Irony in Scripture

by James Johnson

One definition of the word 'IRONY' is: "Incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result." Irony is used not just in literature and drama but in ordinary life. Human history is full of examples. Here are just a few.

These words will be familiar to you:

"Oh say! can you see the the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming;
Whose broad stripes and bright star, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the BOMBS bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there:
Oh say! does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"

This is the first verse of a poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. In 1931 it was adopted as the US national anthem. But whose bombs is he describing? You know that it is the British trying to destroy Fort McHenry, three miles south of Baltimore in September 1814. The British had already destroyed the White House and many public buildings in Washington, D.C.

So where is the irony? The music was written by an Englishman, John Stafford Smith, as the official song of an 18th Century gentlemen's club in London. So the music for the national anthem was written by a citizen of the nation that was trying to destroy it.

Nearly two hundred years later, the world situation was completely different. At Buckingham Palace, the monarch's official residence in London since 1837, there is a ceremony of the Changing of the Guard. Except when there is a visit of a foreign Head of State, the military band always plays the British national anthem. Not once in nearly two hundred years has it been any different. Until that is the 13th September 2001. The Queen had given special permission to have the Star Spangled Banner played instead, as a token of solidarity with those who have been killed in 9/11.

On the 14th September, there was a memorial service held in St Paul's Cathedral for the victims of that tragedy. The Queen attended. Understandably, the Queen does not sing, "God Save the Queen", the first verse of the British national anthem. But she sang the Star Spangled Banner by heart without a hymn sheet. The anthem had never once been sung in the 350 year history of the Cathedral.

Again it is ironic because the second verse of the British national anthem is:

"O Lord God arise, Scatter our enemies, And make them fall!
Confound their knavish tricks, Confuse their politics, On you our hopes we fix,
God save the Queen!"

So in 1814 the British wanted their enemies to be scattered and fall and in 2001 they were united in mourning with that self same 'enemy'.

Often irony comes in the form of sarcasm, and is frequently used in this way in Scripture. First, two well known examples in the Hebrew Scriptures.

1 Kings 18:27: "It came to pass at noon that Elijah trifled with them [the prophets of Baal] and said, 'Call with a loud voice (for he is an elohim) in case he is in meditation, or in case he had to turn away, or in case he has been on the road; perhaps he is sleeping and shall awake."
Job 12:2: "Truly you are the people, And with you wisdom shall die!"

The Apostle Paul, also uses sarcasm in 1 Corinthians 4:7-14:

"For who is making you to discriminate ? Now what have you which you did not obtain? Now if you obtained it also, why are you boasting as though not obtaining? Already are you sated, already are you rich, apart from us you reign. And would that you surely reign, that we also should be reigning together with you! For I suppose that God demonstrates with us, the last apostles, as death-doomed, for we became a theatre to the world and to messengers and to men. We are stupid because of Christ, yet you are prudent in Christ. We are weak, yet you are strong. You are glorious, yet we are dishonoured. Until the present hour we are hungering also and thirsting, and are naked and are buffeted and unsettled and toiling, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we are blessing; being persecuted, we are bearing with it; being calumniated, we are entreating. As the off-scourings of the world we became, the scum of all things, hitherto."

But irony does not always involve sarcasm. Here is another definition of the word 'irony'. "Incongruity between a situation developed in literature or dramatic performances and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play."

I want to use this definition in our study of the Greek Scriptures, concerning Christ's ministry.

Christ said something that King George III would never have said, and it is recorded in John 18:36 reads: "Jesus answered, 'My kingdom is not of this world.'" Christ continues: 'My deputies, also, would have contended, lest I should be given up to the Jews. Yet now is My kingdom not hence.'" This prompted Pilate to say in verse 37, "Is it not then so? A King are you!" Jesus answered, "You are saying that I am a king. For this also have I been born, and for this I come into the world, that I should be testifying to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth is hearing My voice."

