When the Wicked Seem to Win

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That doesn’t seem right

What do we do when the wicked win? How do we react?

You’ll notice I didn’t ask what we do if wicked people win. They do win, don’t they? We regularly watch as wicked people—that is, people who do not follow the teaching of God, who don’t care about his will for their lives, who are apathetic or antagonistic to his very existence—we watch as these people seem to enjoy the spoils of life.

You know a man who left his wife and kids for another woman. It’s a shameful, cowardly, selfish act with devastating consequences that can’t even be measured. And yet, when you bump into him at the grocery store, he can’t stop talking about how happy he now is, how his life is so much better than it was, and how leaving was the best decision he ever made. It seems like he’s winning.

You’ve heard of a couple who admits to cheating on their taxes for years and yet they have all the toys, a seemingly bottomless bank account, a summer house in the Caribbean, and vacations to Europe. What happened to “cheaters never prosper”?

It seems there are more and more people as the years roll by who are uninterested in the things of God. They don’t care about meeting with God’s people, they don’t care about his Word, they don’t care about his demands on our lives. And yet, from a human perspective, they seem happy, unencumbered, and thriving.

We see it all around us, ungodly people winning. And, if we’re honest, there’s the temptation to envy them. To be jealous, right?

Following the Lord is tough. Submitting to the Bible is hard. Jesus warned that discipleship is a cross-carrying siege of self-denial. The wicked don’t worry about that, and yet, they seem unbothered. At times it’s difficult to avoid envy.

And so I ask again: What do we do when the wicked win? How do we avoid envy when we see it? We’re going to find some guidance from King David—a man who saw the same trend in his day.

You and I, we must avoid envy when we see the wicked win. In Psalm 37 we’ll discover that David offers the people of God—and us, by extension—five strategies for avoiding envy when the wicked win. Five tactics to employ when we see ungodly people experiencing success.

Look to the Lord

The first strategy is found in the opening nine verses of the psalm.

Do not fret because of evildoers,
be not envious toward wrongdoers.
For they will wither quickly like the grass
and fade like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord;
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord,
trust also in him, and he will do it.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light
and your judgment as the noonday.
Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him;
do not fret because of him who prospers in his way,
because of the man who carries out wicked schemes.
Cease from anger and forsake wrath;
do not fret; it leads only to evildoing.
For evildoers will be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord, they will inherit the land (vv. 1–9).

Strategy #1: When the wicked win, look to the Lord. When you see evil people succeeding, avert your gaze and, instead, look to the Lord. And David tells us how to do that.

First, Looking to the Lord means trusting in him (v. 3). It means believing him when he says that doing good is the way to go, even when the anecdotal evidence around us points to the contrary. Trust him.

Second, Looking to the Lord means delighting in him (v. 4). Once we trust him, we can learn to find our joy in the Lord, a joy that is rooted in “things above” and things eternal and not in the material worldly things that are with the wicked in life’s winners circle. Delight in him.

Third, Looking to the Lord means committing our ways to him (vv. 5–6). When I trust God is God and I find joy in who he is, I’m then willing to commit the direction of my life to his sovereign guidance. And if that doesn’t involve the victories I see the wicked enjoying, so be it! Commit your ways to him.

Finally, David tells us that Looking to the Lord means being still before him (vv. 7–9). Once we’ve done those other three, only then can we rest in God. In him, we find the peace and comfort that every human soul yearns for and yet only those who know God through Jesus Christ can actually experience. Be still before him.

The first strategy that David gives us is that, when the wicked win, look to the Lord. That means trusting him, delighting in him, committing our ways to him, and being still before him. Look to the Lord.

The author of Hebrews tells us to, “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” Like a racehorse with blinders on, when we run the race of the Christian life with our eyes locked on the Person of Jesus Christ, empowered by the Spirit of God, everything in the periphery—including the wicked winning, the happy adulterer, the healthy pagan, the wealthy atheist—becomes a blur. When we’re looking to the Lord, envy dissipates.

Remember their fate

The second strategy is found in the next section of the psalm.

