3.14 Why Do the Righteous Suffer and the Wicked Prosper?
Shaar HaBitachon Chapter 3, part II
One’s burgeoning trust in God might be shaken by the troubling phenomenon we observe that there are righteous people who work hard to earn a living and who endure suffering while many wicked people prosper and enjoy tranquility. Various prophets addressed this phenomenon; Jeremiah asked directly, “Why does the way of the wicked succeed?” (Jeremiah 12:1). Habakkuk also asked God, “Why do You remain silent when the wicked devours one more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13). King David also lamented, “Behold, such are the wicked; they are always at ease and they increase their riches. Surely in vain have I cleansed my heart and washed my hands in innocence because all day long I have been plagued and I am chastised every morning” (Psalms 73:12-14). There are many other such verses.
We are not given a direct answer as to why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper because, in truth, there can be many underlying causes for such disturbing realities, each case differing from the others. This is why Moshe told us, “The concealed things are for Hashem our God, and the revealed things are for us and our children…” (Deuteronomy 29:28). Similarly, King Solomon advises, “When you see the oppression of the poor, and the perversion of justice and righteousness in the state, do not wonder about (God’s) will…” (Koheles 5:7).
However, since people are troubled by this phenomenon, it would only be appropriate to outline some of the causes of this apparent inequity, though we cannot attribute a given cause to any particular case. A righteous person might be denied the opportunity to earn an easy livelihood and live a life of ease because:
- It is the repercussion of a sin he previously committed, as per Proverbs 11:31, “Even the righteous are repaid on Earth.”
- It is to increase his share in the Next World, as per Deuteronomy 8:16, “To do good for you at your end.”
- It is to demonstrate this person’s patience and good outlook in the service of God so that others might learn from him, as was the case with Job.
- It is in contrast to the evil of this person’s contemporaries, in order to highlight the afflicted party’s piety and devotion to God, as opposed to the conduct of others. Regarding such a phenomenon, Isaiah 53:4 says, “It was our illness that he carried, our pains that he endured.”
- It is because the righteous person failed to be zealous for God in chastising his wicked contemporaries. This was the case with Eli, the High Priest, who failed to rein in his out-of-control sons, as seen in I Samuel chapter 2.
Similarly, God might show favor to an evil person for a number of reasons, such as:
- To reward him in this world for an earlier good deed, as per Deuteronomy 7:10, “He repays His enemies to their face in order to destroy them.” The Targum understands this to mean that the wicked are repaid in this world so that they might be destroyed in the Next World.
- Sometimes an evil person is given riches to hold onto them, like one watching a deposit he has been entrusted. In such a case, the evil person is only given wealth so that he might pass it on to a righteous son. Verses that illustrate this concept include Job 27:17, “He prepares it but the righteous will wear it,” and Koheles 2:26, “to the sinner He gives the job to gather and to accumulate so that he may give it to one who is good before God.”
- An evil person might also be given wealth so that it might prove to be the cause of his undoing or even his demise. Regarding this, Koheles 5:12 says, “There is a great evil I have observed under the sun - riches kept by their owner for his own injury.”
- Wealth might also be given to an evil person as a sign of God’s patience, in the eventuality that he will repent and become worthy of his lot. This was the case with Menashe, an evil king. (Menashe’s evil is detailed in II Kings chapter 21; his subsequent repentance is appended in II Chronicles chapter 33.)
- Wealth might be given to an evil person as repayment for the good deeds of his righteous father. For example, in II Kings chapter 10, as a reward for driving Baal-worship out of Israel, Yehu was granted four generations on the throne, regardless of the worthiness of his successors. Similarly, Psalms 37:25 says, “I have never see a righteous person forsaken or his children begging for bread.”
- Finally, wealth might be granted to one who might be inclined toward evil on the inside but outwardly acting righteously. This is a test. When they see how the wicked prosper, will they turn from the service of God and follow the path of evil? This separates those who are loyal to God from those who allow the wicked to persuade them. The purpose of this is so that those who succeed will receive their reward from God. (The Chovos HaLevavos refers us to the incidents of the prophet Elijah and the wicked Queen Jezebel, and the prophet Jeremiah and the evil kings of his day.)