A Hard Look at Vengeance

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In the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing, there was one question raised that no one really stopped to answer. Is it wrong for the United States to seek vengeance for the murder of the 5000 innocent people who died on September 11? Should we, as a country, turn the other cheek? There were those who thought the criminals who did this act should be brought to justice, but that it was wrong to merely seek revenge on Osama Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization.

When I thought about this, it seemed obvious that there were some fundamental misunderstandings about both vengeance and the responsibilities of governments. So here we will try to clarify the issues and deal with some misunderstandings relative to vengeance-especially as it relates to Christian people.

First, a definition. Vengeance denotes: “The infliction of injury, harm, humiliation, or the like in return for an injury or other offense received; revenge.” Related to vengeance are the ideas of retribution, punishment and justice.

In the Bible, the question is posed by a simple statement by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. “Dearly beloved, it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19). This is simple enough.. Unfortunately, there are several misunderstandings that grow up around this simple idea.

Misunderstanding #1: The prohibition of private vengeance is a New Testament idea for Christians and it was somehow different in the Old Testament.

Not so. This is an eternal principle and it is found in the Old Testament, clearly stated in the law: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:17-18).

What may be surprising to some readers is that Jesus taught directly from this law when He told His disciples: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother” (Matthew 18:15). Don’t bear grudges, said Jesus. Go to your brother and sort it out. Then Paul taught from the same passage when he said, “avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath.” The expression “nor bear any grudge” in the Hebrew means, “don’t cherish anger” or, to use Paul’s words, “give place unto wrath.”

The Bible is very consistent on this topic. The pursuit of private vengeance is prohibited in both Old and New Testaments.

Misunderstanding #2: Vengeance is a bad thing.

Now this should be simple enough, because we have just read it in Romans: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” How can vengeance be a bad thing if God does it? Paul puts the question in focus earlier in his letter: “Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man) God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world?” (Romans 3:5-6). If it is wrong for God to exact vengeance, then justice is impossible. What does not seem to be clearly understood in many quarters is the relationship between vengeance and justice. Justice involves “a recompense for evil, an infliction of injury, harm, humiliation, or the like in return for an injury or other offense received,” the very definition of vengeance.

This is a common theme for Paul, and he states it plainly in another letter, this time to the Thessalonians: “Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you . . . In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, see also Deuteronomy 32:39-43 and Luke 18:2-7).

There is nothing wrong with vengeance. It is the central value of justice.

Misunderstanding #3: Loving your neighbor excludes any idea of vengeance.

This can’t be true because God is love and God exacts vengeance. Did God love the people of Sodom? Yes, but: “Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7).

The truth is that loving your neighbor requires vengeance on evil doers. Why is this so? There is a reason and it should be obvious. But because it isn’t, here is one short verse that says it all: “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11).

How simple can it be? Anyone can plainly see that if there are no consequences for an evil act, more people will do evil acts. If we ever needed an illustration of this, just look at what happened in the recent mass murders in New York. This was not the first act of a terrorist against our people. Is there anyone left who thinks that if we do nothing the murders will stop? Perhaps if we had sought vengeance earlier, these murders might never have happened.

Misunderstanding #4: Human hands must never be involved in vengeance.

This arises from Paul’s “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” The presumption is that God executes His vengeance with lighting bolts, hail, floods, drought, pestilence, etc. This is true, but it doesn’t stop there. God often executes His vengeance by the hand of man. He used the Kings of the Medes to execute vengeance on the Babylonians (Jeremiah 51:11). When the time came to execute vengeance on Edom, God said, “I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel” (Ezekiel 25:14). In this same passage, God condemns the Philistines for taking vengeance with a spiteful heart and for an old hatred (verse 15). Spiteful vengeance to revenge old grudges is not permitted. Vengeance must not be personal. It must be for the purpose of justice. (See also Numbers 31:1-2).

It is clear from the Bible that God commonly uses human hands to execute His vengeance upon evil doers.

Misunderstanding #5: The prohibition against personal vengeance applies to the civil government.

Now we get to the nub of the problem. The presumption that it is wrong for the civil government to exact vengeance is based on the admonition to private individuals not to avenge themselves. But the law explicitly authorizes the civil authorities to exact vengeance on behalf of injured persons.

There is a long passage in Numbers 35 dealing with the cities of refuge. The purpose of the law was to deal with what we today call manslaughter, the accidental or negligent taking of a human life. If a man killed another man, he was to flee to a city of refuge. If he did not, the “avenger of blood,” the executioner, was authorized to take his life. The purpose of the law was give a man his day in court: “that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment” (Verse 12). This is one of the earliest examples of an important principle: No man shall be deprived of life or liberty without due process of law. And it is “the congregation,” the assembly, that executes judgment. In Israel, the civil government was composed of the congregation, and judgment was carried out by appointed judges and elders.

If the congregation found him guilty of murder, he was delivered to “the revenger of blood.” Justice required vengeance, but not private vengeance. Justice required vengeance after due process by the civil government. In Israel, the civil government was the people, the congregation. They were responsible for the execution of judgment and for the avenging of murder either directly or through their representative judges.

