POETIC JUSTICE: A BIBLICAL ANALYSIS
For about four years now I had been hearing of the popular TV series, “Breaking Bad”. Everyone who had seen it had nothing but praise for it, they showered encomiums on it to the point of calling it the best series to ever hit the television screens. The show’s ratings substantiated this hype, 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, 9.5/10 on ImDb, 9/10 on Ratings Graph, 4.9/5 on Netflix and 9.3 on the notoriously “thrifty” Metacritic.
I generally am not a series or movie person but in light of the current global lock-down, I saw I had more free time than I bargained for and finally decided to binge-watch this series to see what the fuss was all about. Let me say first and foremost, that it was worth every iota of hype it accumulated but on closer inspection, I realized that the reason the series is so highly rated and billed as one of the greats is the way it ended. Without giving spoilers to anyone yet to see it, the summary of the end is this: Everyone got what they deserved.
Going back to the “they lived happily ever after” endings of fairy-tales and classic movies and folklore, human beings have always loved the idea of retribution and people getting whats coming to them, poetic justice, if you like, a system where the good are rewarded for their virtue and the evil perish for their atrocities. This longing goes back to Biblical times.
The theme of poetic justice is a recurrent one in the book of Proverbs hence Solomon, in his wisdom writes things like
“Whoso rewardeth evil for good, evil shall not depart from his house” (Proverbs 17:13)
“In the house of the righteous is much treasure; but in the revenue of the wicked is trouble” (Proverbs 15:6)
But scripture itself reveals that poetic justice is a myth in the real world. The same Solomon, writes in Ecclesiastes,
“There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 8:14)
“I am as one mocked of his neighbour, who calleth upon God, and he answereth him: the just upright man is laughed to scorn…The tabernacles of robbers prosper, and they that provoke God are secure; into whose hands God bringeth abundantly” (Job 12:4,6)
Asaph, the psalmist writes,
“For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked…behold, these are the ungodly who prosper in the world” (Psalms 73:3,12)
The prophet Malachi reproduces the words of the followers of the one true God in his day,
“…It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered.” (Malachi 3:14–15)
This is further amplified by the fact that the Old Testament prophets who prophesied about Jesus Christ were killed (Acts 7:52, Matthew 23:34–35) Jesus Christ Himself was killed, all His apostles, except for John who was exiled, were killed (by the way, there was an attempt to kill John by dumping him in boiling oil, it was only after he miraculously survived this unscathed that he was exiled to Patmos, see Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), Jesus’ early disciples were killed (Paul, Stephen, Antipas [Revelation 2:13]), a trend that has continued till this very day while on the contrary, terrible people like Nebuchadnezzar, Ahab (for a time), Manasseh and very wicked cities like Nineveh were spared by the mercies of God.
All of this goes to show that the idea of Christianity being a “bubble” from the evils of the earth is not only highly unscriptural but also a fairy tale akin to “Alice in Wonderland” or the travels of the eccentric Gulliver. Jesus Christ told His disciples that there would come a time when people would kill them thinking they were doing service to God (John 16:2) and He assured them of tribulation as long as they remain in this world (John 16:33). The only guarantee He gave them was that He had overcome the world and He would be with them in the midst of it all. Jesus, the best man the world has ever seen or would ever see despite knowing and doing no sin, experienced it all; dishonour, defamation, rejection, betrayal, loss of John the baptist His cousin, pain, agony, suffering, loneliness and death. Being Christian does not exempt you from your fair share of trash from all the trash life hands out.
So why do bad things happen to good people and good things to bad people? Apart from the fact that good people are prone to making bad, wrong (and sometimes outrightly stupid) decisions with terrible consequences and vice-versa, apart from the fact that the world is full of fallen men who are all too willing to yield to the influence of the evil in their fallen nature to perpetrate all sorts of harm on the innocent, the world itself is fallen. This lopsidedness in its reward system is an effect of living off the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Good sometimes happens to the evil and evil sometimes happen to the good. So are Christians helpless in the circumstances?
