Hoisted on their own Petard

In the book of Esther, Haman, right-hand man to King Ahasuerus, despised Mordecai and all the Jews, and sought to destroy them. With the permission of the King, Haman funded and organized a day when all the Jews in the Persian Empire would be put to death (Esther 3:7-11).  Were that not enough, Haman also built a gallows 75 feet tall upon which to hang Mordecai personally.

If you know the story,Queen Esther, also a Jew, intervenes, risks an audience with King, revealing Haman’s plot. She helps her people by allowing them to defend themselves, since the King’s edict could not be revoked; a day that is still celebrated as Purim. To top it off, Haman threw himself at Esther begging for mercy, and when King Ahasuerus saw it, he had Haman hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

Talk about ironic justice.

This is what it means to be “hoisted by your own petard,” to be undone by your own creation. That phrase, coined by Shakespeare in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4.  Here, the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are given letters ordering Hamlet’s execution, but he changed the letters, and they carried their own death summons unknowingly. Hamlet then says, 

“For ’tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard; 
and ’t shall go hard but I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon.” 

To be “hoist by your own petard” quite literally means to be “lifted up by your own bomb.” A petard was a small explosive device that was used to blow doors off their hinges in military raids. (Interestingly, the word petard originally was French, meaning “break wind,” or as we’d say, “a fart” – so there’s that image.)

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught “when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matt 6:2). The reward, the goal of the hypocrites and the self-righteous is to be seen and praised by man, and they do all that they do for the glory of man. That’s why Jesus said they have received their reward. When the praise and glory of man is your goal, it will also be your undoing.

How do hypocrites receive their rewards today? We are quick to cut others down to make ourselves look good. We put on a fine show for other to see, masking the inward insecurities and sinful desires. We compare ourselves with others, and assure ourselves that our self-righteousness is sufficient.

But what happens when the standards change? Those things that gain the attention and admiration of the world around you are always changing. The behavior that once brought your the laud and approval of others is one social shift away from bringing you cancelation and derision.  Politicians who were heralded by the press are now pariahs, excoriated though they only do what they’ve always done. If you will say, do, and be whatever the culture demands just to gain fame, be warned, that will be the very thing that brings you infamy.

Later in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:24–25). Haman built the gallows to bring his enemies down, and it led to his own demise. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were killed by the very letters they carried.  Living your best life now will only bring you the worst through eternity.  Jesus calls his disciples to lay down their own lives, taking up the cross, and following Him. It is only when we lose our lives, laying down our selfish, self-centered, and self-seeking, seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness that we actually find life in Christ.

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