A false Messiah or rabble rouser coming before the might and cruelty of Roman justice, would have been afraid. Yet Christ calmly tells Pilate that there is a higher authority. It is Pilate who is afraid. Afraid, partly because of his conscience, but primarily because of the political fallout from not dealing with this trouble in the Roman province. Pilate, arrogant and outwardly strong because of the backup of thousands of soldiers, is weak and fearful before the solitary, self composed lowly Man. Christ was meekly bowing to the will of God; they were ignorantly fulfilling the behest of their father Satan.

But the charade has to continue. More irony in how they deal with Christ. Mark 15:17-19.: "And they are dressing Him in purple, and, braiding a thorny wreath, they are placing it about Him. And they begin to salute Him and say, 'Rejoice! king of the Jews!' And they beat His head with a reed and spat on Him and, kneeling, they worshipped Him. And when they scoff at Him, they strip Him of the purple and put on Him His own garments, and they are leading Him out that they should be crucifying Him."

Luke 23:11 describes what also happened: "Now, scorning Him and scoffing at Him, Herod, together with his troops, clothing Him in splendid attire, sends Him back to Pilate."

Yes, the Roman soldiers mock and ridicule Jesus, crowning Him with thorns and robing Him in purple, placing a reed as a sceptre in His hands. But while they think they are ridiculing Jesus, they are in fact recognizing Jesus for Who He really is. The Roman centurion at Golgotha recognized Jesus for Who He is, while Christ's own people fail to do so.

Another trace of irony is that Herod was not a king. He was the tetrach despite his appeals to Caesar to raise his status to that of King. The original readers of this evangel would have been aware of this irony.

They didn't intend it, but the Jewish leadership made what they meant to be derogatory statements and yet they contain insights about God's plan of salvation. The Pharisees and scribes grumbled, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." That is in Luke 15:2. But that is good news. We have hope because of what Christ has done for us sinners. The legalists could not see that they also were sinners. So it is ironic what Christ said to these people, as recorded in Mark 2:17, "And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, 'No need have the strong of a physician, but those having an illness. I did not come to call the just, but sinners.'" Irony again.At a council of the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas, the high priest, exclaims, "You are not aware of anything, neither are you reckoning that it is expedient for us that one man should be dying for the sake of the people and not the whole nation should perish. Now this he said, not from himself, but, being the chief priest of that year, he prophesies that Jesus was about to be dying for the sake of the nation, and not for the nation only, but that He may be gathering the scattered children of God also into one." (John 11:50-52)

Surely the most ironic words in Scripture must be that spoken by one of Christ's disciples on the road to Emmaus, as recorded in Luke 24:18. "Now, answering, the one named Cleopas, said to Him, 'You are sojourning alone in Jerusalem and did not know what things are occurring in her in these days?'"

They are speaking to Christ Himself and they ask HIM if He doesn't know what has been going on in Jerusalem!! Cleopas thinks he needs to explain. In the resurrection I wonder if he will have a red face, when he recalls his words recorded in verses 19-24. "Now they say to Him, 'Those concerning Jesus the Nazarean, a Man Who came to be a Prophet, powerful in work and in word, in front of God and the entire people, so that both our chief priests and chiefs give Him up to the judgment of death, and they crucify Him. Yet we expected that He is the One about to be redeeming Israel. But surely, together with all these things also, it is leading in this third day since these things occurred. But some also of our women amaze us. Coming to be at the tomb early and not finding His body, they came saying that they have seen an apparition of messengers also, who say that He is living. And some of those with us came away to the tomb, and they found it thus, according as the women also said, yet Him they did not perceive.'"

While the world may think, like these disciples did, that Jesus had been abandoned and shamed, the resurrection proves the opposite. God did not abandon Jesus, He exalts Him. The first chapter of the Book of Hebrews, graphically describes the position the living Christ now holds.

