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By Richard Nichols

Published in
The Christian Informer
June  2008

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  Revenge consists primarily of retaliation against a person or group in response to what is believed to be wrongdoing. Although many aspects of revenge seem to resemble the concept of justice, revenge usually has a more harmful than beneficial goal and consequence. The aim of revenge usually consists of forcing the wrongdoer to suffer the same pain which was originally felt by the one wronged. Revenge is a twisted use of the expression “get even,” which means doing something bad to others because they have done something bad to you.

The world feels that the threat of revenge is necessary to maintain a just society. In some societies, it is believed that the punishment in revenge should be more than the original injury, as a punitive step. In our society we hear, “If you do the crime, you’ve got to do the time.”

Of the psychological, moral, and cultural foundation for revenge, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote: “The primitive sense of the just—remarkably constant from several ancient cultures to modern institutions…—starts from the notion that a human life…is a vulnerable thing, a thing that can be invaded, wounded, violated by another’s act in many ways. For this penetration, the only remedy that seems appropriate is a counter invasion, equally deliberate, equally grave. And to right the balance truly, the retribution must be exactly, strictly proportional to the original encroachment. It differs from the original act only in the sequence of time and in the fact that it is response rather than original act— a fact frequently obscured if there is a long sequence of acts and counteracts.”

In last month’s issue we looked at the means employed by God to enforce the command, “Thou shalt not kill,” by allowing another family member to act as “the human avenger”, and to seek retribution upon the one who killed someone in their family. However, in the Christian dispensation we are told, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romams 12:19). Furthermore, Jesus’ forbidding of his disciples to defend against His enemies is the model for all Christians (See Matt. 26:52; John 18:36).

Historically, in many societies, especially those with a weak central justice systems, the method for deterring murder was to allow the victim’s family to avenge the killing. However, if the families of the killer and victim disagreed in their moral assessment of the killing, they would most likely disagree as well in their assessment of any revenge actions which were taken, and a blood feud might ensue.

Vendettas or “blood feuds” are continuing acts and counter-acts motivated by revenge and carried out over long periods of time by family or tribal groups in a quest for justice or retaliation. They were a prominent part of many pre-industrial societies, especially in the Mediterranean region, and still persist in some less progressive areas. During the Middle Ages, most would not regard an insult or injury as settled until it was avenged, or, at the least, paid for—hence, the extensive Anglo-Saxon system of “wergild” (literally, “man-price”) payments, which placed a certain monetary value upon certain acts of violence in an attempt to limit the spiral of revenge by setting a code for the responsibility of a perpetrator. Thus, implacability was a constant problem.

Modern Western legal systems usually state as their goal the reform or re-education of a convicted criminal. Even in these systems, however, society is conceived of as the victim of a criminal’s actions, and the notion of vengeance for such acts is an important part of their concept of justice—a criminal “pays his debt to society” displayed clearly by countries such as the United States continuing the practice of capital punishment.

Interestingly, psychologists have found that the thwarted psychological expectation of revenge may lead to issues of “victim-hood”. This manner of interaction is prohibited for Christians.

When God dealt directly with the nation of Israel, He set up rules for their civil government and their judgement of matters which are not applicable to the children of God today. Since there is no civil government with which God deals directly in our day, the laws and regulations of the Law of Moses are not to be understood to be the laws by which Christians are to act.

The Old Testament philosophy of “an eye for an eye” (Ex. 21:24) evidently was used to moderate the allowed damage, in order to avoid a vendetta or series of violent acts that could spiral out of control—instead of ‘tenfold’ vengeance, there would be a simple ‘equality of suffering’. Critics argue that revenge is a simple logical fallacy, of the same design as “two wrongs make a right.” Christians are reminded that God says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19) to mean that only God has the moral right to exact revenge. Indeed, Paul gave the method for the mediation of disputes in 1 Cor. 5 & 6 to eliminate the faulty justice systems which the world would embrace.

The English word vengeance is a principal translation of several Hebrew words related to the stem NQM and of EKDIKEO (and COGNATES) in the Septuagint (or earliest Greek Old Testament) and in the New Testament. Behind the Hebrew usage of NQM stands a sense of the solidarity and integrity of the community which, having been damaged by an offense, must be restored by some deed of retaliation or punishment. The range of meaning of the motif, however, extends beyond “vengeance” and/or “punishment” to a sense of “deliverance.”

