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Poetic Justice in the Psalms – Hoisted by their own Petard

 July 8, 2021

A common device in crime shows and dramas is to allow your opponent to fall by their own devices. It’s a form of poetic justice. Or to use a phrase from Shakespeare, they are hoisted by their own petard. But did you know that this concept was around thousands of years ago in the shape of poetic justice in the Psalms?

Hoisted by their own Petard

Do you want to impress someone with your clever repartee and knowledge of Shakespeare? Say that the criminal, caught in his own trap, was “hoisted by their own petard.”

Coming from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 3, scene 4), Hamlet discovers that his uncle is plotting to have him killed. Hamlet is sent to England along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who have a letter from his uncle to the King of England requesting that Hamlet be killed. Hamlet revised the letter so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed, thereby, hoisting them by their own petard. The means by which they would have him be killed becomes the means of their own death.

To hoist by your own petard literally means that a bomb maker is blown up by his own bomb. It has medieval roots. When waging battle, the commander would send an engineer with a cast-iron container full of gunpowder, called a petard, to blow up the castle gate, obstacle, or bridge. The fuses on these bombs were unreliable, and sometimes the engineers would be killed when the petards exploded prematurely. The explosion would blow (or hoist) the engineer into the air.

It’s a form of poetic justice. The trap by which you planned to catch your enemy becomes your own undoing.

Poetic Justice in the Psalms

The root of this phrase is found in the Psalms. We hear repeatedly prayers to God to let their enemies fall by the own devices.

  • Punish them, O God; let them fall by their own devices.” 5:11
  • He has opened a hole, he has dug it deep, but he falls into the pit which he has made.” 7:16
  • The nations are sunk in the pit they have made; in the snare they set, their foot is caught.” 9:16-17
  • Let ruin come upon them unawares, and let the snare they have set catch them; into the pit they have dug let them fall.” 35:8
  • They have prepared a net for my feet; and have bowed me down; They have dug a pit before me, but they fall into it.” 57:7
  • Those who surround me lift up their heads; may the mischief which they threaten overwhelm them.” 140:10
  • Let all the wicked fall, each into his own net, while I escape.” 141:10

Poetic Justice in Wisdom Books

This concept is also found in other wisdom books in the Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Sirach.

  • He who digs a pit falls into it; and a stone comes back upon him who rolls it.” Proverbs 26:27
  • He who digs a pit may fall into it, and he who breaks through a wall may be bitten by a serpent.” Ecclesiastes 10:8
  • As he who digs a pit falls into it, and he who lays a snare is caught in it.” Sirach 27:26

Just give them enough rope, and they hang themselves. The person spreading lies is caught in their web of lies and brought to justice. The con artist who cheats trusting victims, is conned out of all of his ill-gotten gain. The outlaw who lives by the gun, dies by the gun.

When others try to harm us, it’s natural to protect ourselves and seek revenge. Hamlet takes steps to bring about this reversal, though he missed the real target, his uncle.  In the Wisdom books (which includes the Psalms), the wiser path may be to allow the natural consequences of such actions run their course rather than seeking vengeance, putting their trust in God to bring justice.

Jesus’ Justice

Jesus comes along and does what he does so well—he turns the tables and puts a new twist on this concept. He reminds us that, “the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” (Mark 4:24) As we give, so shall we be given. If we give kindness, we will receive kindness in turn. If we are mean spirited and selfish in our dealings with others, that is what we will receive. An early version of karma or what goes around comes around.

Rather than praying that our enemies have done to them what they do to others, he says, “do unto other as you would have them do unto you.” Rather than asking God to return the evil others do, he tells us to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Radical! He takes the focus off the evil others do and turns it back on us. A new form of justice—Biblical justice rooted in love of God and love of others.

Poetic justice in the Psalms is a precursor of the justice Jesus brings.

What has been your experience of poetic justice? Are you able to refrain from seeking revenge and trust that justice will prevail?


This post is part of a series of blog posts on the Psalms. Sign up to follow this blog and and receive a free copy of  Still Dancingthe second book in my Dancing through Life Series.      click here to sign up

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