity--his possessions, his wealth, and his family--and we discover during his subsequent laments that he also held a respected position of leadership in the community. The book ends with a description of his even greater prosperity, including all these elements.
Here again, Job's situation serves as the primary model. After the challenge from Satan prompts God to give him permission, Satan inflicts a variety of terrible things on him, including the loss of his physical health and the complete loss of his wealth, as well as the deaths of his children and loss of respect of his community.
The Message of the Book of Job
We begin the task of assessing the message of the wisdom literature on this question of righteousness, suffering, and prosperity by distilling the message of the book of Job on this issue.
It is obvious from even a cursory reading of it that the book of Job deals with the issue of righteousness, suffering and prosperity. What is not at all obvious is what the message of the book on this issue is. The reason for the difficulty is that there are a variety of voices speaking in the book, with substantial disagreements between them. It requires careful analysis to determine which elements of the various positions taken by those various voices are affirmed as correct in God's view, and from that information deduce the overall message of the book.
These are the various voices who play a part in defining the message of the book of Job:
- The Narrator
- Job's three "friends" Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar
We will examine the contribution of each, distilling the point we are to take away from their contributions especially in regard to the key questions of a) was Job righteous and b) what effect did his righteousness have on his prosperity and suffering.
The narrator informs us in the first two chapters that although Job enjoyed great prosperity, his trouble began as a direct result of his righteousness and Satan's accusation against God related to Job's righteousness. This passage is key not only for understanding the book of Job but actually the entirety of evil and suffering in human history:
"And the Lord said to Satan, 'have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.' Then Satan answered the Lord, 'Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse you to your face.'" Job 1:8-1
The essence of this claim is that no free being would willingly follow God for any motive other than bribery; conversely, if the immediate benefits of following God were removed, if prosperity were replaced with suffering, then allegiance to God will be jettisoned. The claim is therefore that there is no intrinsic value in knowing and serving God, and that the value for allegiance to God is solely in extracting prosperity from him.
The result of this accusation is that God gives Satan permission, in two stages (Job 1:12 and again in 2:6) to destroy Job's prosperity and replace it with intense physical and psychological suffering. Job is left in a state of terrible physical pain, also facing the total destruction of his wealth, the death of his children, and the loss of the respect of his society.
The position of the narrator, then, is that Job was righteous, that Job's initial prosperity and his restored prosperity at the end of the book (42:10) are from the hand of God, and finally that his righteousness lead directly to his temporary though severe loss of prosperity and his suffering.
The narrator's position is, via the evidence for the inspiration of scripture, correct and affirmed by God, and therefore becomes a key component of the message of the book as a whole.
Satan's voice is in agreement with the narrator on these points. He explicitly claims that God is the source of Job's prosperity and he does not contest God's claim of Job's righteousness. He of course is perfectly aware that Job's suffering is allowed by God and caused by Satan himself as a result of Job's righteousness and the provocation it represents to Satan.
The Three "Friends"
Job's three friends present a unified message. They are rebuked by Elihu (more on Elihu later) for providing no answer to Job, and are roundly condemned by God in this passage:
"And it came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, 'My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right as my servant Job has. Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves, and my servant Job will pray for you. For I will accept him so that I may not do with you according to your folly, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.' So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did as the Lord told them; and the Lord accepted Job." Job 42:7-9
The key question is, what is it that these three say that is incorrect? Much of what they say sounds quite right and reasonable, and even harmonizes with statements by Elihu (who is not rebuked) and other passages in scripture. For example, consider this passage, spoken by Eliphaz.
"But as for me, I would seek God, and I would place my cause before God; who does great and unsearchable things, wonders without number. He gives rain on the earth, and sends water on the fields, so that he sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety. He frustrates the plotting of the shrewd, so that their hands cannot attain success. He captures the wise by their own shrewdness and the advice of the cunning is quickly thwarted. By day they meet with darkness, and grope at noon as in the night. But he saves from the sword of their mouth, and the poor from the hand of the mighty. So the helpless has hope, and unrighteousness must shut its mouth. Behold, how happy is the man whom God reproves, so do not despise the discipline of the almighty." Job 5:8-17
The essential claims here can be backed up from numerous other passages in scripture. What then is wrong with Job's friends? We need to clarify this question before we can correctly use their material in defining the message of the book of Job.
