In the Song of Moses, the dying leader of Israel preaches the word of God to God’s people. In Deuteronomy 32:35, God declares in this song, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.” God’s vengeance is deadly: “I put to death and I bring to life; I have wounded and I will heal.” Lest his enemies think they’re safe in their sin, God says, “I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me.”
The songbook of Israel isn’t skittish about vengeance. Rather, the psalmists celebrate the God of vengeance. “The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked” (Psalm 58:19). The psalmist calls God to rise up and judge on the basis that “the Lord is a God who avenges.” (Psalm 94:1). God’s people are counseled to be patient and “wait for the Lord.” They are not lulled into passivity because their God is passive. They wait for God because “He will avenge you” (Prov 20:22). The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah preach God’s vengeance upon Israel’s enemies. Even Joseph’s refusal to punish his brothers who sold him into slavery is based on God’s exclusive right to avenge. Joseph asks, “Am I in the place of God?” (Gen 50:19). Joseph assumes God has the position and authority to punish and repay, not him.
How can we better understand this word vengeance belongs to the Lord?
Try as we might, we can’t go to the New Testament to circumvent the vengeance of God. Paul counsels the Christians in Rome to not take revenge, but he doesn’t condemn vengeance itself. Instead, Paul tells them to “leave room for God’s wrath” (Rom 12:19). The sixth chapter of Revelation contains the desperate cry of the martyrs for revenge. God will answer their cry against Babylon when He “avenges on her the blood of his servants” (Rev 19:2). Not even an appeal to Jesus will work: He promises that the towns who reject his apostles will have it worse than Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 10).
Alongside this consistent theme of God’s vengeance is the condemnation of men and women who take justice into their own hands. God hears Abel’s blood cry out from the ground when Cain avenges himself and exiles Cain east of Eden. Esau’s reconciliation with Jacob is shocking because it is such a monumental change from his wicked plan to kill his brother. Saul makes a rash vows to avenge himself on anyone who eats honey, not knowing his son Jonathan has eaten the honey to strengthen himself in battle. The take-away is clear: vengeance is the Lord’s, not Cain’s. Vengeance belongs to God, not Esau. Vengeance is right for YHWH, not right for Saul.
What can help us is the three greatest revenge stories of all time: Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and V For Vendetta. Movie lovers are welcome to watch the film adaptations, but must remember the ancient maxim: the book is always better than the movie. In each of these stories, the audience follows each protagonist’s search for sweet, sweet justice. By the end of each story, the American Ahab, the French Edmond Dantés, and the British V have spent their whole lives returning evil for evil.
The authors of the three great revenge stories were not necessarily orthodox Christians. And yet, each of their protagonists admit that they are pretending to be God. Moby Dick’s protagonist is Ishmael, but Ishmael writes about Ahab, the captain of the Pequod. After the white whale Moby Dick bites off Ahab’s leg, this captain pursues the whale. Thanks to a conversation with his first mate Starbuck, Ahab doubts himself and his mission. But, in the end, he rationalizes his self-destructive quest the day before the chase. “What is it, what nameless, inscrutable unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God or who, that lifts this arm?” Ahab believes that his heart couldn’t beat, his mind couldn’t think, and his body couldn’t live “unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.” In other words, Ahab’s actions are God’s actions, not his own. When Ahab lifts his arm, it is not Ahab doing the lifting but God himself.
The next day, Ahab chases after the white whale to avenge himself.
After Edmond Dantès is betrayed and wrongfully sent to prison for fourteen years, he nurtures a burning hatred for the men who ruined his life. Edmond escapes the prison and changes himself into the Count of Monte Cristo. In a frank admission, he compares himself with Christ: “I have been taken by Satan into the highest mountain in the earth, and when there he said to me, ‘Child of earth, what wouldst thou have to make thee adore me?’ I replied, ‘Listen, I wish to be Providence myself, for I feel that the most beautiful, noblest, most sublime thing in the world, is to recompense and punish.’”
Edmond wants to be Providence itself. To him, providence is punishment, the punishment he will pour out on his enemies.
Cloaked in all-black and always donning a Guy Fawkes mask, the mysterious anarchist V hunts down his enemies one-by-one. They tortured him in a concentration camp and turned him into a monster. He kills all of them without exception. One of his final adversaries puts up a fight, but fails to kill V before the British anarchist delivers this line. “Did you think to kill me? There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. Ideas are bulletproof.”
