This week has seen the announcement of the death of terrorist mastermind and al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden at the hand of American commandos at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. While details about the raid have been changing since the late-Sunday night announcement by President Obama, the consistently reported facts have been that Navy Seals dropped in by helicopter into the compound, putting down all resistance, and killing the terror chief with shots to the head and chest when he refused to surrender. His body was photographed at the scene and then taken to a U.S. army base in Afghanistan before being transported to the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, for burial in the Arabian Sea.
In immediate response, large crowds gathered in Washington, DC, and in New York City, both cities that bore the brunt of the September 11, 2001, attacks by bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorists. Students from nearby universities gathered in front of the White House on Sunday night to celebrate the death of America's number-one enemy. A similar gathering of predominantly young people took place at Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers once stood. There, the crowd recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang "The Star-Spangled Banner." One man climbed a light pole and popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate, while another waved an American flag. Bagpipers played "Amazing Grace" to the emotional bystanders, who immediately responded by chanting, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"
For their part, reporters and pundits have been dancing a fine line in their coverage of this story. While it is obvious that they are pleased that bin Laden is no longer a threat to America and her people here and around the world, many of them seem unsure how to react. Do they appear gleeful and proud of their country and armed forces? Or, not wanting to appear too jingoistic and offensive to Muslims, do they take a matter-of-fact approach, staid and serious? Most have opted for the latter.
Ordinary citizens have also expressed some confusion over the matter, especially those who are more religious. They know that Jesus teaches, "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). How are Christians supposed to react to news of this nature? Should we cheer and pump our fists into the air, saying, "Yeah! Got him!" or should we express sympathy for the "victim"—or somewhere in between? What is the godly approach?
Scripture presents a variety of examples of reactions to the fall of enemies without a great deal of commentary to guide us in our own responses. For instance, in pursuing the Israelites across the Red Sea, thousands of Egyptian soldiers died when the walls of water crashed down upon them. Exodus 14:30 reports, "So the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore," and the following chapter chronicles the jubilation of the Israelites as they sang and danced in victory.
Another example can be found in the story of the reign of King Jehoshaphat of Judah in II Chronicles 20. Reports came to him that a huge army of Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites were marching on Judah. In faith, the king gathered his army and positioned them where the allied column would most likely strike, but in the morning, when they went forward to meet the enemy, they found a corpse-strewn battlefield. The troops of Ammon and Moab had attacked the Edomites among them, and the two sides had destroyed each other! II Chronicles 20:27-28 reports, "Then they returned, every man of Judah and Jerusalem, with Jehoshaphat in front of them, to go back to Jerusalem with joy, for the LORD had made them rejoice over their enemies. So they came to Jerusalem, with stringed instruments and harps and trumpets, to the house of the LORD."
It should be noted that in each of these cases God was responsible for the deaths of their enemies. He was the one who had given them victory, and their praises, celebrations, music, and dancing were directed toward Him. They were not glorying in themselves or even in their nation or their armed forces, but in God and His deliverance of them from their enemies. This is a crucial point in determining how we should react: Praise belongs to God.
A few verses specifically comment on rejoicing over a fallen enemy. Proverbs 24:17 is probably the clearest of them: "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." What he describes is a kind of malignant pleasure over an enemy's misfortune. The proverb suggests that God may be more inclined to punish the callousness of His people than to continue meting out His wrath against their enemies.
Obadiah 1:12 provides similar warning in the example of the Edomites' perfidy when Judah fell to Nebuchadnezzar: "But you should not have gazed on [margin: gloated over] the day of your brother in the day of his captivity; nor should you have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; nor should you have spoken proudly in the day of distress." God sees this sort of gloating as particularly evil. A reading of Amos 1 confirms that God deals severely with those who treat their enemies cruelly.
In his defense of himself, Job cites the fact that he did not participate in any kind of dancing on an enemy's grave: "If I have rejoiced at the destruction of him who hated me, or lifted myself up when evil found him (indeed I have not allowed my mouth to sin by asking for a curse on his soul) . . ." (Job 31:29-30). To him at this point in his life, it was a mark of pride that he had not stooped to this level of evil jubilation. He saw it as a sinful act.
Finally, David's example at the death of his enemy, Saul, found in II Samuel 1, is quite poignant and instructive: He wept and composed "The Song of the Bow" in honor of Saul and his son Jonathan, commanding the song to be taught to the children of Judah. David had a famously tender heart—a characteristic that set him apart (I Samuel 16:7) and mirrored God's own heart (I Samuel 13:14)—and at the death of his enemy, he considered all of Saul's past wrongs as paid for in the justice of death.
Perhaps the sense of justice served is the balance we should aim for. Rather than rejoice that he is dead and curse him to the Lake of Fire, we should thank God that He has allowed justice to be done and beseech Him to deliver His people from further acts of wicked men. In this way, we will overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).