Posted by: Dan | July 24, 2007

On Divine Vengeance

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
~ Ro 12.19-21

For awhile now, I have suspected that God claims a monopoly on vengeance because the divine implementation of vengeance might look very different than we imagine it to be.

You see, we have tended to imagine vengeance as punitive, as retributive, and, usually, as some form of violence — “an eye for an eye,” and the sort of thing prescribed in the Lex Taliones. Such an understanding of vengeance declares that the punishment must be “equal in magnitude” to the crime. Hence, the more violent the crime, the more violent the punishment. Yet what is the result of this? An ever-expanding spiral of violence.

However, Ro 12 makes it clear that Christians are not to engage in any form of vengeance. Rather than “repaying” those who wrong them, Christians are to respond with acts of mercy. Instead of ensuring a form of punishment that is equal in magnitude to the crimes committed against them, Christians are to respond with a form of grace that matches the violence of the wrongdoing. Hence, the more violent the crime, the more gracious the response of the Christian community. And what is the result of this? Evil is overcome with good.

Indeed, where this begins to become intriguing is that this is precisely the way in which Jesus overcame evil. On the cross, God declared his judgment on sinners and, behold, it was a judgment of grace and of forgiveness. On the cross, Jesus suffered at the hands of violent men, crying out, “Father, forgive them!” and evil was overcome with good.

Hence, we come to see why God claims sole ownership over vengeance. We are too inclined to see grace and vengeance as opposites. On the cross, God reveals his vengeance as grace. We tend to think that vengeance means inflicting violence on others. On the cross, God shows us that vengeance means taking violence onto ourselves. We tend to think of wrath as a destructive force. On the cross, God's wrath is revealed as God's wounded, but life-giving, love.

Which leads me back to one of my favourite biblical passages, Is 35.3-4, which goes as follows:

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

The vengeance of God is our salvation. It is salvation for “the oppressed” and it is salvation for “the oppressor.” This, I think, is good news.

Maranatha, come quickly and save us, Lord Jesus. Amen.

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