Vengeance Belongs to the God of Love
Issue No. 270
In Romans 12:2, Paul exhorts us:
2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
He continues by telling people to exercise their gifts in a diligent manner, and then, beginning in verse 17 he reveals the most important element in the renewing of our minds.
17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone… 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” [Deut. 32:35] says the Lord. 20 “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink, for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” [Prov. 25:21, 22] 21 Do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul’s first quote is from Deut. 32:35, where we read,
35 Vengeance is Mine, and retribution; in due time their foot will slip, for the day of their calamity is near. . . 36 For the Lord will vindicate His people. . .
Again, the Law tells us in Lev. 19:18,
18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
There are many who mistakenly believe that vengeance is permitted by Moses, but banned by Paul. This is often used to show the superiority of Grace over the Law. However, Paul's idea in Romans 12 did not spring from special revelation, but by his study of the Law. Vengeance is simply the retribution of the Law that God takes against those who have injured their neighbors.
The problem with vengeance is that when men “take the law into their own hands,” it is normally done in the heat of anger or passion. For this reason, our English words vengeance and revenge carry emotional overtones that indicate anger and unforgiveness. But God's true vengeance is the application of justice as the Law prescribes. The “wrath of God” is His passion to uphold the Law and to restore the rights of the victims of injustice. God is not devoid of emotion, but His emotion is rooted in His righteous character, whereas man's emotion is usually rooted in the fallen Adamic Identity.
For this reason, the Law forbids Israelites from taking the law into their own hands. Injured parties find it hard to be dispassionate in their response to perceived injustice. If they have a dispute with their neighbor, or believe that they have been wronged or injured, and if they are unable to resolve it amicably, they are to take it to God—that is, the earthly court established in His Name—and lodge their complaint. God will then judge the case dispassionately through the judge.
This was how the Israelites were to handle disputes during the days of the Kingdom. But how do we handle such matters today, seeing that we have been in a very long time of captivity, ruled by non-Kingdom nations, unbelievers, or believers who do not know God’s Law?
The Church is the Divine Court on Earth
During captivity, the kingdoms of men legislate man-made laws and set up their own judges to administer those laws. We do not have (official) earthly judges to administer justice by the Law of God. God’s Law has been brought into disrepute, even among believers, and there are few today who are schooled sufficiently to be judges. Paul admonished the Corinthian church for being unable to judge disputes between members (1 Cor.6:1-5). If the church had understood the Law of God sufficiently, they would have established their own court system.
The problem, of course, is that as long as there is a separation of Church and State, the Church has no power to enforce its judicial rulings. If both parties agree with the Church judge, or if, at least, both are willing to submit to the ruling, there is then no problem. However, the one who loses a case might disagree with the judge, and in such a case, the Church judge is found powerless to enforce his verdict. The extent of his authority would be to expel the member from the congregation. This has been the condition of God's people since the start of the captivity, when the Kingdom (as an organized, earthly entity) ceased to exist.
Our expectation, though, is to see the end of this long captivity, as Daniel prophesied. Then the Kingdom, which is within us today, will once again be manifested in the earth, having a King, citizens, laws, and territory. It will be unveiled from within and will obtain new jurisdiction in the realms of politics, society, and the justice department of nations seated in established territories.
Meanwhile, personal vengeance is prohibited by God's Law. Modern courts are required to enforce many laws which fall short of the character and glory of God. We all suffer from this, but we must view the situation as a God-ordained captivity, brought about when our forefathers rejected the Law of God and disagreed with His just and righteous character. His verdict many years ago was that we would live under the laws of men that we desired, so that we would learn by experience that the so-called justice of men ultimately leads to bondage and to death.
During this time of captivity, we are not totally abandoned by God. We still have His Word and His promise of deliverance. The Church was ordained to judge any case that the people were willing to submit to it. The divine court has always remained with us. The problem is that the judges of the Church lost any real understanding of the Law of God and, like the Jews before them, began to judge by the traditions of men—that is, man-made laws.
The Divine Court of Appeal
There is, however, a final Court of Appeal for those who know the Law and are led by the Spirit. It is the heavenly Court, to which any man may appeal for justice or for mercy. Any time justice is not possible on earth, either because of corrupt judges, false witnesses, or even a simple lack of evidence (such as the double witness), an appeal can be made to this heavenly Court. In such cases, a person must give the case to God and then let the verdict rest with Him. If he takes it back and continues to hold a grudge, he is in essence taking the law into his own hands and avenging the case himself. In such cases, he cannot expect God to take the case.