Consider the following typical passages which expose the heart of the arguments of the three "friends":
Eliphaz: "Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they come to an end." Job 4:7-9
Bildad: "Does God pervert justice or does the almighty pervert what is right? If your sons sinned against him, then he delivered them into the power of their transgression. If you would seek God and implore the compassion of the almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely now he would rouse himself for you and restore your righteous estate." Job 8:3-6
Zophar: "If you would direct your heart right, and spread out your hand to him; if iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and do not let wickedness dwell in your tents. Then, indeed, you could lift up your face without moral defect, and you would be steadfast and not fear. For you would forget your trouble, as waters that have passed by, you would remember it. And your life would be brighter than noonday; darkness would be like the morning. Then you would trust, because there is hope; and you would look around and rest securely. You would lie down and none would disturb you, and many would entreat your favor. But the eyes of the wicked will fail, and there will be no escape for them; and their hope is to breathe their last." Job 11:13-20
Note the consistent claims (these are representative of many other examples) that Job would be fine if he would repent of his sinfulness. Bildad goes so far as to claim that the death of Job's sons was a result of their own sins (Job 8:4). Their evaluation of Job's situation is based on the belief that the world is a perfect ongoing reflection of God's justice, and therefore that suffering in the world comes only as the result of God's judgment on individuals for their sinfulness. The message of the three friends is then to deny that Job is righteous, and to argue that actually his loss of prosperity, the suffering now present in his life, comes directly from God's hand in response to particular sins committed by Job.
The view of the three friends is not only incorrect in Job's situation, but is clearly a terrible slander against God when extended to all of the evil and suffering present in the world. It is clear that throughout human history good people often suffer at the hands of evil people who themselves prosper. To describe the present state of affairs, the events of human history including each deprivation and painful experience, as an illustration of the ongoing justice of God against particular sins of individuals is indeed to speak incorrectly of God's character. The result is to describe God as unjust, inconsistent, and ultimately evil.
We can distill what we are to learn through God's condemnation of the message of Job's friends this way: prosperity and suffering in this life are not necessarily the result of God's intervention of blessing or judgment due to the righteousness of individuals. When we see someone suffering, we can not conclude that God is judging them for particular sins. God's justice is not now being exercised in any complete sense.
Elihu is the fourth of Job's friends. He remains silent until chapter 32, when the other three friends give up their arguments with Job. He tells us that he is younger then the others, and so has waited until last to speak. His speech is lengthy, consuming chapters 32-37. Like the other three friends, Elihu rebukes Job. Unlike the other three friends, however, he is exempted from God's rebuke. Why?
The reason is that Elihu's issue with Job is substantially different from that of the other three friends. Elihu begins his speech in chapter 32 by pointing out that the other three friends have accused Job and yet failed to answer his arguments. Elihu then says that Job is wrong to accuse God of injustice, as these examples show.
"Surely you have spoken in my hearing, and I have heard the sound of your words: 'I am pure, without transgression; I am innocent and there is no guilt in me. Behold, he invents pretexts against me; he counts me as his enemy. He puts my feet in the stocks; he watches all my paths.' Behold, let me tell you, you are not right in this, for God is greater than man. Why do you complain against him, that he does not give an account of all his doings?" Job 33:8-13
"The almighty--we cannot find him; he is exalted in power; and he will not do violence to justice and abundant righteousness." Job 37:23
Notice that unlike the three friends he never disputes Job's claim to essential innocence; however he does dispute Job's complaint that God is unjustly causing his suffering. The basis of his argument, developed across these 5 chapters, is an appeal to God's power and his just character. These are the same points that God himself makes when he intervenes personally in the final chapters of the book. Elihu's message is part of the message God wants us to take away from the book of Job: God may allow suffering for righteousness' sake, and may not explain the exact reasons behind the turn of events. In such situations, God's wisdom and power provide a sufficient basis for trusting him.
Distilling the message of Job's own words in the book of Job is even more challenging than doing so for his three friends, for two reasons: first, Job is less consistent throughout the book on some issues, and second the verdict by God and the narrator on Job's statements is less clear-cut than their verdict on Job's three friends.
