How Far It May Be Lawful to Rejoice in Our Enemy's Overthrow

How Far It May Be Lawful to Rejoice in Our Enemy's Overthrow

by Peter Martyr Vermigli

Wherefore, if it be demanded whether it is lawful for a man to delight in the miserable state of an enemy: first, I answer this in general, that for his ruin into sin, not only should we not rejoice, but we ought earnestly to lament. As touching adversity, some doubt there may be. Solomon saith in the Proverbs, the 24th chapter: "Rejoice not thou at the fall of thine enemy, and let not thy heart be glad when he stumbleth, lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he take away his wrath from him."

How then (wilt thou say) did Moses (when Pharaoh was destroyed and dead) sing that triumphant song: "Sing we unto the Lord," and not only rejoiced in mind but also appointed timbrels and dances? Some men do thus distinguish this question: that so long as the enemy is afflicted, we should not rejoice, because we are uncertain of the will of God. For every man ought to remember that he also is a man, and that the same may happen unto him that happeneth to another; for no human thing is strange from him. But when God, by the slaughter and destruction of his enemy, hath declared his will and purpose, then we ought to rejoice. Thus have they said.

But I say, that when thou dost thus rejoice, we must see whether thou seekest thine own, or not thine own. For there be some which only have consideration for their own: and when the enemy is afflicted, they think that their injuries are revenged by God. But if thou withdraw thy mind from these cogitations unto the glory of God, and considerest that God doth therefore revenge his own cause; that thine enemy may be bettered, that sin may be hindered, that the Gospel be no more disturbed, or the word of God repressed: then are we to rejoice earnestly and from the heart.

And in very deed, we must not in this matter take examples from holy men, but from the law of God. For David wept at the death of Absalom, of Abner, and of Saul: but at the death of Nabal, he rejoiced. Samuel mourned for Saul, but not for Agag. For so do sundry affections follow in godly men, according as they are diversely stirred up by the Spirit of God. In these affections, we must altogether seek, not what is for our own profit, but what furthereth the salvation of our neighbour and the glory of God. Yea, and these two affections are oftentimes joined in one man. For so far forth, as we see our enemy is a man, humanity itself causeth that we bewail his calamity: but if, on the other part, we cast our eyes upon the will of God, godliness requireth that we should rejoice in his judgments.

But There Is None to Be Found of So Evil and Lewd a Nature

But there is none to be found of so evil and lewd a nature, but that a man having due consideration may see some gifts of God in him. For he is either active, or strong, or learned, or noble, or eloquent, or witty. These things, though we be provoked by injuries, we ought not to deface or keep in silence, if any opportunity is offered to speak well of our enemies. Aeschines, a heathen, neither dissembled nor diminished before the Rhodians the eloquence of Demosthenes, his most professed enemy. Rather, he amplified it as much as he could and recited unto them that most venomous oration which Demosthenes had written against him. He added that it was nothing without the action and pronunciation of that orator.

David, both in words and deeds, reverenced Saul, his enemy, for he was the anointed of the Lord. And the apostle therefore commandeth the same because the world judgeth that man should deal far otherwise. For either it delighteth in cursed speakers and enemies of the truth, or it thinketh it an honour to requite injuries. Wherefore Vespasian (when there arose a contention between a certain senator and a knight of Rome) did with this sentence appease the strife: "Doubtless, to revile a senator is not lawful; but to revile again when a man is reviled, that is both lawful and civil, for he who first provoked did deprive himself of the prerogative of his honour." But Paul commandeth us far otherwise: for we must not consider what our adversary deserveth, but what becometh ourselves.