This was a serious responsibility, and the failure of the civil government to exact vengeance for those who are oppressed could lead directly to God’s vengeance on the government. There is a passage in Isaiah that complains of a corrupted court system that does not give proper judgment for the fatherless and widows and incurs the vengeance of God as a result (Isaiah 1:21-24).

One of the more surprising revelations about the role of civil government comes in the context of our original reference, “Recompense to no man evil for evil . . . Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19). Paul continues in the next chapter to lay out clearly the responsibility of the individual to defer to proper authority in the matter of vengeance: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1).

Let me point out the obvious. This letter was written to the churches in Rome. The powers Paul is talking about are Roman, and they are “ordained of God.” This is not to commend any individual Roman ruler, but to confirm the legitimate power of a civil government. To what degree is it confirmed? “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” One can only conclude that God has ordained that whatever civil government there might be has legitimate power to execute vengeance.

It gets even stronger: “For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” The civil government has not merely the right to use deadly force, but the obligation to use it where necessary to protect the individual members of society.

Misunderstanding #6: As individuals, we have no responsibility for vengeance.

Wrong. We may well have a responsibility as citizens to defend the powerless. A prophecy from Ezekiel will illustrate. “The people of the land have used oppression, exercised robbery, and have vexed the poor and needy: yea, they have oppressed the stranger wrongfully. And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none” (Ezekiel 22:28-30).

What was this individual to do? To seek justice on behalf of the oppressed, not his own personal vengeance, but to avenge the wrongs done to others. The clear implication is that God was looking for a man to govern fairly, to put a stop to oppression, robbery and murder. This passage is a description of a massive failure of government and the consequences of that failure. And civil government, in the end, has to be administered by individuals (see also Isaiah 59:12-20).

Does God expect His people to execute vengeance for the oppressed? Is He displeased when they don’t? One of the most powerful passages on this is found in the Psalms: “Let the saints be joyful in glory: let them sing aloud upon their beds. Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a twoedged sword in their hand; To execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people; To bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; To execute upon them the judgment written: this honour have all his saints. Praise ye the LORD” (Psalm 149:2-9).

The fact that the pursuit of personal vengeance is wrong, does not relieve the saints of the obligation to pursue justice on behalf of others, and this brings us to another misunderstanding.

Misunderstanding #7: There is no difference between our obligations as a private individual and our obligations as citizens.

Exodus 21 describes a civil, judicial proceeding in the case of an accidental injury: “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine” (verse 22). While the husband asks for the damages, he cannot collect them without due process.

This presents a statement that has become familiar to us: “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

This is crucial to any civil or criminal proceeding. For justice to be done, recompense has to be made. I have no doubt that in accidental damage, a monetary value was established. But in the case of malicious damage, I have no doubt that life was given for life.

The problem arises, though, when we come to the teachings of Jesus who said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39).

What Jesus is talking about is private vengeance, not public. He is not negating the responsibility of governments to avenge their citizens. You must not avenge yourself, but must allow the powers that be to render vengeance. And if you are an agent of that civil government, you have an obligation to avenge the victims of crimes.

It should be clear that a people have the right to defend themselves. The Bible is consistent on this theme. And a government has not merely the right, it has the obligation to do so. If our government did not execute vengeance on the criminals who committed, aided and abetted mass murder, they would be inviting God’s vengeance on us as a people. “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, Amen!” (Deuteronomy 27:19 NIV).

There is an interesting and related question to address at this point. Should the individual Christian participate in civil government, thereby becoming responsible for the execution of judgment? It is true to say that we are citizens of God’s kingdom and that His kingdom is not of this world. But surely it has always been true that God’s kingdom is not of this world. Nevertheless, a civil government has always been necessary. Israel of old had a government by the people-it was the congregation that was responsible for judgment, even when that responsibility was delegated to judges (Deuteronomy 16:18-20).

Was it possible to be a citizen of God’s kingdom and citizens of Israel at the same time? Why not? Paul was surely a citizen of God’s kingdom, but he did not hesitate to demand his rights as a Roman citizen. We don’t hesitate to demand our rights as American citizens, but how can we exercise our rights, while we avoid our responsibilities?

Our country is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. We have, just as God said, judges and officers in all our gates. Why should we, as Saints, decline to serve as judges and officers? Who is better able to sit on a jury and judge God’s people? “Let the high praises of God be in their [the saints] mouth, and a twoedged sword in their hand; To execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people; To bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; To execute upon them the judgment written: this honour have all his saints” (Psalm 149:2-9).

I am persuaded that it is not only permissible for a Christian to serve on a jury, if called, it is an obligation. I think God will hold us accountable for responsible government in our communities at least to the extent of doing what we can: “Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:16-18 KJV).

But what about my opening question: Is it wrong for the United States to seek vengeance for the wanton murder of 5000 innocent souls at the world trade center? Should we, as a country, turn the other cheek?

No, it is not wrong. It is the first obligation of a government to protect its people and to avenge their murder on behalf of all the widows and fatherless children. A sovereign government has no obligation to turn the other cheek. We should clean out that rat’s nest called the Taliban and avenge the murder of our citizens. For us as individuals to turn the other cheek, we need a government that will take up our cause and defend us.

This is not vengeance taken with a spiteful heart. It is justice. And it is right. We should have done it a long time ago.


Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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Image Credits: Joel Montes de Oca