A Brief Look at the Problem of Evil in the Old Testament

Unsurprisingly, the problem of evil is as relevant in the Old Testament culture as it is today. In classic postmodern fashion, the existence of evil is given as one of the greatest arguments against God’s existence. Obviously, those who advocate such an argument forget that evil is a metaphysical reality, thus, validating the existence of the supernatural. In that light, the problem of evil should not be concerned with the existence of God, but rather the consistency of God’s character with evil. The word theodicy is used to describe the tension between the existence of evil and God’s character as righteous, just, and sovereign. To the finite mind, a contradiction seems unavoidable. The books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Habakkuk share the common thread of addressing the issue of theodicy, and thus, will be compared and contrasted to discover the Old Testament perspective.

Job

The book of Job is arguably the primary treatment of theodicy in the Bible. Brilliantly, Job addresses the common pitfalls of most theodicy arguments. To understand how the topic of theodicy is addressed in Job, understanding the historical context around the original reader of Job is imperative.

Many of the near-eastern societies in the ancient world believed in a retribution principle. The basic idea of the principle is that the righteous receive blessing while the wicked receive suffering. Thus, if someone experienced great suffering and loss, it was because they were guilty of some great wrong. The common retribution ideology is expressed by the four friends of Job in the narrative. Their answer to the question of evil is simple; those who suffer receive justice for wicked behavior, while those who do not prove to be righteous. In their eyes, Job is guilty of unrighteous behavior (Jb 4:7-8).

The beginning of the book reveals essential information. First, the reader is given the insight that Job is indeed righteous (Jb 1:1). Second, the reader is presented with another aspect of the retribution principle, namely, that blessing from righteousness will create improper motives for pursuing righteousness (Jb 1:9-11). Satan asserts that Job is righteous because he receives blessing and reward, not because he is truly good. To keep the reader from solving the problem of evil by reducing God’s control, God initiates the conversation with Satan and allows Satan to enact his plan (Jb 1:8,12; 2:3,6).

Once the book closes, five things are clear. God is in control of all events, both good and evil (Jb 2:10; 42:11). Suffering and evil are not reserved for the wicked; the righteous shall also suffer. True righteousness is not motivated by blessing, but by love for God. God remains just while ordaining the suffering of the righteous. Finally, God’s use of evil is according to His infinite wisdom; thus, man cannot comprehend the harmony between God’s character and control over evil. In a condensed format, with clearer historical figures and events, the book of Habakkuk reveals the same answer to theodicy.

Habakkuk

Nearing the end of the reign of Josiah, the Babylonian empire began to rise as the preeminent power. Egypt, likely fearing Babylon’s conquest, sought to aid the failing Assyrian empire to uphold a buffer between Babylon and Egypt. For Egypt to reach Assyria, a trip through Judah was required. However, Josiah was unwilling to allow such an event; thus, he met Egypt in battle. Judah was defeated, and Josiah was killed. In the aftermath, Josiah’s wicked son Eliakim (2 Kgs 24:4), renamed Jehoiakim, was placed on the throne by Pharaoh Necho II.

The historical events serve as the backdrop for Habakkuk’s cry out to God to bring justice to Judah’s wickedness under Jehoiakim (Hb 1:2-4). Hints of the retribution principle are seen in Habakkuk’s plea; he was confused at why the righteous fell and wicked prospered (Hb 2:4). God’s response was unexpected. God told Habakkuk that He was raising up the Chaldeans as a rod of justice towards Judah (Hb 1:6). Habakkuk was shocked, unable to harmonize God’s righteous character with His use of a wicked nation like Babylon.

Much like Job, Habakkuk contends with God. Habakkuk argues using God’s character against Him (Hb 1:12-17). However, unlike Job, who argues for his innocence, Habakkuk admits the sin of Judah. God’s response seems unsatisfactory. God says He is in control. Amazingly, Habakkuk responds by trusting God. He sees no reason to limit God’s sovereignty or question His character. Job and Habakkuk serve as models for a proper response to the issues of theodicy – trusting God and living by faith (Hb 2:4).

Ecclesiastes

The book of Ecclesiastes is not centered on the question of theodicy as clearly as Job and Habakkuk. However, the book does provide insight into the failure of the retribution principle (Eccl 7:15), and thus finds comparison with Job. The form of the book is much like Psalms and Proverbs as a collection of literary types. The main idea of Ecclesiastes is the meaninglessness of temporal things, and therefore, the meaningfulness of knowing God.

In Job, Satan sought to show how Job’s righteousness was a product of perpetual material blessings. Ecclesiastes shows the folly in Satan’s idea; all of the accomplishments of a king are disappointing (Eccl 1:12-4:16). Evil and suffering can come to anyone. Ultimately, death comes to the righteous and unrighteous (Eccl 8:9-9:10). Similar to Job and Habakkuk, Ecclesiastes upholds the sovereignty of God. God is said to set the seasons and times; therefore, all events are unchangeable (Eccl 3:1-15).

Conclusion

Scripture does not seek to harmonize God’s character with His control over evil. Often weak men, unable to live in the tension, compromise on one of two truths. First, God’s sovereignty is reduced to put evil outside of God’s control in efforts to protect His righteousness. Second, God’s control is upheld, but His justice is reduced, resulting in a god who is no longer perfectly good. Neither compromises are biblically validated. Job and Habakkuk serve as the model men who trust God by faith, relying on His infinite wisdom to harmonize the seeming contradiction.
The New Testament continues with the same answer to theodicy; however, the reader is given a deeper insight into the secret wisdom of God. The answer to the problem of evil is that God, in His sovereign control, uses evil for good. The cross is the ultimate example. Acts 4:27-28 asserts that all the evil that came against Christ was ordained and controlled by God. However, the crucifixion was the greatest good as it resulted in the salvation of many. The crucifixion of Christ also destroys the retribution principle in that Christ, the spotless lamb, suffered in the place of sinners, and thus, sets an example of righteous suffering (1 Pt 2:21-25).