In the ferociousness of our fury, when we're really steaming, I think we all have at least one friend who will turn to us and say, in an attempt to calm us down, "It's not your place. Vengeance belongs to God." That settles us enough to let the moment pass while entertaining visions of the object of our wrath burning in Hell as we stand at God's side and point and mock.
Really, it's the stuff dreams are made of.
Then, I think we all have a few friends who will also tell us to let it go, that getting back or getting even only lessens our character. That is true, too, because you're just prolonging this pain in your heart and it hardens you...while the other party has already moved on and doesn't know what you're so upset about (or doesn't care). And then we revert to visions of God's justice and their burning in Hell. (We really like the idea of Hell, as long as we're not the ones going there.)
But what is God's vengeance? Is it justice? Is it revenge? Is it something in between or something different altogether?
I think it's love.
This morning, my Bible study took me into the heart of Ezekiel, where God is talking to this prophet He calls the son of man, laying out the future for a people (Israel) who have turned their back on Him and His promises. In chapter 20, He's talking about the past and present sins of His people and how He has responded each time.
So I was going to pour out my fury on them and unleash my anger on them in Egypt. But I acted so that my name would not be dishonored among the nations where they were living. While other nations were watching, I made myself known to them by bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. (verse 8d-9)
So I was going to pour out my fury on them in the desert and completely wipe them out. But I acted so that my name would not be dishonored among the nations who had watched me bring the Israelites out of Egypt. (verse 13e-14a)
So I was going to pour out my fury on them and unleash my anger on them in the desert. But I didn't use my power so that my name would not be dishonored among the nations who had watched me bring the Israelites out of Egypt. (verse 21e-22)
Three times in one little chapter, talking about the atrocities of a people who had been loved with reckless abandon, and God recounts the ways they've turned their backs on Him and lays out how justified He would be to pour his fury on them in these various stages of their peoplehood. Then each time, He says He didn't do that. Because it would have tarnished His name.
That's beautiful. It's certainly love. It is integrity and honesty of character for God to say things like, "I could have, but I won't. Because to do so diminishes me."
Some of us have a hard time when we read the Old Testament and see a God who has condemned certain peoples or towns or individuals because of this or that. It's easy to get trapped in these thoughts that God is wishy-washy, that we have to somehow predict His whims and hope to stay on His good side because when His vengeance falls, it falls hard. Then we live a life of dancing around God instead of with Him.
Verses like these remind us that God is steady. He is true. He is as He has always been, and He's not willing to compromise that for anything, not even what we might call 'justice.' He wants us to know that whenever we look for Him, wherever we are, whatever we've done, no matter what it is, He is there loving. We can count on that.
Then what about vengeance? What about setting wrongs right? Are we just supposed to hope that one day, everyone will suddenly realize there is a rock-solid God and be ashamed of themselves? That this whole justice thing will just work itself out?
Nah. We're just supposed to hope that before we've gone too far, we will realize there's a rock-solid God and be kind of ashamed of ourselves. What anyone else does or does not do isn't really up to us; we are to live a life of honor before our God and set our hearts right. And we know from experience there's nothing more piercingly convicting than in all your fury to look up and find a loving God who hasn't changed a bit and who is loving you anyway because that is His name.
And that's also why we don't take our own vengeance. Because we need to be a people bearing our names well if we hope to be a people bearing His. Because the world needs to see in us a rock-solid integrity that refuses to compromise itself for anything, not even what we might call 'justice.' That will make them wonder where we get that from. And that will point them to God, who has shown us the same.
As for the evildoers, the ne'er-do-wells, the people we're prone to envisioning in Hell? That takes care of itself, too. Listen to what God says:
I also allowed them to follow laws that were no good and rules by which they could not live. I let them dishonor themselves... (verse 25-26a)
They dishonor themselves. They don't know it until they turn back to God, and maybe they turn back to Him through something they see in us. But isn't that the greatest conviction, the harshest judgment of all - to be standing before a loving God, feeling every bit of your depravity in contrast to His grace?
I know it gets me every time.