Poetic Justice is a common literary device that has been employed by numerous authors throughout the ages. It is used to teach a moral lesson by rewarding or punishing the behavior of the characters involved by means of ironic twists of fate. While some cultures may refer to this phenomenon by other names such as “Karma”, or through sayings such as “What goes around comes around”, the basic concept of “justice through irony” remains the same.
A prime example of poetic justice can be seen in the story of “Cinderella”, where the wicked stepmother of Cinderella, who had treated Cinderella as if she were a servant, was later herself forced into servanthood by the Queen when Cinderella had attained the status of Princess within the kingdom.
Perhaps the writer who is best known for incorporating poetic justice within his works is William Shakespeare. For within his many great plays, one can find numerous examples of this literary technique. In “Macbeth” we find Lady Macbeth influencing Macbeth to kill King Duncan, only to be later consumed by her own guilt, which in turn causes her to take her own life.
In “Romeo and Juliet”, the two feuding families, the Capulets and the Montagues, experience the deaths of their children as a recompense for their unforgiving and treacherous attitudes and ways toward one another.
Long before the “Bard from Avon” put his quill to parchment however, the idea of poetic justice can be found to have had its origins within the pages of God’s Holy Word, the Bible. Its concept is most notable within the Book of Psalms:
“He made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made.” Psalm 7:15
“The heathen are sunk down in the pit that they made: in the net which they hid
is their own foot taken.” Psalm 9:15
“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.” Psalm 57:6
In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon also addresses the issue of poetic justice:
“Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return
upon him.” Proverbs 26:27
The first major incidence of God incorporating poetic justice into the historical Biblical narrative is located in the Book of Exodus. Here we have Pharaoh seeking to minimize the Hebrew people by murdering their newborn male babies (Exodus 1:16). We find one of these children, Moses, the person whom God would eventually use to bring about the Pharaohs demise, ironically being rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, and then raised within Pharaoh’s own household. Eventually, Pharaoh and the people of Egypt received the ultimate form of poetic justice, when the first born of their land were killed by the LORD in the last of the 10 plaques that He inflicted upon Egypt (Exodus 12:29).
In the Book of Daniel, we find the Median royal advisors conspiring to kill Daniel by treacherously tricking the King into having to put Daniel into a den of hungry lions. After Daniel had survived this harrowing experience through the aid of God’s Angel, these same conspirators and their families were all later thrown into the same den of lions, and were eaten alive (Daniel 6:24).
Perhaps the most notable example of poetic justice in the Old Testament record can be found within the Book of Esther. Here, the Persian nobleman Haman is conspiring to kill the Hebrew Mordecai through political chicanery. Mordecai’s niece Esther steps in and exposes the plot to King Ahasuerus, after which the King had Haman hung on the same gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai’s demise (Esther 7:10).
When we further examine the Old Testament record, we find another interesting occurrence of poetic justice in the story of the Prophet Nathan’s confrontation with King David in the 12th Chapter of the Book of II Samuel:
“And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him,
There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor.
The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:
But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and
nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his
own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a
And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock
and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took
the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.
And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the
LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die:
And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had
And Nathan said unto David, Thou art the man” …… (II Samuel 12:1-7).
This, of course, was in reference to David stealing Bathsheba from Uriah the Hittite.
This passage also reveals to us a rather interesting potential aspect concerning poetic justice. For when all the peoples of the world are brought before God in the Final Judgment, perhaps the ultimate irony will be that God will have each person, as in the case of David, make an assessment of their own individual lives by the standard of judgment by which they have judged others throughout the course of their own lifetime. God will then apply this same degree of harshness of judgment that they have harbored towards others in His final assessment of their lives. As Jesus stated in the Book of Matthew:
“JUDGE NOT, that ye be not judged.
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete,
it shall be measured to you again.” Matthew 7:1-2
What a poignant call this is for all believers to not only engage in Holy Living, but to also be wary of harboring harsh and critical attitudes towards other people. For Jesus taught that our love for others should be a love that is truly filled with “mercy” concerning the faults and shortcomings of our fellow man (Matthew 23:23).