When the just prosper, the city rejoices;
and when the wicked perish, there is jubilation.
The proverbs, in their succinctness, leave us to fill in the blanks. When someone who is unjust prospers, people may go along with his plans, concur with her requirements – but their heart is not in it. The bad boss may get compliance, maybe even a high level of productivity – but even if the team or department or business does well, the celebration is shallow and half-hearted. This dynamic provides the plot line for many of our post-modern movies filled with anti-heroes.
Rejoice in the just. But there are other plots lines, and the sincere upstart who makes good is certainly one of the most common – and well-liked across the centuries. We saw it most recently in the selection of Judge Sotomayor: even those who opposed her viewpoints spoke of being moved by her life story – and many rejoiced at her confirmation because of that life story, perhaps without knowing or fully understanding what the debate was about.
There is a darker side to this reality: we like to see the unjust fall. At its worst, this leads to a desire for vindictive retribution, and leads us into hatred. But Solomon is not talking about causing the downfall of the unjust: they fall of their own accord, they are brought low when their misdeeds come to light. And the people celebrate.
Is this jubilation wrong? Solomon does not condemn this jubilation, but neither does he nurture it. Celebrating the end of an unjust situation or the removal of a tyrant is rational: something oppressive has ended. The nasty joy that some people take in the squirming and suffering of the wicked, once they have been caught, is itself the subject of a proverb. It lacks the all-important aspect of mercy.
A kindly man benefits himself,
but a merciless man harms himself.