No! because for one, God has an ability to work all things, including and especially those outside His will, together for good according to His own will (Romans 8:28, Ephesians 1:11). The irony is that God is able to bring out so much good from an evil, that we become so grateful that the evil occurred. Thanks to the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers he not only became ruler of Egypt, but a savior to nations of the world, so much so that he could say to his brothers,
“But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Genesis 50:20)
For all the evil Job went through and for how much of a fuss atheists and skeptics love to make about it, we often forget the end of his story,
“So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning…and in all the land there were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job…After this lived Job an hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his son’s sons, even four generations. So Job died, being old and full of days” (Job 42:12–17)
People forget Job lived 140 years after his trauma, that’s a long time, enough to forget his bitter experience and enjoy his blessings. Excellent compensation for suffering only a few months(Job 29:2) if you ask me. More importantly, Job’s story has become a legacy, a bill-board for all going through hard times and trials of faith, an inspiration to generations unborn. Hence James admonishes the church,
“Behold we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy.” (James 5:11)
In the same manner, from the greatest injustice that ever was, the evil of the cross of Jesus Christ, the greatest, highest possible good has come forth, to wit; salvation of all of mankind. A good that compensates and will in the future, even more so, compensate for every evil mankind has been through or will ever go through.
It is in this spirit, Jesus urges believers to repay evil with good, to not resist an evil person, to turn the other cheek and pray for enemies (Matthew 5:38–48). It’s not just humility or an admonition to be stupid, defenseless and docile, It’s a life hack! A winning strategy! Paul writes,
“Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21)
You cannot be neutral towards evil. At the same time, repaying evil with evil would mean you have been overcome with evil. The only way to overcome evil and truly win, is with good. This is how God operates, He pays evil back with so much good, He loves people into submission (1 John 4:19). He did not strike Joseph’s brothers dead for their wickedness, apparently the Sabeans and Chaldeans who robbed Job and killed his servants got away with it (Job 1:14,17), but I guarantee you they heard of Job’s wealth and Joseph’s kindness to his brothers haunted them for the rest of their lives (Genesis 50:15). Hence it is written,
“If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink; For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee” (Proverbs 25:21)
This is how Jesus overcame the greatest possible evil on the cross, not by resisting it, but by overcoming it with the greatest possible good. That is the way to beat the fallen world’s system.
But there is yet one more twist…
The poetic justice we all seek would be more than satisfied at the end of the day. Scripture reveals that there is a day of final ultimate judgment where everyone will stand before God to give account of their lives and receive the rewards for their deeds, whether good or bad (Romans 14:10, Hebrews 4:13, 2 Corinthians 5:10). Jesus Himself spoke about that day (Matthew 25:31, John 5:22–30). This was the consolation of the people of God who were discouraged in Malachi’s day,
“ …And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not. For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 3:17–4:3)
Asaph in psalm 73 (earlier mentioned), spent the first half complaining and griping about how wicked people are favoured, but all that changes,
“Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end” (Psalms 73:17)
Only after he saw the ultimate judgment of the wicked did he remain thankful that he had put his trust in God.
It is in the context of that day of ultimate justice that Solomon’s grandiose obsession with poetic justice in the book of Proverbs makes perfect sense. Hence even in Ecclesiastes, after he muses about the unpredictability, unfairness, emptiness and randomness of life, he ends up finding solace in that day of ultimate judgment,
“ Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14)
Scripture prophesied of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and all of that happened exactly as it was prophesied. With that in mind, it would take great faith not to believe its prophecy about the day of final ultimate judgment, a judgment so fair, so just, so equitable, so satisfying, that no one in heaven, on earth or underneath the earth would be able to fault it. The poetic justice we earnestly seek and long for is coming and when it does, it would be the most poetic of all justices, the mother of them all!