Vengeance is not ours

David Ker of Lingamish has challenged me to respond to his post What to do with the vengeance of the Old Testament? Skip it. So I will try to do so, although I don’t find this easy.

David is writing partly in response to his earlier post The Bible is not the Gospel. In that post he made a good point against the kind of Old Testament based preaching which he often comes across in Africa. Of course he is right that in Christian churches the dominant message presented should be one of grace and forgiveness, not of law and condemnation. And in general it is easier to preach grace and forgiveness from the New Testament.

But that does not justify David’s rather too negative views of the Old Testament, according to which “Everything in the OT is either a warning or a shadow”. There are in the Old Testament good positive principles and examples for us as Christians. The problem is sometimes in discerning what is profitable for us in this way, and what should be considered profitable only as an example of how not to behave.

In the light of this I return to David’s follow-up post, in which he looks particularly at the Old Testament passages which seem to promote vengeance. How should we relate to those?

First, we need to understand clearly what the passages are teaching. As Henry Neufeld points out in a post yesterday, the Old Testament teaching about “an eye for an eye”

was intended not to mandate revenge, but to limit it. Modern Christians understand it as some sort of command to mass mayhem, and are thankful that Jesus overruled it.

But the intention was precisely to limit the kind of “mass mayhem” which we are seeing in central Nigeria, on which Ruth Gledhill reports, where thousands have been killed horrifically in an escalating series of religious clashes. In the latest massacres the perpetrators are Muslims and the victims mostly Christians, but this is in response to earlier atrocities allegedly committed by professing Christians. I wonder what sort of teaching on revenge is given in their churches.

Then we also have to remember what kind of literature we are reading. David looks at Psalms 63 and 137 in which vengeance is mentioned. But the psalms are the response of fallible human beings to God, and should not be misunderstood as teaching from God. They are included in our “inspired” Bible not as propositional revelation prescribing human behaviour but as authentic examples in poetry of how real people poured out their hearts to God.

Not all of the Old Testament teaching on killing others can be dismissed so easily. There are places where God clearly commands mass killing, most notably the mandated massacre of the Canaanites after the conquest under Joshua. This post would be too long if I went into this issue in depth. So I will simply note that this killing was not a matter of revenge, but was commanded by God as a judgment on the Canaanites’ sin and because it was necessary for his wider purposes.

So what is the Old Testament teaching about revenge? David needs to remember that that is the source of the two quotations on the subject which Paul uses in Romans 12:19-21:

It is mine to avenge; I will repay.

The LORD speaking in Deuteronomy 32:35 (TNIV)

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you.

Proverbs 25:21-22 (TNIV)

9 thoughts on “Vengeance is not ours

  1. Excellent. And thanks for the link to Henry’s post. I think we agree that OT exegesis is prone to error. I’m trying to lay out some baselines from which we can draw finer distinctions.

  2. “not as propositional revelation prescribing human behaviour but as authentic examples in poetry of how real people poured out their hearts to God.”

    wow, Peter. That’s poetic, and plenty helpful.

  3. “not as propositional revelation prescribing human behaviour but as authentic examples in poetry of how real people poured out their hearts to God.”
    Poetic. Yes. Plenty Helpful. No, not really.

    The Psalms have never really been considered a divinely sanctioned poetry slam where cheers and tears are poured out over the cliche term of “authenticity.”

    Although, I do think the Psalms are authentic poems, but they are liturgical in nature. They were and still are poems celebrated in community in which families, tribes, and nations are supposed to find their own voice. The poets song is their song and in very real sense, Jesus’ song. Jesus found his identity in the Psalms he didn’t just value you them for their real raw emo display of humanity before God.

    If we are to justice to the Psalms we can’t dismiss this in this way. My question is how do they relate to Christ and how are they legitimate in content in addition to emotional transparency?

  4. Justin, I make no claim to have done full justice to the psalms in that one sentence. Yes, there is a communal and liturgical dimension to them which I did not touch on. And there is an issue about how they relate to Christ. However, there are those who take them in a wrong way as a source of doctrine, going back to Augustine’s misuse of Psalm 51:5 as a proof text for original sin. I think it would also be wrong to take the psalmists’ expressions of vengefulness as divine warrant for Christians taking revenge. If no one has ever done that, good. But David seems to suggest that at least in Africa (also Augustine’s home continent!) there are people who understand the psalms in that way.

  5. What’s helpful to me in your (rather poetic) line, Peter, is not that it does full justice to all the psalms in every instance. Didn’t you use the phrase “as examples”? Rather, what’s helpful is to acknowledge more in the scriptures than mere proposition. Kenneth Pike used to give lectures after he’d do one of his famous monolingual demonstrations, and then he’d end the whole event by reciting poetry that he’d written. Sometimes he’d even say that we don’t get everything by proposition (i.e., by lecture) as he was demonstrating that well. The bible does that better than Pike ever could and than you, Peter, might ever say it. And, thus, your sentence is plenty helpful, to me anyway.

  6. Pingback: What to do with the vengeance of the Old Testament? Skip it. | lingamish

  7. Pingback: On the Old Testament and Vengeance « Participatory Bible Study Blog

  8. Pingback: Violence in the Canon « The Golden Rule

  9. Pingback: vengeance is not ours

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