Job repeatedly and unambiguously claims his own righteousness. For example:
"But it is still my consolation, and I rejoice in unsparing pain, that I have not denied the words of the Holy One." Job 6:10
"My face is flushed from weeping, and deep darkness is on my eyelids, although there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure." Job 16:16-17
"My foot has held fast to [God's] path; I have kept his way and not turned aside. I have not departed from the command of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my necessary food." Job 23:11-12
"My lips certainly will not speak unjustly, nor will my tongue mutter deceit. Far be it from me that I should declare you [the three friends] right; till I die I will not put away my integrity from me. I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go. My heart does not reproach any of my days." Job 27:4-6
In addition, chapter 31 is a detailed description of his merciful and generous life, free from sexual impurity, greed, and idolatry.
As we have seen, the narrator affirms that Job is initially in a state of righteousness. Further, we have these two statements by the narrator given at the conclusion of Job's first two speeches:
"Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God." Job 1:22
"Then his wife said to him, 'Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!' But he said to her, 'You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips." Job 2:9-10
However, it is apparent that some time after this point Job does begin to stray. We know this because the narrator ceases his affirmations, because Elihu rebukes Job for his accusations against God, and most importantly because when God appears in person and addresses Job, he says this:
"Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?'" Job 38:1-2
If God himself clues us in that Job has strayed, Elihu's rebuke brings Job's problem into clear focus, namely that Job is wrong to accuse God of injustice, as we saw earlier. And indeed Job, after his first two speeches, begins to ascribe injustice to God, as in this example:
"For he bruises me with a tempest, and multiplies my wounds without cause. He will not allow me to get my breath, but saturates me with bitterness. If it is a matter of power, behold, he is the strong one! And if it is a matter of justice, who can summon him? Though I am righteous, my mouth will condemn me; though I am guiltless, he will declare me guilty. I am guiltless; I do not take notice of myself; I despise my life. It is all one; therefore I say, 'He destroys the guiltless and the wicked.'" Job 9:17-22
Job then rightly maintains that his suffering was not the result of God's judgment against his sin. He is wrong, however, to claim that his suffering is the result of injustice from God against him. When he is finally given a personal revelation of God, he retracts, and asks only to be taught by God:
"I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask you, and you instruct me. I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees you; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes." Job 42:2-6
In spite of Job's rebuke at the hands of Elihu and God himself, Job is given an overall commendation by God. We already cited the passage in which God contrasts Job to the three friends in chapter 42:7ff, claiming that Job has in general spoken rightly of God. This overall commendation is due to his refusal to jettison his personal commitment to God. We see this especially in these three outstanding statements of faith:
"And [Job] said, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." Job 1:21
"Though he slay me, I will hope in him." Job 13:15
"And as for me, I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last he will take his stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God..." Job 19:25-26
Job is a righteous man, who correctly understands that his suffering is not the result of God's justice, but falls into a trap by assuming his suffering is the result of God's injustice. However, he remains an outstanding example of faith in the midst of suffering. Satan's hope, that in the face of suffering Job would curse God, was shattered.
By now we have touched on the important points made by God in his personal appearance in chapters 38-42. He rebukes Job for his accusation of injustice against God. He makes a long and effective contrast between Job's power and knowledge and God's, and in essence argues that God has good reasons for the decisions he makes, including those impacting Job. Interestingly, Job is never given the information that we, through the narrator, are given for the specific reasons in Job's case. Instead, God's solution for Job is to reveal himself personally to Job.
Summary of the Message of the Book of Job
In summary, the message of the book of Job is that the issue of righteousness, prosperity, and suffering is complex. On the one hand, righteousness brings God's support, which in general includes prosperity. We see this in the fact that Job's prosperity, both before and after his suffering, is ascribed to God. On the other hand, the state of affairs in this world is not the result of God's just intervention, but is instead impacted by God's enemy, Satan. The wicked do indeed prosper in some cases, and in others righteousness itself brings suffering, as in the case of Job, at least temporarily. In such situations God may not explain the reasons for these things; however he has reasons and may be trusted based on his wisdom and power.
Harmonizing Job with Proverbs/Psalms
As noted in the introduction, there are some apparent conflicts between Job and Proverbs, with selected passages from Psalms falling on both sides of the divide. The conflict can be summarized this way. Some passages seem to claim that prosperity is the result of righteousness and God's resulting support, while other passages claim that prosperity is enjoyed by wicked people who grasp for wealth and oppress others to get it.
