Monday, May 02, 2011

The death of a wicked man

“Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign Lord. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live."

- Ezekiel 18.23, NLT.
H/T David Yung for reminding me of this verse.


byron smith said...

A day of mourning, not of joy.

byron smith said...

Brad Littlejohn: The speech Obama could have given.

Al said...

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Revelation 18:20.

Al said...

I think that a lot depends on how the death of OBL is framed. Framed in terms of OBL's biography, it will read as a tragedy, and no cause for rejoicing. Framed in terms of jingoist celebrations of revenge, the joy is equally unfitting. However, the death and demise of evil powers is treated as a fitting cause for joy in Scripture. The defeat of evil kings, rulers, leaders, and persecutors of God's people is presented as cause for rejoicing. The fact that OBL's repentance would have been far more desirable does not remove the fact that God's justice has been executed against a wicked mastermind who killed thousands, has removed a burden of fear, avenged the deaths of his victims, and potentially saved the lives of many more. I think that that is something to rejoice in, despite the tragic elements of the event.

Donna said...

On a different note, isn't the NLT good :-)

byron smith said...

"I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." ~ Martin Luther King Jr

Al - The death and demise of evil powers can indeed be a source of joy, but our true enemies are not flesh and blood but the forces of sin, disintegration, fear, mistrust, greed and selfishness.

Donna - I did it for you.

Word verification: "anger".

Anonymous said...

Hi Byron,

I feel much the same way.

How do you reconcile this with the attitude expressed at the end of Psalm 137: "Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks."

Surely Jesus' teaching subverts the Psalmist here.

byron smith said...

Brad Littlejohn identifies eight different issues being explored in the aftermath. I hope those who are not his facebook friend can still see that link. Let me know if not.

Anon - I do think that Psalm 137 has to be read through Christ, and I would suggest that this means also reading it through the Ephesians 6 passage I alluded to in my previous response (our enemies are not flesh and blood). Let us smash the heads the children of hatred and wickedness, overcoming evil with good.

Anonymous said...

I hope those who are not his facebook friend can still see that link. Let me know if not.
But you can go to Mr Littlejohn
for an attenuated version.

Alan Wood

Anonymous said...

Hi Byron,
Thanks for your reply RE Ps 137.

You write "I do think that Psalm 137 has to be read through Christ" and then offer a reading very different to what the psalmist actually seems to be expressing. I assume (though correct me if I am mistaken) that your motivation is to honour the psalm as scripture while seeking to be consistent with the way of Jesus.

Would it not be more natural to say that while the psalmists desire is understandable, the way of Jesus' is ultimately incompatible with what the desires that the psalmist actually expresses?

byron smith said...

Alan - thanks.

Anon - You could put it like that, though I don't think that the two positions are incompatible. That is, I don't think that authorial intention limits the possible meanings of holy scripture. It is possible to both think that the desires of the psalmist require baptism into the way of Christ and yet to consider the psalm holy scripture.

Donna said...

Naw! Thanks Byron.

Al said...


A few comments:

1. The MLK quotation is only semi-genuine.

2. I largely agree with your commenting regarding our true enemies. However, I think that the NT presents these enemies as far more personal in character than you do, seeing them as demonic forces that are at work and exert power within our world.

3. It also seems to me that Paul's point in Ephesians 6 is not that the people of God do not have physical enemies, but that the ultimate source and primary animating agency of the opposition that we face is not flesh and blood. There is no clear distinction between the demonic spiritual powers of which Paul speaks, and the evil agency of people such as OBL. In high-handed alignment with these powers, human persons can also become enemies of God, whose destruction is to be celebrated (the NT seems to distinguish between ignorant and knowing and wilful opposition in this context). Verses such as 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16, Revelation 6:10, 19:1-2 speak of God's avenging of the blood of his saints upon the inhabitants of the earth, not merely on heavenly powers.

Powers such as empire cannot be reduced to flesh and blood individuals, but nor can they be abstracted from them. The sorts of celebration of the righteous in the destruction of the wicked in places such as Psalm 58:10 cannot be spiritualized away. Christ brings peace for his people and pacifies his enemies by means of the cross. However, when we read prophecies of Christ's judgment on Jerusalem (which I believe to refer to AD70), and the book of Revelation more generally, the sentiments expressed in the psalms, which look for historical vengeance on physical, personal, and human enemies, do not seem to be so alien to a Christological framework. Obviously, the theme of salvation is primary, and God delivers many from the service of the spiritual enemies arrayed against him, but others become hardened and obstinate, it is appropriate that we should pray that we should be avenged, as Christ taught us to (Luke 18:1-8).

byron smith said...