Yet a little while and the wicked man will be no more;
and you will look carefully for his place and he will not be there.
But the humble will inherit the land
and will delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
The wicked plots against the righteous
and gnashes at him with his teeth.
The Lord laughs at him,
for he sees his day is coming.
The wicked have drawn the sword and bent their bow
to cast down the afflicted and the needy,
to slay those who are upright in conduct.
Their sword will enter their own heart,
and their bows will be broken.
Better is the little of the righteous
than the abundance of many wicked.
For the arms of the wicked will be broken,
but the Lord sustains the righteous.
The Lord knows the days of the blameless,
and their inheritance will be forever.
They will not be ashamed in the time of evil,
and in the days of famine they will have abundance.
But the wicked will perish;
and the enemies of the Lord will be like the glory of the pastures,
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.
The wicked borrows and does not pay back,
but the righteous is gracious and gives.
For those blessed by him will inherit the land,
but those cursed by him will be cut off (vv. 10–22).

Strategy #2: When the wicked win, remember their fate. Before we get too excited about the wicked and their winning ways, David wants to remind us of how it ends for them, because, really, it’s not that enviable. He gives us two realities of the fate of the wicked to consider.

First, The fate of the wicked includes short-lived success (vv. 10, 13, 20).

I spent a number of years living in the Canadian prairies and was always impressed with the beauty of the fields just prior to harvest time. The crops would be standing high and nearing full bloom. The flat topography enables you to see for miles and appreciate the checkered farms of bright yellow and green. It’s gorgeous. But, as soon as harvest is over, as soon as the combines roll through and take down those pretty crops, it all changes. In a matter of weeks the yellows and greens are replaced with various shades of brown. It doesn’t last long.

David says, so it is with the wicked. Like the beauty of the fields they will enjoy a time of victory. But, with a breeze, it will be gone like smoke. The fate of the wicked includes short-lived success.

Second, The fate of the wicked includes failed attacks on the righteous (v. 14). The ungodly in our culture repeatedly and consistently attack the ideologies and convictions of the righteous. The culture in which we live is becoming increasingly unfriendly to Christians.

David assures us here that the attacks of the world on Christians, however, will be their demise (v. 15). It’s going to boomerang. That’s how it ends for them. That’s their fate. We need to remember that.

When the wicked win—and win they will—we are to remember their fate. It does not end well for them. The bank account won’t last and, in fact, may be the very thing keeping them from the Lord. Their health will, inevitably fail them. Any success they enjoy is short-lived and any attacks they level on the righteous will ultimately fail. That’s not a fate we want to share with them. It’s not admirable. It’s not success by anyone’s measure. When the wicked win, we are to remember the fate of the wicked.

Recall the promised blessings

Strategy #3: When the wicked win, recall the blessings promised to the righteous. Not only should we look to the Lord and remember the fate of the wicked, but David calls us to allow our minds to dwell on the promises of God that he’s given to those who would follow him. And what have we been promised? David gives us three things in the following seven verses

First, God promises to bless the righteous with strength and stability.

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
and he delights in his way.
When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong,
because the Lord is the One who holds his hand (vv. 23–24).

Notice he doesn’t say that the righteous will never falter, stumble, and trip. In fact, David assumes we will. But, we can rest in the promise that we will never fall and stay down.

Proverbs 24 echoes this truth: “For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, but the wicked stumble in time of calamity.” In other words, by God’s provision and promise, we don’t stay down. We stumble and fall in this life. We have bouts of disobedience, failure, sin, but the righteous will prevail. We know that because we are in Christ and he has already secured the victory. God promises to bless the righteous with strength and stability. 

Second, God promises to bless the righteous with care for the next generation. 

I have been young and now I am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or his descendants begging bread.
All day long he is gracious and lends,
and his descendants are a blessing (vv. 25–26).

I have three young children, the oldest of which is five years old. You know, fives years ago I’m not sure this promise would have meant as much to me as it does now. But today, with the next generation under my care, I cling to the promise that God will bless and care for them, and I’m guessing it makes your ears perk up also.

It helps to keep that in mind when we begin to envy the wicked when we see them winning. When I see it, I just remember that God has promises to care for the next generation of the righteous.

Third, God promises to bless the righteous with his eternal presence [37:27–29].

Depart from evil and do good,
so you will abide forever.
For the Lord loves justice
and does not forsake his godly ones;
They are preserved forever,
but the descendants of the wicked will be cut off.
The righteous will inherit the land
and dwell in it forever (vv. 27–29).

God loves the just and will not forsake them.

When the wicked win, recall the blessings promised to the righteous—promises of strength and stability, of a cared for generation to follow, and of the eternal presence of the Creator of all things. These are things that he has promised to those who are his children, not to the wicked. So really, who should be jealous of whom?