The best way to begin the harmonization of these passages is by summarizing the teaching of the book of Proverbs on the issue of righteousness, prosperity, and suffering. The result will be the clear emergence of a unified and harmonious set of teachings on this issue across the wisdom literature.
A survey of the book of Proverbs uncovers the following themes that touch on the topic of righteousness, prosperity, and suffering.
A Righteous Life Tends to Bring Prosperity
Proverbs teaches that in general, a righteous life will tend to bring prosperity. It is this point more than any of the others in Proverbs that appears difficult to reconcile with Job. However, the difficulties disappear with a clear understanding of what this teaching is and is not.
First, Proverbs teaches what we sometimes call "work ethic". Here are some examples of this very prominent theme in Proverbs.
"Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich." Proverbs 10:4
"He who loves pleasure will become a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not become rich." Proverbs 21:17
"Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men." Proverbs 22:29
The observation is simply that godly character, which includes the ability to perform consistent, quality work, has the result of increasing prosperity. On the other hand an unrighteous character includes laziness (or sluggardliness, to use the favorite term of the Proverbs) which has the opposite result, namely poverty.
In addition, as we noted in the introduction, there is a set of proverbs (we cited 10:22, 13:21, 15:6, 22:4, and 24:3-4) that make the general point that prosperity is a good thing, a blessing from God. By way of reminder, here is Proverbs 10:22:
"It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich, and he adds no sorrow to it." Proverbs 10:22
Having a sufficiency for physical needs, along with the other elements of prosperity as we've defined it, is pleasant and enjoyable, and it is God's ultimate plan that people have prosperity. We wonder: does God's basic plan for people include an abundant provision for physical and emotional needs? Proverbs (as well as the rest of scripture) answers that yes it does. This point is almost self-evident, and yet it is important to be clear because there is sometimes a suspicion against God that his desire for human beings excludes prosperity and is only suffering. In summary, then, prosperity is a good thing, providing it as a blessing is part of God's general intention toward human beings, and it will tend to come from righteousness.
Now if Proverbs is saying that prosperity will always come from righteousness in this life, then we do indeed have a contradiction with Job. However, if we take into account the context of the entire message of Proverbs, it becomes clear that we cannot make Proverbs say either that all prosperity comes from God due to people's righteousness, or that righteousness will always result in prosperity in this life. We need to examine the other major teachings in Proverbs on the issue of righteousness, prosperity, and suffering.
Don't Make Wealth a Primary Goal or a Source of Security
In Proverbs the explicit goal of gaining wealth is roundly condemned, as is the attempt to place one's security in wealth. This is a critical practical balance to the previous point. Consider these examples:
"Do not weary yourself to gain wealth, cease from your consideration of it. When you set your eyes on it, it is gone. For wealth certainly makes itself wings, like an eagle that flies toward the heavens." Proverbs 23:4-5
"A faithful man will abound with blessings, but he who makes haste to be rich will not go unpunished." Proverbs 28:20
"A man with an evil eye hastens after wealth, and does not know that want will come upon him." Proverbs 28:22
In other words, don't make wealth an idol, whether or not you have it. It should not be the center post of life, but only a peripheral though good aspect of life.
Use Wealth as an Opportunity for Generosity
Proverbs also makes a strong point that those with wealth have a responsibility to be generous with it, particularly toward the poor. Consider the following examples:
"The generous man will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered." Proverbs 11:25
"The rich and the poor have a common bond, the Lord is the maker of them all." Proverbs 22:2
"He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor." Proverbs 22:9
"He who oppresses the poor to make much for himself or who gives to the rich, will only come to poverty." Proverbs 22:16
Based on the view of human nature seen here in Proverbs as well as in the rest of scripture, namely that human beings are all of high and equal value before God, it is inconceivable to advocate enjoying prosperity without attempting to do something about the inequality present in this life. Prosperity is a stewardship fulfilled by generosity toward others who lack even basic sustenance and cannot help themselves.
