Heroes are easy to admire in the Bible. They're the ones God wants us to be like. Sure, they have problems here and there, but they always get right with God eventually.
But the Bible has plenty of villains too—and we may feel a little awkward about them. It might even seem disrespectful to the good guys to spend time studying the bad guys. Think about this though: Eight of the Ten Commandments define God's law by listing wrong actions and thinking to avoid. Learning what to steer clear of helps us to live a better life. God's law is the bottom line for how to act, and lessons from the Bible's bad stories can help us to know how God's law applies.
Let's extract the good lessons from the bad examples.
1. Know the story
We need to get the whole story to learn from Bible villains (and heroes for that matter). The details help us understand and avoid the mistakes.
Look at the story of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, who inherited the throne over the united kingdom of Israel in the north and Judah in the south (1 Kings 12). When he came to power the northern 10 tribes of Israel were on the verge of seceding.
To pay for decades of his high-cost building projects, Solomon had levied high taxes. The northern tribes, with Jeroboam of the tribe of Ephraim newly returned from exile as a principal leader among them, asked for an easier tax burden (still something we often hear debated in political circles today!) as Rehoboam's first royal decision. They wanted a revived economy with personal finances restored.
Rehoboam had a good shot at becoming a great leader. He started off well by seeking the advice of the elders who served Solomon. They wisely counseled that the northerners were right and that lower taxes would be healthy for all. They said that the king would be loved for being so generous. He then asked for advice from his younger peers. They gave the opposite and ultimately fatal advice to increase taxes by leaps and bounds. It was far beyond what the people were willing to bear.
Rehoboam unwisely took the advice of his peers, raised taxes, and lost over half his kingdom. The northern kingdom of Israel split away, taking its own path separate from the southern kingdom of Judah. When all was said and done, the king lost far more income than all his taxes could have ever gained him. He chose poorly, and everyone suffered because of it.
The story of Rehoboam's mistake provides an essential lesson. Without the background we wouldn't realize that he should have heeded the advice of his elder advisors rather than his foolish peers who offered him nothing but a greedy ego trip.
The lesson: For important decisions, seek a multitude of counsel (Proverbs 11:14) and ask God for discernment to know what is wise counsel and what is just bad advice.
2. What went wrong, and why?
We also need to sift out reasons for villains' choices. What motivated their bad decisions? Why did they sin and rebel against God?
It's hard to find a more despicable biblical villain than Queen Jezebel, the foreign wife of King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel. She was the daughter of the king of the Phoenician city-state of Sidon and a priestess of the false god Baal (1 Kings 16:29-33).
Jezebel led her Israelite husband Ahab into the worship of Baal rather than the true God. This was a direct affront to God, who hated Baal worship not only because it was idolatry, but also because it often required human sacrifice. Often the sacrifices were the worshippers' own babies.
Jezebel had the true prophets of Israel murdered, and she called for the assassination of the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 18:13; 19:2). She schemed to have a wealthy vineyard owner murdered so that her husband could steal his land (1 Kings 21). And she fought against the true worship of God whenever she could.
Why did she do all this? We think of her as totally immoral, and she certainly behaved that way. But to learn a deeper lesson we have to analyze a bit more. Jezebel was a priestess of her god Baal, and in that position she had power. So clearly, by trying over and over again to destroy the worship of the true God, she was trying to hold on to and increase what she saw as her source of power.
The lesson: Do not trust in some other perceived source of power (false gods of our own making)—wealth, authority, weapons, position, etc.—in place of God. If we look to anything other than God for strength, we may find it for a while, but ultimately it will fail.
What happened to Jezebel? She was thrown from a window and eaten by dogs. No power, no strength. Enough said.
3. What did the bad guy finally do right?
What about someone who was both villain and hero? Seems complicated, but there is one such man who was the ultimate villain, only to become one of the ultimate heroes of the faith. His name was Saul of Tarsus. He is also known as the apostle Paul.
Saul was a Pharisee, a young leader within the religious and political scene of Judea during and just after the time of Jesus Christ. He was the heavy-handed type and had the authority to punish anyone he believed to be a heretic within the Jewish community. He saw the teachings of Jesus as blasphemy and all Christians as heretics. Saul tracked down and prosecuted them to the fullest extent of the local law—resulting in their imprisonment and sometimes death.
Saul is mentioned in the book of Acts shortly after the passionate speech by Stephen the martyr: "And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul" (Acts 7:58), while they threw rocks at Stephen until he was bludgeoned to death.
Saul continued to harass the Church and was on his way to the Jewish community in Damascus to arrest members of the faith and send them back to Jerusalem when God intervened and struck him down. Blind and helpless, Saul was shown the futility of fighting against God's plan. After his spiritual conversion, he went on to preach the truth with the same vigor with which he had previously fought against it (Acts 9).
Saul followed God as best he understood, but after his conversion he was able to follow God in both Spirit and truth. He saw his previous mistakes and turned to God.
The lesson: When we are completely wrong, we need to be humble and willing to turn 180 degrees and do what's right. Saul the persecutor became Paul the faithful.
To learn from the Bible's bad guys, get the details of the story clearly in mind, understand what motivated people to do wrong, as well as what some bad guys did right to change their lives. Avoid the mistakes of the wrongdoers, and follow the good examples of the righteous. Being a skilled Bible student can help us lead a better life!