When The Wicked Prosper, And the Righteous Suffer

Title: When The Wicked Prosper, And the Righteous Suffer

Bible Book: Psalms 73

Author: Paul E. Brown

Subject: Suffering, Christian



The author of Psalm 73 is telling us, in retrospect, of a time when he went through a "long, dark night of the soul," as he agonized over the problem of the wicked prospering and the righteous suffering. That problem has caused great anguish to many sincere people down through the centuries, and people still wrestle with it today.

But before going into the details of his struggle, the Psalmist first of all assures us that he did finally make it through that valley of doubt and despair. The valley was deep, dark and troublesome, but he made it to the other side and emerged victoriously. He says in verse 1, "Truly God is good to Israel...." He was referring to the Jews of his day; however, what he said is also applicable to spiritual Israel. According to Romans 2 and Galatians 3, spiritual Israel consists of all who have repented of their sins and placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

He says further in verse 1. "...even to such as are of a clean heart." When a person truly gets right with God, it shows - by the power of the Holy Spirit, he cleans up his act. Jesus said, in Matthew 7:20, "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them." There's an old spiritual which contains this line, "I know'd they wuz God's chillun, 'cause I seen 'em doing right!"

So the Psalmist says, in effect, "I am all settled now. I have firm confidence in the Lord, and in his goodness and grace."

"But," he says in verse 2, and then he begins telling us of the struggle he went through. This Psalm is divided into two parts. First, it tells of The Perplexity That He Felt, and then the last part tells of The Peace That He Found.


In verse 2 he says, "But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well-nigh slipped." "There was a time," he says, "when I almost 'lost it' - a time when I nearly 'went under' with confusion and despair.

In verse 3 he tells us the reason, "For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked." He says, "I was jealous when I saw how so many people were living foolish, sinful lives, and yet seemed to be doing so well." Then he elaborates - I'll not deal with every verse, but let's look at some highlights of what he says.

Verse 4 states, "For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm." He says, "They seem to live healthy lives, and then die of natural causes."

Verse 5, "They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men."

Verse 7, "Their eyes stand out with fatness...." He is saying, "They over-indulge. They take frequent excursions into excess and immorality, and as a result they have about them a debauched puffiness." Verse 7 continues: "...they have more than heart could wish." They have more than an ample supply of this world's goods.

Verse 11, "And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High?" They speak of God in a cavalier, sneering, blasphemous manner.

He says, in verse 12, "Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches."

Then he compares their situation with his own. In verses 13-14 he says, "Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning."

He says, in effect, "It just doesn't seem fair. There are folks out there living immoral, wicked lives, who wouldn't give God the time of day and yet are healthy, carefree, and well off financially. On the other hand, here I am, sincerely trying to honor God and count for him, and what does it get me? It seems that the harder I try, the more my troubles pile up - and it doesn't seem right." He says, "It makes me wonder if there's really any advantage in following the Lord, after all."

Sometimes today, earnest people who are battered by the storms of life, and whose hearts are broken and bleeding, ask that same question: "Is there really any profit in serving the Lord and living a righteous life?"

Several years ago a young man wrote a letter to a national magazine, challenging the statement that, "honesty is the best policy." Here is what he wrote, "Honesty the best policy? You don't think I [go] for that tripe. My father was an honest man. He paid his debts. He paid his taxes. He paid the paving assessments and the sewage assessments. He gave to the Red Cross, the Community Chest, and the church. Finally, he got out of work. He could not pay the taxes. The sheriff came and put us out. He could not meet the payments on the car and they repossessed it, but the man down the street is a bootlegger and he travels in high society. Public officials, elected by the people, are constant guests in his home. Do not tell me that honesty is the best policy."

What that young man said was closely akin to the Psalmist's lament. The Psalmist said, in effect, "What's the use? It looks as if my commitment to follow the Lord has been pointless. There seems to be no benefit in living a God-honoring, conscientious, responsible life."

However - thank the Lord - he didn't leave it at that. Look at his statement in verse 15, "If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children." Even in that dark moment of despair, the Psalmist still retained at least a vestige of spiritual equilibrium and insight. He said, in effect, "I know that if I settle into this cynical frame of mind, I'll not only do myself in, but I'll also cause others to stumble, including the younger generation - so I simply must try to find help. I must try to find a way out of this depression."