Being Poor and Righteous is Better than being Rich and Wicked
An important part of the teaching of Proverbs on this subject, especially in terms of harmonization with Job, is the theme that although prosperity is a good thing, righteousness is more important when it comes to a choice between them. Consider these examples:
"Better is the poor who walks in his integrity, than he who is crooked though he be rich." Proverbs 28:6
"The rich man is wise in his own eyes, but the poor who has understanding sees through him." Proverbs 28:11
"A good name is to be more desired than great riches, favor is better than silver and gold." Proverbs 22:1
As important as this teaching is from a practical standpoint, it is critical from a harmonization standpoint. The reason is that even though Proverbs doesn't teach explicitly that in some cases righteousness may bring suffering rather than prosperity, yet this set of passages makes it clear that Proverbs acknowledges these categories of the righteous poor and the prosperous wicked.
God Will Judge the Wicked
Proverbs contains a prominent theme that ultimately God will punish the wicked and they will lose their prosperity. Of all the themes in Proverbs noted so far, this one has the most references. Here is an assortment of examples:
"The righteous is delivered from trouble, but the wicked takes his place." Proverbs 11:8
"For the upright will live in the land, and the blameless will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be uprooted from it." Proverbs 2:21-22
"His own iniquities will capture the wicked, and he will be held with the cords of his sin." Proverbs 5:22
"The memory of the righteous is blessed, but the name of the wicked will rot." Proverbs 10:7
"The wages of the righteous is life, the income of the wicked, punishment." Proverbs 10:16
"When the whirlwind passes, the wicked is no more, but the righteous has an everlasting foundation." Proverbs 10:25
"The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be shortened." Proverbs 10:27
"The righteousness of the blameless will smooth his way, but the wicked will fall by his own wickedness." Proverbs 11:5
In many of the passages on this theme in Proverbs, it is not clear whether these outcomes of judgment against the wicked are the result of the direct intervention of God or the natural outcome of living contrary to God's will and design. A survey of all this material leads to the conclusion that both are being taught, as they are through the rest of scripture. Some aspects of judgment are worked out as the natural results of wicked behavior. Other aspects are from the intervention of God in judgment.
Job and Proverbs are in Harmony
We can now stand back and see that there is no conflict between any of these teachings in Proverbs understood in light of the full context of the book and those in the book of Job.
Just as God is the source of Job's prosperity, both before and after his time of suffering, so Proverbs affirms in a general sense that prosperity is a good thing in God's view, and that a righteous character will tend to bring a life of prosperity.
The teachings in Proverbs that wealth should never be an idol and should be used as an opportunity for generosity are also present in Job as well. Consider this example (Job is speaking):
"If I have despised the claim of my male or female slaves when they filed a complaint against me, what then could I do when God arises, and when He calls me to account, what will I answer Him? Did not he who made me in the womb make him, and the same one fashion us in the womb? If I have kept the poor from their desire, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail, or have eaten my morsel alone, and the orphan has not shared it (but from my youth he grew up with me as with a father, and from infancy I guided her), if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, or that the needy had no covering, if his loins have not thanked me, and if he has not been warmed with the fleece of my sheep, if I have lifted up my hand against the orphan, because I saw I had support in the gate, let my shoulder fall from the socket, and my arm be broken off at the elbow. For calamity from God is a terror to me, and because of his majesty I can do nothing. If I have put my confidence in gold, and called fine gold my trust, if I have gloated because my wealth was great, and because my hand had secured so much; if I have looked at the sun when it shone, or the moon going in splendor, and my heart became secretly enticed, and my hand threw a kiss from my mouth, that too would have been an iniquity calling for judgment, for I would have denied God above." Job 31:13-28
Most importantly, Proverbs has no quarrel with the assertion from Job that at times the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. While it is not a major theme, yet we have seen that the category exists in Proverbs for the righteous poor and the prosperous wicked. Proverbs is not therefore teaching that the righteous will always be prosperous, nor that the wicked will always be suffering; there is therefore no contradiction between Proverbs and Job on this point.
Finally, there is no conflict with Job on the teaching of Proverbs that God will judge the wicked, to some extent through the natural results of their wickedness, as well as by the intervention of God, to some extent in this life, and to a complete extent at the end of this life. God intervenes in the book of Job to rebuke Job's three "friends" and to restore Job's fortunes. In addition, Elihu affirms that God will indeed bring about complete justice on the earth.
In Proverbs, as in Job, we see that the relationship between righteousness, prosperity, and suffering is complex, and that there is a harmonious teaching on the issue.
