misquoted verses – vengeance is mine

RORSCHACHOften Christians repeat the cliché “vengeance is mine saith the Lord” in order to prove some sort of political or social point. The statement is used to oppose the death penalty, to oppose personal retribution, to oppose any negative repercussions towards those who do evil. But these interpretations appear to be stretching the text too thin.

The statement is derived from Romans 12:19. In Romans 12:19, much like the cliché, Paul is making the concerted point that his listeners should not take vengeance but allow God to work God’s vengeance:

Rom 12:19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

Paul, in his characteristic style, is taking Old Testament phrases and twisting them to apply them to a new context. This is a really important point: the Old Testament text absolutely does not make the point that Paul is making. Instead, the exact opposite is the idea. Nowhere in the Old Testament context is God asking people to voluntarily step back and allow God to take justice. Instead, the idea is that the people have failed to take justice so God is being forced to take justice.

The Old Testament quote comes from Deuteronomy:

Deu 32:35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.’

The context of this quote is that Israel has abandoned God. God had raised Israel to be blessed, and they repaid God with evil. So God responds:

Deu 32:21 They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation…
Deu 32:25 Outdoors the sword shall bereave, and indoors terror, for young man and woman alike, the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.
Deu 32:26 I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces; I will wipe them from human memory,”
Deu 32:27 had I not feared provocation by the enemy, lest their adversaries should misunderstand, lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant, it was not the LORD who did all this.”‘

Notice the absence of any ideas that the righteous should just defer to God. The punishment is a national punishment due to Israel’s inaction (and presumably some number of righteous would also fall in this national punishment).

God’s response is not “divine punishment”. Instead, God is utilizing human agents. Enemy armies invade and kill the rebellious Israelites. God wants those enemies (and Israel) to know that this was God’s judgment. God uses human agents.

Elsewhere, God is appalled because He cannot find any human agents to execute judgment:

Isa 59:14 Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter.
Isa 59:15 Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.

The context of Isaiah 59 is Israel is again in rebellion from God. No one in the land is executing proper punishments. This makes God “displeased” and God is forced to take matters into His own hands. God wants people to take vengeance, let no one does.

In Isaiah 63, God is wet with the blood of His enemies and wonders why He has to go it alone:

Isa 63:3 “I have trodden the winepress alone, And from the peoples no one was with Me. For I have trodden them in My anger, And trampled them in My fury; Their blood is sprinkled upon My garments, And I have stained all My robes.
Isa 63:4 For the day of vengeance is in My heart, And the year of My redeemed has come.
Isa 63:5 I looked, but there was no one to help, And I wondered That there was no one to uphold; Therefore My own arm brought salvation for Me; And My own fury, it sustained Me.
Isa 63:6 I have trodden down the peoples in My anger, Made them drunk in My fury, And brought down their strength to the earth.”

God “looked” for someone to assist Him. God could not find anyone to “uphold” justice. God then resorts to taking matters into His own hand. The specific response is a very bloody slaughter.

This “God seeking human justice, only to be disgusted and then taking the initiative” is a pretty common theme in the Bible:

Eze 22:29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice.
Eze 22:30 And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none.
Eze 22:31 Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord GOD.”

In Ezekiel, the events are the same. God sees wickedness. God looks for a judge. But God finds no man and is forced to take matters into His own hands. The imagery here is that a wall has been breached (a section of the wall has fallen and opened a hole to enemy troops). What would happen in ancient warfare is that each side would rush to the wall. The champion would “bridge the gap” and ensure no enemy warriors were able to penetrate the gap in the wall. This is an extremely violent image. Because there was no one willing to stand up, God again is forced to act. God specifically mentions that He would not have to act if only mankind would have.

In Jeremiah, the theme is the same:

Jer 4:27 For thus says the LORD: “The whole land shall be desolate; Yet I will not make a full end.

Jer 4:31 “For I have heard a voice as of a woman in labor, The anguish as of her who brings forth her first child, The voice of the daughter of Zion bewailing herself; She spreads her hands, saying, ‘Woe is me now, for my soul is weary Because of murderers!’
Jer 5:1 “Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem; See now and know; And seek in her open places If you can find a man, If there is anyone who executes judgment, Who seeks the truth, And I will pardon her.

Jer 5:6 Therefore a lion from the forest shall slay them, A wolf of the deserts shall destroy them; A leopard will watch over their cities. Everyone who goes out from there shall be torn in pieces, Because their transgressions are many; Their backslidings have increased.

In Jeremiah 5, the problem is “murder” (other sins are also listed later) and God seeks anyone who executes “judgment”. God is described as a lion, wolf, or leopard that consumes the wicked (possibly a figurative statement meaning God will use enemy nations to destroy Israel).

In all these passages, God is not wanting individuals to take a back seat role. God actually desires someone to right the wrongs, punish the wicked, give justice to injustice.

So why does Paul use this to tell his listeners not to take vengeance?

The answer is that Paul (like Mary, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, James, and John) was expecting God to return to Earth with an army of angels and destroy the wicked. Jesus gives a good illustration of this idea:

Mat 13:37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.
Mat 13:38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one,
Mat 13:39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.
Mat 13:40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.
Mat 13:41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers,
Mat 13:42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Mat 13:43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Paul adamantly believes this. Paul believes that God is soon returning to Earth with an army of angels to kill the wicked and save the righteous. As preparation for this, Paul goes so far as to tell people not to marry in 1 Corinthians:

1Co 7:27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife.

1Co 7:29 But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none,
1Co 7:30 those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess,
1Co 7:31 and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away.

This is the context of Romans 12, “Vengeance is mine”. Paul is not saying that all Christians always and forever should never ever take vengeance (and that those who did in the Old Testament were wrong). Instead, Paul is saying “Hey look, God is coming back soon so we just have to wait. God will be the one to right the wrongs.” Paul is placating the Zealots, who want to kill their oppressors (which might, in turn, cause general Roman retribution). Paul is avoiding a violent and direct confrontation with their Roman overlords.

Rom 12:19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

This launches directly into Romans 13, the often misused passage on government. In Romans 13, Paul states not to resist the authorities (Paul is most probably talking about government). Then Paul says to pay taxes to this government. Paul is keeping the peace between Romans and Zealots, not advocating new and crazy criminal policy.

In the modern world, 2000 years removed from the context of Paul’s teaching, it is very dangerous to try to take Romans 12:19 as some sort of absolute. Should Christians just allow others to steal from them without retribution? After all, calling the cops and pressing charges is “vengeance”. Should Christians sit by and allow murderers to roam? No, when God says “vengeance is mine”, often it is because He is disgusted that mankind has not done justice.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, Misquoted Verses, Morality, Open Theism, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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