“Why do bad things happen to good people?” This is a very important question, and how you personally answer it will greatly affect how you respond to the hardships in your life. There are right and wrong ways to respond to trials. The right ways will help you mature and grow closer to God. The wrong ways will cause you to stagnate and regress. So it becomes very important to respond the right ways, but to do that, you first need to understand what is the right answer to that famous question.
“Why do bad things happen to good people?” When you wonder this, how exactly are you defining “bad” and “good”? Well, as a human, you define “bad things” as things which you don’t like or want. You define “good people” as people who you currently like and respect. When hard times come, many people are quick to claim that they are among the “good people,” and thus they conclude that the things happening to them aren’t fair. If they are Christians, this strong feeling of injustice results in a lot of griping prayers being directed at God.
In this post, we’re going to examine the text of Psalm 35. This is one long griping prayer which was written by David. From David’s point of view, “bad things” were happening to him at the time he wrote this psalm. Since David considered himself to be one of the “good people,” he was quite incensed by his situation. In Psalm 35, David is directing his anger at Yahweh, who he feels ought to get off of His Divine duff and hurry to David’s aid. David is mad at Yahweh for not making David’s troubles go away. Between his snarky demands that Yahweh wake up and take action, David promises to praise Yahweh after Yahweh does what David wants. David emphasizes that he will really praise Yahweh—but only after Yahweh does what David wants. You see, Yahweh must first be a good God and obey the bossy human before Yahweh will be rewarded with some verbal treat of praise.
Well, Yahweh is not our dog who we can bribe into performing for treats. Yahweh is not our Servant, and Yahweh is not some lazy Slacker who is doing a crummy job of running our lives. In Psalm 35, David is modeling some really rotten soul attitudes, and we need to not just blow this off. Psalm 35 is a bunch of irreverent smack which is anything but “God breathed.” So before you go around insulting God by calling garbage like this “Divinely inspired,” you need to remember that as a Christian, your loyalties are supposed to be with God, not humans.
Now can we identify with David? Of course we can. David is in brat mode, and we’ve all been there. When God is making our lives difficult, we humans are quick to start grumbling against Him. But if we’re serious about maturing, then we need to face this crummy pattern in ourselves and ask God how we can do better. Perfect behavior is well out of reach for us, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. Focusing on truth is a critical part of treating God well, and often when we’re having mouthy meltdowns, there is some critical truth that we’re choosing to ignore, such as the fact that God has good reasons for bringing trials into our lives.
If you read through all of David’s writings, you’ll find that he has a better understanding of God’s sovereignty than many Christians do today. David grew up in a world where gods were seen as controlling every aspect of life, so he didn’t feel the need to try and pretend that Yahweh had nothing to do with evil. On the contrary, when hard times came, David knew Yahweh was involved. David also believed that Yahweh was superior to all other gods, and could triumph over anyone He pleased. So while Christians today constantly talk as if some dot named Satan could actually triumph over God and mess up the world against God’s will, David didn’t believe in such foolishness. Rather than view Yahweh as being some inept Simpleton who was constantly being outwitted by His own creations, David was well aware that Yahweh could not be bested by anyone. So when Yahweh wasn’t coming to the rescue, David didn’t try to start praying down demonic strongholds—instead, he feared that Yahweh’s inaction was a sign that He was being intentionally aloof. He would then start begging and pleading and demanding that Yahweh take action. Like modern believers, David had a problem with trying to dominate God when he was getting frustrated with God’s choices. Like us today, David wanted God to instantly make his problems go away without David having to put effort into growing through them. And yet the reality is that forcing us to endure trials is a very common way that God matures us in life. So the trials are going to keep coming—we don’t get a choice about that. All we can choose is how we’re going to respond to each one.
