+27 (11) 867 3505 church@bbcmail.co.za

There was once a man—a faithful servant of God—who served God faithfully, as a member of the clergy, for forty years. For forty years, he followed God’s leading, believing what God told him and therefore doing what God told him to do and saying what God told him to say. The people of God to whom he ministered loved his preaching and came to him regularly for counsel and to hear his sermons—but no one ever believed him. Instead, they rejected his preaching, plotted against him, beat him up, and imprisoned him. At the end of his ministry, his congregation followed a course that was clearly forbidden by God, and despite the fact that he warned them not to do so, they beat him up and dragged him with them.

Perhaps that story sounds familiar to you. It should: It’s the story of Jeremiah. Jeremiah faithfully served as God’s prophet for forty years and there is no evidence in the prophecy that bears his name that anyone ever believed him. At one point, as he reflected on his seemingly failed ministry and the various plots against his life, he lamented, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (12:1).

While Jeremiah was ministering to a stubborn and rebellious congregation in Jerusalem, another prophet was ministering 2,700 km away in royal Babylonian courts. Daniel seemed to have a little more success. God blessed his ministry and wonderfully protected him against threat. Eventually, the hard-hearted king before whom he stood was humbled and confessed the one, true God as his own God. Daniel 4 was no doubt the high point of Daniel’s life, and there were no doubt many days of encouragement following the events of that chapter as he ministered before his new brother in the Lord, King Nebuchadnezzar.

But eventually Nebuchadnezzar died and the prosperity that Daniel experienced began to fall apart. Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by his son, Amel-Marduk (known in 2 Kings 25:28–30 as Evil-Merodach). Within two years, Neriglissar (the Nergal-sar-ezer of Jeremiah 39:3), a Babylonian general who had married one of Nebuchadnezzar’s daughters, assassinated Amel-Marduk and seized the throne. Neriglissar reigned for four years and was succeeded by his son, Labashi-Marduk. Labashi-Marduk reigned for somewhere between one and three months, before a coup, led by a certain Belshazzar, resulted in his assassination, after which Belshazzar proclaimed his father, Nabonidus, as king of Babylon. Daniel was watching all of this, and increasingly fell into disfavour with the Babylonian kings.

Nabonidus soon appointed his son, Belshazzar, as co-regent and often left him in charge in Babylon when he went off on military campaigns. It was during one of those campaigns that Babylon fell to Darius the Mede, as described in Daniel 5.

There is a purpose to all this history. Daniel was taken captive to Babylon in Nebuchadnezzar’s first year as king. Nebuchadnezzar reigned for 43 years, and they were years of great prosperity for Babylonia. Daniel had a long track record with Nebuchadnezzar and it was perhaps thirteen years before his death that Nebuchadnezzar experienced the events of Daniel 4. For thirteen years, in other words, Daniel ministered before a God-fearing king. For thirteen years, he walked alongside Nebuchadnezzar, no doubt discipling him as to how to obey the Lord in his context. For thirteen years, he experienced the kind of “successful” ministry of which Jeremiah only dreamed.

But then Nebuchadnezzar died, and things fell apart. As we move from Daniel 4 to Daniel 5, 23 years had passed since Nebuchadnezzar’s death. Those 23 years had been years of turmoil, with the wicked idolatry of Babylonian history resurfacing. Daniel had been completely sidelined.

The dream of Daniel 7 was given “in the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon.” Belshazzar reigned as co-regent with his father for about nine years, so the vision here unfolded about fourteen years after the events of chapter 4 and nine years before the events of chapter 5. The vision was therefore, no doubt, highly significant to Daniel who was witnessing the utter deterioration of a once-great nation with a once-God-fearing king. Why was God allowing this turmoil? Why was God allowing all the good work that he had done in the Babylonian courts to be undone? Had God somehow lost control? No doubt, he found great comfort in being reminded that, even in times of utter political turmoil, the Ancient of Days remained on his throne.

Perhaps you’ve been there—not serving in royal courts in Babylon, but wondering what is going on in your world around you. Perhaps a time of ease and prosperity has been replaced by turmoil. Perhaps you survey the political and social landscape of our day and wonder what is going on. Perhaps you cry with Jeremiah—as, no doubt, Daniel must have—“Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” If you have ever wondered that, you are not alone. God’s people throughout the centuries have asked that very question, and the Bible provides hope as we ask it today.