Note, also, that we learn The Pease That He Found. This is not to say that he finally unraveled the mystery of why some wicked people prosper and some righteous people suffer. There are some other places in the Bible where we are given limited insights into that problem, but that's another subject for another Sunday. At the moment we'll confine our study to what the author of this Psalm had to say.

Even though he didn't solve the mystery as to why these things happen, God gave him some fresh new insights that caused him to see the matter in a whole new perspective - and thus the perplexity that he had felt was replaced with a load-lifting peace.

Notice first where he found that peace. In verses 16-17 he says, "When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me; Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end."

It was while he was seeking God's face through worship that these new insights came to him - and that's one of the big reasons why you and I need to attend church regularly. Worshiping at church doesn't substitute for private devotions - but neither do private devotions substitute for corporate worship. It's not "either, or," it's "both, and." People who skip church are especially vulnerable to having a warped perspective on life. Folks, when the time comes for worship, you and I need to be here - for God's glory, to be sure, and to encourage others, yes, indeed - but we also need to be here for our own good!

There in the sanctuary God reminded him of the end of the wicked. Whatever ungodly folks may appear to have in this life, it all pales into insignificance in light of what they face in eternity. Jesus said, in Matthew 16:26, "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"

The pleasures that the wicked have in this life are short-lived, and after that they face eternal ruin in that indescribably sad place of separation called hell.

Years ago I heard a man tell about the Norcross Plantation in the Arkansas delta. He said that a man named Norcross had been one of the early settlers of that country and had bought up thousands of acres for a little of nothing. He became an extremely wealthy man and developed that beautiful and bountiful plantation. It was like an oasis in the middle of all that flat land. He built a luxurious mansion that would house fifty guests at a time. He had numerous gardens enclosed in neatly manicured hedges. In one garden were red roses, in another garden roses of a different color, and still other gardens containing flowers of different sorts.

After Mr. Norcross' death, the plantation was opened up to tours. During one tour, which was being led by a former employee of Mr. Norcross, one lady remarked ecstatically, "This is just like a little bit of heaven." To which the tour guide responded, "Yeah, and it's all the heaven that Mr. Norcross will ever know." I don't know if that former employee was right or not. I never knew Mr. Norcross, and in any case it's not mine to judge him. But I do know that the Bible teaches that the pleasures of sin are only "for a season," and that afterwards the wicked face eternal woe.

In verse 18 the Psalmist says, "Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castest them down into destruction." Not only do the wicked face certain punishment in the life to come, but even in this present life they are "in slippery places." That is, their existence is precarious and uncertain. Even though they may appear to be having a great time, inwardly there is uneasiness and unrest. For example, many of them live in constant fear that someone may cheat them out of their wealth, which they obtained by cheating others. Whatever surface benefits the wicked person might enjoy, inwardly he experiences tension and turmoil. Isaiah 57:20-21 declares, "But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked." Short-lived, superficial, surface pleasures, yes - but inner peace, no. The ancient sage, Augustine, in one of his prayers said, "Oh, God, thou hast made us for thyself, and we cannot rest until we rest in thee."

That's why wicked people - that is, people who have rejected Christ and therefore are still under the condemnation of sin - rush from one carnal pleasure to another. They're trying to dull that ache within their empty hearts - but no amount of affluence or self-indulgence can fill that void. That's why we often hear of Hollywood types and other high-rollers getting hooked on alcohol or drugs. That's why we often read of their going from one marriage to another - or, more often, from one adulterous live-in relationship to another - and in some extreme cases, finally taking their own lives.

But even if the wicked person should somehow manage so to dull his conscience that he is oblivious to his inner emptiness, there is still the final reckoning when he will stand before God and face the consequences of his Godless life. This present life is but a wisp of smoke, a thin vapor, blip on the screen compared to the endless ages of eternity. The Psalmist says, in verse 19, "How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors." As Dr. R. G. Lee used to say in his famous sermon, there will be a "payday someday." Galatians 6:7-9 declares, "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not."

