I have a confession. A few years ago, Roy and I were hooked on a TV show called, Revenge. The whole premise was a young girl’s life had been ruined by a wealthy family and their friends, and she spent her years in juvenile detention creating an elaborate plan to mete out her own cruel justice on everyone who had wronged her.
The first two seasons were imaginative with several well-thought-out twists. By the third season, hubby and I were exhausted. How much revenge can a person enjoy? I think even the writers realized the thrill of payback lessened with each successful mission because the show began a decidedly downhill slide.
That’s the thing about revenge…where does it end?
But the Psalms Almost Glorify It
King David—a man described in Scripture as seeking after God’s own heart—blatantly seeks out revenge on his enemies. And asks God to help!
“God is my helper; the Lord is the sustainer of my life. He will repay my adversaries for their evil. Because of Your faithfulness, annihilate them.” Psalm 54:4–5
When was the last time you prayed that God would annihilate your enemy? I hope it’s not a regular practice. A few Psalms later, it gets even worse…
“Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who pays you back what you have done to us. Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.” Psalm 137:8–9
In what universe is it okay to wish little ones would be dashed against rocks? Why is this in our Bibles? Yet doesn’t Paul say:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16–17
What can we learn from God’s warrior-shepherd-king in Psalm 54 and the heart-wrenching cries of Jewish captives in Psalm 137?
New Testament, New Standard
The Old Testament (OT) is separated by one, single standard—Jesus. Here’s an example of Jesus’ philosophy on how to treat our enemies:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven…If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” Matthew 5:43–46
No annihilation or smashing babies. But how do we reconcile the God-inspired vengeful Scripture in the OT with Jesus’ teachings of grace and forgiveness in the New Testament (NT)?
Has God Changed?
I was doing a little research for another project on those Psalms and ran across this info in a commentary by Derek Kidner (Tyndale OT Commentaries, Psalms 1-72, p. 40). He explains that in the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), where the widow’s persistence wins her the justice she deserves, Jesus makes the following general application:
“And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily.” Luke 18:7–8 (RSV, emphasis added)
The author explains that the word “vindicate” implies more than just a clearing of one’s name, but rather implies strong retribution. Did you get that? The God of the OT hasn’t suddenly gone “soft” on sin when we turn the page from Malachi to Matthew. Jesus is the same holy God who can’t and won’t abide sin. Jesus is the eternal Judge who, at the end of time, will mete out RETRIBUTION on all those who have refused His love.
God’s NT grace is given in the currency of time. God gives a person the span of their lifetime to recognize that His wrath was borne by His Son’s sacrifice on the Cross. When a person reaches the end of life on earth, he/she—like the Jewish exiles in Psalm 137—faces God’s wrath that was clearly stated from the beginning. Unfortunately, their punishment lasts for eternity, not for seventy years as was the case for the Jews in Babylon.
Why Include Vengeful Language in Psalms?
Again, in the commentary I was reading, Rev. Derek Kidner shed light on two crucial disadvantages the OT writers suffered.
- They had a very limited understanding of the afterlife.
- They had no assurance of a final and Divine righting of all wrongs.
As you may have noticed while reading my novels, the characters have little knowledge about life after death. In the ancient Hebrew texts I study, there are only mere mentions of bad people going to Sheol versus good people going to Paradise—but no real descriptors of those places or processes by which their eternal end is assigned.
How would your view of life and justice be different if you didn’t know about heaven or hell and how you were assigned to those destinations? What if you didn’t have the certainty that the eternal Judge would make all things right one day—judge the wrong and reward the right?
“…the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.” 2 Peter 3:7
However, today we do know. So we must trust our righteous and eternal God to deal with people according to their unrepentant hearts. And, frankly, His coming wrath against the ungodly should stir our PITY rather than revenge. In fact, the power and scope of our holy God should drive us to our knees in prayer for our gravest enemies.
- Discover why OT characters can be vindictive, but Jesus teaches, “Love your enemies.”
- God’s coming wrath against the ungodly should stir our pity in place of revenge.
- The power and promised wrath of our holy God should drive us to pray for our gravest enemies.
- What would need to change in your heart to be able to pray for your “gravest enemy?”