The material in Psalms on this topic of righteousness, prosperity, and suffering affirms all the points we have listed so far, and provides some clarification on the issue of the ultimate judgment of the wicked.
Here are some examples from Psalms which serve to demonstrate that the same teachings seen so far in Job and Proverbs are present.
Here we see the teaching that God's will includes prosperity for the righteous:
"Wealth and riches are in [God's] house, and his righteousness endures forever." Psalms 112:3
Here we see the teaching that riches should never be an idol:
"Behold, the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches, and was strong in his evil desire. But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever." Psalms 52:7-8
"Men of low degree are only vanity, and men of rank are a lie; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than breath. Do not trust in oppression, and do not vainly hope in robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart upon them. Once God has spoken; twice I have heard this: that power belongs to God; and lovingkindness is yours, O Lord, for you recompense a man according to his work." Psalms 62:9-12
Here is an example of a prominent theme in the Psalms, which is the converse of the theme of God's judgment of the wicked, namely that God will support the righteous, delivering them from trouble. Psalms abounds with statements like this one:
"But the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; he is their strength in time of trouble." Psalms 37:39
Psalms also contains this excellent passage exploring the tension we have been examining so far between two themes. It acknowledges, as do Job and Proverbs, that God's justice is not being done perfectly on earth, and thus we find not only the wicked sometimes prospering but also the righteous suffering, even for their righteousness. It makes the same claim that God will ultimately cause the righteous to prosper and the wicked to come under judgment:
"For I was envious of the arrogant, as I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pains in their death; and their body is fat. They are not in trouble as other men; nor are they plagued like mankind...surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, and washed my hands in innocence; for I have been stricken all day long, and chastened every morning...if I had said, I will speak thus, behold, I should have betrayed the generation of your children. When I pondered to understand this, it was troublesome in my sight until I came into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end. Surely you set them in slippery places; you cast them down to destruction. How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, you will despise their form...nevertheless I am continually with you; you have taken hold of my right hand. With your counsel you will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And besides you, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from you will perish; you have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works." Psalms 73:3-5,13-14,15-20
Psalm 73 is one of the clearest passages on the afterlife in the wisdom literature, although there are numerous other hints, as we've seen in Job 13:15 and 19:25-26. The afterlife is a topic that comes into steadily clearer focus as God gives further revelation after the period of the wisdom literature. But it is the afterlife, and the notion of final judgment after this life and the complete fulfillment of God's justice then, that brings the last piece of the puzzle together on the issue of righteousness, prosperity, and suffering. God's intention to provide prosperity for the righteous will be perfectly fulfilled in the next life.
The Composite Teaching of the Wisdom Literature on Righteousness, Prosperity, and Suffering
The relationship between righteousness, and prosperity and suffering is complex in this life. It is not possible to look at a person who is prosperous and deduce from that fact alone that they are or are not righteous; similarly, it is not possible to deduce anything about a person's righteousness by virtue of the fact that they are suffering. However, we can say these things about righteousness, prosperity, and suffering.
Prosperity is good; life is so constructed that in general, obedience to God will tend to increase it. However, that general construction of life has been interrupted and violated by the fall of humanity, and the influence of the enemy of God and man, Satan. The unambiguous claim is that ultimately, in the next life and throughout all subsequent eternity the wicked will lose prosperity and be punished and the righteous will prosper, including materially. However in this present evil age, it will often be the case that righteousness will result in suffering and the lack of prosperity, and wickedness will result in material gain and the lack of suffering. Prosperity in this life, if it does come, is a stewardship from God exercised successfully through generosity to the poor.
Let's examine each of these elements of the unified view of the wisdom literature with a view to its practical application.
God's Plan for us is Prosperity and Freedom from Suffering
One practical application is to dismantle the misconception that God is anti-wealth, that prosperity is immoral, or viewed by God as immoral. The teaching here from the wisdom literature is completely consistent with other material throughout the Old and New Testaments. The teaching is that in a general natural sense according to God's basic design for living, as well as his ultimate inheritance for the righteous in heaven, God's goal for people includes prosperity, including material wealth.
This has some application in the sense of the Christian learning to work effectively and productively, a major theme in Proverbs--i.e. to develop a good work ethic. One indication of the attainment of this goal will be some measure of material prosperity. A lack of sufficient income may indicate laziness, not righteousness.