When the Psalmist considers the real inner condition of the wicked and the eternal condemnation that awaits them when this life is over, and when he considers the blessings that are his here and hereafter, he is ashamed for having been so foolish as to envy the wicked and to doubt God. In verses 21-22 he says, "Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins. So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee." Then he names some of those marvelous blessings that are his as a believer.

Verse 23, "Nevertheless I am continually with thee...." He says, "Lord, even when times have been the roughest and I've been hurting the worst, you were always right there with me and I've been comforted by your presence."

I know that some under the sound of my voice have experienced, and perhaps are experiencing even now, some crushing disappointments and losses - but I'm thankful that if you've been born again you can claim God's great promise in Hebrews 13:5, "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee." However dark and treacherous your path, as a believer you never walk alone.

In the last part of verse 23 he says, "thou hast held me by my right hand." He is saying, "Lord, you have kept me from 'going under.' Admittedly, I have stumbled and wavered, but you have held on to me and gotten me back on my feet. You have snatched me out of the pit of hopelessness and despair."

Now look at verse 24; the Psalmist says, "Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel...." He is saying, "Lord, I'm not on my own when it comes to the crucial decisions of life. You don't leave me to my own poor devices - you're always there to point me in the right direction, if only I will seek your leadership." In Proverbs 3:5-6 we have this tremendous promise, "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths."

Then look at the last part of verse 24, "...and afterward receive me to glory." Not only is our Lord with his children amidst the storms and tribulations of life to comfort us, uphold us and guide us, but when this life is over we'll go to be with him forever. We'll go to a place where there is no sorrow, or illness, or death, or heartache. How wonderful to know that for the person who is clinging trustfully and obediently to Christ, death is but the dusky gateway into the glories of heaven - and how small and insignificant the cares and tears of this life seem in light of what God has prepared for us in eternity.

No wonder Paul wrote in Romans 8:18, "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us."


Back in the days when Theodore Roosevelt was President of our nation, he - along with a rather large group of associates - had been on a wild game hunting trip to Africa and was on a ship returning to the United States. Also on board that ship was an elderly missionary couple. They had served in a remote section of Africa, and conditions had been extremely primitive and difficult. They had dealt with disease and danger on a regular basis, but that was where God had called them to serve and they had been faithful, but now they had retired and were coming back to their native land.

Due to their limited financial resources they were only able to afford a small, humbly furnished cabin on the ship. They noticed that the President and his entourage lived in luxury throughout the cruise. Then when the ship docked the President and his comrades received a rousing welcome, including a brass band, a host of dignitaries, and a cheering crowd. After the President and his party had left the premises and the crowd had dispersed, the old missionary and his wife came down the gangplank. There was no one to meet them. They found a cheap little hotel room to spend the night in before beginning their journey the next morning to the place where they would live in retirement.

The old missionary said to his wife, "We've tried to be faithful, and it just doesn't seem right that our homecoming should be like this." She said, "I'm going for a walk, and while I'm gone I hope you'll spend some time with God. Just tell him about your heavy-heartedness. Ask him to lift that burden of discouragement." When she returned the old radiance was on his face, and she knew that he had gotten the victory. She said, "Did you talk with the Lord while I was gone?" He said, "Yes. I just poured my heart out and told him that it didn't seem fair that we should do our best to serve him all of these years only to have this kind of a disappointing homecoming. And then it was almost as if the Lord spoke to me audibly and said, 'Child of mine, you're not home yet!'"

There is a wonderful old hymn that says, "O the toils of the road will seem nothing, When we get to the end of the way."

Yes, in this life suffering often comes to the righteous, and prosperity - at least, outward prosperity - often comes to the wicked. But the believer has the Lord within his heart to comfort, strengthen and guide him. He has a sense of purpose, and he is able - through the miraculous power of God - to find joy in life even in the most painful times. The unbeliever, however, has a void within that no amount of material success or high living can fill. The believer has the promise of heaven when he dies, while the wicked person - the unbeliever - faces an eternity in a burning hell.

How marvelously true are the words of the old song,

"Tho' sometimes the shadows may hang o'er the way,

And sorrows may come to beckon us home,

Our precious Redeemer each toil will repay;

It pays to serve Jesus each day."

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