A God of Vengeance
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
October 13, 2019
Psalm 94 nrsv
1O Lord, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth!
2Rise up, O judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve!
3O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?
4They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast.
5They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage.
6They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan,
7and they say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
8Understand, O dullest of the people; fools, when will you be wise?
9He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?
10He who disciplines the nations, he who teaches knowledge to humankind, does he not chastise?
11The Lord knows our thoughts, that they are but an empty breath.
12Happy are those whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law,
13giving them respite from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked.
14For the Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage;
15for justice will return to the righteous, and all the upright in heart will follow it.
16Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers?
17If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
18When I thought, “My foot is slipping,” your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.
19When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.
20Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who contrive mischief by statute?
21They band together against the life of the righteous, and condemn the innocent to death.
22But the Lord has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge.
23He will repay them for their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness;
the Lord our God will wipe them out.
Wow! God of Vengeance, God of Vengeance! What a tough passage to hear, what a tough passage to preach on. A few weeks ago Rev. Neal Watkins complained about the difficulty of interpreting and preaching on the passage about the unjust steward, asking who picked that passage – well the real answer was HE DID, I too am the only one to blame for picking this passage to preach on and I too have wondered several times since, WHY?,.
I have some noble thoughts on why I picked this passage but it may not make it any easier to listen to or to know how to respond faithfully to it. One reason is it is there, and we should be strong enough in our faith to hear and reflect on any passage of Scripture. A second reason is that if we want to grow in faith, listening to challenging passages of Scripture and struggling with their meaning is a good way to do so. Third, this is an authentic voice in Scripture and in life and so we ought to also reflect on just what that voice says that we need to hear. With those and perhaps some other reasons to be discovered, let me try to wrestle with this passage, not to solve it or to make it more palatable by downplaying the difficulties, but perhaps by speaking as honestly as I can about the truth in this passage.
So let’s start by saying that, if we are honest, just about any of us except perhaps the most saintly among us, have felt at least some desire or wish for vengeance if we have ever been wronged. This is the key to understanding this passage, because I don’t believe anyone wishes for vengeance who has not been wronged by someone. By wronged, I do not just mean we had something happen that we wished didn’t. We don’t usually want vengeance on someone who may have done something to us that we know and believe was done unintentionally. If someone steps on your toe as they pass you in the theater row on their way to the restroom and they apologize, anyone who is not certifiably insane would not want “vengeance.” So let’s assume that this Psalm writer is calling to a God of Vengeance because they have been badly wronged, intentionally and without remorse by someone.
We can assume that this writer is writing after suffering exile and enslavement at the hands of a foreign king. Perhaps this foreign king even had his troops destroy the city the writer lived in, burning homes, and even attacking and damaging, or destroying the holy worship center of the Psalm writer. Perhaps this foreign king took all their worldly goods and maybe even killed some of their sons in battle and even worse maybe did awful things to the weakest of citizens – the wives and children, the lame and the weak adults. All this is to say, whether we approve of or agree with or even fully understand the reasons for this writer to call out to a God for vengeance, perhaps we can understand at least in part and recognize this emotion, even if we have never felt that degree of hatred or desire for revenge.
So if we recognize that this kind of experience can generate this kind of raw, shocking, and maybe even distasteful emotion in this situation maybe we can understand when persons in our own day have experienced some sort of terrible injustice – a loved one killed by a drunk driver, a child murdered in a mass school shooting, a person of color whose son was unarmed, had not committed any crime, and was shot to death in the back by a police officer. Every day the news reports things that could qualify – if they happened to me – as situations if I am honest with you, I could probably want vengeance, of the worst sort.
But here’s another angle to consider. I have heard plenty of Christians speak of a God of vengeance and calling for that god to smite someone who they feel is doing wrong. The followers of the Westboro Baptist church, a little church of less than 100 people have gotten a terrible level of attention for preaching God’s hate for LGBTQ persons and who have proclaimed that the death of soldiers was the judgment of God on the military for accepting LGBTQ persons. In our current political climate I can’t tell you the times I have heard persons on both sides of the debate about the current President and his impeachment declare a wish or demand or expectation of vengeance, from the Deity or from some armed representatives of some deity on people supporting the other side.
Here’s the difference between these situations and the situation I hear this writer describing. This writer specifically mentions those in power who either in person or by their orders “kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan, 7and they say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.” The writer is saying not only do they cause the death of innocent people for unjust reasons, they deny God’s power or interest in ever righting the wrong or correcting the injustice. They think God doesn’t care or even see the terrible wrongs. Later the Psalm writer calls out “wicked rulers,” who “contrive mischief by statute,” reminding us that even things that are legal by a particular state or nation’s laws can be evil in the sight of God or of anyone who understands what justice is. So segregation laws that were once common throughout many states in the land of the free, in the nation that considers “all [people] are created equal with certain inalienable rights.” That some believe the freedom to carry automatic weapons designed for war as personal protection or for sporting pleasure is guaranteed by the Constitution as legal may someday be proven to not be Constitutionally protected. But we can only hope at this point.
All that said, I have to say I balk at believing the Psalm writer’s final judgment on even these kinds of evil. He says, that God “will repay them for their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness; the Lord our God will wipe them out.” As much as I can admit I sometimes wish for such things against those I consider evil and horrible, in my sane moments, I do not believe in a God who does such things. Now do I have to believe in such a God just because this writer of the Psalms does? That’s a question you and I have to wrestle with. To me it is the reason a so-called “literal” reading of the Bible is just not realistic. If you believe in a God of love I cannot square that with a God who would also be so vengeful as to wipe anyone out. I do not believe this kind of thinking is faithful. Period.
For me several of the verses in between this harsh beginning and even harsher ending speak truth:
16Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers? 17If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence. 18When I thought, “My foot is slipping,” your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up. 19When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.”
I take heart in these more positive passages because other Psalms echo this kind of faith:
In Psalm 82 God calls on humans to do as God does:
82: [ God says to human rulers ] 2“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? 3Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. 4Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” And the writer adds, “8Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!”
In Psalm 72 the writer prays,
72: 1Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
3May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
4May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. 12For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. 13He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. 14From oppression and violence he redeems their life.
So while you and I are not rulers, we are not kings or pharaohs or presidents this shows God’s measure of human rulers. This shows that God is not so concerned with the Dow Jones, or with human drawn borders, or with a lot of the things we seem to use to measure the value of our rulers. But God is concerned with the question of whether the poorest of the poor, the weakest of the vulnerable, the most likely to get run over by the powerful being treated justly. That is God’s measure of a ruler. Hopefully for those in power of any sort who use their power in ways that do not value what God values, God is not a God of vengeance, or a God who desires to wipe anyone who does wrong off the face of the earth.
As we seek to make our way in these contentious, angry times, let us not use our faith to justify our hate, or our anger. Let us use our faith to find ways to be in community with one another welcoming differences and seeking to understand the other before we judge them. Let us remember that this Psalm tells us even when we suffer God will not forsake us, or abandon us. God will seek to make right what is wrong. Let us seek to trust God’s judgment more than our own, and God’s mercy and compassion for others as well as ourselves. AMEN.