In addition, it has application for us as a counter to the general accusation continually leveled against God by the enemy that God's desire for us is to leave our deepest needs and desires unfulfilled. In this particular area of prosperity, of ease and lack of suffering, God's will is made plain: he will satisfy this aspect of our longings and desires in abundant fashion. The primary fulfillment of this promise is in the next life, but there is a practical significance to understanding that this is indeed God's will. He does not desire our poverty, our suffering. He will indeed provide for our needs in this life; he will abundantly supply us with wealth and honor in the next life.
"I love those who love me; and those who diligently seek me will find me. Riches and honor are with me, enduring wealth and righteousness. My fruit is better than gold, even pure gold, and my yield than choicest silver. I walk in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of justice, to endow those who love me with wealth, that I may fill their treasuries." Proverbs 8:17-21
Pursuit of Wealth Should Never Be a Goal, but Prosperity Should be an Opportunity for Generosity
The explicit goal for gaining wealth is roundly condemned. Instead, wealth is something that God may provide in this life as we pursue him and his will for us, and will certainly provide in the next life. If wealth comes in this life, then it constitutes a responsibility, a stewardship, which is correctly exercised through generosity, especially to the poor. As Job models for us:
"I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I investigated the case which I did not know. And I broke the jaws of the wicked, and snatched the prey from his teeth." Job 29:14-17
In this Life Our Willingness to Suffer for Righteousness is Key
One further practical application of this material is that those who wish to follow God in this present age are walking onto the center stage of a fierce spiritual battle, and that decisions as to whether to trust God specifically in the absence of prosperity and in the presence of suffering somehow form the central means of the devil's defeat at God's hands. Just as Job's righteousness constituted a provocation to God's enemy, Satan, so too anyone who decides to pursue God's will in this life will constitute a similar provocation.
There is a mystery here. Why is Job's righteousness a provocation to Satan? What exactly is the nature of the disagreement between God and Satan in this spiritual battle which according to scripture is such a central driving element behind human history? To fully answer this question we would have to combine passages across the range of the entire Bible, but the material here in Job supplies a crucial piece: part of the doctrine behind Satan's rebellion is the assertion that God is not good enough to be worth suffering for.
Understanding the role of righteousness in the context of this ongoing spiritual battle can have profound ability to provide motivation and endurance in the midst of even terrible suffering in this life, as well as helping us build a category for willingly enduring suffering and deprivation for the sake of righteousness. Such an understanding opens our eyes to the tremendous impact of even our small, secret decisions as to whether to obey God or not. Such decisions ripple directly into the spiritual realm. Our willingness to make such decisions of obedience and faith constitute a direct act of offensive warfare against the enemy of God and mankind--Satan. In so doing, in choosing to pursue God based on our conviction of his goodness and faithfulness even in the face of suffering, we cut the ground out from under Satan's position in the spiritual war.
When we say with Job...
"And [Job] said, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.'" Job 1:21
"Though he slay me, I will hope in him." Job 13:15
"And as for me, I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last he will take his stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God..." Job 19:25-26
...when we say these things in the midst of suffering, we make a liar out of Satan's claim that no one would willingly follow God simply on the basis God's goodness, but only because God bribes us with present prosperity. In the final analysis Job triumphed over the enemy, and was part of God's triumph over the enemy. We all have the same opportunity.
The wisdom literature in the Old Testament does indeed speak with a unified voice on the issue of righteousness, prosperity, and suffering. It provides a complex, rich set of teachings on this topic that is part of the absolutely unique ability of the Bible to explain the reality in which we live and to provide hope and guidance in the midst of that reality.
This gives me a lot to think about. I will probably be thinking about this for a while. I personally find it motivational to be more generous in my giving. I think it brings, to me, a lot of harmony to the writings especially in proverbs. Thanks!
I've studied and argued over this issue many times. This analysis is amazingly good, and I believe, dead on. Thank you!
Thank you, thank you and thank you again. God bless your ministry richly. May we never fail God in our trust, despite the evils and circumstances that surround us. May we find the motivation and endurance to see His promises to us fulfilled. By His very nature being GOD, He is absolutely good and there is no iota of unrighteousness or injustice in Him. May we never speak of things we do not understand! But TRUST, TRUST, TRUST!!!