Theodicy: Is God Just?
Is it right for God to bless the wicked? Is it fair for God to allow calamity to strike the righteous? Is it just for God to use an evil nation to punish a more righteous nation?
These questions introduce us to the theodicy problem. Theodicy is a Greek compound word, theos meaning God and dike meaning justice or righteousness. So the theodicy problem centers on the justice or righteousness of God. This problem is brought to light in the Old Testament books of Job and Habakkuk. You might be familiar with the story of Job: Satan challenged God regarding Job, expecting that if he was allowed to strike Job with calamity he would surely curse God to His face (Job 1:11).
As you may know, Job did not curse God, but He did question God. He wondered why God would allow a righteous man to experience such troubles. Job’s friends believed in the retribution principle, which suggests that if you experience hardship you must deserve it. But Job maintained his stance that he had done no wrong, and in the end God vindicated him. But God also taught him a valuable lesson: His ways are higher than man’s ways. God does things that we may never understand in this side of eternity, but it is not our place to question them. When Job finally grasps this, he states,
“I know that You can do anything and no plan of Yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2)
You might be less familiar with the story of Habakkuk, so let’s turn our attention there. Habakkuk was a prophet whose ministry is contained in three short chapters in the minor prophets (or the Book of the Twelve). Most prophets spoke to the people on God’s behalf, but Habakkuk speaks to God in the people’s behalf.
He began by asking God why He wasn’t doing anything about the violence and oppression taking place in Judah. Habakkuk noticed that the law was in effective and that justice was being perverted (Hab 1:2-4). God responds by saying, in effect, “You just wait and watch, I am about to take care of that issue” (Hab 1:5). God’s plan to punish the evil in Judah was to raise up the Chaldeans (i.e., Babylonians), who He describes as a “bitter, impetuous nation that marches across the earth’s open spaces to seize territories not its own” (Hab 1:6). To put it shortly, the Chaldeans were some bad dudes that did whatever they wanted (see Hab 1:7-11).
Well this raised another concern in Habakkuk’s mind, so he asks God another question starting in 1:12. He points out God’s holiness and purity, leading up to this question: “Why are You silent while one who is wicked swallows up one who is more righteous than himself?” (Hab 1:13). Habakkuk is asking how it is fair for God to use the wicked and evil Babylonians to punish those in Judah, who are evil, but not as evil as the Babylonians. Do you see his point???
God, of course, has an answer to this question as well. It comes in a series of five “woes” in which God tells of the imminent destruction of Babylon (2:6-20). What He is telling Habakkuk is this: “Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing. I will use the Babylonians to punish My people in Judah, but don’t think they will get away with it. I will punish the Babylonians as well.”
But before He gets to the woes, God has a very important message for Habakkuk in 2:2-5. He begins by telling him that the vision he is about to see is for an appointed time, that it testifies about the end, and that it will not lie. God says, “Though it delays, wait for it, since it will certainly come and not be late.” This speaks of God’s sovereignty and perfect timing. Often times justice seems delayed to us. But God is in complete control, and His plans are perfect; we just have to be patient and wait for them to transpire.
And in the meantime, we are called to be faithful.
“Look, his ego is inflated;
He is without integrity.
But the righteous one will live by his faith.”
The idea is this: While we wait patiently, we must live faithfully. And Habakkuk provides a great example of this with his statements at the end of the book. In 3:16-19 he makes what commentators call one of the greatest expressions of faith in the entire Bible. Despite the fact that his people Judah is about to be carried off into Babylonian exile and despite the fact that his hometown and the Temple where his God resides is about to be destroyed, Habakkuk will trust in God. He puts it this way:
“I heard, and I trembled within;
My lips quivered at the sound.
Rottenness entered my bones;
I trembled where I stood.
Now I must quietly wait for the day of distress
to come against the people invading us.
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there is no fruit on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will triumph in the Lord;
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation!
Yahweh my Lord is my strength;
He makes my feet like those of a deer
And enables me to walk on mountain heights!
(Hab 3:16-19a; italics added)
Habakkuk learned a valuable lesson, one we could all benefit from learning: God is just. God is completely righteous. His ways might not make sense to us, but we need to be okay with that. No matter what, we must triumph in the Lord and rejoice in the God of our salvation.
Babylon’s day did come. In 539 BC the once great nation fell to the Medes and Persians. The woes pronounced against them came to pass. This shows us that God is faithful and His promises are true.
God is just—that is one of His character traits. If you never receive justice in this life, you will receive it in eternity. He made this clear through the prophet Malachi. He speaks of a day when we will “again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and one who does not serve Him” (Mal 3:18).