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. (Proverbs 24:17-18, N.K.J.V.)
Don’t rejoice when your enemy falls? Is Solomon kidding? What are we supposed to do, rejoice when our enemy is making life hard for us? Oh, and in case we missed the point the first time, he repeats it by using different wording: “And do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” At first glance, this sure does read like a strange proverb!
The proverb doesn’t even seem to line up with a couple of the most famous stories from the Old Testament. The first one involves God parting the Red Sea. In Exodus chapter 15, after God has parted those waters for the Israelites and then drowned the Egyptian army in those same waters, Moses and Miriam lead the Israelites in singing praises for that victory. Was that great celebration scene not an example of rejoicing at the fall of an enemy? The second example involves David’s slaying of Goliath. In the wake of that event, the women of Israel sang, “Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands (1 Samuel 18:6-7).” Were the hearts of those women not glad that Goliath had stumbled?
Oh, and then there is Psalm 52:1-7, words written by David. As you read that passage, pay particular attention to the last section of it, the part where the righteous laugh about the wicked being uprooted from the land of the living. David says:
Why do you boast in evil, O mighty man? The goodness of God endures continually. Your tongue devises destruction, Like a sharp razor, working deceitfully. You love evil more than good, Lying rather than speaking righteousness. Selah. You love all devouring words, You deceitful tongue. God shall likewise destroy you forever; He shall take you away, and pluck you out of your dwelling place, And uproot you from the land of the living. Selah The righteous also shall see and fear, And shall laugh at him, saying, “Here is the man who did not make God his strength, But trusted in the abundance of his riches, And strengthened himself in his wickedness.” (N.K.J.V.)
Solomon’s proverb doesn’t line up with a certain New Testament passage, either. In Revelation 18:9-19, we read about the prophetic destruction of a city The Revelation calls “Mystery Babylon.” I won’t go into the various theories as to the identification of that city, but I will draw your attention to Revelation 18:20, which says concerning the coming destruction of that wicked city:
“Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you holy apostles and prophets, for God has avenged you on her!” (N.K.J.V.)
And would you believe that Solomon’s strange proverb even seems to directly contradict a couple of other passages from the same book of Proverbs in which it is found? Consider the following passages (both from the N.K.J.V.):
- (Wisdom speaking): Because you disdained all my counsel, And would have none of my rebuke, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your terror comes, When your terror comes like a storm, And your destruction comes like a whirlwind, When distress and anguish come upon you. (Proverbs 1:25-27)
- When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; And when the wicked perish, there is jubilation (Proverbs 11:10)
But now let me defend Solomon and what he wrote about responding to the downfall of an enemy. In Job 31:28-30, Job calls rejoicing at the destruction of one who hated him an “iniquity deserving of judgment” (Job 31:28-30). Similarly, the same David who gave us Psalm 52:1-7 said on another occasion that he fasted and clothed himself with sackcloth when those who witnessed against him were sick (Psalm 35:11-14). He also composed a special song and had the people of Judah sing it when Saul (who was surely David’s enemy) and Jonathan died in battle against the Philistines (2 Samuel 1:17-27). That song was filled with complimentary praise for both men. Lastly, in verses 10-16 of the one-chapter book of Obadiah, Obadiah harshly rebukes the nation of Edom for rejoicing over the downfall of Judah. Each of these examples can rightly be placed alongside Solomon’s strange proverb as being formed from the same mold.
So, as we can see, the Bible makes allowance for each kind of reaction when one’s enemy has fallen. This means that we must think harder than usual in regards to how we should respond during such times. I myself have pondered this topic a fair amount, and after doing so would like to offer a few observations.
First, rather than gloat over the downfall of our enemies, we should feel sadness over the fact that they became enemies at all. You see, if we are right with God, and if others are equally right with Him, enmity won’t be produced. Enmity only arises when one or both parties somehow gets wrong with God. This truth was what prompted David to pen that sweet song of eulogy for Saul and Jonathan. Rather than be happy that Saul was dead, David honestly felt sorrow over a relationship that had soured to an irretrievable point.
Second, Jesus said that we should love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who use us and persecute us (Matthew 5:43-45). He followed that up by saying that anyone can love those who love them, but if we want to truly be like God, we have to love our enemies and do good to them (Matthew 5:46-48). This means that God loves His enemies and expects His people to follow His example. And yet, even as God tells us not to take revenge upon our enemies, He also says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30). In other words, whenever God (rather than us) brings down our enemies, that’s between God and them. Therefore, we shouldn’t feel a false sense of guilt over our enemy’s demise when we had nothing to do with making it happen.
Third, we are right to rejoice anytime God’s cause wins on earth. Since Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is done in heaven (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2), it is always cause for joy when God’s will gets done on earth. However, the reality is that oftentimes God’s will can’t get done on earth until the wicked people who are preventing that will from being done are toppled from their authority.
In closing, let me also throw in a quick word about that last half of our text passage. Did you notice the specific reason that Solomon gives for not rejoicing when your enemy falls? He says, “Don’t do it because you don’t want the Lord to see you rejoicing, become displeased with you, and as a result turn away His wrath from your enemy.” J. Vernon McGee, speaking almost humorously in his remarks about that motivation, says, “If you rejoice when your enemy falls, the Lord may turn around and start prospering that man. Then you will really be miserable.”
I guess that pretty much sums up the teaching, doesn’t it? Perhaps, then, Solomon’s strange proverb isn’t tinged with as much love as it appears to be. Perhaps he is simply saying, “If you want your enemy to experience the fullness of God’s vengeance, keep yourself humble when that vengeance begins so that God won’t have to interrupt it in order to deal with you.” As I said, that certainly puts a different spin on the first half of the proverb. But it’s every bit as much a part of the passage as the part about not rejoicing when the enemy falls.