by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
"Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; 1 will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head." Romans 12:19-20
We test our love for our Lord, not only by loving one another, but also by our reaction to such words as these in Romans 12. We turn now to verses 19 and 20. Paul has just been telling us that we should never be the cause of trouble or of dispute or any kind of warfare. He says: Do your utmost always to create and preserve an atmosphere of peace. And the nineteenth verse follows on with the injunction: 'Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves.' Here is one way in which you can help to preserve peace. If somebody harms you, do not avenge yourself, for by not avenging yourself you are helping to preserve this peace of which he has just been speaking.
Now you notice that the apostle introduces these words in a very special way with a very special appeal ?'Dearly beloved'. He is concerned about these Christians in Rome and their welfare, and he knows that if you indulge in a spirit of revenge, whatever you may do to the other person, you will make yourself very miserable. So he tells them not to be vengeful. He pleads with them. He is anxious for them, and, of course, he is also concerned about the good name and welfare of the church. There is nothing worse than a quarrelling church, a church in dispute. History, unfortunately, demonstrates far too clearly that nothing does greater harm. So the apostle is moved and appeals to his readers to pay very special attention to this matter.
I think Paul also writes as he does because he knows the subtlety of the devil. He knows that on a point like this, as we have seen on previous points, this appeal, this standard, is so contrary to human nature that it is perhaps the greatest demand that is ever made of us. How much easier it is to preach than to carry out this exhortation! How much easier it is to give up everything and go right off to the heart of Africa or some remote island in the Pacific than to carry out this particular injunction. You are looking here at the Christian life and Christian living at its very acme, and the apostle, therefore, begins this urgent appeal with the words, 'Dearly beloved'. He says, I am not only telling you, I am pleading with you.
Now as usual Paul puts his teaching both negatively and positively, and always the negative first. 'Avenge not yourselves.' Somebody does wrong to you, does harm to you, and, of course, your immediate instinct is to hit back, to avenge yourself, to get your own back. That is human nature ? you see it in children, you see it everywhere. We all have it in us, we all know it perfectly well. But you remember how we worked out the meaning of that expression, 'Provide things honest'? It means, think before you act; do not act impulsively. Christian men and women think; they pause. As Christians, they no longer act immediately, as 'natural' people. Animals live instinctively, and, because of the Fall and sin, human beings behave like animals. So they immediately hit back and avenge themselves. But the apostle says: Do not do it, you are Christians.
Now I want to say again, as I have been saying about some of these previous injunctions, it is good to attain the negative. If everybody in the church had always got as far as this negative, church history would have been very different. Do not despise the negative; it is very important. It is the first step, and if you cannot get beyond the negative, at least get as far as that. Do not hit back.
But, of course, the apostle does not leave it there ? he goes on to the positive statement: 'but rather give place unto wrath'. Now the word 'rather', which is in italics in the Authorized Version, is not in the original, but has been supplied by the translators. It is a good addition as it helps us to understand Paul's words. It helps to bring out the contrast. Instead of taking vengeance, go to the other extreme. But the contrast, of course, is implicit in Paul's words so I would justify the inclusion of the 'rather'.
So if we are not to avenge ourselves, what are we to do? Well, says Paul, we must 'give place unto wrath'. What does this mean? Now this expression 'give place' is most interesting. There are those who have thought that instead of avenging yourself in a state of rage, it means you let things pass, you cool down. They think it means that you should not act immediately, but give yourself a chance. You should give place unto wrath by giving it time. Later you will not be so excited and passionate.
Others have suggested that it means that you should let your adversary vent his rage upon you. Here is a person in a temper doing something to you which is quite unjustifiable, and they think the apostle is saying: Don't avenge yourself, don't hit back, but just allow him to continue. Just do nothing. Let him have his fling, as it were. Let him pour out his wrath upon you. Let him do anything he likes.
But we cannot for a moment accept those explanations. As we have said, whenever you are confronted by a statement like this, it is always good to look up similar usages of the word or phrase that you are considering. And you will find that elsewhere there are several interesting examples of the use of the Greek words translated 'give place'. Now one is in Luke's Gospel, in chapter 14 and verse 9. In verse 8 we read this instruction from our Lord: 'When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him.' And our Lord continues in verse 9: 'And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room.' You must get up out of the seat that you have taken at the top of the table, and make room for this other man who is more honoured than you.
