Why Do The Wicked Prosper?

Jun 1st, 2008 | By | Category: Featured Articles

By J. G. K. Owusu

One edition of the Weekly Bible Lessons in 2007 usefully discussed the problem of suffering: why do “good” people suffer? An equally troubling problem for many people is the converse to that question: why do seemingly “bad” people proper? Why do those who plan evil succeed when there is a just God?

Age old problem

Like the question of suffering, the problem of the prosperity of the wicked is an age old one. The prophet Jeremiah who prophesied about 2600 years ago, asked in despair:

Lord if I argued my case with you, would prove to be right

Yet I must question you about matters of justice.

Why are the wicked so prosperous?

Why do dishonest people succeed?

(Jer. 12:1)

At his call Jeremiah had been assured: Today I give you authority over nations and kingdoms, to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant (Jer.1:10). Consequently he might have thought that he only had to open his mouth and people would fall on their knees in repentance.

Instead, he had become an object of ridicule (Jer. 20:7-10); people were plotting to kill him (Jer. 11:18-19); yet these unrepentant people were still enjoying authority, living at ease. Perplexed, he asks: why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do the faithless live at ease?

The prophet Habakkuk similarly questions (Hab. 1:13)

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;

You cannot tolerate wrong;

Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?

Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those

who are more righteous than themselves?

So we are not the first to be troubled by this question and it does not appear to be wrong for us to ask when we do not understand; to seek answers when we are perplexed. Indeed, concerning a lot of the things that perplex us, the Lord may already have given answers to, which we would find if we sought with diligence and humility.

Of course, the line between asking God and accusing or blaming God may sometimes be quite thin. The Devotional Study Bible heads Habakkuk’s question above as his second “complaint”. The problem with complaining, with accusing God, is that often we cannot then hear what he has to say. We have already tried Him and found him guilty. At best, we may allow Him to say something in mitigation but we are already with our judgment and our sentence.

Be prepared for surprise answers

One warning: when we ask God, He may give us a direct answer as He did to Habakkuk (Hab.1:5;2:2ff). But often he may consider that we are asking the wrong question and proceed to give us the answer to the right question. He sees our motive and gives us an answer befitting what is troubling us. To Jeremiah’s question why the wicked prosper and the dishonest succeed, the Lord’s reply was (Jer. 12:5).

Jeremiah, if you get tired racing against people, how can you race against horses? If you can’t even stand up in open country, how will you manage in the jungle by the Jordan?

Jeremiah had tougher times ahead of him. He was yet to be beaten and kept in stocks in the courtyard (Jer. 20:2); imprisoned in a dungeon (Jer.37:16); thrown into a disused well and half drowned in mud (Jer. 38:6). So the Lord’s encouragement was: what you have gone through is open country compared to the jungle ahead: just trust in the promises I have given you (eg. Jer.1:8) and leave the rest to me!

Don’t be bothered!

The warning about the nature of God’s answer is important, for I consider that the Lord’s major answer to ‘Why are the wicked prosperous? Why do dishonest people succeed is that contained in Ps 37: don’t be bothered by the seeming prosperity of the wicked; don’t be jealous of the dishonest who appear to succeed.

Considering why we ask the question, that is a most appropriate answer: Don’t waste your time even thinking about the supposed prosperity of the unjust! Why?

Transient and transitory

The Bible gives several reasons why we should not be bothered by or fret at the seeming prosperity of the unjust. The first is that the wicked and his prosperity are both transient and transitory: here today, gone tomorrow.

A few verses from Ps. 37 will suffice:

Like grass they will soon wither (v.2);

a little while and they will be no more (v.10); the wicked will perish: they will vanish like smoke (v.20)

Truly reflect on all the people in your village, your District, the nation, whose sources of prosperity people have questioned. You are unlikely to find a single one who lived to a ripe old age and passed on a viable business to his children. Jer. 17:11 perfectly fits most:

Like a partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay is             the man who gains riches by unjust means. When his life is half gone, they will desert him, and in the end he will prove to be a fool.

Proverbs 13:22 says a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.

Ps. 37 hence provides a more useful alternative to spending time worrying about the prosperity of the unjust. You will profit more from a few minutes spent on reading that Psalm than from all the hours spent worrying about the success of the dishonest.

Delight yourself in the Lord, depend on the Lord, and he will grant you your heart’s desire. (Ps. 37:4).

Lest you emulate him

The second reason the Bible gives why you should not let the seeming prosperity or success of the wicked or dishonest bother you is the warning: lest you be envious and tempted to follow their footsteps. Ps. 73 clearly states this warning: from an exaggerated assessment of how comfortable they are (verses 2-9), you become envious of them, then question what you have gained for all your honesty, and slide along the slippery path ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’.

So the Lord’s answer to the question “why do the wicked prosper?” is: Don’t fret because of evil men; don’t be envious of those who do wrong, lest you be tempted to follow them! If for nothing, remember that because you are less experienced, because you have a softer conscience, you are likely to fall more quickly. You are going to be caught the first time you attempt to smuggle cocaine overseas! You are going to be robbed or roughened up or maybe even killed the first time you attempt to sell your body  for a little cash or pick up a girl for a one night stand.