Christ's enemies acknowledged that He had helped and healed others, but they claimed that He could not save Himself. Christ's words in Luke 19:10 are, "For the Son of Mankind came to seek and to save the lost." So could Jesus have saved Himself? Undoubtedly YES. Christ could have saved Himself. He said so Himself. Matthew 26:53 reads, "Or are you supposing that I am not able to entreat My Father, and at present He will station by my side more than twelve legions of messengers?" The very next verse in Matthew 26:54 tells us why He did not do so. "How, then, may the Scriptures be fulfilled, seeing that thus it may occur?" He had the power to lay down His life and He had the authority to take it up again, as it clearly explains in John 10:18. The priests and scribes were wrong. Jesus did have the power to save Himself.

But there is another side to this question. And the answer is NO! Either He saved humanity or He saved Himself. He could not save both. Either Jesus died for us so that we might be free, or He saved Himself, with the consequence that we would have to face eternal death. Christ loves humanity too much for that. He could not save Himself. We can see therefore that His enemies were right. They made a statement about Jesus's nature and character which they themselves did not understand and comprehend. Their remark was correct and IRONIC. Our salvation is ironic. "He saved others; He cannot save Himself."

Every Jewish family prepares for the Passover by getting rid of all leaven from their houses. In the temple the priests were covetous, had apostatised, and sacrifices were a sham. In God's house in Jerusalem, there was spiritual leaven in the most sacred place in the whole of Israel! So it was necessary for Christ to cleanse the temple. He drove out the animals with a whip and overturned the money changers' benches.

Yet the irony is that the Jews who had asked for a sign, utterly failed to see the significance of Christ's cleansing of the temple of spiritual leaven. The temple was defiled but He was holy. God had deserted it, but now He dwelt in His Son. They would have been outraged if they were accused of an awful crime against God. Yet their misguided zeal let them destroy the true holy temple - Christ's body.

In John 3:1-24 we are introduced to a zealous priest, Nicodemus. Despite a lifetime of studying the Hebrew Scriptures, he had not learnt the truth. He could not understand Christ's words, "If anyone should not be begotten anew, he can not perceive the kingdom of God." Nicodemus retorted, "He can not be entering into the womb of his mother a second time and be begotten!" He made a common mistake - treating the figurative as literal.

The truth for today is that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. A new birth will fit people like Nicodemus for a life on earth during the Millennium. The new creation will fit us for our celestial life.

The Jews were privileged to be entrusted with the oracles of God. How could they fail to see in our Lord the long promised Messiah? Yet He had to tell them to, "Search the Scriptures." The reason? Because their Scriptures testify that Jesus is the Messiah. But all that they were interested in was trying to disprove what He was telling them. Why should they do this? Verse 44 of John 5 tells us, "How can you believe, getting glory from one another, and are not seeking the glory which is from God alone?"

Christ told them he was not getting that glory from men. It is often the case that the true disciple of Christ is not accepted by people. In fact, one can say that popularity is often a sign of apostasy.

It is ironic that the message of eonian life is not accepted or wanted and is even attacked, when the whole of mankind wants to live for all eternity. Billions of pounds are spent on lotions to hold back signs of ageing, on gadgets and pills to make us feel younger and healthier, the easy way. Nevertheless, what we cannot avoid is the inevitability of death. "Perhaps it will go away if we don't think about it!" Yet most people ignore the only message that is hidden in plain sight - the Sacred Scriptures. Even more ironic is that God has made it so!

Only when Paul received a revelation from God, and passed it on to fellow believers, could we know today what God is preparing for the Body of Christ. We shall receive everlasting life because of what Christ did for us, not for our good works or performing rituals which man has established in the hope that they will find favour with God.

Paul's words are readily available but unless God has called an individual they will sound like foolishness to him or her. Eventually the whole of humanity, yes - every human being who has ever lived, will receive eternal life. This is God's purpose and does not depend on what mankind does or believes now.

There are many Scriptures about the millennium when King Jesus rules from Jerusalem. A similar utopian world is what many American colonists wanted 250 years ago. But they didn't want a king. They had rebelled against the rulership of King George III of England, believing that they had lost many essential freedoms. They declared on the 4th July 1776, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It continues, "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security." They claimed that King George was a despot and tyrant.