Another example is found in Ephesians 4:27 where Paul gives an injunction: 'Neither give place to the devil' ? do not give him room; do not give him any opportunity. It is exactly the same phrase. So it means 'make room for', 'give scope, or free scope, to', or, if you like, 'leave it to' the thing or person in question.
Then we come to the word 'wrath' ?'Give place unto wrath'. Here, unfortunately, the Authorized Version has left out a word which really is the key to understanding this statement. It should be translated like this: 'Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather make room for the wrath.' And the moment you understand that, I think the explanation becomes perfectly plain and clear. Paul is talking about the wrath of God! Do not avenge yourselves, but make room for the wrath of God. Do not indulge your wrath, but like the man in the feast who has to get up and go somewhere else, make room for, give free scope to, make allowance for, prepare the way for, leave it to, the wrath of God.
That this must be the true meaning is established by the next words, for Paul immediately goes on to say, 'for it is written'. 'Do not avenge yourselves, but make room for the wrath of God'? why? ?'for [because] it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.' That is a quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35, and it means: 'Vengeance is mine ? not yours.' The emphasis there is upon the word 'mine'. So the apostle brings in his quotation, as was his custom, to substantiate an argument. He says: Do not do that, because vengeance really does not belong to you; it belongs to God.
The next word, 'repay', is simple. It means 'requite', or 'give back' or 'pay back'. This is our Lord's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. At the beginning of Matthew 7 we read this: 'Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.' That is repayment. It is a kind of 'paying back in your own coin'. Another way of putting it is to say, 'Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap' [Gal. 6:7].
So, then, having understood the meaning of the various phrases and expressions, we are now in a position to consider the teaching. What is the apostle telling us? Let me put it like this: We must never seek personal vengeance ? never. Why not? Because that is God's work and not ours. That is God's prerogative, that is God's business.
Now we come here to a very important principle. The apostle does not merely tell us these things. The explanation is implicit in his teaching. Why is this God's work and not ours? The answer is, because we are sinful; because we are all sinners; because we are unjust as the result of sin. Our judgment is inadequate. We are unfit for such a task, and especially, of course, when it happens to be our own case. We all know this. We are very bad judges of ourselves and of our own position and conditions, and of what happens to us. As the result of sin, we are all self?centred, always on the defensive, always shielding ourselves. We see a fault in another person and denounce it, but will always explain away the same sin in ourselves: 'Accusing or else excusing one another', as Paul has already said in Romans 2:r5. So we are not fit to exercise judgment. We do not see the whole position. We are biased judges, incapable of arriving at a true judgment, and it is very dangerous for us to take the punishment into our own hands. No, no, God is the judge of the whole earth, and He alone is the judge. God's judgment, God's wrath, is always holy; it is always just; it is always righteous and it is always controlled.
So this word 'wrath' is used here with respect to God. Paul says, 'But rather give place to the wrath of God.' We have already considered this expression 'the wrath of God' in Romans r:r8, where the apostle says, 'For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [down] the truth in unrighteousness.' And when we were dealing with that verse we emphasized the point that we must never think of the wrath of God as we think of the wrath of a human being. Our wrath is passionate and always lacking an element of control, but God's wrath is always judicial. It is never vindictive. It is never a passion that carries Him away, as it were. His wrath and His judgments are always just, always righteous and always holy, and therefore, says the apostle, because of our own condition and inadequacy, and because God is what He is, you must not repay, but leave it entirely to Him. Stand aside, as it were, and allow God to work.
But it is very important that we should obey this injunction in the right spirit, and this is where the subtlety comes in. The devil can appear as an angel of light, he can quote Scripture, and he comes to men and women when they are prepared to pay heed to this injunction. 'Yes, that's right,' he tells them, 'you leave it to God. God will give it him, and in a way that you cannot!' So you refrain from avenging yourself in order that the one who has offended you may receive a greater punishment than you could ever have given him. And the moment you say that, you have denied the entire spirit of this injunction.
