The human heart is a slippery thing. Our rejoicing over the deliverance of God and the display of God’s character and justice can so quickly morph into something unbecoming a saint of God. We can start rejoicing at their fall instead of rejoicing in God’s deliverance and His character being displayed. And we can think we are justified in doing this. We’ll put ourselves on God’s team rejoicing over the fall of the wicked. But meanwhile our heart is putting itself in a position for a much more painful stumble. We’ll forget that apart from the grace of God we’d be plunging ourselves headlong into ruin. Apart from God’s grace we’ll be the next ones to fall.
Pharaoh was a bad dude. He took away Israelite freedoms and put them in bitter slavery for years. He remained obstinate to the Lord and enacted policies which were self-serving and soul-crushing to the weak and poor. Pharaoh was filled with lies. Pressed into a corner by the judgments of God, Pharaoh did what he thought was politically expedient—he let the Jews go. But then he had second thoughts—he went back on his word and pursued the Israelites.
Pharaoh and all his precious chariots drowned in the sea. It should have been a certain victory. They had the Israelites pinned down. They probably even uncorked the champagne bottles for their sure and certain victory. Then the sea parted. The Israelites were rescued and the Egyptians destroyed. The enemy had fallen.
So what did Moses do when his enemy fell?
He busted out into worship (Exodus 15). He rejoiced at the activity of God in rescuing them from the wicked Pharaoh.
What are the saints in Revelation 18 called upon to do when Babylon, their great enemy, falls?
They are called to ‘rejoice over her’. The enemy has fallen “for God has given judgment for you against her”.
We could use other examples, like Psalm 35 and a litany of other imprecatory Psalms, to show that at times the people of God do indeed rejoice over the fall of the enemy. So, why in the world does Proverbs 17:5 and 24:17 say, “he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished” and “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles”? Do the Scriptures contradict themselves?
There is no contradiction here. There is a subtle—but important—difference between the Moses-type rejoicing and the rejoicing forbidden by the Proverbs. In every instance where we have examples of rejoicing over the downfall of an enemy what you see is actually more of a rejoicing in God’s deliverance than exulting in the fall of the enemy. The Song of Moses is filled with joy because they’ve been delivered from the hand of the enemy, it isn’t filled with joy simply because the wicked Pharaoh got what was coming to him.
I think Charles Bridges hits the right note when he says:
Very different is the spirit of the Bible: teaching us, even where calamity is the fruit of misconduct, instead of being glad—to sympathize; instead of crushing, to raise, a fallen brother, or even a fallen enemy. (Bridges, 258)
The human heart is a slippery thing.