So why do bad things happen to good people? The simple answer is that the bad things are intentionally caused by God for the purpose of motivating those “good people” to grow spiritually. Understanding God’s motivation for bringing hardships into our lives is critical, because if we’re going to benefit from those hardships, we need to align our motivations with His. We need to say, “Okay, God, I know there’s some growth lesson for me in this mess, so help me to see it and accept it.” If we take this approach, then we’ll come out of the trial more mature than we were when it started. But the more popular option is to just throw a tantrum and close our minds to any lessons that God might want to teach us. This is what David is doing in Psalm 35: he’s refusing to be receptive to the things that he needs to learn. Instead, he’s pointing his finger at everyone else and telling Yahweh to sic ‘em.
O Yahweh, oppose those who oppose me. Fight those who fight against me. Put on Your armor, and take up Your shield. Prepare for battle, and come to my aid. Lift up Your spear and javelin against those who pursue me. Let me hear You say, “I will give you victory!”
Bring shame and disgrace on those trying to kill me; turn them back and humiliate those who want to harm me! Blow them away like chaff in the wind— a wind sent by the angel of Yahweh! Make their path dark and slippery, with the angel of Yahweh pursuing them. (Ps. 35:1-6)
In this moment, David wants revenge, not maturity. He starts this psalm by ordering Yahweh to suit up for war. There are certain humans who David is angry at right now, and he wants Yahweh to nail them all. When he asks for “the angel of Yahweh” to chase down his foes, he’s thinking of either Yahweh Himself attacking these people, or of Yahweh dispatching some supernatural being to do the attacking for Him. Either way, David is wallowing in hate, and he has no use for mercy. As is often the case with haters, David views himself as a pure-hearted do-gooder who no one can find any fault with.
I did them no wrong, but they laid a trap for me. I did them no wrong, but they dug a pit to catch me. So let sudden ruin come upon them! Let them be caught in the trap they set for me! Let them be destroyed in the pit they dug for me. (Ps. 35:7-8)
Now that David has elevated himself as Yahweh’s commander and as Mr. Innocent, he starts in with the bribery.
Then I will rejoice in Yahweh. I will be glad because He rescues me. With every bone in my body I will praise Him: “Yahweh, who can compare with You? Who else rescues the helpless from the strong? Who else protects the helpless and poor from those who rob them?” (Ps. 35:9-10)
How pompous we are to think we can use our praise to bait God into doing what we want. Since when is God so desperate to hear some complimentary word from us? Yahweh is God Almighty—He doesn’t have low-esteem issues. He doesn’t need us to like Him. He doesn’t find our praise nearly as amazing as we think He does—especially since so much of it is nothing more than lip service.
Where do we get off saying, “Do what I want first, God, then I’ll reward You with praise?” God deserves praise all the time, not just when we approve of what He’s doing. When we turn off the compliments as a means of trying to starve God out so that He’ll be more motivated to give us what we want, we’re acting like irreverent fools. God isn’t a human. Our cheap manipulation tactics don’t work on Him.
David is really talking like a fool here in Psalm 35. And after trying to butter Yahweh up with promises of praise, David now swings back into more pompous talk about what a great guy he is. He’s so kind. He’s so generous. He’s so righteous. But those crumbs who are giving him trouble—well, they’re total dirt bags compared to David.
Malicious witnesses testify against me. They accuse me of crimes I know nothing about. They repay me evil for good. I am sick with despair. Yet when they were ill, I grieved for them. I denied myself by fasting for them, but my prayers returned unanswered. I was sad, as though they were my friends or family, as if I were grieving for my own mother. But they are glad now that I am in trouble; they gleefully join together against me. I am attacked by people I don’t even know; they slander me constantly. They mock me and call me names; they snarl at me. (Ps. 35:11-16)
After this self-exalting speech, David now goes back to sniping at Yahweh. After all, David has given an order, and Yahweh isn’t hopping to it fast enough. What a bad Servant He is.
How long, O Yahweh, will You look on and do nothing? Rescue me from their fierce attacks. Protect my life from these lions! (Ps. 35:17)
Now it’s time for more buttering up, followed by more commands.
