A little over four months ago the world watched in horror as news reports showed graphic images of Muammar Gaddafi’s capture and execution in Libya. No doubt many felt mixed emotions. It is hard to find pity for a brutal dictator who enthusiastically sponsored terror and was responsible for the mass murder of so many innocents—including 270 victims who died on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988. And yet it is disturbing to see the brutal mob violence that ended the dictator’s life. At some level we all recognize that evil should be punished, and yet many of us feel a measure of discomfort as to how that punishment should be meted out.
This month affords us the opportunity to revisit that issue as we think about the Festival of Purim, celebrated March 7-8. As recounted in the book of Esther, Purim commemorates the execution of Haman and the violent overthrow of his plot to kill the Jews. Haman was an evil man—a prideful, vengeful man. He sought to murder Mordechai the Jew because Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman. He constructed a gallows 75 feet high to accomplish the task as a public spectacle. He also gained the King’s permission “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day…” (Esther 3:13).
This unspeakably monstrous plot was foiled only by the grace of God and the amazing courage of the young Queen Esther. But Purim is more than the celebration of the deliverance of the Jewish people from Haman’s evil plot. The day of deliverance for Jewish people was also the day of judgment for Haman, as he was swiftly executed on the very gallows he had constructed for Mordechai. Now most of us might think that very appropriate, truly just deserts for the wicked Haman. And when we retell the story of Purim each year in the Jewish community we cheer Mordechai and boo Haman. We use gragers, special noisemakers to add gusto to our booing. We even eat special pastries called Hamentaschen (some call them Haman’s ears, others Haman’s hats). All this is done in good fun of course, but it was deadly serious back in Persia during the reign of King Ahasuerus.
Not only was Haman swiftly executed without trial; his ten sons were also executed on the same gallows. More than that, 700 other people in Shushan, the Persian capital, who had been aligned with Haman were put to death in two days. Another 75,000 enemies of the Jewish people throughout the Persian provinces were also killed during that same time period. We may celebrate God’s deliverance of our Jewish people from Haman during the festival of Purim, but I don’t know of any Jewish people who celebrate the execution of his sons or the other 75,000 plus people who also were killed. We would feel it wrong to celebrate this kind of destruction, even of those who were the sworn enemies of God’s people.
I remember the sense of unease I felt when so many—especially so many young people—were out in front of the White House whooping and hollering after the death of Osama Bin Laden. I felt glad that evil man met his demise, but I didn’t feel like having a party about it. Proverbs 24 tells us, ” Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the LORD see it, and it displease Him, and He turn away His wrath from him.” (verses 17, 18).
We should not indulge in a sense of gleeful vengeance and yet, I sometimes wonder if we have lost our understanding of the connection between true justice and righteous judgment. Many people today speak about justice; it is a dominant theme in the church, as well it should be. We all want to put an end to human trafficking and it’s uplifting to hear stories of people rescued from dehumanizing situations. But what about judgment for those responsible for the human trafficking?
To speak definitively of judgment seems, well, too judgmental. It is often construed as being inappropriate and insensitive, and it can be if done in a self-righteous manner. Yet we need to recognize the importance of judgment, for there can be no true justice apart from it. Judgment is the end to which true justice leads us. If we pursue justice but eschew judgment, we undermine both.
Perhaps the problem is that while justice is associated with truth and restoring what is right and proper, judgment is often perceived as vindictive or vengeful. Vengeance is a very human impulse that doesn’t lead to any fruitful outcome. Vengeful people often believe they are meting out justice, but they are more likely satisfying a kind of blood lust that only hurts them and brings no ultimate satisfaction. That is why God instructed us, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
We must pursue justice at all times and leave judgment to God. At the same time we must not be reticent to speak, not only of the justice, but also of the ultimate judgment that belongs to Him. Whenever we read horrible accounts of killing like the one in Esther, we should be circumspect regarding issues of justice and judgment. Not all that happens in this world is necessarily just, even when it is recorded in the Bible. No doubt some innocent people died on Purim. But let’s remember that God doesn’t always settle accounts in this life alone.
A judgment day is coming when all accounts will be rightly settled before the righteous Judge. Every Jewish funeral begins with the prayer, “Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the Universe, the True Judge.” In any death we must always acknowledge the sovereignty of God, whether the one who died lived a long and full life or whether that life was shortened by some tragedy. We can’t understand why certain things happen. God is the only righteous Judge and He has not assured us of true justice until He rules and reigns at the end of time.
If we love God and have put our trust in Jesus, we have no need to fear judgment day. We should long for His judgment as the final establishment of His true justice. We should boldly proclaim the coming judgment day, not as some sort of punitive and vindictive outcome, but rather as the final establishment of our Lord’s justice on the earth.
As father Abraham intoned, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Genesis 18:25b). Moishe Rosen often said we should not preach the reality of hell without tears in our eyes for those who are presently headed there. I would add we should not declare the coming day of judgment without the joy of knowing that in that day God will establish true justice for all humanity. To speak of a judgment day is an act of love because in doing so we offer people hope, not only for ultimate justice, but also for the salvation from punishment that comes through Messiah. “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world” (1John 4:17).