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19th February, 2010

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Divine retribution against the forbidden city?

Has God intervened in the affairs of men since Jesus Christ walked this planet? If He has, what insights into His mind does such involvement provide?

Leaving aside the matter of His involvement in the lives of His individual disciples (Heb. 7:25, Jas. 5:15 and so on), the first question is not easy to answer. This situation contrasts markedly with the pre-Christian era, when, according to the prophet Jeremiah,

You have set signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, to this day, and in Israel and among other men; and You have made Yourself a name , as it is this day (32:20).

The two most powerful leaders of the sixth century before Christ - Nebuchadnezzar and Darius the Median - both publicly confessed the sovereignty of Israel's God after seeing His hand in action (Dan. 4:1-3 and 6:25-27). Wouldn't you love to hear President Obama say, "I make a decree that in every dominion of my kingdom men must tremble and fear before the God of Daniel. For He is the living God, and steadfast forever; His kingdom is the one which shall not be destroyed, and His dominion shall endure to the end" (6:26). And to see atheists, Muslims, Hindus, and Confucianists nod in assent!

Until the other evening, when I watched a program entitled "Secrets of the Forbidden City", the only clear example I knew of of God's direct intervention in "important" human affairs since Christ was when He smote Herod for allowing his subjects to revere him as a god:

Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died (Acts 12:23).

Probably every American reader of this blog believes that God was directly involved in the establishment of the United States as a nation. That may well be true, but it cannot be proven. (Universal acceptance of an idea does not constitute proof. Roman Catholics believe that the Pope is the living "vicar of Jesus Christ", but that doesn't make it true.) If the information presented in the TV program mentioned above is correct,1 one cannot help but wonder if the Holy One of Israel stooped down to "meddle" in the affairs of China in 1424 by setting fire to, through the agency of lightning, the three great halls that constitute "the ceremonial heart" of Beijing's Forbidden City. Built by the Ming Emperor Yongle - "one of the most dynamic and influential emperors in the last one thousand years" - to demonstrate his and China's glory, the Forbidden City, with its 8,700 rooms and halls, remains to this day the world's largest palace. The preparations and infrastructure required to construct this palace beggar belief. Among other things, long canals were dug and rivers redirected to carry the untold thousands of needed logs from the forests to the building site. As for the construction itself, estimates vary as to the number of labourers needed from 200,000 to over one million.

According to the TV program, recent translation of long neglected documents written by three of Yongle's closest confidants - his chief eunuch, his Treasurer and his favorite concubine - have revealed hitherto unknown facts

about his reign, including the event of the destruction of the palace's main buildings by "fire from heaven". True, historians have long known about his ruthlessness and cruelty:

The usurper overthrew, and almost certainly murdered, his nephew and executed some of the most respected Confucian officials of the early Ming when they remained loyal to their former emperor and to their sense of Confucian propriety rather than serve his morally compromised regime.2

But the new research reveals a shocking degree of savagery. When his palace police informed him of some unsavoury dalliances between some of his many eunuchs and concubines he reacted with brutality that is hard to believe. After a massive witch hunt, 2,800 eunuchs and concubines were executed in one night. The word used in the chronicle to describe the means of death means, literally, to be torn. The bodies were secretly disposed of because Beijing was full of foreign dignitaries who had come to witness the grand opening of the palace only weeks before. Gotta keep up appearances!

Why would this author strongly suspect that Jesus Christ, the righteous judge of all mankind, passed an earthly condemnation on Yongle of a piece with His earlier condemnation of Herod? First, the fire had a profound effect on Yongle. Shortly after it occurred, he led his army on a campaign against Mongol neighbours. However, according to the new research, he fell into a state of abject depression (?eaten with worms?) because of the fire from heaven and died.

O.K. I can hear the sceptics scoffing. Nothing unusual about that!, they would be saying. Maybe, but read on.

Second, the destructive storm that appeared to single out the three iconic buildings struck the night after the mass slaughter! Coincidence!, the sceptics will say. Possibly. But don't we have good reason here to be sceptical of such scepticism? How often does lighting destroy buildings that only the night before were mute accomplices in incomparable brutality?

But for me, here's the clincher. The massacre and ensuing fire occurred only weeks after Yongle sat, in all his glory, on top of the palace's main stairway (see picture above) before an audience of tens of thousands of China's and the Far East's most powerful dignitaries and accepted their adoration. Everybody in attendance had to get down on both knees and knock their heads three times on the pavement as a token of submission to this "son of heaven". Don't know about you, but this rings mighty familiar. Remember Herod?

What can we learn about God from such startling intervention? Remember Herod! And Isaiah:

I am the Lord, that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another. (Is. 42:8)

These two cases of His "recent" intervention tell us something very significant about God: He detests human arrogation of divine glory.

1 Two discalimers are necessary at this point: 1. The author cannot vouch for the truthfulness of the program; 2. The "facts" presented here are based on the author's memory of what was said on the program.

2Henry Shih-Shan Tsai, Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle


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