Then I will thank You in front of the great assembly. I will praise You before all the people. Don’t let my treacherous enemies rejoice over my defeat. Don’t let those who hate me without cause gloat over my sorrow. (Ps. 35:18-19)
You’d never know David was talking to a God for all of the dominating language he’s using. “Do this! Don’t do that! Get them! Hurry up!” So much for practicing the soul attitude of submission.
It’s now time to remind Yahweh of what crumbs David’s enemies are.
They don’t talk of peace; they plot against innocent people who mind their own business. They shout, “Aha! Aha! With our own eyes we saw him do it!” (Ps. 35:20-21)
And since Yahweh still isn’t coming to the rescue, David unleashes another volley of commands.
O Yahweh, You know all about this. Do not stay silent. Do not abandon me now, O Yahweh. Wake up! Rise to my defense! Take up my case, my God and my Lord. Declare me not guilty, O Yahweh my God, for You give justice. Don’t let my enemies laugh about me in my troubles. Don’t let them say, “Look, we got what we wanted! Now we will eat him alive!”
May those who rejoice at my troubles be humiliated and disgraced. May those who triumph over me be covered with shame and dishonor. But give great joy to those who came to my defense. Let them continually say, “Great is Yahweh, who delights in blessing His servant with peace!” Then I will proclaim Your justice, and I will praise You all day long. (Ps. 35:22-28)
Nice. After telling Yahweh all about how He ought to use His God powers, and instructing Him on who to damn and who to bless, David concludes this psalm by reminding Yahweh that when He does what David wants, David will say nice things about Him. He’ll praise Yahweh all day long, in fact. Yeah, sure he will. If you read through David’s psalms, you’ll find that this isn’t the first time he’s promised to perpetually praise Yahweh after Yahweh rescues him. But clearly those promises don’t mean much, because the praise is quickly withheld whenever Yahweh starts being a naughty God again.
So what kind of soul attitudes has David modeled in this psalm? Well, all of those bossy commands aimed at Yahweh reflect the soul attitude of domination. Domination is the opposite of submission. Domination says, “Not Your will, but mine be done.” Yahweh has clearly arranged for David to be persecuted at this time. Is He doing it just to stick it to David? No, He wants to teach David things that David needs to learn. He is also creating an opportunity for David to practice embracing the right soul attitudes, but David’s just not having it.
Trust is another critical soul attitude that Yahweh says He wants from us. Is David expressing any trust in this psalm? No, but he is expressing a lot of distrust by complaining against Yahweh and talking as if Yahweh is asleep on the job.
Dependency is the soul attitude that leads to humility—two attitudes which Yahweh also says are critical to pleasing Him. The opposite of humility is arrogance, and we really hear the arrogance coming through as David exaggerates his own righteousness.
Love, mercy and compassion are three more attitudes which Yahweh teaches His followers to have, but in Psalm 35, David is spewing hate and condemnation as he calls on Yahweh to dish out extreme punishments. David wants to see his enemies totally wiped out—very strong talk for a man who is personally guilty of doing plenty of sinning in life. Where would any of us be if Yahweh was as merciless as David is begging Him to be in this psalm? David is being quite the fool to urge Yahweh to take a merciless attitude towards those who do wrong.
David was a man of extremes. In his famous Psalm 23, he models fabulous soul attitudes as he marvels at the wonderful Character of his God. But then he runs to the other extreme and starts giving Yahweh a bunch of attitude in many of his other works. So you can’t just embrace the whole man as a good role model—you need to be selective and sift through his writings for the parts that are actually worth keeping. Improving our treatment of God should be high on our priority list, and we aren’t going to make any progress by calling snark like Psalm 35 “Divinely inspired.”
Psalm 109: Learning from David’s Hatefest
Psalm 90: Moses Gripes at Yahweh
Sicking Jesus on the Devil: The Christian Addiction to Bossing God
It’s Personal: Understanding the Divine Perspective of Trials
Treating God Like God: Simple Steps to Improving the Way that We Pray
Practicing Submission in the Way that We Pray
Soul Attitudes That Please God: What They Are & How We Develop Them
Bossing God to Music: YOU SAID by Hillsong