Al - 1. Thanks for the correction. I should be more wary of MLK quotes, having been burned before.

2. I don't rule out personal readings of the demonic powers, but generally opt for a both-and reading. Actually, a triple reading: personal demonic powers, worldly social/economic/political/ideological structures, and moral vices. The devil, the world and the flesh, if you like.

3. Indeed, the judgement of God upon the wicked is not confined to the spiritual enemies. But this is God's judgement, in which our present participation is severely limited (Romans 12.19ff.), or rather, consists of subversively loving our human enemies and so shaming them with our willingness to go the extra mile. That God has given the sword of temporal judgement to human authorities (in the following verses) is to be read within the instructions of the latter half of chapter 12. Such human authorities are themselves under divine judgement and bear the task of temporal divine judgement under the conditions of ambiguity and imperfectibility. Particularly at those moments when such human temporal judgement seems most obvious, we ought to be careful at leaping too quickly into a celebration of this sword, since our debt is purely of love (Romans 13.8).

The victory of God over his enemies (and by extension the enemies of his people) is performed by a cross, and this does not simply hide divine power, but reveals it under the form of a servant. The cruciformity of divine judgement means that the imprecatory psalms cannot be read without a Christological note. Even in Revelation, the rider on the white horse who goes forth to wage war upon his enemies (19.11ff.) wears a robe dipped in blood, but it is dipped in blood before he has engaged his enemies; Christ is the rider, and bears his own blood, even as he goes forth to judge. The fearsome judge of the earth is one who died for it. The sword with which he strikes his enemies comes from his mouth; it is his word, revealing and laying bear the human heart. The military images are thus christologically subverted.

Empires are indeed judged and found wanting, and their downfall celebrated. And humans who grease the wheels of such machines are not spared their downfall. But the souls of the martyrs calling for judgement are an anticipation of and longing for future justice, rather than providing a model of human action in seeking to enact such judgement upon our enemies.

The widow of Luke 18 seeks justice, not revenge. And she petitions the judge for it, rather than taking the matter into her own hands. Our hunger and thirst is for justice (Matthew 5), and quickly may it come, but beware lest we confuse our attempts with God's gift.

In other news: The changing story from the White House.

Al said...


Thanks for your thoughtful response. A few comments in response to your final point.

I largely agree with your points about judgment. We are not to be hateful, wrathful, or vengeful. The ‘vengeance’ spoken of is of a judicial character, not mere revenge. However, in giving place to God’s wrath, and showing grace and mercy to our enemies, we actually increase the judgment upon them – heaping coals of fire on their heads. The gracious long-suffering of the saints, as the long-suffering of God, actually causes impenitent enemies to bring more judgment upon themselves (cf. Romans 2:4-5; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).

Rulers have been given the sword as God-appointed ministers of vengeance, and through their ministration – which is deeply ambiguous as you point out – the saints are often vindicated. As ministers of a greater justice and judgment, rulers must be humble, realizing that they are subject to the same judgment themselves (Isaiah’s description of Assyria as God’s axe in Isaiah 10 is what I have in mind here).

As you say, the victory of God is performed by the cross, and takes the form of service. That recognized, we need to beware of so focusing on Christ’s humiliation that we forget the reality of his exaltation, and the placing of all enemies under his feet. We should also appreciate different stages in Christ’s ministry. His first visitation is one for salvation and deliverance. His final visitation is one for judgment (those who rejected him the first time are forgiven, those who reject his second visitation are destroyed). The Christ of the cross is the Christ who slays Ananias and Sapphira, causes Herod to be eaten alive by worms, and lays waste the city of Jerusalem in a horrific bloodbath. These actions are not, I believe, opposed to the servant model. Christ is the older Brother of his people and thus acts as the kinsman-redeemer/avenger of blood. Among other things, he serves his people by avenging their blood and delivering them from their enemies. Christ does not gleefully destroy his enemies, but is long-suffering, gracious towards them, and offers them salvation. However, in the final judgment the time of mercy passes (as we see in the pattern of Christ’s weeping over Jerusalem, prior to his coming in judgment upon the city in AD70). Christ’s judgment of the enemy is not out of a lording over others, but in service of his people.

Al said...

