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.

3 Warnings and a Funeral

“Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain
and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error
and perished in Korah’s rebellion.”
Jude 11

There are certain stories in the Scriptures that you would like to have represent your life. My name being a Biblical name, I have always hoped to be characterized like the Ethans of the OT, one was a singer in David’s assembly as they brought the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem (1 Chron 15:19), another was one of the wise men in Solomon’s court (1 Kings 4:31), one Ethan composed Psalm 89. Go Ethan!

Of course who wouldn’t want to be counted as one of the of the faithful servants in the Parable of the Talents, hearing from our Lord, “Well done good and faithful servant…” (Matthew 25:21). Apart from the grace of God, however, we’d all end up like the other servant who hid the master’s talent, “You wicked and slothful servant…” (Matthew 25:26).

Isn’t interesting, then, so see which Biblical narratives Jude uses to describe the false teachers who have crept into the church, twisting the grace of God into sensuality and rejecting our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. Already Jude has compared them to the unfaithful Hebrews who died in the wilderness, the angels who fell from glory, and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in their immorality and unnatural desires.

In our reading from Jude today, the Biblical analogies continue. Each warning is taken from key stories from Israel’s history, each ending in death (thus the title).

  • They have walked in the way of Cain.  It was Cain who killed his brother Abel in jealousy over the fact that God honored Abels overing over his own. Keep in mind, it was Abel who brought the firstborn of is flock, while Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground. Many speculate that the difference in the offering was that Abel brought the firstborn while Cain brought something lesser, but that misses the point. The bigger issue here is the heart of the worshipper. As Romans 14:23 teaches, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” As Abel’s offering was accepted, we must understand that he gave his offering in faith in the Lord. Cain offering was rejected, so we may surmise that he did not bring it in faith, but merely out of duty or religious custom. His heart, as we see in Gen 4, was filled with hatred for his brother, and he walked in darkness (1 John 2:11).
    This is the hypocrisy of the false teachers. They came to the Lord through religious customs, but they had not part or lot in the Lord.  Warren Wiersbe wrote, “The ‘way of Cain’ is the way of religion without faith, righteousness based on character and good works. The ‘way of Cain’ is the way of pride, a man establishing his own righteousness and rejecting the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Christ.” They said they worshiped the Lord, but they did not come in faith, but their teachings would lead to the destruction (murder) of many. In this way they were walking in the way of Cain.
  • They abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error. Balaam’s story is a cautionary tale. He was hired by Balak to proclaim curses on Israel as they were in the wilderness. Now anyone claiming to be a prophet could do this, and get paid well for it. But something unexpected happened.  God actually spoke to Balaam. God warned him not to say anything that God didn’t tell him to say. So 4 times Balaam set out to curse Israel and get his reward, but God prevented him, turning the curse into a blessing.
    But that didn’t stop Balaam. If he couldn’t curse Israel directly, he could work indirectly to bring a curse upon them. He set up altars to Baal, and brought the women of Moab to Israel. In Numbers 25, we read that “the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal at Peor.” This incident at Peor is said to have been the device of Balaam (Num 31:16), he was paid well for it, and many thousands of Israelites died from the plague from the Lord.
    This is the corruption of the false teachers. While some are brazen enough to proclaim heresy in the name of Christ and profit from it, others are more subtle. They will nuance the message of the Gospel in the name of inclusivity, re-interpreting Scripture according to cultural demands, and soften the radiance of the glory of God to make Him more approachable. They do this for their own profit (financial, social, etc), all at the expense of the lives of those who follow their teaching.
  • They perished in Korah’s rebellion. Korah was a Levite who raised a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. This was their claim, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourself above the assembly of the Lord” (Num 16:3).
    This didn’t happen overnight. You can imagine this had been brewing for a while, with quiet whispers, secret meetings, and outright plotting to oust Moses and Aaron. In rejecting Moses and Aaron as God’s appointed leaders, Korah was rejecting God’s authority, and was rejecting God himself. All involved were swallowed up when the ground opened beneath them – the teachers, and those that followed them.
    This is the attitude of the false teachers. They come as their own authority, ignoring the authority of the elders, flaunting the authority of called pastors, and ultimately, despising the authority of God and His Word over their lives. They reject our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ (Jude 4).

As we consider our own lives in the light of God’s Word, let us ask ourselves, could these stories be applied to our own lives? Jude’s letter helps us to identify the false teachers who would lead us astray, but it also serves as a mirror to help us to see how we have already been compromised, so that we may repent and turn to the Lord Jesus and contend for the faith.

We walk in the way of Cain anytime we come to God through the self-righteous works empty religion. We fall into Balaam’s error anytime we say I know what God says, but I choose to do this instead. We perish with Korah when we grumble and gossip against those whom God has given in our lives as spiritual authorities.

So let us “walk in the light, as He is in the light, having fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).