In a time of scandal and disgrace, it is important to remember that rejoicing about the misfortune of others is always a sin. No level of evil in a wrongdoer is justification for taking satisfaction in their fall. Taking pleasure in the punishment of others is evidence of malice, whether arising from unforgiveness or envy. We normally don’t know that the suffering of others is God’s judgment on them, and this includes scandal and public disgrace, because scandal is often selective and partial. It doesn’t target everyone, but only some. It is also only possible to generate a public disgrace out of some sins. The scandals of the past don’t make sense to us, because our scandals focus on different sins. The wrongdoing that become the subject of scandals is sometimes severe, sometimes small, and sometimes non-existent. But all sins will be judged by God. Public disgrace is not a blind justice, an impartial justice, and that is why the idea that it automatically entails the justice of God is suspect. It is a justice determined by chance and by the whims of the people involved, and by the cultural moment or Zeitgeist, not only by wrongdoing. It is driven by the mob. Consider the following. If you are quick to buy into the draw and the power of public disgrace, the potency of scandal, what would have been your response when human accusation started to hone in on the Lamb of God? Jesus was condemned by a mob which placed pressure on a political authority. Not only would you and I have been tempted to join into it, we would have been afraid to challenge it, because all that condemnation might rub off on us, like it’s a contagious disease or something.
What about the apostles? They were also constantly subject to human accusation by the authorities of their day. “But what about accountability?”, you might say. Biblical accountability, the accountability to be practiced by the church, is about redemption. If you look at 1 Corinthians 5, the purpose of accountability is to save the soul of the wrongdoer. “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5). Public disgrace and scandal seems to be more about condemnation (or, at least, it easily becomes an orgy of condemnation rather than redemptive accountability). It depends on the attitudes of the people driving it. There is a temptation to believe that scandal is determined by the justice of God, because we tend to feel vindicated in the punishment of others, especially if they are an enemy or someone we dislike, for whatever reason. That temptation should be resisted. A scandal is determined by the decisions of sinful people. It can be a legitimate decision to make the immorality of others public on internet media (rather than in the context of a local church), but it doesn’t make sense to think that such decisions must always be inspired by God, particularly a God of grace and mercy in addition to judgment.
Nevertheless, regardless of the misfortune that befalls a person, whether it is from scandal or not, we don’t know that it is the justice of God that befell them. But now this is crucial. Even if we did know, even knew with 100% certainty, that a particular misfortune is God’s punishment, know that God is watching our response. No person should think that just because someone is being punished by God that they have license from God to treat those people with contempt and to cast reproach on them. It is our duty to respond with compassion and a helping hand toward those who have been struck by the Almighty (while also keeping ourselves and our fellowships unpolluted by their sin, if repentance is absent). How do I know this?
The fall of Jerusalem to Babylon was specifically predicted by the prophets as God’s judgment. So there’s no doubt about the fact that it was divine punishment:
And the Lord said by his servants the prophets, “Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies, because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day.”
2 Kings 21:10-15
So the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile was God’s punishment. However, in Obadiah chapter 1, God pronounces judgment on Edom for gloating about Jerusalem’s destruction and for taking part in the plunder of it, especially because they are considered kin of Israel (“your brother Jacob”), being descendants of Esau.
Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob,
shame shall cover you,
and you shall be cut off forever.
On the day that you stood aloof,
on the day that strangers carried off his wealth
and foreigners entered his gates
and cast lots for Jerusalem,
you were like one of them.
But do not gloat over the day of your brother
in the day of his misfortune;
do not rejoice over the people of Judah
in the day of their ruin;
do not boast
in the day of distress.
Do not enter the gate of my people
in the day of their calamity;
do not gloat over his disaster
in the day of his calamity;
do not loot his wealth
in the day of his calamity.
Do not stand at the crossroads
to cut off his fugitives;
do not hand over his survivors
in the day of distress.
A similar idea is contained in Ezekiel chapter 36:
Thus says the Lord God: Precisely because they made you desolate and crushed you from all sides, so that you became the possession of the rest of the nations, and you became the talk and evil gossip of the people, therefore, O mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord God: Thus says the Lord God to the mountains and the hills, the ravines and the valleys, the desolate wastes and the deserted cities, which have become a prey and derision to the rest of the nations all around, therefore thus says the Lord God: Surely I have spoken in my hot jealousy against the rest of the nations and against all Edom, who gave my land to themselves as a possession with wholehearted joy and utter contempt, that they might make its pasturelands a prey. Therefore prophesy concerning the land of Israel, and say to the mountains and hills, to the ravines and valleys, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I have spoken in my jealous wrath, because you have suffered the reproach of the nations. Therefore thus says the Lord God: I swear that the nations that are all around you shall themselves suffer reproach.
Also, the sin that Israel was being punished for at the fall of Jerusalem was very severe sin, which included child sacrifice (see Jeremiah 19). These are not minor sins, but God was still angry with the nations around them for treating them with contempt in the midst of his own punishment of them. Proverbs concurs:
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls,
and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles,
lest the Lord see it and be displeased,
and turn away his anger from him.
…he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.
It is not surprising that the Psalms would have something to say about this too:
But at my stumbling they rejoiced and gathered;
they gathered together against me;
wretches whom I did not know
tore at me without ceasing;
like profane mockers at a feast,
they gnash at me with their teeth.
Psalm 69 contains explicitly the principle defended above, that it’s wrong to treat the objects of God’s wrath with contempt.
For they persecute him whom you have struck down,
and they recount the pain of those you have wounded.
Add to them punishment upon punishment;
may they have no acquittal from you.
Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
Most importantly, the person who takes satisfaction in God’s wrath upon people has the complete opposite attitude from the Son of God, who wishes to intercede for them and to take their punishment upon himself. In the same way, Paul wished to take the punishment of unbelieving Jews upon himself (Romans 9:3) and weeps about those who are subject to God’s wrath (Philippians 3:18-19).