In this study, which will be more of a topical study than an exposition, I want to offer you five thoughts to bear in mind as you are tempted to despair at the prosperity of the wicked. You know the wicked prosperity with which you wrestle. Your source of questioning may arise because of a godless government, an abusive spouse or parent, an unjust employee, or just the seeming prosperity of a generally godless society. Whatever the source of your questioning, I trust that these principles will offer some help to you.

Principle 1: Ask God Questions

In the latter of the book, Daniel never quite asks the why question, but he does ask plenty of questions. The vision that God gave him produced anxiety and manifested itself in physical ailment (vv. 15, 28). And what did he do when he was thus afflicted? “I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this” (v. 16).

Jeremiah similarly asked God why. He was careful to do so reverently (“Righteous are you, O LORD, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you” [12:1]), but he was not hesitant to ask why. Job was another faithful saint who brought his confusion before God: “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (21:7). Asaph followed in the steps of these faithful brothers: “I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:3).

As a Christian, it is natural to grieve at injustice. God hates injustice, too. And God is big enough to handle our questions. Accusing God of wrongdoing is irreverent; asking questions is certainly not. God wants to teach us, and an essential part of learning is asking questions. A good teacher does not grow angry when students ask questions. A good teacher will, in fact, encourage questions. There may be times when we will not like or understand the answers, but we should never be shy to ask questions. In fact, the Bible encourages our questions: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).

Asking questions enables growth in grace. Questions help us to realise our limitations, which produces humility. Questions reveal our cares and struggles, which produces honesty. Questions reveal our curiosity and our desire to learn more, which fuels our hunger. Questions express our aspirations and expectations, which produces hope.

Of course, there are attitudes to guard against when asking God questions. We have no right to demand anything from God—our questions must proceed from a heart of humility. We have no right to find fault with God when asking questions—our questions must proceed from a heart of reverence. We have no right to doubt what God has clearly revealed—our questions must proceed from a heart of faith. God is displeased with demanding, doubting, fault-finding questions, but he is pleased with questions that arise from a humble, reverent, faith-filled heart.

Principle 2: Keep Worshipping

The vision recorded in chapter 7 took place in “the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon.” It would be nine more years before Belshazzar would be deposed. There were yet nine more years of turmoil to come in his reign, not to mention the centuries more of opposition that this dream prophesied. How would Daniel respond to the news that things were not going to get any better but that they might, in fact, get worse? Would it cause him to abandon his faith and reverence? Daniel 6 provides the answer.

In Daniel 6, things did get worse. Not only was Daniel’s public witness brought under threat, but even his private worship was threatened. If he did not pray exclusively to Darius, the new king, for the next thirty days, his life was under threat. How did he respond? “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously” (Daniel 6:10).

Daniel here offers us a second principle: When the wicked seem to prosper, keep worshipping! Keep communing with God. Keep reading and believing the Bible. Keep fellowshipping with God’s people. In fact, it is interesting that, in Psalm 73, as Asaph wrestled with the prosperity of the wicked, he wrote, “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end” (Psalm 73:16–17). It was in the act of worship that he found answers to his difficult questions.

I was recently talking to someone, outside of our church, who was asking how they should go about addressing a pastor who, she felt, had wronged her. I advised her that, since pastors are first and foremost church members, the appropriate course of action is to follow the steps of Matthew 18:15–20. She should, first, address the matter privately. She then asked if I would advise differently since she is no longer a part of that church. When I dug a little deeper, I discovered that, having felt hurt by the pastor, she decided, rather than address it, to leave the church. I told her that removing herself from the context of worship was perhaps the worst thing she could do while wrestling with the sort of questions with which she was wrestling.

If we are looking for the answers to the questions that we have for God, we will find those answers in the context of worship. When we are hurt and confused, we are easily tempted to alienate ourselves from worship—private and corporate—but nothing can be more harmful for us. As you wrestle with God and ask your questions, make sure that you do so in the context of worship.

Principle 3: Be Thankful for Trials

When Daniel saw the vision of the four beasts, he was dismayed. A large part of that dismay, no doubt, was the violence that he saw enacted against the saints of the Most High. But the interpreting angel encouraged him: “But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever” (Daniel 7:18). The beasts would have their time and the saints would be given over to the beasts for a period but, ultimately, the saints would inherit an eternal kingdom, while the kingdom of the beasts would crumble. The suffering that the saints experienced prepared them for the eternal kingdom they would inherit.

