By Aaron Brown, Crosswalk.com
“Vengeance and retribution belong to me. In time their foot will slip, for their day of disaster is near, and their doom is coming quickly.” (Deuteronomy 32:35)
We exist in a world of duality where many aspects of life come in pairs. Good and evil. Husband and wife. Hope and despair. Young and old. God and Satan. Within this duality, we also have virtue and sin. One describes what we do well, the other, what we do wrong.
If asked, most of us will associate ourselves with positive qualities before saying anything negative. A few of us may say nothing negative at all. The truth, however, is that we possess both positive and negative attributes. The negatives are what make each of us a sinner (Romans 3:23). If everyone has sinned, then we have all committed wrongs against God and other people.
Laziness, slander, violence, lying, theft, rape, murder, abuse, the list of our collective sins goes on and on. What should we do after sin has been committed? As Christians, we are quick to say forgive. That’s what Christ told Peter when broached on the topic (Matthew 18:22). That’s what we tell each other today, but how many of us are so quick to forgive? And how many of us forgive this much?
During a time where cancel culture is popular in America, society is not acting out of forgiveness but rather vengeance. Someone has sinned and we want to enact consequences for their wrongdoing. Even outside of cancel culture, sometimes when people offend us, we want to strike back. Maybe we ignore someone’s phone call or text, walk by them without speaking, or get snippy when they talk to us, all in an effort for payback.
At a glance, this sounds feasible. There are consequences for our actions. We have laws and a justice system to hold people accountable. Isn’t the law taking revenge on someone for their misdeeds? Why shouldn’t we?
God says that vengeance is His, not ours. While we do have a law system, any system that doesn't abide by Scripture is not God-approved. And God has not approved of us taking personal revenge on people.
What makes God’s vengeance so different from our own? What does Scripture even mean by the word vengeance? With a deeper look at Scripture, we can get to the root of this verse.
What Is the Meaning of 'Vengeance Is Mine' in Deut. 32:35?
The Book of Deuteronomy was authored by Moses. In this chapter, he portrays a picture of God that is by modern standards, not very gentle. The prophet speaks on behalf of the Lord, presenting a message to the Jews about God’s unwavering, just, and powerful nature. The message is not a prophecy, but rather a song and the character of God we read about is one displeased with sin. More specifically, He is angered by the sins of His people.
God is not only privy to the wrongdoings of the Jews, He will pay them back for doing such things as worshipping false idols. Moses calls out the Jews for their sins by regarding them as a “crooked generation” and “senseless people” (Deuteronomy 32:5-6). He goes on to remind them that God is their Father and Creator. When they sinned, they were not acknowledging these titles. Instead, they believed in and promoted false gods.
Moses wants to remind his people that God has watched over their every step. He wants them to believe this truth. He accomplishes this by citing Jacob as an example. Jacob is representative of the Jews. Between verses 10 and 14, we read that God blessed and provided for Jacob. After those lines, Moses follows up by referencing Jeshurun, a poetic name for Israel, saying that the nation rebelled against God. The nation became fat from God’s blessings, and despite God’s goodness, they rebelled. They provoked God, ignored Him, and put other false gods first.
The rebellion led to God becoming angry. Moses quotes the Lord a few times in this passage. The quotes present ways God will recompense the people for their sins. That's when we read about God’s vengeance and retribution in verse 35. However, the vengeance God is declaring is not limited to the Jews. Interestingly, in the next line, we read that God will “vindicate his people'' and “have compassion on his servants” (Deuteronomy 32:36). This is God’s gentler side, right after we read about his vengeance.
In the last stanza of the song, Moses says to Israel that they are God’s “people” (Deuteronomy 32:43). God will take vengeance upon His adversaries. In this song, we do not hear from Moses that God wants His people to take out any personal grievances. He’s in charge of that. While we may have a desire for vengeance, ostensibly the Lord does too. He wants us to let Him be in charge. The reason we know this, aside from this passage from Moses, is Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness.
What Does the Bible Say about Vengeance?
Reconsidering the idea of duality, sin is observed differently in the Old Testament versus the New Testament. From the former, we glean the idea of an eye for an eye. Then in the New Testament, Jesus advocates for forgiveness (Matthew 5:38-39). Moses’ song does not mention any sentiment of an eye for an eye. Vengeance belongs to God. Complimenting this idea, in the New Testament we learn that human anger cannot accomplish God’s degree of righteousness (James 1:20).
Taking into account both ideas and what God says about sin, we can conclude that vengeance is not wrong, but how we enact our emotions can be. God feels anger, but God is good. We feel anger, but we are not always good.
Therefore, we might feel justified in our anger, but like God’s people of old, our emotions can lead us astray. Since we are sinners, we might use our anger in a way that does not please the Lord. The Bible presents various examples. Moses himself murdered a man after experiencing anger. He decided for himself to acquire vengeance and sinned in the process. Only by relying on God can we ensure that any vengeance inflicted is done so righteously.
How Should We Apply This Verse to Our Lives?
Relying on God for vengeance does not mean we should abolish our law system. Having laws and consequences is what the Jews had too. Jesus never asked that we abolish all laws. In fact, America was built on Judeo-Christian values which have been imbued in our law system. For example, we know that murder, rape, and theft are wrong because of the Bible, not because of societal standards. Not all societies consider those actions wrong. What was taught in the Bible became law, though that has been changing for the worse in some parts of the country.
Nonetheless, where the law and Scripture do not agree, we as Christians know to pick God over the law each time. Regarding vengeance, God’s Word may require that we rethink our positions on such things as the death penalty. Moreover, if God is in charge of revenge, then we need to ensure we work on forgiving others. There are consequences for sin, but God is in charge of those, not us. We do not need to try and deliver payback to people who offend us.
We can use the law, but taking matters into our own hands to cause other people suffering, can lead to our ruin. Let’s avoid this by relying on God.
Vengeance is an idea that most of us are familiar with and even desire at one time or another. Our desire for revenge is in part why we look at fictional superheroes like Batman with admiration. He and similar individuals, fictional or not, operate outside of the law using “unconventional” methods to get the job done and bring about justice. We desire justice, but don’t always want to go God’s route toward that end.
But vengeance is not meant to be taken out on our own accord. Let’s instead trust the Lord wholeheartedly and see what He wants to be done.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes.” (Romans 12:17)
Photo credit: Unsplash.com/Iyan Kurnia
Aaron Brown is a freelance writer, hip-hop dance teacher, and visual artist, living in Virginia. He currently contributes work to iBelieve, Crosswalk, and supports various clients through the platform Upwork. He's an outside-the-box thinker with a penchant for challenging the status quo.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.