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Mark Twain and Psalm 73 on the absurdity of injustice

Mark Twain has to be one of my favorite short story authors. Recently, I was struck by his The Story of the Bad Little Boy, in which Twain wrestles with the perennial question of “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Here’s how he describes Jim’s life.

Once there was a bad little boy whose name was Jim – though, if you will notice, you will find that bad little boys are nearly always called James in your Sunday-school books. It was strange, but still it was true that this one was called Jim….

Once this little bad boy stole the key of the pantry, and slipped in there and helped himself to some jam, and filled up the vessel with tar, so that his mother would never know the difference; but all at once a terrible feeling didn’t come over him, and something didn’t seem to whisper to him, “Is it right to disobey my mother? Isn’t it sinful to do this? Where do bad little boys go who gobble up their good kind mother’s jam?” and then he didn’t kneel down all alone and promise never to be wicked any more, and rise up with a light, happy heart, and go and tell his mother all about it, and beg her forgiveness, and be blessed by her with tears of pride and thankfulness in her eyes. No; that is the way with all other bad boys in the books; but it happened otherwise with this Jim, strangely enough. He ate that jam, and said it was bully, in his sinful, vulgar way; and he put in the tar, and said that was bully also, and laughed…. Everything about this boy was curious – everything turned out differently with him from the way it does to the bad James in the books.

Once he climbed up in Farmer Acorn’s apple-tree to steal apples, and the limb didn’t break, and he didn’t fall and break his arm, and get torn by the farmer’s great dog, and then languish on a sick bed for weeks, and repent and become good. Oh! no; he stole as many apples as he wanted and came down all right; and he was all ready for the dog too, and knocked him endways with a brick when he came to tear him….Nothing like it in any of the Sunday-school books….

But the strangest thing that ever happened to Jim was the time he went boating on Sunday, and didn’t get drowned, and that other time that he got caught out in the storm when he was fishing on Sunday, and didn’t get struck by lightning….How this Jim ever escaped is a mystery to me….

In many ways, it’s the same question that we find in Psalm 73.

Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.

For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (vv. 1-3)

If the world is governed by a good and just God, why are we surrounded by such injustice? Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? The psalmist never offers a definitive answer. Instead, he simply turns his eyes toward heaven in worship.

When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me

till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny. (vv. 16-17)

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever. (vv. 24-25)

Mark Twain takes a very different approach when he concludes his story.

And he grew up and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalist wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.

Temporally speaking, I don’t think Mark Twain’s position is any different than that of the psalmist. Wicked people do in fact prosper and justice often reigns triumphant in the world. But, what Twain’s story lacks, and what the psalmist offers, is the brazen declaration of hope, the bold confidence in God’s ultimate sovereignty, the vision to gaze beyond the injustice and see the Kingdom of God beyond. Twain’s power as a writer lay in his ability to make us see the absurdities of the now, but seeing the now is not always the best training for seeing what will be. The psalmist shows us a different path – one that refuses to turn away from seeing the world in all of its devastating depravity, rejects facile and moralistic explanations of injustice, resists the ineluctable draw of nihilism, and reaches out to a greater, deeper, more glorious vision of then – ephemeral, elusive, exasperating…the eschaton.