In Ancient Israel, however, the people wanted a king to rule over them. In fact, God predicted it. In Deuteronomy 17:14–15, God said, "When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, 'Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,' be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses." That was the condition - be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. Earlier, in Genesis 35:11, God promised Jacob, "A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will be among your descendants."

As usual, Israel ignored this condition. In 1 Samuel 8:5 the Israelites ask Samuel to appoint a king, saying, "You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have." You will notice that it was so that Israel could be like all the other nations.

The Lord was meant to be the ruler of Israel. God led the people through Moses and Aaron, and then through priests and judges raised up to govern the people. In Samuel's time, the people began to worry about who the next leader would be. But most importantly their request for a king was a rejection of God's way of leadership over them.

So in Ancient Israel they wanted a king to rule over them. In Modern America they didn't want a king to rule over them. It is ironic that neither is right.

Scripture pictures Jesus Christ as the millennial King of Israel. He will fulfil the promises that He will sit on David's throne over the house of Israel. Not only will He reign over Israel as the Son of David, He will also be King of Kings and Lord of Lords over the entire earth, including, of course, the Gentile world.

Righteousness and justice will characterise the millennial kingdom, in contrast to the corrupt governments of our present world. This is something which the Founding Fathers were seeking in their Declaration, but which no human led government has ever achieved, and cannot achieve. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we find God commanding His people to place no trust in human rulers, weapons or armies, but to rather find all their security in Him.

Properly understood, Scripture confirms that God allowed Israel to have a king only as a concession to their sin. This is true despite the fact the God foreknew that the people would ask for a king. This concession came with conditions. The king must be an Israelite; he shouldn't acquire many wives; he shouldn't acquire a great number of horses (i.e. military power) or accumulate a great deal of wealth. Perhaps most importantly, he should have his own copy of the law and study it daily. Finally, he should never be regarded as 'better than his fellow Israelites'.

The irony is that despite all these provisions, in future ages, even Christ will not always be King. He hands the kingdom over to His Father, as recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:20 - 28, "(Yet Christ has been roused from among the dead, the Firstfruit of those who are reposing. For since, in fact, through a man came death, through a Man, also, comes the resurrection of the dead. For even as, in Adam, all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified. Yet each in his own class: the Firstfruit, Christ; thereupon those who are Christ's in His presence; thereafter the consummation, whenever He may be giving up the kingdom to His God and Father, whenever He should be nullifying all sovereignty and all authority and power. For He must be reigning until He should be placing all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy is being abolished: death. For He subjects all under His feet. Now whenever He may be saying that all is subject, it is evident that it is outside of Him Who subjects all to Him. Now, whenever all may be subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also shall be subjected to Him Who subjects all to Him, that God may be All in all.)

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­ra­cy is per­fect. Indeed it has been said that democ­ra­cy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment, except for all those oth­er forms that have been tried from time to time. The British statesman Winston Churchill believed these words.

John Adams, the president following George Washington, in a letter to John Taylor, dated 15 April 1814 wrote:

"I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never."

An Englishman, Thomas Paine, wrote a 48 page pamphlet entitled "Common Sense" advocating independence from Great Britain to people in the Thirteen Colonies. Clearly and persuasively, Paine, using moral and political arguments, encouraged ordinary people in the Colonies to fight for egalitarian government. It was published on January 10, 1776, at the beginning of the American Revolution. The second paragraph of the pamphlet reads, "Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; ...." "For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver ..."

It is not blasphemous to say that even Christ's kingdom is no different.

So even great human philosophers have recognized that presidents and kings do not rule perfectly. But why does Christ at the consummation hand over His kingdom to the Father? We have just read the answer. It is simple. It is the great purpose of God: "the Son Himself also shall be subjected to Him Who subjects all to Him, that God may be All in all."

That God may be All in all.

Oh, that that day may come soon!


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