The Hebrew word for “vengeance” is naqam. It is similar to nacham (pronounced nakam), which means “comforter” and is the origin of the New Testament concept of the Comforter in John 14:26.
26 But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.
A “comforter” is an advocate in a court of law which helps and instructs a person in the law so that they can make their case before the judge. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit is our Comforter.
More than that, the Hebrew word literally means “to breathe forcibly.” In a sense, it is like a sigh or the hard breathing while giving birth. There is a sense of pity and concern in this word. It is the desire to bring rectification, correction, and a just solution to a problem. Hence, Jesus “breathed” on His disciples to impart to them the Holy Spirit (John 20:22).
The Hebrew prophets understood that naqam and nacham were homonyms, and they connected them in their writings. Hence, the prophet Nahum, starts his prophecy by saying in verse 2,
2 A jealous and avenging [naqam] God is the Lord; the Lord is avenging [naqam] and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance [naqam] on His adversaries.
The prophet's name influenced his prophecy of divine judgment upon Nineveh, which had taken Israel captive. He continues in Nahum 3:7, saying, “Nineveh is devastated! Who will grieve for her? Where will I seek comforters [nacham] for you?”
Obviously, without the true God, Nineveh lacked the Comforter to defend her in the heavenly Court. Hence, she received naqam, “vengeance” rather than nacham, “comfort.”
Divine retribution upon Nineveh was based upon Law, not emotion. After all, God had sold Israel into the hands of Nineveh (Assyria) because of Israel's sins. Nineveh had received the divine right to rule Israel. This was decreed in the divine court. But Nineveh would be judged later for refusing to comply with the terms of this “sale” that are found in the laws of slavery (Ex. 21:2, 20, 21, 26, 27, etc.). Nineveh's right to rule over the Israelites was based on biblical Law, and thus also Nineveh was bound to treat them according to the laws regarding the treatment of slaves. When they oppressed their slaves, then the “wrath” of the Law came down upon them as well.
God is the only true Judge. His Law is revealed by the Comforter to bring both impartial justice and mercy applied in Love.
Personal Vengeance Forbidden by the Law
In the divine Law, “revenge” was a court-ordered mandate—not a personal vendetta. For this reason, our English word “revenge” does not accurately convey the biblical idea being expressed. Today we think of “vengeance” as something that people do personally outside of the legal system. It occurs when men take the law into their own hands, usually when the governmental legal system is flawed or weak.
The Bible forbids such personal vengeance, for the sentence of the Law was to be determined only by the judge after the trial was completed and all the evidence presented.
The Rights of the Avenger of Blood
God's justice reserves certain rights for the victim or his guardian (representative). Once the court has determined guilt, the right of enforcement is given to the guardian, the witnesses, or both. The guardian is called (in legal terms) “the avenger of blood” (Deut. 19:12) or “the revenger of blood” (Num. 35:19).
The actual Hebrew word used in both cases above is ga’al, which means “redeemer.” Hence, this “avenger” is actually a redeemer. The redeemer is the kinsman and guardian of the victim, called to represent his family member in the court of law. He is called to restore the lawful order and “redeem” the rights of the victim that had been trampled.
The government judge is called to render a just verdict according to the statutes and judgments of the Law. Whoever wins the case is the one whom the Law gives favor, or “grace.” The innocent party is “justified” by the Law and is pronounced “righteous.”
If the judge condemns a man for injuring or violating the rights of another, the victim (or his guardian) then has the right to extract the full penalty of the Law, or to forgive any portion of the penalty. That is his legal right. The victim may forgive a thief part or even ALL of the restitution penalty that the judge has determined according to the Law.
I believe that the guardian even has the right to forgive a murderer, if he discerns that this is the right thing to do. It is usually presumed that the death penalty is mandatory and that the victim’s guardian has no right to alter a death sentence. There is a law addressing this issue, but I believe it has been misunderstood. Num. 35:31 says,
31 Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. 32 And you shall not take ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to live in the land before the death of the priest. 33 So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.
The judge must render the verdict of the Law. Neither he nor the guardian are allowed to take payment in place of the death penalty, because such a practice could well turn into an opportunity to profit from death. Rich men could buy their way out of the death penalty, while poor men would consistently be put to death. This would create a systemic inequality of justice between rich and poor.
Verse 33 appears to mandate the death penalty of the one guilty of murder. It appears to tell us that bloodshed cannot be expiated apart from the death of the murderer. But yet if the murderer cannot be found, the Law does provide a way to expiate the blood from the land.
