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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Vengeance (2)

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VENGEANCE.—The word ‘vengeance’ (ἐκδίκησις) occurs in Authorized and Revised Versions of the Gospels only in Luke 21:22, where it refers to God’s providential punishment of sin. ἐκδίκησις occurs also in the phrase ποιεῖν ἐκδίκησιν (Authorized and Revised Versions ‘avenge’) in the parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:7-8), and the corresponding verb ἐκδικέω (also rendered ‘avenge’; cf. (Revised Version margin) ‘do me justice of’) is found in the same parable (Luke 18:3; Luke 18:5). Outside the Gospels these words and the cognate ἔκδικος occur exactly a dozen times. Some of the passages will call for reference in the course of this article. We are not left, however, to the very rare use of this small group of words for our Lord’s teaching on vengeance. We gather it from several passages of direct instruction, from His continual insistence on an unrevengeful, a forgiving, loving spirit, and from His own conduct throughout His ministry, but especially at its close.

Our word ‘vengeance’ is closely related to two others,—‘avenge’ and ‘revenge,’—between which, at least in modern usage, an important distinction is made. Both have to do with the redress of wrong. In ‘avenge’ the idea of the justice of the redress or punishment is prominent. In ‘revenge,’ on the other hand, the predominant thought is that of the infliction of punishment or pain, not necessarily unjust, for the gratification of resentful or malicious feelings (note, e.g., in Jeremiah 15:15 the substitution in Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 of ‘avenge’ for Authorized Version ‘revenge,’ and on the other hand the retention of ‘avenge’ in Romans 12:19). ‘Vengeance’ leans, now to the one, now to the other of these meanings. It may be just, it may be malicious; even when it is just, the motive may be wrong.

1. The aim of Christ was to create in His disciples a new attitude towards those who had wronged them. Evidently He was preparing them, at least in part, for injuries that must come to them as His followers (Matthew 5:10 ff.); but His teaching has, of course, a much wider application. The permission, even encouragement, of retaliation by the OT, and still more the interpretations, exaggerations, limitations of the scribes and Pharisees, Christ swept away with an authority which astounded His hearers. He denounced the attitude of retaliation and hatred, and commanded His disciples to accept the sufferings which fell to their lot. But this was more than a demand for a new attitude. It was the exorcizing of an evil spirit, and the opening of the doors of the heart to a new spirit. An attitude may be merely external and mechanical. Christ wants more. The negative must have a corresponding positive or be morally worthless. Forgiveness and benevolence must take the place of vengeance; love, not hatred, must be the motive of thought and act. ‘Enemy’ must be blotted out of the vocabulary of the follower of Christ, at least as a category in which any of his fellow-men may be included. Others may hate and persecute him; he must love and pray for them, and do them good. It is this new spirit that is the supreme moral difficulty; it is here that all questions of interpretation and application must find their solution. We must remember, not only Christ’s ‘resist not,’ but also His ‘pray for,’ and His ‘love.’

This teaching of Christ is found constantly throughout the Gospels. He pronounced ‘blessed’ the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted (Matthew 5:5; Matthew 5:7; Matthew 5:9-10 ff.). He rebuked James and John when they would have called down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village that would not receive Him (Luke 9:51 ff.). He taught His disciples to forgive a sinning but penitent brother, not with a niggard, but with a generous and inexhaustible forgiveness (Luke 17:3 f., cf. Matthew 18:21 ff.). He even makes God’s forgiveness of a man depend on the man’s forgiveness of his fellow (Matthew 6:14; Matthew 18:35, Mark 11:25 f.). He taught His disciples to pray that they might be forgiven as they forgave others (Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4). He warned the Twelve, as He sent them out on their mission (Matthew 10), that they would suffer hatred, persecution, even death, for His sake; and charged them to be, in the midst of wolves, ‘wise as serpents and harmless as doves’ (Matthew 10:16), in the endurance of their sufferings to have no fear, but to rely on God.

2. His own conduct during His ministry is the best commentary on His teaching. It is true that there is much denunciation of evil (e.g. Matthew 23), that He upbraided for their unbelief the cities where He had wrought His great miracles (Matthew 11:20 ff. ||), that He swept the Temple clear of those who had robbed it of its sanctity (John 2:14 ff., Matthew 21:12 ff. ||). But these are echoes of the Divine wrath; they are not in any single instance the expression of personal anger, of retaliation, of hatred. On the other hand, we have His patient endurance of all manner of personal abuse, His heart-broken lament over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37 ||), His bearing during and after His trial (Matthew 26, 27), and above all, His prayer on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34).

