For Kathy Ann Jewett Tilton (Mama).
An obtuse man cannot know, nor can a fool understand this: when wicked people sprout like grass and all the workers of iniquity blossom, it is in order to destroy them forever. (Psalm 92:6-7)
For people of conscience, it is deeply distressing to see abusive and reckless persons placed in positions of power and influence and to witness liars, cheats, crooks, and charlatans reveling in their success and enjoying the spoils of their dishonest behavior. For those of us who believe in a God of justice, however, the prosperity of the wicked poses a serious challenge to our worldview. How can evil flourish if the universe is governed by a completely good and all-powerful deity?
For Judaism of the Second Temple period this problem was particularly acute. The return from exile and the rebuilding of the Temple implied that the punishment for their sins in the days of the Israelite monarchy had been paid in full (cf. Isa. 40:2). Nevertheless, the Jewish people continued to be subject to Gentile kingdoms whose rulers were guilty of idolatry, bloodshed, sexual transgressions, and every sort of wickedness. The Jewish people lived in a world that daily challenged the view that riches, power, happiness, and success are proof of God’s blessing and approval. All too often it was those who colluded with Israel’s oppressors who were awarded riches and honor, whether it be King Herod and his sons or the high priestly families who were infamous for their abuses (cf. t. Men. 13:21; b. Pes. 57a). Meanwhile, it was the pious who experienced humiliation and the faithful who suffered for their steadfast loyalty to their God and his Torah. The resolution to this contradiction offered by the Psalmist quoted above—that the temporary good fortune of evildoers ultimately leads to their destruction—was developed in ancient Judaism and is also reflected in the New Testament.
My wife, Lauren, and I recently had the privilege of visiting the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where we saw displayed, within a few feet of each other, the likely sarcophagus of Herod the Great and the ossuary of Joseph Caiaphas the high priest. According to the Gospels, each of these men attempted to take Jesus’ life, the former failing to achieve his design when Jesus was an infant, the latter succeeding with the help of his friend, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Each of these men enjoyed lavish lifestyles, exercised power, and boasted of success in their lifetimes. They received their reward in full. But now their bones have crumbled into dust and their success, their wealth, and their power are meaningless. Lauren in particular found this testimony to God’s righteous judgment to be a comfort when she saw them.