RIGHTEOUS DERISION IN THE BIBLE
There is a maliciousness in human nature that revels in the defeat and degradation of an enemy. Mere justice is neither satisfactory nor sufficient. There must also be some kind of disgrace and suffering on the part of the obnoxious offender. Humiliation makes winning twice as sweet.
Derision meets the need to make an opponent the object of ridicule and mockery. There is much pleasure in causing discomfiture of another by taunting, jeering, and scoffing. It is having the last laugh. The Germans even have a special word, Schadenfreude,* which means malicious joy at someone’s misfortune.
It was the custom of Rome to stage triumphal parades in which captives were dragged through the streets past jeering mobs and then thrown to wild beasts in the arena. Also, back in the days of public executions, there was a carnival atmosphere as criminals were put to open shame and tortured to death. And professional executioners who were afflicting the unfortunate victims actually enjoyed their work, just as cats like to play with terrified mice that are doomed to die.
Now, since the Bible is an ancient book, it is only natural that some of this unfeeling cruelty is found in its pages. An example of this type of sentiment is seen in the following:
O daughter of Babylon, you destroyer, happy shall he be who repays you for what you have done to us. Happy shall he be who takes your children and bashes them against a rock.
In Bible times it was felt that paradise would be more enjoyable if the righteous could look down from the battlements of heaven and see the wicked sinners roasting in the flames of hell. This is the sentiment of the well-known Psalm:
You set a table for me in full view of my enemies. You pour perfumed oil on my head. My cup is kept full and running over. Psalm 23:5
Here the favored and chosen one is, like Jacob’s special son Joseph, pampered by the divine Host at a banquet table, where those who have been excluded can see it all. This means that the torment of the lost ones is greater when they can see what they have missed. And the pleasure of the saved soul is greater when he can observe their well-deserved agony.
*Schaden: to injure, to harm, to hurt, plus Freude: joy, gladness, delight, pleasure.
Whenever the Bible recounts the defeat or death of a scoundrel, the narrative is always spiced with gory, vindictive details in order to show that the extra punishment so richly deserved has been meted out. It is not enough for the vile character to be simply overthrown or executed; he must also be humiliated or tormented before his final consignment to the hottest part of hell.
Even so, the Canaanite general Sisera was not just defeated in battle by the Hebrews. He was also shamefully put to death by one of their women, having a tent peg driven into his brain (Judges 4:21).
Likewise, in the Apocrypha, the evil general from Assyria, Holofernes, was tricked into getting drunk and then having his head cut off by a Jewish woman (Judith 13:6-10).
Nebuchadnezzar, the haughty king of Babylon, who had burned down the Temple of God, was driven mad, so that he went out into the field and ate grass like an ox (Daniel 4:30-33).
Manasseh, the most wicked king of Judah, was taken by the Assyrians with hooks in his flesh and bound with chains of bronze (2 Chronicles 33:9-13).
Haman, the plotter of Jewish genocide, was humiliated by having to extol his Jewish enemy and then parade him on a royal stallion through the city streets. After this he was hanged on a gallows seventy-five feet high, which he had made for hanging this same Jew (Esther 7:9-10).
Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, not only hanged himself, but he was disgraced after death by having his body burst open and then buried in a potter’s field (Matthew 27:5-8, Acts 1:18-19).
King Herod Agrippa was so impious that he met an inglorious end by having his body infested with worms (Acts 12:21-23).
It was the common custom of ancient times to brag on personal accomplishments and to put down others with taunting scorn. A hero was not modest in those days. He would embellish his exploits and make fun of his enemies. (It is likely that strong men like Samson and Hercules made up some of the superhuman feats attributed to them.) In his banqueting hall a king would employ a bard to sing of his exploits and tell tales that would bring lasting fame in the annals of his people. So, since Yahweh was looked upon as a heavenly king, it is unfortunate that the Bible even attributes this kind of a nature to the Deity Himself, and thus He enjoys bragging about His mighty deeds and bringing derision upon His enemies.
The kings of the earth assemble themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against Yahweh...He who sits in the heavens laughs. Yahweh has them in derision. Psalm 2:2a,4
But Thou, O Yahweh, dost laugh at them. Thou dost hold all the nations in derision. Psalm 59:8
And as Yahweh took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so Yahweh will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. Deuteronomy 28:63a
“The horn of Moab is cut off, and his arm is broken,” says Yahweh. Make him drunk, because he magnified himself against Yahweh, so that Moab will wallow in his vomit, and he too shall be held in derision...For every head is shaved and every beard cut off. Upon all the hands are gashes, and on the loins is sackcloth. On all the housetops of Moab and in the squares there is nothing but lamentation. “For I have broken Moab like a vessel for which no one cares,” says Yahweh. How it is broken! How they wail! How Moab has turned his back in shame. So Moab has become a derision and a spectacle to all that are round about him. Jeremiah 48:25-26,37-39
Thus says the Lord Yahweh, “You shall...be laughed at and held in derision...you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow. Ezekiel 23:32-33
They turn to Baal. They are like a warped bow. Their princes shall fall by the sword, because of their insolence. This shall be their derision in the land of Egypt. Hosea 7:16
Now, what is a Christian to do with all of these spiteful passages? Certainly, they must be attributed to the atmosphere of animosity that was a part of ancient society, when it was perfectly acceptable to laugh at a fallen foe and exult in self-righteous satisfaction.
There is no doubt that the early martyrs of the Faith would have prayed for release from their torments, but it is unlikely that they would have also wished their agonies upon their persecutors. This would have been foreign to the spirit of Jesus, who preached compassion - even for enemies. So, the trouble with the Book of Revelation is that it exhibits a spirit of gory retribution against the Roman persecutors of Christianity that is not in accord with the rest of the New Testament. Can anyone imagine Jesus laughing at a fallen foe?
Richard L. Atkins