And so bulletproof V strikes down his final enemy.
Ahab’s arm is the arm of God. The Count of Monte Cristo is Providence in the flesh. The anarchist V is a Bulletproof Idea. Each of these men help us understand why vengeance belongs to God because each of these men are a foil. They are not-gods showing us the chasm between Creator and creatures, the Omniscient God and ignorant men, the Perfect Judge and inveterate sinners.
The Christian faith teaches us that there is a bright line between Creator and creation. In short, God is not like you and me. God is the source and sustaining power of all space and time. There is no limit to his power, wisdom, or goodness. We are not God precisely because we have all these limits. It is precisely because we are ignorant and impotent that we cannot take justice into our own hands. Vengeance doesn’t belong to us because we can’t handle vengeance well. Each of us lacks the omniscient mind to know exactly what justice entails, exactly what each one of us deserves. Vengeance likewise gets out of our control quickly; we are powerless to reign it in. As Augustine wrote in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount: “It is no simple matter to find someone who, on receiving a single blow, would want to retaliate by a single blow.”
Look at Ahab’s inability to reason. He can’t heed the warnings of Starbuck. He can’t have a rational conversation with the captains of other ships passing by the Pequod. He is committed to one incessant journey and Ishmael is a witness to his madness. Because he can’t think straight anymore, his quest for vengeance condemns the lives of every sailor aboard his ship.
Look at the Count’s intricate plans to get back at his enemies. Sure, the reader can’t help but feel a thrill when the unjust lawyer Villefort finally gets his comeuppance. But then we follow Villefort home and watch as his wife commits suicide and takes her son with her. Their deaths weren’t a part of the Count’s plans. The Count’s impotence — his lack of control — is precisely why we can’t trust him to do vengeance well.
Of the three protagonists, V is the one who seems to have omniscience and omnipotence. His plans work perfectly; he always gets exactly what he wants. But even his strength and foresight fail because V is wicked. In order to test Evey’s loyalty to his cause, he tortures her with beatings. V lacks the love of God and so, by the end of the book, he becomes just as cruel as his captors. Vengeance is the Lord’s because the Lord is all-knowing, all-powerful, and always good. Vengeance is not Ahab’s, not Edmond’s, and not V’s because they are mere creatures.
If we return to God’s claim, “vengeance is mine,” we might be tempted to read it as an indictment against God. Only a violent and savage God would say vengeance belongs to Him. Unfortunately, we have more in common with Ahab, Dantés, and V than we do with God. Our culture breeds revenge in us.
The tell-tale signs are all around us. Anonymous online mobs take justice into their own hands and ruin the lives of those who perpetrate the smallest social infractions. Crowds cheer when enemies are taken down or cancelled, but don’t bother to distinguish between just punishment and vengeance. The media doesn’t have the time to follow the stories as people lose their jobs, their homes, their sanity, and sometimes, their lives. If our culture simply followed an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, it would probably be an improvement.
When the online mob hunts its prey, there is no path for confession and absolution. There is no forgiveness, divine or human. Worst of all, the self-righteous mob feels no need for self-reflection. They are the Count of Monte Cristo, Providence Online. They are Ahab, failing to heed any of the warning signs. They are V, as cruel as their enemies.
We need to be chastened again by the word of the Lord. When we take vengeance, we take what belongs to God. Regardless of their beliefs, the books of Melville, Dumas, and Moore remind us of the truth. Vengeance is not yours or mine. It’s His and His alone.
God’s unique authority to mete out vengeance runs parallel with his unique power to save. God hears Abel’s blood crying out from the ground, which is why God punishes Cain with exile. But the author of Hebrews knows that Christ’s “sprinkled blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Abel’s blood cries out for a just punishment that only God can give. Christ’s blood, poured out for us, cries out for everlasting forgiveness for our sins. Mercy indeed triumphs over judgment.
Great write-up, Mitch. Miroslav Volf (courtesy of Derek Rishmawy, actually) is who helped me see my dedication to nonviolence should not remove the presence of God’s vengeance. It’s only by properly understanding divine retribution that allows Christians to stand firmly without retaliating: because we can trust the Lord will bring justice, even if it may not happen today.