For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
a year of recompense for the cause of ZionIsaiah 34:8 (ESV)
God says “Vengeance is mine!” (Deut. 32:35) This means that the only one who is allowed to be vengeful is God Himself. It is His right and His only. And if He wills to exercise it, He does so in holy, moral justice (meaning He is not immoral to do so, nor is He unholy nor does He violate His character of love when He acts in vengeance). Therefore, applying our earthly condemnation of vengeance as immoral does not apply to God.
But why? Why is God’s vengeance still in the realm of love while man’s is not? Because, unlike man’s vengeance, God’s is not done out of self-gratification or vindictiveness, nor does it proceed out of a sense of injury or indignation. God’s vengeance comes out of or proceeds from, justice. In other words, God’s vengeance is about establishing an equilibrium where wrongs have been made right and aims to return humanity to a state of peace (or shalom). This equilibrium may come in the form of either punishing the oppressors or vindicating the oppressed.
Man, however, confuses this loving act of vengeance with his own acts of revenge, which are emotionally driven behaviors that seek to exact punishment for a wrongdoing out of anger or malice. It may feel like equilibrium has been achieved when we make someone hurt as bad as we have been hurt, but it does not have an eye on restoring peace between each other or between ourselves and God. But since man equates God’s vengeance with revenge, and since he knows that revenge is only interested in purposefully inflicting pain (which is evil), he concludes God’s vengeance is evil.
But it is not. It is lovingly just.
The consequences of God exercising His vengeance may cause pain, but this is to be expected when justice engages and overwhelmingly conquers evil. Evil will not go down without a fight. It will not be satisfied with relinquishing any power or position it has acquired in any mind, heart, soul, community, country, business, or endeavor. There will, therefore, be a war between what is right and what is evil. And in order for justice to prevail and good to be established in its rightful place, evil must be altogether eradicated. Not one stone can be left unturned. And because evil is manifested in the choices, beliefs, and actions of men and women and cultures, the cost for victory sometimes comes with the price of life itself. This was true in the Old Testament when God commanded Joshua to wipe out the Canaanites, and this was true at the cross, when Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21), and in so doing, showed Himself as both just and the justifier of those who have faith in Him (Rom. 3:26). Both were acts of love for His people. Just as leaving a child unprotected is neglectful and evil, so, too, leaving sinful people to their own devices to resist evil and to do good is both unjust and unloving. But removing the dangers that lure them away from safety and providing the conditions that allow for them to continually stay out of harm’s way and learn to continuously practice good is altogether just and loving.
God is interested in and personally works to make His children perfect. Vengeance is necessary so that the war against evil within one’s own self ends only in the complete destruction of evil. Not just its surrender. When understood in this way, it makes sense for God to say, “Vengeance is mine.” Only He can and should do the work of restoring shalom within us. And only He can and should do the work of restoring justice, or shalom, outside of us. Vengeance belongs only to Him.