The prophet Jeremiah grappled with the issue when he asked the Lord: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts” (Jeremiah 12:1–2). Job struggled similarly: “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 21:7). And the psalmist expressed envy when he saw the prosperity of the wicked, wondering if living righteously was worth the trouble (Psalm 73:3, 13). How does a holy God of love allow His people to suffer while the wicked thrive?
Perhaps a better question is, why are we tempted to envy the wicked? As God’s children, what lies at the heart of our inquiry? Why are we upset when an evil person does well? Is it because that person has something we do not?
The wicked may prosper in this world, but perhaps we’ve forgotten that their fortune will only endure for the short term. We’ve lost sight of our eternal reward and the ultimate fate of the wicked. We need this reminder: “Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun. Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes” (Psalm 37:1–7).
It’s natural to wonder why God is gracious and merciful to people when they do not deserve His mercy—when their hearts are hard and stubborn. This response is typical; it’s human to desire appropriate consequences for bad behavior. Forgiving our enemies does not come easily. Perhaps we forget that many of us once were hard-hearted and stubborn. We, too, deserved God’s judgment. But God extended His love and grace toward us so that we might receive His salvation: “All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else. But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!)” (Ephesians 2:3–5, NLT).
One answer to the question “Why do the wicked prosper?” is that even the wicked have a purpose to fulfill in God’s plan. God raised up the Babylonians, a “ruthless and impetuous people” for a reason (Habakkuk 1:6; cf. Jeremiah 27:6). God raised up the Persian king Cyrus in order to accomplish all that God pleased (Isaiah 44:28). God raised up the Egyptians and Assyrians in His righteous judgment of disobedient Judah (Isaiah 7:18).
Perhaps the best answer to the question “Why do the wicked prosper?” is this: because God loves sinners (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). He is compassionate, merciful, and patient with wicked people because He wants them to be saved. Second Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
God is slow to anger, abounding in love. He is a compassionate God who gives certain blessings to all people (Matthew 5:45) and who desires all to be saved. His patience with the wicked is an opportunity for them to be saved: “And remember, our Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved” (2 Peter 3:15, NLT).
We might want to see the wicked destroyed immediately, but God has a sovereign plan that needs to move forward. And in His love and grace, He wants them to be saved. God’s patience with the wicked is an opportunity for us to pray for them and witness to them so that they will know God’s heart toward them. We are called to tell the wicked of His wonderful salvation and to warn them of the punishment that they can expect if they remain hardened toward God and don’t turn from their stubborn path.