I disagree with your interpretation of Revelation 19. The staining of the garments is related to his ‘treading of the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God’ (v.15). This clearly alludes to Isaiah 63:1-6, where Christ ‘treads the winepress’, and sprinkles the blood of his enemies on his garment (cf. Genesis 49:10-12). The immediate context, as in Isaiah 63, is that of shedding the blood of the wicked to avenge the blood of his servants (Revelation 18:24, 19:2; cf. Matthew 23:29-36). I suggest that you read Beale’s helpful treatment of the passage.

Military images can be subverted in the NT (e.g. 3000 ‘cut to the heart’ by Peter’s message, in contrast to 3000 literally cut to the heart at Sinai), but we should be careful not to take this approach too far. The subversion of the image shows that the power of Christ is in the word of his mouth, not in physical force of arms. This word, however, can still prove fatal. It is the word that can root up nations and plant nations, destroy and cast down, or build up. It is the word of death and life. It is not merely the gracious sacrificial sword by which our High Priest separates us as living sacrifices so that we might ascend into God’s presence in the cloud of the Spirit, but is also the slaying sword by which Christ protects the purity of his people (e.g. Revelation 2:16).

Seeking to be avenged is not necessarily the same thing as seeking revenge in a vengeful fashion. We are not authorized to take matters into our own hands. Governments are authorized to avenge the blood of the innocent (this cannot be done in a vengeful manner either), although I think that we need to question what the driving motives for the killing of OBL were, and whether the means employed were just. Seeking to be avenged is not driven by schadenfreude, a desire to restore our pride or honour, or by hatred or a vengeful spirit, but by a desire for God’s justice and vindication when the innocent are oppressed by evil adversaries.

The Bible gives us numerous examples of imprecatory prayer, most notably in the psalms, which have been central to the worship of the Church throughout its history. This pattern of imprecatory prayer is not abandoned by the NT. Disciples are taught to shake the dust off their feet in a manner that will bring fierce judgment upon towns that reject their message. As you point out, the martyrs don’t seek vengefully to get back at their enemies. However, they do provide us with an example of praying that God would avenge the oppressed and destroy oppressors. God empowers the mouth of his Church (cf. Revelation 11:5-6) to call down judgment upon the wicked. The Church has widely forgotten this fact, but I know of a number of cases where it has been used with fearful (and occasionally sudden and fatal) effect. Reading the psalms of David associated with his dealings with Saul (a number of which contain imprecatory themes) against the background of his restraint, forgiveness, patience, trust, and love in his personal dealings with Saul as described by 1 Samuel provides a perfect example of a non-vengeful way of seeking to be avenged.

byron smith said...

Al - I don't think we are too far apart here, particularly in your first few paragraphs (still thinking about the images in your final one). Although the nature of the final judgement is something on which the NT gives us a wide variety of images and foretastes, I suspect that one of its most crucial features is that it is surprising. This surprise is in its timing, yes, but I wonder also whether the very act may itself not conform to our expectations (as the incarnation beautifully fulfilled while radically subverting OT and contemporary messianic expectations).

So while we can keep discussing eschatological judgement, the pointy end of this discussion concerns temporal human judgements by political authorities and whether the extra-judicial assassination of a wicked man by imperial forces constitutes grounds for rejoicing, and if so, what kind of (heavily mitigated) joy it might contain. I am not entirely closed to the possibility of there being some aspects of this development that are fitting and desirable, though simply note that (as you have indicated) these remain deeply ambiguous and worrying at the same time. We both agree that the expressions of jingoistic triumphalism and bloody gloating are repulsive.

byron smith said...

I was responding to your first comment before I'd seen your second one.

Rev 19: The context of Isaiah 63 is indeed important, but Revelation has already pulled off a number of surprising reversals (e.g. the lion of Judah turning out to be a slain lamb). I haven't read Beale. Have you looked at Bauckham?

I agree that the word of the risen Christ can be devastating.

I also agree that waiting upon the righteous judgement of God that desires the vindication of his name and the overthrow of his enemies can involve the expectation of divine vengeance without this calling for us to take this into our own hands in any way (the picture of David and Saul is a very helpful one - thanks). That said, as I suggested above, the experience of the disciples frequently involved discovering that Christ's mercy extended to unexpected recipients. Repentance and grace are constantly found in unforeseen locations and our appropriate desire for divine justice must remain located within a prayerful longing that all may be saved.

I think that we need to question what the driving motives for the killing of OBL were, and whether the means employed were just.

Al said...

