The Psalms on the Prosperity of the Wicked

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The next line of our Psalm 26 says, “I do not sit with wicked men.”  It alerts us of another key challenge in the Psalms.  Why do the wicked prosper?

The Psalms open with a common theme of the Old Testament (and in its own way, the New): “Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly . . . whatever he does shall prosper” (Psalm 1:1, 3).

Just two weeks ago we talked about the line “your goodness is before my eyes.”  The Psalms claim that God is good to us: he makes us happy, and is a good king, who judges justly.

But that’s not the way it is, and the Psalms know it.  “I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. . . .  Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world, they increase in riches” (73:3, 12).

Indeed, they prosper at the expense of the good: “The cords of the wicked have wrapped me up, but I have not forgotten your law” (119:61).  It isn’t always our fault.  Sometimes we do what we’re supposed to do, and the wicked win.

In fact, it seems like they win all the time.  The righteous are crucified, while those who ignore God seem to have all the fun.

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This is such a challenge that our Psalm 26 goes on about it at length:

“I do not sit with wicked men

Nor join with the deceitful

I have hated the gathering of those who do evil

And I do not join with the impious.”

The Psalmist has to insist – and we have to repeat these lines to ourselves – because the company of the wicked is attractive.  It seems like they have all the fun.  It seems like the wicked prosper.

Let’s be concrete: how often are we tempted to participate in a media that forgets God, the moral law, and basic justice?

How often are we tempted to drive, or do our work, or build our homes, like those who have forgotten God?

It seems like we would have a happier life if we joined in.  And  it seems like their “wickedness” isn’t doing them any harm anyway.

The Psalmist’s answer to this is emphatic: do not conform!  Do not bargain!  Do not sit with the wicked.

***

The Psalms do not deny the prosperity of the wicked.  Rather, they say, “do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who brings wicked devices to pass” (37:7).  We have to learn how to see their prosperity and not fret.

Perhaps the heart of the answer is in a line like this: “with your own eyes you shall see how the wicked are repaid” (91:8).  Or as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “they have their reward.”

The Psalms – and our faith – call us to recognize that there are different kinds of rewards.  Does crime pay?  Well, yes, in some ways it does pay.  A certain road may indeed be the fastest way to get you to a given destination – the question is where you want to go.

The best way to make a lot of money may indeed be through wickedness.  The question is whether money is what you really want.

You can “see with your eyes” the way they are repaid.  That doesn’t mean, “you can see them punished.”  It means, yes, they get the material things they want.  They built their big house.  The punishment, on the other hand, might be precisely what you can’t see with material eyes.

***

The first Psalm says, “Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly . . . whatever he does shall prosper,” but there’s a catch.  The questions are what such a man actually does, and what he counts as prospering.

That is, someone who goes to Mass might not make big money if he starts a business.  Because someone who is truly righteous won’t be out to make big money anyway: that isn’t the “prosperity” he seeks.  And so profit-making may not even be “whatever he does.”  Even if he starts a business, he might have other things in mind than making big money: like caring for his customers and his workers.

Meanwhile, “The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind drives away” (1:4).  The prosperity they win is real, and tangible, and visible.  But it isn’t what lasts.

Are there parts of your life where you have your eyes on the wrong prosperity?

Click here for the entire series on praying with the Psalms.

 

eric.m.johnston

One Comment

  1. Thoughtful and engaging analysis of a vexing dilemma in life. A reminder that what we worry about reflects on us and what we really value. Thank you!!

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