“THE ENEMIES OF THE LORD SHALL VANISH LIKE SMOKE.”
Holy Job enquires why the wicked are allowed to live, and why are they advanced and strengthened in prosperity? And why instead of dying in poverty and tribulation they continue to enjoy health and honours and riches? The holy man himself gives the answer: They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment they go down to hell.
St. Jerome says that there cannot be a greater punishment for a sinner than that he should not be punished in this life. And St. Isidore of Pelusium says that sinners who are punished in this life do not deserve pity, but those only who die without having been punished. It is not so bad, continues the Saint, to be simply sick as to have no one to cure you. St. Augustine says, in another part, that when God does not chastise the sinner in this world, He chastises him most severely; whence he concludes that there is no greater misfortune than impunity for a sinner. After England had rebelled against the Church, God did not visit her with temporal scourges: her riches have been increasing from that time; but her chastisement is all the greater on that account, as she is left to perish in her sin. The absence of punishment is the greatest punishment, says the same holy Doctor. Not to receive chastisement for sin in this life is a great punishment, but prosperity in sin is a still greater punishment.
Why then, Job inquires, do the wicked live, are they advanced and strengthened with riches? How comes it, O Lord, that sinners, instead of being taken out of this life in poverty and tribulation, enjoy health, and honours, and riches? The holy man answers: They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment they go down to hell (Job xxi. 7, 13). Wretched men! they enjoy their riches for a few days, and when the hour of chastisement comes, when they least expect it, they are condemned to burn forever in that place of torments. Jeremias makes the same inquiry: Why doth the way of the wicked prosper? and then adds, Gather them together as sheep for a sacrifice (Jer. xii. 1-3). Animals destined for sacrifice are kept from all labour, and fattened for slaughter. Thus does God act towards the obstinate: He abandons them, and suffers them to fatten on the pleasures of this life in order to sacrifice them in the other to His eternal justice; for these, says Minutius Felix, are fed like victims for the slaughter.
Poor wretched sinners, says David, shall not be punished in this life, but they shall enjoy their fleeting pleasures. By and by their dream shall cease: Neither shall they be scourged like other men; … they have suddenly ceased to be; as the dream of them that awake, O Lord, so in thy city thou shalt bring their image to nothing (Ps. lxxii. 5, 18, 20). How painful is not the case of a poor sick man, who dreams that he has grown rich and great, and upon awaking finds himself a miserable and sick creature still? And the enemies of the Lord shall … vanish like smoke (Ps. xxxvi. 20). The happiness of sinners is as suddenly dissipated as is smoke by a breath of air. “Smoke,” observes St. Gregory, “vanishes in its ascent.” And the same is the case with sinners: I have seen the wicked highly exalted, … and I passed by, and lo! he was not (Ps. xxxvi. 35). These unhappy men are exalted the higher, that their fall may be the greater. The Lord allows the sinner to be exalted for his greater punishment, in order that his fall may be the more grievous, as is said by David. When they were lifted up thou hast cast them down (Ps. lxxii. 18). If the sick man, says St. John Chrysostom, suffer hunger or thirst by order of his physician, it is a sign that the physician has hope of him; but if the doctor allow him to eat what he pleases, and drink as much as he likes, what are we to conclude from that? It is plain that the physician has given him over. And thus, says St. Gregory, it is a manifest sign that God abandons the sinner to perdition, when He never thwarts his evil purposes: and in the Book of Proverbs we read that the prosperity of fools shall destroy them (Prov. i. 32). As lightning precedes thunder, says St. Bernard, so is prosperity the forerunner of damnation for the sinner.