This provision is found in Deut. 21:1-9. The priest-judge was to kill a heifer in its place. Verse 9 says,
9 So you shall remove the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.
This heifer represents Christ, whose death is capable of removing “the guilt of innocent blood from your midst.” In the case of an unsolved crime, the appeal is made to the heavenly Court, and the crime is put under the blood of Jesus Christ. So there IS a way to expiate bloodshed, apart from the death of the murderer, but it cannot be done by the power of the earthly court—even if that court is divinely ordained.
What the Law does NOT address directly is whether or not the guardian has the right of forgiveness in such cases. Certainly, he would not be required to forgive the murderer, but the question is about his right to forgive.
When we look at the example of Jesus, who was made Judge of all (John 5:22), we see that the judge has the right to forgive sin only if he is willing to pay it himself. But what about the victim’s guardian? If he wished to forgive the murder, would he be required to be put to death in place of the murderer? No, but he would certainly have the right to appeal the case to the heavenly Court and place it under the blood of the “heifer” (Jesus Christ). He is only prohibited from taking monetary compensation, lest the love of money should influence his decision to forgive.
We see this taking place at the Cross itself, where Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). While some might limit this forgiveness to those who truly did not know what they were doing, the same cannot be said of the stoning of Stephen. While being stoned, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7: 60).
In other words, it is the right of the victim to forgive even murder. Is it not also the right of the victim’s guardian to forgive, seeing that he legally represents the victim in the court of law?
Such forgiveness does not put away the Law. The Law itself gives the victim the right to forgive.
Judges and Victims each have Rights
The judge determines guilt or innocence. Once the verdict is given, the victim or guardian has the right of enforcement. The benefit of this divine arrangement is that justice is not dispensed without an opportunity for mercy. If the Law retained both the right of determining guilt as well as the right of enforcement, then there would be no opportunity to extend mercy to a repentant law-breaker.
It is only because we have not understood this principle of Law coming from the mind of God that we have mistakenly thought of the Law as being “vengeful” and devoid of love. In fact, the Law deals with rights, but leaves room to the victim to apply love when appropriate.
Hence, when Paul quotes the Law saying, “vengeance is Mine,” we ought not to think of God as being “vengeful” in the modern sense of the English word. When God acts as a Judge, He judges according to His own Law, rather than by the laws of men or even by Church law. As a righteous Judge, He certainly will not acquit the guilty; however, the victims always possess the right of forgiveness.
In fact, this is the secret behind God's way of causing the remnant of grace to be victimized by others in this present age. Romans 8:36 says, “For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” We are made victims in order to give us certain rights that are not otherwise given to men.
Jesus, too, was led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7), in order that He might have the right to forgive all sin. We are His Body, and so it is often given to us to experience the same crimes, though in smaller portions. Being victimized gives us the right of forgiveness as well as the right to prosecute, but as the character of God is instilled into our hearts, we learn the art of forgiveness as intercessors of the Most High God.
For this reason, Paul says in Romans 12:20,
20 But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.
It is the right of the victim to feed his hungry enemy and to give drink to him if he is thirsty. It is the right of the victim to show love and mercy. This New Testament principle is rooted in the Law of God, though few have seen it there.
Old Covenant religions tend to teach that justice is one's duty, without realizing that it is only a duty insofar as the judge is concerned. To the wronged party, justice is actually a right that may be exercised either in love or in hatred. The Law is duty-bound to uphold the victim's right to justice, but the victim is not bound by the Law to extract the last farthing of restitution.
It is for this reason that the creditor who was owed ten thousand talents (Matt. 18:27) had the right to forgive the entire debt—or to retain it at his discretion, if (as we see in this case) the debtor refused to forgive his own neighbor. This principle of Law is perhaps the greatest secret of the Spirit-led Christian life.
Many have also misunderstood the idea of heaping coals of fire upon the head of the enemy. In those days, people often traveled and would be out of town for a lengthy period of time. The fire on the hearth would be gone by the time they returned home, so the woman normally went to the neighbor to obtain a few coals of fire with which to start a new fire at home.
Now, it was often the case that neighbors did not get along very well. If an “enemy” neighbor asked for a few coals, the neighbor might be stingy and give grudgingly a few small coals. However, if the neighbor had the mind of Christ, he or she would “heap burning coals upon his head.” They carried the coals in clay jars on their heads in those days, and the neighbor could leave with coals of fire heaped on his head! In this manner, Paul says in Romans 12:21,
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Feuding neighbors could often be reconciled, if one of them was generous in this small way. This is Paul's example of not paying back evil for evil (12:17) and being at peace with all men, if at all possible (12:18).