Week 6 Wisdom Literature

Against Prudentialism — The Problem of Evil (Psalms 37 and 73; Job 38:1–41:34)

By Dr. Rick Steele
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Moral and Historical Theology

Read this week’s Scripture: Psalms 37; 73; Job 38:1–41:34


Job Confessing his Presumption to God…
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We come today to the turning point in our course. For the past four weeks we’ve been looking at various aspects of “wisdom orthodoxy.” We’ve examined its prudentialism (the belief that moral goodness pays off), its optimism (the belief that God orders the universe justly, such that those who practice moral goodness are duly rewarded), its empiricism (the belief that daily experience exemplifies the laws by which God governs the universe), and its internationalism (the belief that the same moral laws are operative everywhere, and that human wisdom is accessible to the sages of other nations besides Israel).

Later Hebrew sages came to doubt these cheerful, interlocking beliefs, and aired their doubts in writings of great literary power and theological depth. Yet these later writings were ultimately included, along with the earlier ones, in the Hebrew Bible and/or the Septuagint. They underscore the plain facts — inexplicable to wisdom orthodoxy, but undeniable in human affairs — that good people sometimes suffer terribly, that daily experience doesn’t always illustrate the operation of divinely revealed law, and that God’s wisdom is inscrutable. And they stoutly reassert Israel’s special relationship with God.

For the next four weeks, we shall consider the criticisms of the later sages to the orthodox positions of the earlier ones.

An Ongoing Conversation

For all their doubts about wisdom orthodoxy, however, the later sages remain committed to the principle that the quest for wisdom is a communal discipline involving frank conversation. But whereas much of the book of Proverbs consists in the instructions and admonitions given by teachers to their pupils and by parents to their children, the later sages are typically engaged in fierce debate with one another — and sometimes even with themselves.

The early sages sometimes remind us of Polonius, that well-meaning but somewhat pompous elder in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who is forever dispensing sententious advice to the young. Such characters reappear in the later Wisdom Literature, but often, as in the case of Job’s comforters, as foils to the heroic but almost heretical protagonist.

In their place we have sages who demand of the universe an explanation for the fact that it does not correspond to the orthodox program (Job), or who console themselves in their doubts with devout prayer (the authors of Psalms 37 and 73), or who soliloquize ruefully and nostalgically on their own lives (Ecclesiastes). Yet somehow, through it all, the impulse to communicate what they have seen for the moral and spiritual nurture of others comes through.

What Kind of Problem is the “Problem of Evil”?

The later sages found fault with the prudentialism and optimism of their predecessors precisely because it didn’t square with their empiricism. They saw that human goodness sometimes goes unrewarded and that human evil sometimes goes unpunished. This contradicted the optimistic assumption of their predecessors that the laws of God operate swiftly and surely in human affairs.

Troubling as the existence of “evil” certainly is to us, it can’t be taken to imply that God doesn’t exist, or, if he exists, that he doesn’t rule creation wisely and justly. For it is only on the assumption that there is God, and that God has established a moral order that is at least partially understandable to human beings, that we have reason to name our sufferings and misfortunes as “evil,” that is, as offenses against the underlying goodness of a divinely superintended creation. It is the presumed goodness of the Creator that furnishes us with reliable criteria for distinguishing “good” from “evil,” at least in a distinctly religio-moral sense.To say that goodness is rewarded and evil punished is theistic moral prudentialism, that is, the standard outlook of the early Israelite sages. But to say that “goodness” is just another word for whatever happens to be pleasant or advantageous to me, and that “evil” is simply misfortune is non-theistic, non-moral pragmatism. The Israelite sages never dreamed of endorsing the latter, however skeptical they might have become toward the former. Thus, the reality of moral evil was never taken to imply the nonexistence of a just, righteous, and sovereign God.

What it implied was the existence of a God who was, to be sure, just, righteous, and sovereign, but who was also bafflingly silent. To a believer, the theoretical problem (“Why does God permit evil?”), worrisome as it is, is far less important than the practical, or rather spiritual, problem (“How do I remain faithful to a God who refuses to explain why he permits evil?”). Let’s look at three passages that address this twofold problem.

