This morning one local church included some footage of me reminiscing on 9/11. I was a schoolteacher in urban Memphis at the time, and it fell to me to break the news to my young teenage students and help them make sense of the senseless.
I have to confess that our discussion helped me process as well, and having something to focus on (history, or fiction, or whatever we did that afternoon) was a helpful reminder that life was going on, and that life should go on.
My wife was working for her parents, caring for her mother. That evening her father got out Tabletalk Magazine to read the daily devotional with them. They almost couldn’t believe what they saw.
The daily reading was on Judges 9:42-49. It is the story of the over-the-top, groteseque, ruthless act of vengeance perpetrated by Abimelech against a city that first chose him to rule, then spawned rebels against his rule, a rebellion he squelched. Word comes to Abimelech that he is returning to normal; he decides that “he is not satisfied at having defeated the conspirators; he wants to punish all the Shechemites for their rebellion.”
Verse 49 concludes the story, “They piled [branches] against the stronghold and set it on fire above the people inside. So all the people in the tower of Shechem, about a thousand men and women, also died.”
The whole of chapter nine is a wild story, but in short the destruction wreaked by Abimelech fulfills the prophecy of fiery destruction that Jotham called down in earlier verses. Abimelech’s deed was wrong, yet (perhaps) somehow still served a purpose in bringing judgment on the Shechemites and their rebellion and wickedness. The concluding note in the Tabletalk entry was from Matthew Henry’s commentary: God uses the deeds of the wicked for his purposes, even though God intends “one thing and they another.” He cites Isaiah 10:5-7; one could add many other instances in the Bible, up to and including the death of Jesus (Acts 2:23).
I believe this is a helpful word. Was 9/11 judgment on our nation? In the wake of over-the-top pronouncements from Pat Robertson on the right and Jeremiah Wright on the left, it’s common to say, “Absolutely not.” But I’m not so sure we can say that with confidence. God uses circumstances to humble individuals and nations and congregations rather than to enhance their sense of self-reliance and pride. I have to confess that I did not hear that approach taken by many American evangelical; our responses mirrored those of other Americans and tended toward hubris and militarism, rather than humility and repentance.
However, we can affirm that even if 9/11 and the economic and military crises to which it led were an act of God’s judgment, the enemies of our country are not vindicated, for the intentions of Al-Qaeda are not the same as God’s intentions. God uses Babylon and Assyria to discipline and judge his people…then turns around and judges those empires and their leaders. Nota bene, Al Qaeda.
Nota bene, USA.