Trust in the Lord and do good……………Depend upon

the Lord and he will grant you your heart’s desire.

You call this prosperity?

A third reason the Bible gives why one need not be attracted by the prosperity of the unjust or dishonest: even while it lasts, it carries with it no peace and no true pleasure.

The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds

no trouble to it (Prov. 10:22)

Hence there is wealth that carries with it trouble.

When you know your husband or boy friend is an armed robber, dare you ask him about his experiences when he comes back from his “operations”? You may eat “sradenam” – fatty meat but do you have real peace? I once visited a village with a beautiful building on the outskirts. It was pointed out to me that the owner operates a transport service with a fleet of vehicles. Every year just before the end of the year, one of his vehicles must be involved in an accident in which somebody dies. Does he ever enjoy a peaceful Christmas? The young man in the AG’s Department who has registered a Company into which he siphons off money from public funds may not lie awake as you do wondering how he is going to pay the fees for his son in the Senior High School. But may he not be lying awake wondering if he has sufficiently covered his tracks?

So when you and I ask “Why do the wicked prosper? Why do dishonest people succeed?” The Lord’s reply is: Is this what you call living at ease? Is this the prosperity that causes you so much bother that you want to question me about my justice?


While ‘don’t be bothered’ is a good and sufficient reaction answer, there must surely be some more direct reason why the dishonest succeed and the wicked prosper.

In Luke 16:8b Jesus refers to the sons of this world being more shrewd (or astute or wiser) than the sons of light in their generation or in handling their affairs. Paul admonishes (Rom. 6:19) that we surrender ourselves entirely as slaves of righteousness just as at one time we surrendered entirely as slaves to wickedness and impurity.

The wicked succeed because they are diligent at their wickedness. They will kill their own wives, their own sister’s son living with them, for “sikaduro” because somebody promises them juju money. I am told the armed robbers will enquire and visit and survey a neighbourhood before they strike. The courier will swallow cocaine pellets knowing some have been caught and some have had it burst in their intestines. Where they may bribe, they will bribe. If they need to kill, they will kill to succeed.

What about the children of God? “Give and it shall be given you” – mere theory, we would argue. “Are tithes mentioned in the New Testament?” we would question. “Sparse sowing, sparse reaping”: “the widow’s mite”, we would counter.

So why do the dishonest succeed? Determination, commitment, single mindedness. Of course because the wicked is wicked, his commitment is tinged with wickedness: that is why he and his wealth soon disappear: why there is no rest for the wicked.

Whatever preparation the mobile phone thief makes, physical or spiritual, he eventually has to make a move: demand your phone and risk being lynched.

The children of light would move from prayer meeting to prayer meeting praying for the Lord to “enlarge their territory”. But when the Lord is more than ready, they would steadfastly remain camped on the banks of the Jordan, afraid to move camp: to look for land to build: to put a little money into the Credit Union so that they can borrow at manageable interest rate. So the Lord would multiply their zero territory a hundred fold, and they would remain at zero, jealously and uselessly asking: Why do the wicked prosper?

Why do the dishonest succeed? Scripture admonishes: whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might (Eccl.910a). So subject your plans to the Lord’s approval (Prov. 16:2), then get a move on, working with resolve and trusting that even if in the process you fall, you will not stay down because the Lord will help you up (Ps. 37:24). At the same time remember Do not wear yourself out to get rich: have the wisdom to show restraint (Prov. 23:4). Depend upon the Lord and he will grant you your heart’s desire (Ps. 37:4) so you will have no time worrying about the so-called prosperity of the wicked and no reason to ask “Why do the wicked prosper”. “Why do the dishonest succeed”?

Why does He not intervene?

Of course we need to acknowledge that most of the time when people ask ‘Why do the dishonest succeed?’ they mean: why does a righteous God not intervene to make them fail? When armed robbers set out on an operation why don’t you, Lord, make them end up in a ditch, injured, so they never get to their target? When the dishonest Accounts Clerk was adding a zero to his figures could you not have caused his hands to become paralyzed or let him be discovered before cashing the cheque?

Do you see a little of Habakkuk’s “complaints” in those question: why do you tolerate wrong? (Hab. 1:3) why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves (Hab. 1:13b)? But do we ever ask: on the one occasion I betrayed my wife, why didn’t you allow us to be caught in the act? When I thought something spiteful about my pastor or my Christian sister, why did you not allow it to become projected on my brows or on the chapel wall for all to see? Or, even, when Jesus was being nailed to the cross, why did you not turn the metal nails into rubber so he could not be crucified?

In the end is this not the same age old question the Weekly Bible Lesson set out to answer: why do the innocent suffer? Do we still need to ask: why do the wicked prosper; why do the dishonest succeed? Trust in the Lord and do good; depend on the Lord and He will grant you your heart’s desire.*

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  2. I love this word for it tells us what we see in the world

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