“Don’t Fret!” (Psalm 37)

Psalm 37 recognizes more clearly than the book of Proverbs that the prosperity of evildoers is a theological puzzlement, but doesn’t move very far from the orthodox position. Its opening verses offer the following succinct advice to those experiencing religious doubts:

Do not fret because of the wicked, do not be envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (37:1–4)

The admonition here is simply to lengthen the amount of time one expects God to take in punishing wrongdoers and rewarding the righteous, without swerving in one’s expectation that God will eventually — and in the not too distant future — bring things right again. This Psalm thus maintains the moral optimism and prudentialism of early Wisdom, while calling for greater patience and renewed trust in God.

Along the way, however, it makes a shrewd psychological observation: “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Do not fret — it leads only to evil” (37:8). In other words, worrying too much about the theoretical problem will actually impair your ability to solve the practical one. Harboring resentment against wrongdoers for their prosperity is perilously close to harboring resentment against God for allowing them to prosper, and doing that will weaken your motivation to “wait for the Lord and keep to his way” (37:34).

“It Is Good to Be Near God!” (Psalm 73)

The author of Psalm 73 gives us a very personal glimpse into the way in which a sage, faced by the problem of evil, might come to doubt the orthodox perspective in which he was trained. We see a man who is sorely tempted to make the very mistake against which Psalm 37 warns us. The opening verse of this psalm is pious enough, but a fatal turn immediately takes place.

Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (73:1–3)

He goes on to explain — at great length and in lurid detail — the reasons for his envy of well-off evildoers: their bulging bellies, their burgeoning wealth, their sneering voices, their arrogant blasphemies, and their distressingly well-warranted reputation for escaping divine punishment. Perhaps worst of all, the Psalmist acknowledges that the sight of “the prosperity of the wicked” had at times tempted him to suspect that his own efforts at upright conduct were in vain.

But the “almost” and the “nearly” of 73:2 foreshadow a kind of “conversion experience,” or moment of religious insight, which is narrated in 73:17. This experience takes place when the Psalmist “went into the sanctuary of God.” We noted last week that the book of Proverbs makes scant reference to Israelite liturgical practices, but here we have the testimony of a sage for whom a visit to the Jerusalem temple proves redemptive, and for whom the practice of piety provides the impetus for a rededication to wisdom orthodoxy.

Psalm 73 thus suggests that the true “reward” for righteous conduct is not earthly prosperity, but an abiding and self-authenticating sense of God’s presence.

Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;
You put an end to those who are false to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all your works. (73:27–28)

Job – Out of the Depths I Cry to You
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The Book of Job: Plot Overview

The Bible’s most profound examination of prudentialism and moral optimism is found in the book of Job. The story opens with a short description of a man who has always done great good and is now doing very well: the moral order seems to be operating smoothly in his case (Job 1:1–5). But suddenly the scene shifts to the throne room of heaven, where God and Satan enter into a debate over this good man. It should be noted, by the way, that “Satan” here is not the name of evil personified, but the title of one of God’s courtiers, “the Adversary” or “the Accuser,” a kind of heavenly prosecuting attorney.

The question is not whether Job is good, but why he is good; nor is it whether goodness deserves to be rewarded, but whether a person whose conduct is motivated by the expectation of reward is truly “blameless and upright.” God permits Satan to deprive Job of his earthly blessings and physical health, in order to see whether, after enduring repeated calamities, he will retain his “integrity.” He does (1:6–2:8).

But the story is only beginning. For now the scene shifts back to earth, where the stricken Job is seated in an ash pit. First his wife challenges him to “curse God and die,” but Job tartly replies, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:9–10).

Then three of his friends come to sit with him in his grief (2:11–13). A week passes in total silence. Finally Job speaks. He doesn’t curse God, but he does curse the day of his own birth, and fiercely demands to know why such undeserved suffering has befallen him. His righteousness may not have been motivated by the expectation of reward, but the enormity of his suffering does call into question the moral orderliness of the universe.