Rest in his provisions

Strategy #4: When the wicked win, rest in God’s provisions. Tempted to envy the ungodly? David suggests finding solace in the gifts of grace that have been provided for the righteous. There are many, but he notes two.

First, God provides his people with his Word.

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks justice.
The law of his God is in his heart;
his steps do not slip (vv. 30–31).

The wisdom righteous people utter is not man-made. The justice that falls from our tongues is not something we come up with. No. It’s from the living and active Word of God.

The wicked may think they’ve got life figured out, they may think they’re wise, but Romans 1 makes it clear that they are actually fools. And that real wisdom, real understanding of perfect justice, is only found as God has revealed it to us by his grace in his Word. This is a gracious provision by God. We must avoid taking it for granted and we must cling to it for stability and rest.

Second, God provides his people with his protection.

The wicked spies upon the righteous
and seeks to kill him.
The Lord will not leave him in his hand
or let him be condemned when he is judged.
Wait for the Lord and keep his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
when the wicked are cut off, you will see it (vv. 32–34).

Living in a world in which the righteous often find themselves in the crosshairs of the wicked, God’s people must make a habit of resting in the protection that God provides for us.

When the wicked win, rest in God’s provisions. When you feel the green monster of envy growing inside of you as you watch the wicked flaunt their gold medals, turn again and again to his Word, the source of true wisdom which pierces and separates, and do so with confidence in his protection.

Think eternally

The fifth and final strategy David provides is found in the closing six verses.

I have seen a wicked, violent man
spreading himself like a luxuriant tree in its native soil.
Then he passed away, and lo, he was no more;
I sought for him, but he could not be found.
Mark the blameless man, and behold the upright;
for the man of peace will have a posterity.
But transgressors will be altogether destroyed;
the posterity of the wicked will be cut off.
But the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their strength in time of trouble.
The Lord helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him (vv. 35–40).

Strategy #5: When the wicked win, think about eternally. For those of us who are tempted to be jealous of the ease of life the ungodly enjoy, and who wonder if somehow we could enjoy that also, David reminds us of the eternal directions of both the righteous and the wicked. David creates a contrast in these closing verses showing where the righteous are headed and where the wicked are headed, and then invites us to make a choice.

First, understand that eternity for the wicked is destruction (v. 38). The word here means “utterly destroyed.” They will be decimated. There’s a finality and permanence to the word.

As much as the wicked seem to win on this side of glory, David invites us to remember what eternity looks like for them. They’re heading for an absolute, irreversible destruction of unimaginable horror. If that doesn’t dissipate envy, there may be a different problem.

Not only does David highlight where the wicked spend eternity, but he also invites us to see that eternity for the righteous is salvation (vv. 39–40). While the wicked are headed for destruction, the righteous are secure in a divine stronghold, they are delivered by the God of the universe, and they are saved by his power.

As Christians we are often confronted with what seems like evidence that Christianity doesn’t work—wicked people prospering. It can be frustrating, confusing, and jealousy-provoking. We must avoid envy when we see them win.

In Psalm 37, David offers us five strategies for avoiding envy when the wicked are winning: 1) look to the Lord, 2) remember their fate, 3) recall the blessings promised to the righteous, 4) rest in God’s provisions, and 5) think eternally. 

And you know what we’ll find happen when we apply these strategies to our lives? We’ll find our envy turns to compassion. Our jealousy gives way to empathy. Why? Because they don’t have a Lord to whom they can look! This doesn’t end well for them! They don’t get to enjoy the blessings and provisions that the righteous do! And, more than anything else, eternity for them is devastating. Our envy has to turn to compassion in light of the realities that David highlights for us here.

And as we avoid envy and, instead, feel compassion for the wicked, you know who we become more like? Jesus Christ. Who embodied this truth more than he did? When wicked people drove spikes through his hands and feet, signifying their greatest win (or so they thought), Jesus looked to the Lord and “for the joy set before him endured the cross.” He knew their fate and throughout his life Jesus relied on the blessings and provisions of his heavenly Father. And he knew the eternal destinations of those who denied him. 

And what was his reaction? Envy? No. Compassion! “Father, forgive them. For they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Though the wicked win at times, we need to keep in mind what Scripture repeatedly informs us: in the end, they don’t. Jesus wins. He said he would, he did, and he invites us to share in his victory by the power of the Holy Spirit by grace through faith.