A History of Tragedy: Macbeth, Hazael, and Idolatry

Tragedies are, by definition, tragic. They involve tragic heroes who have tragic flaws. By some vital failure within the hero, he is gradually isolated from society and experiences consequences that typically lead to his death. Macbeth, the classic Shakespearean example of a tragic hero, finds companionship with the little-known servant of 1 Kings 8:7-15, Hazael. Yet these two men are not alone in history, for tragedy is not an isolated and little-known event of history. Tragedy continues to destroy men and women today, men and women devastated by their own tragic flaws.

In the classic tragedy, “Macbeth,” Shakespeare transforms a story of assassination in Scotland’s royal histories into a play of ambition and greed paid for in blood. In the first act of the play, three witches meet Macbeth, a noble in King Duncan’s army, and prophesy of his future elevation to Thane and, eventually, King. Subsequently, Macbeth assassinates King Duncan and becomes king in his stead. This choice leads Macbeth into a series of tragic consequences, whereby he breaks down emotionally, is isolated from society, and eventually dies.

While Shakespeare based the tragedy of Macbeth on the historical stories of the kings of Scotland, a very similar story can be found in 1 Kings.  King Ben-Hadad is ill and sends his servant Hazael to Elisha, the prophet of Israel, to discover whether he will recover. Elisha reveals to Hazael that the king will recover, but that Hazael will become king. Taking matters into his own hands, Hazael returns to the king and suffocates him with a wet rag, taking the throne. The story never specifically identifies any consequences of Hazael’s actions.

The similarities are striking. Both men hear a prophecy of future power and prestige. Both men assassinate the reigning king in order to make the prophecies come true. Neither story gives any indication of problems with the original king’s reign, or of a surfacing rebellion. Yet, with no prior intentions of becoming king, a single prophecy transforms honest servants of the king into murderers and assassins.

The lesson does not end there, however. Hazael and Macbeth both chose to make prophecies come true. No one forced either man to carry out his path of action, but each chose freely to compromise his morals for promised power. Because of their actions, these men, or at least Macbeth, suffered tragic consequences. Human nature has not changed in the centuries since these stories occurred.

The promises of Scripture offer many glorious rewards to believers and faithful followers of God. Occasionally we assume that as children of God, we deserve certain things, perhaps wealth, marriage, or leisure, as a part of “God’s will for our lives.” Rather than being content to allow God to carry out his will for our lives, we conjure up images of what his will should be and then proceed to will it to happen. Our response is the same as that of Hazael and Macbeth—we impatiently take circumstances into our own hands. As if God needs our help. Due to our impatience, we often create our own consequences, rather than living the life God originally intended for us. Why do we do this? As author Tim Keller wrote, “The Bible tells us that the human heart is an “idol- factory,” taking good things and making them into idols that drive us.” You and I make idols out of everything—out of objects, relationships, accomplishments, positions, and people. Once created, we are willing to sacrifice anything in worship to these idols, just like Hazael and Macbeth. The results may vary, but one thing is sure: idolatry always results in tragedy.

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