Human revenge against an enemy or enemies is demonstrated in a broad range of circumstances in the Old Testament documents (Gen. 4:23-24; Jer. 20:10). Samson’s reaction to his enemies (Judges 15:7) is so described. Vengeance might be punishment directed toward another who has committed adultery with one’s wife (Prov. 6:32-34) or toward a whole ethnic group such as the Philistines (1 Sam. 18:25). On occasion, the enemies of the people of God are described as acting vengefully (Ezekiel 25:12,15,17). In the context of loving one’s neighbor, human revenge toward fellow Hebrews was forbidden (Leviticus 19:17-18; compare Deuteronomy 32:35), but NQM may be used of legitimate punishment for a wrong (compare Ex. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:19; Deut. 19:21).
As an activity of God on behalf of His people, NQM is sometimes best understood as retribution (Judges 11:36). David was often the recipient of such favor (2 Samuel 4:8; 22:48; Ps. 18:47). The motif occurs in this sense in the prayers of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 11:20; 15:15; 20:12) and of the psalmist (Psalm 58:10; 79:10; 94:1). Note that deliverance is involved in several of these instances. The wrath of God was exhibited toward Babylon (Jeremiah 51:6,11,36; Isaiah 47:3; Ezekiel 24:7-9). In the song of Moses, such retribution is attributed to God alone (Deuteronomy 32:35,41,43). Yet, the wrath of God might be extended toward the people of Israel because of their sin (Lev. 26:25).

NQM seems to carry with it a sense of final resolution and deliverance. This can be combined with an expression of God’s wrath against Israel’s enemies (Isaiah 34:8). The parallel Isaianic phrases “day of vengeance” and “year of my redemption” have the same import (63:4; compare 61:1-3).

In the New Testament, the theme of “vengeance” (ekdikeo and cognates) occurs on relatively few occasions. Of the evangelists, Luke alone uses both the verb and the noun. In Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge, a widow’s persistent request for vindication from her enemy is grudgingly granted. Luke displayed the parable as a worst-case model of God’s vindication (“deliverance”) of His people (Luke 18:1-8). In another teaching of Jesus, “vengeance” has an eschatological dimension which is reflective of Isa. 63:4 (Lk 21:22). A further example is found in Stephen’s speech of God's retribution (Acts 7:24).

Paul forbade human vengeance much in the way of Deuteronomy 32:35 (compare Leviticus 19:18), asserting that the Lord is the Avenger of wrong (Romans 12:19; 1 Thessalonians 4:6-7). In the Corinthian letter, Paul used both noun and verb in the sense of “punishment.” The usage seems designed to bring about repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10-11; 10:5-6). On one occasion, Paul wrote of the ruler of a state as a servant of God, “a revenger to execute wrath upon him who doeth evil” (Romans 13:4). Once, he wrote of the end-time wrath (judgment) of God (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8; compare Isaiah 66:15; Psalm 79:6).

The author of Hebrews also cited Deuteronomy prohibiting human vengeance (Hebrews 10:30; Deuteronomy 32:35; compare Romans 12:19; Lev. 19:18), and the inspired Peter referred to human governors as persons sent by God to punish evildoers (1 Peter 2:14; compare Rom. 13:4).

In the fashion of Hebrews, the author of Revelation viewed God as the Avenger who vindicates His people against their enemies (Revelation 6:10; 19:2). Both of these usages carry a view of the end of time (See Isaiah 63:1-6). Are there circumstances under which human passion can be justifiably used by a Christian to seek vengveance against an evildoer? Absolutely not!

Then what about the expression of Paul to the Corinthians concerning the brother who had “his father’s wife” (1 Cor. 5:1) when they had delivered “such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh”? In the 2 Cor. Paul says, “...what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (2 Cor. 7:11). Does the word “revenge” used here carries the idea “to inflict injury in return for” the sin committed by the brother? Why no!

Listen to the New King James Version: “What clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication!” The idea is that the congregation was at fault for failing to address the sin to “convert (the brother) from the error of his way...” saving his soul from death, and hiding a multitude of sins (James 5:19,20). By acting as the apostle Paul directed they were vindicated of their wrong and the erring brother was saved. In the remainder of the chapter Paul continues to ease their feeling of blame, for they had carried out their responsibility as a congregation and had restored the fallen man.

After his repentance they were to encourage the brother showing he was forgiven, “comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow... confirm (their) love toward him” (2 Cor. 2:7,8).

Christians are never justified in doing wrong! We are here to win souls to the way of right.