3. This teaching of Christ, forbidding vengeance, requiring forgiveness and love, is built on a firm religious basis. His aim as a religious Teacher, as the Sent of God, was to renew the sin-broken fellowship between men and God, to make men sons of God; but the indispensable condition of sonship is unity of nature. The essence of the Divine nature is love, and the highest manifestation of the Divine love is forgiveness and benevolence. The spirit of malevolence, of retaliation, of vindictive dealing with men, is alien to the spirit of God. Therefore it must be banned out of the heart of those who would be sons of God, and replaced by the spirit of forgiveness, of ungrudging love. It is this conception of the essential love of God issuing in forgiveness, in love, that is the basis of the high demands of Christ, and the inspiration and possibility of our response (Matthew 5:43-45; Matthew 5:48; Matthew 18:23-35, Luke 6:35. Note, also, how Christ links the Second Commandment to the First as ‘like unto it,’ Matthew 22:39 ||).

4. If the teaching of Christ seem at first sight impracticable, destructive of moral order, and delivering wrong-doers from the fear of punishment, the answer to these objections is not far to seek. In the first place, liberation from the spirit of vengeance is a moral triumph for the sufferer of wrong. Revenge is evil. It belongs at best to a lower stage of morality and of the knowledge of God. It cannot justify itself to those who have seen God in the face of Jesus Christ. The sons of God must be like the Son of God, like God Himself, who loves and forgives without limit. Further, love is the most potent moral force that the world has ever known. To meet wrong with revenge may be a satisfaction, and may seem a right thing to the natural man. Vengeance may accomplish its object, may fully punish and even crush the wrong-doer. But it does not conquer him, it does not crush the wrong out of his heart, it does not make him ashamed of his sin, it does not win him to good and to God. Love does—not always indeed, but often—and nothing else can. Love is a heaping of coals of fire on an enemy’s head (Romans 12:20), the kindling of a burning shame in his heart, the overcoming of evil with good, the triumph of God. See art. Retaliation.

5. There is a further and a very solemn strain in the teaching of Christ, in which we find the final answer to the fear that moral anarchy may arise from the exorcism of the spirit of vengeance. The clearest expression of it is found outside the Gospels (Romans 12:19): ‘Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto wrath [τῇ ὁργῇ, the wrath, the wrath of God]: for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord.’ To avenge ourselves is to assume the prerogative of God. So Christ teaches, e.g., in the parable of the Unjust Judge: ‘Shall not God avenge his own elect?… I say unto you, that he will avenge them speedily’ (Luke 18:7 f.). It is in this light that we must read all Christ’s words of denunciation, His parables of Judgment, His judicial acts (such as the cleansing of the Temple), His lament over impenitent Jerusalem. ‘It shall be more tolerable … in the day of judgment’ (Matthew 10:15; cf. Matthew 10:33; Matthew 11:20 ff; Matthew 12:36 f., Matthew 16:3 f., John 8:44). The moral order of the world will be vindicated by Him whose right alone it is to mete out vengeance to evildoers, who alone has adequate knowledge and wisdom to do justice to sin.

It would, of course, be easy to hold this teaching of Christ in a wrong spirit, to cherish a sense of satisfaction that, even if we may not avenge ourselves, yet vengeance is certainly in store for wrong-doers. This would be entirely contrary to the spirit of Christ. It would be the old evil spirit of vengeance in a new form, a more subtle and therefore a worse form. It would mean an utter absence of the love which Christ inculcates, which desires and prays for the good of the enemy. It would be the conquest of ourselves by evil, not of the evil in others by good. But, on the other hand, the moral sense which God has implanted in us, and which He has strengthened by His revelation of Himself, could not rest satisfied unless it were assured that evil shall not go unpunished, that unrepented wrong shall receive its due reward from an all-wise and, let us add, an all-loving God.

Literature.—Grimm-Thayer, Lex. s. vv.; EGT [Note: GT Expositor’s Greek Testanent.] , ad locc. cit.; Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, ‘Matthew’; Tholuck, Com. on Sermon on the Mount; Goebel, Parables; Sanday-Headlam, Romans; Moule, Romans; Stevens, Teaching of Jesus; Wendt, Teaching of Jesus; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , artt. ‘Anger (Wrath) of God,’ ‘Avenge,’ ‘Ethics,’ ‘Forgiveness,’ ‘Goel’; JE [Note: E Jewish Encyclopedia.] , artt. ‘Forgiveness,’ ‘Goel,’ ‘Retaliation.’

Charles S. Macalpine.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Vengeance (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/v/vengeance-2.html. 1906-1918.

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