Suffering and pain are never easy to endure, but the Bible makes it plain that, in our suffering and pain, we should be thankful for what God is teaching us and how God is changing us. James, somewhat counterintuitively, writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4). Peter similarly encouraged his readers to “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 5:13). Elsewhere, he urges his readers to rejoice in their grievous trials “so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6–7). Paul concurred, arguing that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put to shame, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:4–5).

Suffering is grievous. It is not the way that things are meant to be. Suffering will one day, in the resurrection, be eternally banished. But suffering serves a wonderful purpose for God’s people today. It matures us and makes us more like Christ—and we should be thankful for growth in Christlikeness regardless of what that growth costs.

Principle 4: Rest in God’s Love

The second half of Daniel records a series of dreams and visions given to Daniel about future events. Chapter 9 records events “in the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus, by descent a Mede, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans” (9:1). As Daniel was praying a prayer of confession, the angel Gabriel appeared to him with an answer. He said to Daniel, “O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved” (Daniel 9:22–23). The interpreting angel again spoke of Daniel as a “man greatly loved” in 10:11, 19. As he wrestled with the turmoil into which the kingdom had been thrown following Nebuchadnezzar’s death, Daniel needed to be encouraged that God loved him.

It is crucial that we rest in God’s love for us as we undergo trial. To quote Paul again, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put to shame, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:4–5). We tend to think of suffering as God’s displeasure, but suffering is often a means for us to embrace God’s love, which has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

It is never an easy thing to reconcile suffering with God’s love. Theologians and philosophers and sceptics have wrestled with the problem of evil for centuries. I wish I could say that I have all the answers and that I can help make perfect sense of your every suffering. I can’t. What I can confidently say is that it is impossible to read the Bible and conclude that God wants to spare his faithful people from every form of suffering. Nor can you say that suffering evidences the absence of God’s love. Indeed, suffering and death are the greatest evidence of God’s love, inflicted upon the one whom God loved more than any other. God loved his Son and Jesus lived a life that pleased God, and the result was a ministry of suffering, culminating in death. Rebecca McLaughlin states it beautifully:

The loving, omnipotent God of our imagination would move swiftly from creation to new creation, from the garden of Eden of Genesis to the heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation. But the God of the Bible charts a different course. He spreads his story out over thousands, even millions, of years and weaves in all the mess of human history—sin and sex and death and historical accident. And at the center of history, he stakes the cross of his beloved Son. Jesus’s death is no accident. It is not even Plan B. It is the lynchpin around which all human history revolves, the central peg of reality itself. This brutal death of an innocent man—bearing a world’s weight of sin and guilt and suffering—is the focal point of the story. Indeed, it is the lens through which we visualize the narrative itself.

When we suffer, we look to the cross and remember that God loved us enough to let his Son suffer in our place.

Principle 5: Embrace God’s Presence

Finally, in our suffering, we must be encouraged to embrace God’s presence. In the closing chapter of Daniel, the interpreting angel says, “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people” (12:1). The CSB offers a clarifying translation: “Michael, the great prince who stands watch over your people.” Daniel needed to be encouraged that, even in the midst of great turmoil, he was—and his people were—never alone. Michael, the great prince, was always with and watching his people.

There is a fair amount of debate as to the identity of Michael, who is also, in Jude 9, called “the archangel.” Many interpreters, such as John Calvin, John Gill, and Matthew Henry have identified Michael as Jesus Christ himself. I think a good argument can be made for that position. If that is the case, it was an encouragement to Daniel that Christ stands watch over his people.

Even if we want to debate the identity of Michael, we can take heart that, as Christ’s people today, he is with us always (Matthew 28:20). He promised to send the Holy Spirit as our Comforter when he ascended and he has done that. To quote Paul for a third time, “God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:4–5).

When you struggle with the experience of injustice and wonder why the wicked seem to prosper, be encouraged that, unlike the godless, you have Christ’s presence, mediated through the Holy Spirit, with you. He is with you always—in good times and bad, in joy and in suffering. And he is coming back one day to receive you to himself where you will live for all eternity free from any form of suffering, with death having been completely abolished. Thank God for his inexpressible gift!