Byron, thanks once again for your interaction. I suspect that you are right in thinking that many of our expectations may be subverted by the final judgment. On the other hand, I think that it is important to heed what the NT has to say about the future judgment upon Jerusalem, as the prophesied destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 is presented as, in many respects, paradigmatic for the final judgment. While it is not the final judgment of all history, it is a judgment that dramatically ends an entire age, and is compared to the Flood, another great example of an age-ending judgment. Even if it were not paradigmatic for the final judgment, it still provides us with pointers for understanding the form of certain of Christ’s judgments in the middle of history.

My comments to this point have primarily been concerned with the question of whether it is ever appropriate to rejoice in the death of wicked men in principle. The particular case of OBL is an example of such a death that raises a different set of questions. I believe that even if it were accomplished by unlawful or wrong means, the death of OBL is something to rejoice in, as the blood of innocents has been avenged, and the lives of others potentially saved. I believe it to be a just judgment of God upon an evil man.

I do not, however, want to align my rejoicing in his death with the sort of rejoicing that has been characteristic of the response of many, especially in America. This is not about vengefulness, national pride and honour, America’s strength, or striking our fear into the hearts of our enemies. To the extent that OBL’s killing was motivated by such things, I must distance myself from supporting it, while recognizing God’s hand of justice in the whole affair, despite the injustice of his chosen instruments. Even when delivered into our hand, we are not free to dispose of the lives of our enemies – even if they may be mass murderers – as we will. Recognizing the higher justice and authority to which we are accountable is essential. In rejoicing in the death of OBL, I am rejoicing in God’s justice, not in the supposed ‘justice’ of America in the whole affair.

Re: Rev 19. Yes, I have read Bauckham, though not recently, so I would have to refresh my memory. On the lion/lamb ‘reversal’, I would be wary of putting too much weight on this as a ‘reversal’. The Lamb of Revelation lies down quite happily with the lion of martial imagery. The book speaks of the ‘wrath of the Lamb’ and of his violent destruction of the enemies of God. This is in keeping with other works of Jewish apocalyptic, where the lamb is also seen as a martial figure. In employing the imagery of the lamb, John would seem to be appealing primarily to OT imagery of sacrifice and Passover, and perhaps also the suffering Servant. Martyrdom and non-violent resistance is always an important part of the picture, but we must never forget that the martyrs expected to be vindicated and avenged, and that God’s vindication of them and avenging of their deaths constituted their victory. The early Church conquered the Jews who persecuted them by laying down their lives. The form that their victory took was the horrific destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. It is the neglect of this second part of the biblical picture that leads to my dissatisfaction with many non-violent readings, which go beyond the scriptural observation that the Church conquers without employing physically violent means, to remove violence from the picture altogether. There is definitely a reversal that takes place – conquest is fundamentally achieved through weakness and suffering rather than through might and invulnerability – but the violent elements of the Lion imagery are not thoroughly erased, or replaced by pacifist imagery.

All of this said, I suspect that we are largely in agreement here.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Bin Laden and reflexive US patriotism.

Al - Yes, I do think we're largely in agreement and I certainly appreciate the chance to sharpen my language and thinking on these matters.

the question of whether it is ever appropriate to rejoice in the death of wicked men in principle
And I think that in the end we reach similar conclusions. I have been emphasising the caveats you have mentioned while you have been emphasising the fact that temporal anticipations of divine justice are still a basis for praise from God's people, even amidst the ambiguities of life in this present age.

I wasn't familiar with the idea that the lamb was a martial figure in Jewish apocalyptic. I assume Beale covers this?

Al said...

I can't remember if Beale deals with it or not. Steve Moyise has a paper on the subject of the lion and lamb imagery in Revelation which mentions it, if I am recalling correctly. I have also come across it in a couple of other contexts, but I would have to track down the references.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Secret deal between Pakistan and the US. Agreed in 2001 and renewed in 2008, Pakistan allegedly agreed to unilateral US strikes as long as they were allowed to publicly decry them afterwards.

byron smith said...

Jason Goroncy on revenge.

byron smith said...

Did Osama bin Laden win the "War on Terror"?

byron smith said...

Three interesting reflections:

Oliver O'Donovan: An Act of Judgement?

Joshua Holland: Did Osama bin Laden win the "War on Terror"?

Onion: Obi Wan Kenobi is dead, Vader says.

byron smith said...

CD: Who–and What–Are Behind the “Official History” of the Bin Laden Raid?

Conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this one.

Byron Smith said...

Noam Chomsky: 9/11 - was there an alternative?.