I was reading the other day in Psalm 94 and I came across something that really caught my eye. In the first verse, the psalmist proclaims this: “O Lord, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth!”
O God of vengeance? I can think of a lot of things for which to praise the Lord. I could praise Him for His goodness, His love, His mercy, His compassion, His justice, His righteousness, His faithfulness, His generosity, His protection, His plans, His gentleness, His care, and I could probably keep going here for a while. You may want to go get a sandwich and come back.
The point is: There are lots of things for which we could easily offer praise to God. Vengeance doesn’t usually (or ever) fall on that list. Why would the psalmist offer praise like this as the start of his poem and why would that particular song get picked up for the collection of sacred songs that were counted as Scripture?
Because God’s vengeance is something for which we should offer Him praise, that’s why. Don’t buy it? Think about it with me for a few minutes. What is vengeance? One formal definition I read is that it is
“Punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong.”
In other words, in the right circumstances, vengeance is a good thing. When someone has done something wrong, punishment is deserved. The more grievous the wrong, the more deserved is the punishment. The more grievous the wrong, the more necessary and proper is the punishment.
Now, if you are the guilty party you may not agree, but then your goal is to avoid the consequences naturally attendant with your action and so of course vengeance isn’t something you are going to look to celebrate. You are looking for forgiveness or at the very least a “forget about it.”
“And isn’t this right?” someone might counter here? How can God be a God of both vengeance and forgiveness? Aren’t those mutually exclusive ideas? How can God be the God of both without having an irreconcilable conflict in His character? See! I knew the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament!
Not so fast. To whom is forgiveness granted? Everybody, of course! I don’t think so. Forgiveness is granted to people who are repentant of whatever was their offense. If someone does something wrong or inflicts an injury to another party, later feels guilty and convicted over it, and responds to this positively by genuinely repenting and going to seek forgiveness for it, he is going to find it. Given the grace of God and His justice in light of the actions of Jesus on the cross both he and we should expect for him to receive it. In such a situation, the repentant person will be driven by the Spirit to seek to atone for the offense he has dealt by making things right with the offended party.
But, what about the person who commits some wrong, ignores the conviction of the Spirit, and is not in the least bit repentant, much less sorry? Forgiveness not only will not be extended to him, it cannot be. This is the case because he is not seeking forgiveness. The offer of release from the debt he owes because of the offense he has dealt is on the table, but if he does not receive it, it will not be forced on him.
What should be done in this case? For the sake of the injured party who would otherwise be stuck with the injury and its collateral damage without recourse, we should pursue justice by way of vengeance. The unrepentant guilty party should be made to pay and deliver retribution for his crimes. That is justice and should be celebrated. A nation worth living in should have a legal system from which its citizens should expect such behavior.
But who should administer such vengeance? In most cases, the state should do it on behalf of the broader citizenry. A person who commits a crime has in some ways offended not only his victim, but all of the people around him and owes them all a debt. The state can make sure this is all paid properly and justly. But what if the offending party is still not repentant after the state has done what it can? Or better yet, what if the person fully intends to do it again or perhaps has done something over which the state cannot exercise any power? Who exacts vengeance in this kind of a situation?
Well, for most of history, people have argued and acted as if it were the prerogative of the offended party to seek vengeance. In other words, most people have answered that question by declaring, “Vengeance is ours.” The problem here is that human vengeance rarely goes well. In fact, it usually goes rather poorly. We either do too little and respond with less force than is necessary to match the severity of the crime, or, as is more often the case, we respond with way too much force and deal our own offense-worthy-of-vengeance in the process of exacting it.
What we need is someone objective to the issue like the state should be, but even more perfectly so, who is also going to respond in a manner precisely measured to the offense without fail, every single time. Such a person would free us from having to bear the burden of vengeance ourselves while simultaneously guaranteeing that we will have a just recourse when we have been offended.
As it turns out, we have exactly such a someone in our God. In addition to all the other attributes we talk about more frequently, our God is also a God of vengeance. What’s more, we should be very grateful for this. Because He is a God of vengeance, we can rest with confidence that when we have been dealt an offense by someone over whom the state cannot exercise jurisdiction for some reason, or better yet, when we have been dealt an offense by the state itself or an agent empowered by it explicitly or implicitly (something the Scriptures guarantee us will happen more and more frequently as we draw nearer and nearer to the return of Christ), that the wrong will one day be righted. It will be righted perfectly. The offending party will absolutely be made to pay for his crimes, satisfying our justifiable wrath over the offense.
In a nation with a very good system of justice as our has (faults to the side for the moment), and in which our worldview has generally been accepted as reasonable and honorable (an acceptance that is waning to be sure), celebrating God as a God of vengeance isn’t really something that is on our radar.
But for the people who are persecuted without positive recourse, this is a powerful attribute of God that is absolutely worth celebrating. It gives us the freedom of being able to love all people after the pattern of Jesus–even and especially those who are offending and persecuting us–with the confidence that if our love does not impact them and lead them to repentance, still, there will be a just and full recourse one day.
So, then, say it with me: I praise You, Lord, for being a God of vengeance.