Theology Thursday - Why Does God Seem Unjust?

“God Speaks to Job,” from an illuminated Byzantine manuscript (ca. 12th century)

Job was “the greatest of all the people of the east” (Job 1:3). He was a righteous man who’d been blessed by God with incredible wealth: “he had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants” (Job 1:3). He’d also been blessed with 10 children. 

He lost it all in one day, and God did it. Well, Satan did it, but only because God allowed him to. His wife eventually urged him to “curse God, and die” (Job 2:9). In this excerpt, Job cries out to his awful friends and wonders why God seems so unjust (Job 24:1):

Why are not times of judgment kept by the Almighty, 
      and why do those who know him never see his days? 

This is an eternal question. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the righteous suffer, and the wicked prosper? Why is justice delayed? Doesn’t God see? Job knows He does. But, why won’t He act? When will He act?

Job goes on to describe the wicked (Job 24:2-4):

Men remove landmarks; 
      they seize flocks and pasture them. 
They drive away the ass of the fatherless; 
      they take the widow’s ox for a pledge. 
They thrust the poor off the road; 
      the poor of the earth all hide themselves. 

Job describes the plight of the poor who are oppressed by the wicked (Job 24:5-12):

Behold, like wild asses in the desert 
      they go forth to their toil, 
seeking prey in the wilderness 
      as food for their children. 
They gather their fodder in the field 
      and they glean the vineyard of the wicked man. 
They lie all night naked, without clothing, 
      and have no covering in the cold. 
They are wet with the rain of the mountains, 
      and cling to the rock for want of shelter. 
(There are those who snatch the fatherless child from the breast, 
      and take in pledge the infant of the poor.) 
They go about naked, without clothing; 
      hungry, they carry the sheaves; 
among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil; 
      they tread the wine presses, but suffer thirst. 
From out of the city the dying groan, 
      and the soul of the wounded cries for help; 
      yet God pays no attention to their prayer. 

If God hears the prayers of the righteous (and He does), and if He has the power to intervene and answer these prayers (and He does), then why won’t He? This isn’t an academic question for Job: he’s just been accused by his friends (again) of being a wicked, unrepentant sinner (see Job 22). 

He continues, and describes the moral bankruptcy of the wicked (Job 24:13-17):

There are those who rebel against the light, 
      who are not acquainted with its ways, 
      and do not stay in its paths. 
The murderer rises in the dark, 
      that he may kill the poor and needy; 
      and in the night he is as a thief. 
The eye of the adulterer also waits for the twilight, 
      saying, ‘No eye will see me’; 
      and he disguises his face. 
In the dark they dig through houses; 
      by day they shut themselves up; 
      they do not know the light. 
For deep darkness is morning to all of them; 
      for they are friends with the terrors of deep darkness. 

What a contrast; the righteous and oppressed vs. the arrogant and the wicked. Why does God allow this? Job anticipates his friends’ objections (Job 24:18-20):1

You say, ‘They are swiftly carried away upon the face of the waters; 
      their portion is cursed in the land; 
      no treader turns toward their vineyards. 
 Drought and heat snatch away the snow waters; 
      so does Sheol those who have sinned. 
The squares of the town forget them; 
      their name is no longer remembered; 
      so wickedness is broken like a tree.’ 

Job isn’t convinced by this pat answer. His friends haven’t said this, but he suspects they would, if he’d let them open their mouths. He concludes with this reply to their imagined response (Job 24:21-25):

They feed on the barren childless woman, 
      and do no good to the widow. 
Yet God prolongs the life of the mighty by his power; 
      they rise up when they despair of life. 
He gives them security, and they are supported; 
      and his eyes are upon their ways. 
They are exalted a little while, and then are gone; 
      they wither and fade like the mallow; 
      they are cut off like the heads of grain. 
If it is not so, who will prove me a liar, 
      and show that there is nothing in what I say?” 

Sure, the wicked will all die, in the end. But, what about there here and now? They oppress the vulnerable, yet God prolongs their life! He gives them security, and sustains them — all so they can continue their wicked deeds! Job is a practical man who is deeply hurt, by his circumstances and by his “friends.” He knows how the world works. He can see it. He looks around, and sees injustice in the here and now. He knows the “right answer” to this conundrum (Job 1:21-22; 2:10). So do we. But, when the “right answers” meet harsh reality, Job asks a universal question — why doesn’t God make things right — right now? 

Notes

1 This section (Job 24:18-25) is notoriously difficult. This is not the place to discuss these issues. Suffice it to say that I agree with the RSV translation (which I used in this excerpt), and see vv. 18-20 as Job anticipating what his friends will say, and vv.21-25 as his response to this imaginary reply.

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There are 11 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

The poets seem to have the best answers to this question. One my long time favorites . . .