In Chapter 3 a fierce dispute ensues, as tempers rise and the comforters defend the principle of moral optimism, but can’t explain why the empirical evidence doesn’t bear it out. This dispute lasts for a full 25 chapters. Then in Chapter 28 comes an editorial interlude — a hymn on the inaccessibility of wisdom — ascribed to none of the characters in the story. The dialogue resumes in Chapter 29, when suddenly after two chapters a new character enters: the bombastic Elihu, who rants for the next six chapters but doesn’t add much to what has already been said.

Finally, the human speeches end, with everyone’s position pretty much unchanged. The theoretical aspect of the problem of evil has not been solved to Job’s satisfaction, even though, to his great credit, he has not lost his faith in the God whose self-appointed spokesmen have failed to solve it. And now God himself enters the fray.

Dust and Ashes (Job 38:1–41:34)

Presumably, God has come to settle the dispute, but he does so in a way that readers have always found, well, unsettling. God does not side with the comforters, by endorsing their defense of his own moral order but offering better arguments. He offers no such arguments, and ultimately rebukes them wrathfully for “not speaking of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7b), though he doesn’t explain exactly where they have gone wrong. Yet God does not side with Job either, by confirming his fear that the universe isn’t morally ordered or by commending him for demanding evidence that it is. What God gives is a lengthy speech (38:1–41:34) in which “the problem of evil” isn’t addressed at all. What we get instead seems like a divine browbeating:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me if you have understanding.” (38:1–4)

God then launches into a lengthy account of the wonders of his creation, regaling Job with descriptions of snowstorms, constellations, and various wild beasts. It all seems beside the point — or does it? In 40:1, God interrupts his majestic inventory to ask Job if he still thinks that “a faultfinder shall contend with the Almighty,” to which Job meekly answers that he is “of small account” and won’t “proceed any further” with his demand for an explanation of his sufferings (40:2, 4–5).

But God isn’t through, and he now gives a long description of Behemoth and Leviathan — fantastic creatures apparently modeled on the hippopotamus and the crocodile, respectively, but displaying untamable power and complete indifference to human interests. Finally, God “rests his case,” having seemed to appeal only to his right not to make any case at all.

No doubt many readers wish God had answered Job’s why-question. But Job, for his part, is oddly satisfied.  He confesses that he has “uttered what I did not understand” (42:3), and submits himself to God’s authority in words of exalted humility: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5–6).

Once again, transformation has taken place through conversation. But this time God is the teacher, not the topic of instruction; the sage is the pupil, not the teacher; and the transformation is not the improvement of the pupil’s character and conduct, but the stilling of his inner disquietude. Disputation over theory has ended in consolation through worship. The problem of evil has evaporated in the presence of God.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. The Lectio writer argues that “the problem of evil” has two aspects — one theoretical, and one practical or spiritual. Describe both aspects. Then ask yourself which of the two seems more “problematic” to you, and why.
  2. Psalm 37:8 states, “Do not fret — it only leads to evil.” Ponder this a while. Has such a thing ever happened in your experience, that “fretting” about things you didn’t like or understand caused you to do things that you later regretted?
  3. Think about the concluding lines of today’s Lectio: “Disputation over theory has ended in consolation through worship. The problem of evil has evaporated in the presence of God.” Does Job’s experience, as interpreted by the Lectio writer, match your own? Is God’s presence — assuming we are permitted to feel it at all — enough to satisfy us, when our big religious questions remain unanswered?

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Discussion and Comments

2 Comments to “Against Prudentialism — The Problem of Evil (Psalms 37 and 73; Job 38:1–41:34)”

  1. Mel White says:

    “The problem of evil has evaporated in the presence of God.” It is not our place to question God but to bow to his authority. Not easy for us humans! I’m very glad that the “ultimate authority” is also “ultimately loving”.

  2. Joy Fisher Hammersla says:

    The last paragraph of this study I find truly thrilling and true to my own experience: “Disputation over theory has ended in consolation through worship. The problem of evil has evaporated in the presence of God.” Thank you Dr. Steele.