Neither doth the apostle require only that we should speak well of our enemies, but also wish well unto them. For so think I that "εὐλογεῖτε" (Bless ye) is to be taken in the second place, as an antithesis to that which followeth, "καὶ μὴ καταρᾶσθε" (And curse not). Some think it is only a repetition for greater vehemence. But I think it better agreeth that we are first commanded to speak well of our enemies, and then to wish them good, and in no wise to curse them as men commonly do. And if this seem a hard matter to be done, let us remember that we are the children of him who maketh his sun to shine upon the good and upon the evil. And that we are his disciples, who answered his apostles when they required fire from heaven to burn the Samaritans: "Ye know not of whose spirit ye be"; namely his, which came not to destroy, but to save; his, who healed them that railed upon him; his, who restored unto Malchus his ear, who came with the other soldiers of the chief rulers to take Christ; his, who both saluted the traitor Judas as a friend and received him with a kiss; finally, his, who forgave the wicked thief and promised him eternal felicity, who prayed for them that crucified him, and who of his own accord died for his enemies.

It shall nothing profit thee to recompense injuries with injuries and taunts with taunts. Thou oughtest rather to commit the matter unto God, who will be a most just judge and by no perturbation can be led away from justice.

Furthermore, Thou Shouldest Hereby Gather

Furthermore, thou shouldest hereby gather that it is not lawful to speak ill of any man, nor yet to curse any man. For if it is forbidden to do these things against our enemies (which otherwise might seem tolerable in man's judgment), much less may we suffer ourselves to do it unto others. Chrysostom, to the intent he might persuade us to follow these words of Paul, reckoneth up the benefits which the curses and persecutions of adversaries commonly bring to the godly.

First (saith he), they very well help us to obtain the kingdom of heaven. For Christ saith, "Blessed are they which suffer persecution for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." And he addeth, "Blessed are ye when they revile you, and persecute you, speaking all manner of evil, and lying against you for my sake. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven," etc.

Besides this, they are an occasion or matter of most excellent virtues. For as Paul teacheth, "Tribulation worketh patience; patience, experience; and experience, hope." But where is the patience of the saints, where is their experience, where is their hope if thou takest away the wicked enterprises of our enemies against us?

Moreover, the glory of God can by no other means be highly advanced than if we valiantly and courageously behave ourselves in those things which are to be suffered for his name's sake. For it is no hard matter to cleave unto God so long as all things go prosperously and quietly with us, and as we would desire. But when all manner of adversities happen, and yet we constantly abide in his obedience, this doubtless cometh of a manly and stout faith. And therefore I think James said that "patience hath a perfect work." Unless peradventure a man will thus understand it, that perfection is not in any work unless we persevere in the same. For when we leave off, we accomplish not the work, and so without patience it is left imperfect.

Add moreover that by this means chiefly our enemies are terrified, that they proceed not to persecute us. For when they see that we are not moved by their injuries, they think that they lose their labour, and therefore they take not so great pleasure in the reproaches wherewith they have exercised us. But if they shall perceive us to be vexed and to take it in ill part, they will think that their injuries have taken good success and will be afterward more bold in their wicked endeavour.

By this we may see why the Lord said, "Blessed are ye when men revile you, and persecute you, and speak all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake: rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven." This commandment of Christ the apostles executed; for they returned from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be reviled for his name's sake. And Paul, in the first to the Corinthians, saith, "We are evil spoken of, and we bless." In Greek, it is "εὐλογοῦμεν" (we bless).

But This Persuasion Paul Did Not Always Observe

But this persuasion Paul did not always observe. For to the Galatians he saith, "I would to God they were cut off which trouble you!" And David saith, "Let their table be made a snare before them, let their eyes be made dim, that they may not see, and bow down their backs always." All other books of the prophets are everywhere full of curses and imprecations, wherewith they curse the enemies of the people of God.

Here doubtless (in my judgment) it must be said that we ought so to deal as Paul now admonisheth, so long as we have respect unto our own injuries, and that we walk the ordinary way and common course, whereby we are bound by love to wish well unto our neighbours. But if so be God open unto us his secret will, and declare what shall without doubt come to pass concerning our enemies and those which persecute us, then, if we sincerely and truly love him, we ought undoubtedly to stay ourselves upon his will and counsel.