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

Aaron Blumer's picture

One more. JW Peterson is not usually a go-to guy for songs answering heavy questions, but I've always loved this one. At Grace, I set it to Kingsfoil for the tune, if memory serves, which gave its themes a much more appropriate dignity.

All things work out for good, we know -
Such is God's great design;
He orders all our steps below
For purposes divine.

This is the faith that keeps still,
No matter what the test,
And lets me glory in His will -
For well I know 'tis best.

So now the future holds no fear,
God guards the work begun;
And mortals are immortal here
Until their work is done.

Some day the path He chose for me
Will all be understood;
In heaven's clearer light I'll see
All things worked out for good.

-John W. Peterson-

JBL's picture

This question has never been that troubling to me. 

Believing that man is wicked and that he is irredeemable through his own effort, the question is not "Why does God seem unjust?", but "Why does anything good happen to man at all?"

If the things that men make or own rebelled and offended him in the slightest, he would destroy it immediately.  Men will shoot dogs that bite in instinct and think it just.  But man's sin is not just a slight grievance to God.  

I believe the question of "Why does God seem unjust?" comes from very poor theology.  It comes from the idea that men have differing degrees of intrinsic righteousness and that God has some obligation to merit favor to those who are more righteous.

On the other hand, the answer to the question "Why does anything good happen to man at all?" is the heart of the gospel.

John B. Lee

TylerR's picture

On a purely intellectual and theological basis, I agree with you. So does Job; he knows the right answers, too (Job 1:21-22; 2:10). But, one of the precious things about this book is that it gives voice to the honest questions we sometimes ask ourselves in the midst of terrible circumstances. We often know the "right answer," but we still cry out to know why anyway. This excerpt (Job 24) is one of those times. And, to be sure, Job has it worst than most of us ...

Like many of us, Job knows what to say and what he ought to think about this. But, just like with us, sometimes this knowledge can seem academic and abstract when the hard times come. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

JBL's picture

You make a great point in terms of practical application.  

I admit my severe first-world bias, and have never physically suffered (at least not in any relativistic sense to Job or those Christians in the early NT church).  One of my biggest concerns is whether I could remain obedient and cheerful and joyful in Christ should massive affliction overwhelm me.

We are reading I and II Thessalonians in our family devotions now - this church too, suffered affliction and needed to be encouraged that God will most surely avenge the unjust and come again to deliver the just.  And yet until that time come, Paul tells the church to follow I Thess 5:6-24.

So in light of that instruction, and seeing that you have pastoral experience, what else have you told people who are discouraged and doubting God in their time of trouble?  Intellectually, we do know that the grace of God and the hope and assurance of our salvation and His return should be more than sufficient.  But for some brothers and sisters in Christ (and we've all known them), these words can be very hollow.  What is the discipleship solution that you (and others, feel free to chime in!) would recommend?

John B. Lee

Aaron Blumer's picture

I believe Job is mostly about how God's justice works. Is it simply a mechanistic do good = get blessed, sin = get suffering, or does it unfold in the context of plans and purposes so large we couldn't really wrap our minds around them even if we had the information?

The last few chapters pretty much reveal that the answer is the latter. Job knows his friends are wrong, but as far as he can tell, God isn't doing justice correctly either. In the end, the message is, in Cowper's words "Judge not the Lord by feeble sense."

TylerR's picture

Thanks, RC

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Aaron Blumer's picture

I'm missing an RC Sproul allusion maybe? Can you elaborate?

ScottS's picture

I agree with JBL's statement fully. And yes, people do ask "why does God seem unjust" (or the more extreme, "why is God unjust," if one has a decided enmity toward God at the time). Such a question arises because the unjust are attempting to judge the Just One from the skewed perspective of being unjust. So the "why" is because we must exert extreme effort to grasp even a small understanding of true justice and the Just God, and without that effort (which is not something generally done, as Tyler put it, "in the midst of terrible circumstances"), God may "seem" unjust to people.

A right focus would be to praise God for the grace and long-suffering He shows in that He has not ended our unrighteous lives and consigned us to death forever upon the first instance (or any of the numerous later instances) of sin. The reason He lets wickedness at all exist is to allow humanity to perpetuate despite their sinfulness, else His plans for humanity would have been foiled at the very start of His creation by the instant deaths of the father and mother of mankind (something that an all-wise God would not let happen, else He would not have created mankind to begin with). Instead, He allowed sin to persist so that He might work to justly save people from that sin and its punishment of death through His Son's atonement.

I'm no pastor, but it seems that counseling others during hard times to focus on the grace they have been given by God (not just in their own continued life, but every good thing in that life, along with the good things to come to those who believe at the resurrection) cannot be a bad way to go to lead them out of a wrong focus when, as JBL's follow-up stated, they are "discouraged and doubting God in their time of trouble."

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

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