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Shalom.

My JPS English Tanakh translates Mishlei 16:4 as 'The LORD made everything for a purpose, even the wicked for an evil day'. This rendering implies (to me) that the wicked were made wicked, without them having any choice in the matter, so that they could one day be punished (presumably in the sight of others).

Is this really what this verse is saying? Is it denying that one has a choice whether to be righteous or wicked?

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There are the rare wicked people whose punishment includes the very fact that their "heart is hardened" and it's more difficult for them to repent (see Rambam, Laws of Teshuvah 6:3). So the verse may be referring to such people. This is possibly implied by Rashi ad loc, who says

וגם רשע. עשה להניחו ליום רעה, וכל זה לקילוסו:

Also the wicked - he made in order to leave him for "an evil day"; this is all in praise of G-d.

With that said, a number of the commentaries say that it's not talking about the "making" of the wicked person himself, but of some consequence of his (freely chosen) actions:

  • Ralbag: it refers to the punishment of the wicked (i.e., not that G-d made him wicked to begin with, but that once he is, then G-d's punishment of him serves a useful purpose, in warning others against such behavior).

  • Metzudas David: it refers to the successes of the wicked (i.e., once he's decided to be wicked, G-d may choose to grant him power, to then serve as an instrument of punishment of others - an example being "Assyria, the rod of My anger" (Isaiah 10:5)). The Chinuch (mitzvah 524), in a similar vein, uses this verse as an example of how G-d may utilize someone's free choice (false witnesses, in that case) to get someone else their condign punishment.

  • Malbim: it refers to both his success and his punishment. Both demonstrate G-d's greatness, in that the wicked person rises high and then falls (like Haman).

It's also worth noting a homiletical explanation by R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Tanya, part 1, ch. 27): it refers to a person who has tendencies towards wickedness (though he has free choice whether to act on them), and who was created that way in order to make his inborn "evil" into a bright "day."

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    Rambam writes that we have free will. He writes: “Humans are given free will. If a person wants to take the good path and be righteous, he is free to do so; and if he desires to take the evil one and be wicked, he can do so ... The Creator doesn’t preordain man to be good or evil” (Mishneh Torah, tTeshuvah 5:1–23). – Turk Hill Feb 16 at 4:00
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Rambam writes that we have free will. He writes: “Humans are given free will. If a person wants to take the good path and be righteous, he is free to do so; and if he desires to take the evil one and be wicked, he can do so ... The Creator doesn’t preordain man to be good or evil” (Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah 5:1–23).

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