God's Plot Devices

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As we study the narratives of Scripture, one of the things we have to learn to watch for are the narratival patterns. And one of those patterns is captured by our expression “hoist on his own petard.” Most take this to be some form of hanging, but a petard was actually a medieval hand grenade with a slow fuse. But sometimes someone was thrown into the air by the explosion of his own grenade. But in any case, the point is the same—someone slain by his own device.

The Text:

Then Darius the king made a decree, and search was made in the house of the rolls, where the treasures were laid up in Babylon . . . (Ezra 6:1-22).


So in accordance with the request from Tatnai and others, Darius decreed that a search of the archives be made (v. 1). A record was found at Achmetha, a palace in the province of the Medes (v. 2). They found the decree of Cyrus (v. 3), and they also found out that the Temple expenses were to be paid out of the king’s house (v. 4). They also found that the Temple vessels had indeed been returned (v. 5). So as a result of this finding, Tatnai and the others were instructed to back away from interfering with the work (v. 6). Let the Jews build (v. 7). On top of that, Darius decreed that Tatnai take the expenses due to the Jews from the king out of his provincial budget (v. 8). Animals were to be given to the priests so that they could offer up prayers for the emperor and his sons (vv. 9-10). If anybody messes with the decree, then let him be hanged on a timber from his own house, and his house be turned into a dunghill (v. 11). And further, may the God whose name dwells there, may He destroy anybody, king or commoner, who tries to hinder the work there (v. 12). So then Tatnai and the others expedited themselves pronto (v. 13). The building went on, and the Jews finished the task in conformity with the law (v. 14). The Temple was finished in the sixth year of Darius (v. 15), and the dedication was observed with great joy (v. 16). They offered up dedication offerings, and a sin offering of twelve he goats (v. 17). They set up the priests in their divisions, and the Levites in their courses (v. 18). Having done this, they observed Passover (vv. 19-20). And the Jews who had separated themselves from pagan uncleanness ate of the Passover (v. 21). And they celebrated with great joy (v. 22) because God had turned the heart of the king toward them.

Who Brings Troubles? Who Sends Them?

When we are too caught up in our own troubles, we don’t remember that God is, after all, God. He is sovereign over all things, and all things do work together for good for those who love God and are the called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). When Tatnai came bustling up to the Jews building the Temple, he was full of his own purposes. If the Jews had gotten distracted by him, they would have had their vision become as limited as his was. But they did not. They remembered God, committed the whole affair to Him, and kept right on doing what they were doing. We sometimes join up with our adversaries in the way we oppose them—we become just like them if we forget that God is fully involved in the whole thing, start to finish.

Understanding the Role of Characters in a Plot:

Another way of understanding this is to keep two things in mind at all times. One is the “other characters” in the story you are in. The other is to remember the author of the story you are in. Distinguish the levels. When a character does thus and such to you in chapter three, he has particular things in mind, and you don’t have to like them. But when he does this to you, you have to remember that the author has a particular thing in mind as well, and it is almost certainly not the same thing that the character had in mind.

Self Awareness and Story:

There is another blessing that comes from being acquainted with story. If you understand the story you are in, you will have some measure of control over the story you tell yourself. Someone who is self-deceived is someone who is constantly narrating another story at odds with the one the author is telling. Imagine a self-absorbed character telling his own narcistic story; this has a completely different effect than he believes it is having because the author is also narrating his story about this character, right over top of the whole thing. Use this as a means of diagnosing sin in your own heart. Take whatever you are doing—whining, complaining, backbiting, whatever—and write that into a story. While you are doing that, are you a sympathetic character at all? And, more fundamentally, do you even have the capacity to see yourself as a potential antagonist (not protagonist) in the story?

Hoist With Their Own Petard:

This particular plot structure occurs in Scripture so much we really ought to pay some attention to it. The fundamental principle is of course the fact that God is not mocked—a man reaps what a man sows (Gal. 6:7). What goes around comes around. Hamann was humiliated in the book of Esther twice on account of this principle. He was asked how to honor a man that the king wanted to honor, and thinking the reference was to himself, he heaped up a double portion in his advice. And so the king told him to go and do that for Mordcai (Esther 6:6). And because of his plot to kill Mordecai, he had a gallows built (on advice from his wife), but when Esther intervened for the sake of her people, Hamaan was hanged on his own gallows (Esther 5:14).

Of course, the ultimate example of this was the work of Satan in stirring up Judas, and arranging for the murder of Jesus. And through that murder, Satan was the instrument for the salvation of the world, not to mention his own destruction and downfall. He did not know the effect of what he was doing. There was no meeting at which Herod, Pontus Pilate, Caiphas, and Satan got together and said, “Well, the redemption of a lost and fallen humanity is our only agenda item. How are we going to go about it?” No, they only did what God’s purpose and will had determined beforehand to be done (Acts 4: 27-28). But they were not at all aware of their role in the unfolding of the story. Had they been aware of that role, they would have rebelled against it. “Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8).

“He made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made.  His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate” (Ps. 7:15-16). “The heathen are sunk down in the pit that they made: in the net which they hid is their own foot taken” (Ps. 9:15). “For without cause have they hid for me their net in a pit, which without cause they have digged for my soul. Let destruction come upon him at unawares; and let his net that he hath hid catch himself: into that very destruction let him fall (Ps. 35: 7-8). “They have prepared a net for my steps; my soul is bowed down: they have digged a pit before me, into the midst whereof they are fallen themselves” (Ps. 57:6). “Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him” (Prov. 26:27). “Whoso causeth the righteous to go astray in an evil way, he shall fall himself into his own pit: but the upright shall have good things in possession” (Prov. 28:10). “He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him” (Ecc. 10:8). “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hos. 8:7). God really likes this plot device. And He still uses it. All the time.

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