Howbeit, this caution is added: first, to be fully assured whether those things which God hath opened unto us pertain only to a threatening, or else wholly to declare his determinate and assured will. For where we suspect that God only threateneth to bring us to repentance, we ought not to cease praying even for the wicked. So did Moses when he made supplication to God for his nation; so did Abraham for the Sodomites; so did Samuel for Saul, and so did Jeremiah for the people.

But when they be out of doubt that it is the certain and fixed will of God, they do not only pray against the wicked by prophesying, as thinketh Augustine against Faustus, in his 16th book, and 22nd chapter (where he thus writeth: "But curses, when they are uttered by the way of prophecy, proceed not of an ill desire of him that curseth, but of the foreknowing spirit of him that denounceth them"), but also from the heart, God now consenting thereto, and wishing the same with it.

David, when he was otherwise so merciful to Shimei, to Absalom, and to Saul, and to other enemies, yet sometimes so curseth and banneth the wicked, as he driveth a horror into them that read them. Christ also first bewailed the infelicity of the city of Jerusalem, for that she knew not the time of her visitation. And he saith, "How often would I have gathered together thy children, as a hen doth her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not?" Howbeit, even he, knowing the assured and immovable will of God, burst forth into these words: "I give thanks unto thee, O Father of heaven and of earth, for that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to the little ones: even so, Lord, for that it hath so pleased thee in thy sight."

Moreover, men of God, when they come to this point, they have not respect to their own cause, neither do they regard their own injuries. They consider that by the wicked works of the ungodly, the church of God is harmed, the spiritual proceedings thereof are hindered, and the course of the Gospel is obstructed. And they most ardently desire that the name of God might be sanctified, and his kingdom most amply spread abroad. And hereof it cometh that when the godly pray against wicked men, they persecute not their own enemies, but the enemies of God, whom they wish to be most purely worshipped. David saw that he was called by God to the kingdom and understood that the enterprises of the wicked were not so much repugnant to his own dignity as to the will of God. Wherefore, worthily in his prayers, he wisheth rather that they should perish, and that most vilely, than that any jot of the most just will of God should be hindered.

So that both in this place and in such others, we are forbidden not only to curse but also to speak evil when we be overcome with the spites and injuries of the wicked; by whom it is not meet that we should suffer our courage to be quelled, or to be led from the rule of charity. Herein doubtless consisteth the magnanimity of Christians, and their incredible valiantness of courage; not only not to curse them that persecute them, but also to speak well of them and to pray unto God for them.

Howbeit, I cannot wonder enough that Thomas Aquinas should say that by the words of Paul, Christians are not compelled by force of the precept to show particularly unto their enemies the effect of charity, or (as they use to speak) to show signs of benevolence unto them, except it be in case of necessity. For it is enough, if they exclude them not from the general bond of love, wherewith we ought to love our neighbours. Neither (saith he) is it of necessity that we should pray peculiarly for them. But this is sufficient if we exclude them not from the common prayers which we make for all men. And if any man (saith he) besides the case of necessity, do show unto an enemy tokens of special love, or do specially make intercession for him, that man followeth counsel but obeyeth not the commandment.

Yet Christ and Paul, when they spake of these things, taught not this distinction. This doctrine doubtless cuts in sunder the sinews of Christian religion, it presseth down the vehemence of God's spirit, and taketh away the force and sharpness of the law of God. Let these men go now and cry out that we be they which dissolve the endeavour of good works and open a window to licentious life; whereas they cannot deny but that themselves are those which at their own pleasure change the certain and severe commandments of God into counsels.

Doubtless, Christ and Paul commanded those things and did not give them only as counsels. But this is exceedingly to be lamented that these commandments in this iron age of ours are made like the laws of Athens. For they, although they were wisely invented and published abroad, yet notwithstanding lay neglected, and were everywhere by all men violated. And we must think that this came of no other cause but that the whole juice and blood of Christian religion is in a manner dried up.