Success Is Not Always God’s Favor

When something happens in a Bible story, we need to stop and pray and think before concluding that this always happens. For example, just because God called Moses from a burning bush does not mean that we should always go about our lives hiding from the needs around us, until something catches on fire and we hear a booming voice.

However, when something notably doesn’t happen in the Bible, it does at least mean that this doesn’t doesn’t always happen, because in the case that Scripture reports, it didn’t. I was reminded of that this morning in our reading of Jeremiah 49 and 50. Specifically, when people succeed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have God’s favor. It doesn’t necessarily mean that God is happy with her or working for his good. Consider the case of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. Jeremiah 49 talks about his great success at others’ expense:

Concerning Kedar and the kingdoms of Hazor that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon struck down:

Thus says the LORD:
“Rise up, advance against Kedar!
Destroy the people of the east!
Their tents and their flocks shall be taken,
their curtains and all their goods;
their camels shall be led away from them,
and men shall cry to them:
‘Terror on every side!’
flee, wander far away, dwell in the depths,
O inhabitants of Hazor!
declares the LORD.
For Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon
has made a plan against you
and formed a purpose against you.

-Jeremiah 49:28-30

Imagine what this conquest would sound like back in Babylon: Victory, success, plunder, wealth, prosperity. Many probably said, “The gods favor us.” Yet, the Bible proclaims that there is one God and that this success did not indicate God’s favor on their nation or king. In the very next chapter, judgment turns on Babylon:

How the hammer of the whole earth is cut down and broken!
How Babylon has become a horror among the nations!
I set a snare for you and you were taken, O Babylon,
and you did not know it;
you were found and caught,
because you opposed the LORD.

-Jeremiah 50:23-24

On first reading, it could seem that God is harsh in these passages; however, if you read through the passages that lead up to this in 2 Kings and the rest of Jeremiah, it’s clear that God has shown patience and is bringing justice. It could also seen that God is fickle; however, if we understand that success does not indicate God’s favor, then we will understand that God is not one way and then the other with Babylon. God may have allowed them military, political, and economic success in his mercy, wisdom, and patience, but they never walked in God’s favor, and he has only been just to the nations and true to his promises.

Even this, news of a “just” God, seems heavy and colorless, but only if we read over the last line of the last paragraph, the bright theme that glimmers through the whole Bible and sometimes flashes to a blinding brightness: God is true to his promises. We can find God’s favor and walk in it; there is a way!

Toward the scorners he is scornful,
but to the humble he gives favor.

-Proverbs 3:35

I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.

-Isaiah 57:15

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

-Matthew 23:12

He has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate

-Luke 1:52

God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.

-James 4:6

Humble yourselves before the Lord,
and he will exalt you.

-James 4:10

God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.

-1 Peter 5:5

The story of Nebuchadnezzar and the history of Babylon remind us that success–military, political, economic, or otherwise–does not necessarily indicate God’s favor. We would be foolish, as they were foolish, to look at pleasant circumstances and boast that the gods must favor us.

Yet, this does not mean that God’s favor is inaccessible to humans or elusive to those who seek it. We have something better than a historical pattern; we have the promise of God: He opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. If we humble ourselves, seeking God in humility, we may not know what God’s favor will look like, but we do know that He welcomes such people and delights to exalt them at the proper time.

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