This is very important and the rest of the exposition will make it still more plain. I am just emphasizing it at this particular point. We must never desire the harm of the person who has offended us ? never! So you do not leave someone to God in order that he may receive a greater punishment. Quite the reverse. You leave him to God because you recognize that God alone is capable of giving a just judgment. So Paul is saying: Leave him entirely in God's hands; leave God to deal with him.
Our Lord Himself, you remember, acted entirely on this principle. Peter tells, you remember, that 'when he was reviled, [he] reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not' ? what did He do? ?'but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously' [r Pet. 2:2r?z3]. That is it. Our Lord left judgment entirely to God. He did not defend Himself. He did not avenge Himself. He just committed Himself and the whole case 'to him that judgeth righteously'. So when we make room for the vengeance and the wrath of God, it must always be done in the right spirit.
But if I left it at that, my teaching would be misleading. We must add a qualification at this point, and I want to show that this, too, is most important, particularly, perhaps, at a time like this. Many people have taken this injunction at the point at which I have just left it, and have gone no further. They have argued or deduced that the apostle is teaching a kind of flabby passivity, that we are just to do nothing at all. Furthermore, they press it so far as to deny any doctrine of punishment or retribution. They heartily dislike the whole teaching concerning the wrath of God. God, they say, is love, and that means that there is no punishment, no vengeance, no wrath. Believing they are reflecting the 'spirit of Christianity', they do not hesitate to take whole sections out of the Scriptures, particularly this verse in Romans.
Many times I have read, and I have heard people say, that they do not believe in a God who can say, 'Vengeance is mine.' The idea that there can be wrath in God is, to them, a contradiction of the entire spirit of Christianity. They would have us say, therefore, that we just bear everything, in all realms and in all respects, and that we should not be interested at all in the notion of punishment and retribution. Now it is important that we should realize how wrong that teaching is.
So let me put it to you in a number of propositions. First, as we have seen, you must never be concerned about personal wrongs or seek personal vengeance. That is an absolute. Never seek personal vengeance, no matter what has been done to you. 'Avenge not yourselves.'
And we must go further. We must, secondly, never even desire an enemy personal harm. This is the essence of Christian teaching. We have already considered a number of passages on this subject, including verses from the Sermon on the Mount. We have seen that Jesus said, 'Love your enemies' [Matt. 5:44]. Now you cannot love your enemy and desire him harm at the same time. You may have been treated abominably, it does not matter. 'Avenge not yourself'? not in action and not even in desire.
Now that is perfectly clear. Nevertheless, thirdly, though I am never to avenge a personal wrong or desire my enemy any harm, I am at the same time to be concerned about truth, about righteousness, about justice, and about the glory of God. This principle is important, not only in a practical way, but also from the standpoint of your handling of the Scriptures.
Fourthly, it is not only right, it is also our duty to desire that God's reign should be vindicated and extended, and that God's glory should be manifested over the whole earth.
And, fifthly, it is right that we should be comforted by the fact that God reigns supreme, and that He will ultimately vindicate Himself, and His reign and His rule over all, in the punishment of all those who are His enemies.
Now notice how I am putting it. I am saying that it is right that we should be comforted by the thought that in an evil age like this, when God's enemies are in the ascendant and rampant and seem to have everything under their control, it is right and good that as God's people, we should be comforted in the knowledge that 'the Lord reigneth' in spite of everything, and that He will finally vindicate Himself and His glory. And a part of this vindication will be the punishment of the wicked, the enemies of God. The distinction, you see, is between personal wrongs and wrongs to the name and the glory of God. I am not to avenge personal wrongs, but if I do not have a zeal for the name and the glory of God, then I am not behaving in a truly Christian manner.
Take, for instance, the imprisonment of the Apostle Paul and Silas at Philippi. Paul and Silas had been arrested quite unjustly ? it was a scandalous action ? and had been thrown into the innermost prison where their feet had been made fast in the stocks. You remember the story of how they were freed as the result of an earthquake and spent the night in the jailer's home. But then we read: 'When it was day, the magistrates sent the serjeants, saying, Let those men go. And the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul, The magistrates have sent to let you go: now therefore depart, and go in peace.'
Then: 'But Paul said unto them, They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out. And the serjeants told these words unto the magistrates: and they feared, when they heard that they were Romans. And they came and besought them, and brought them out, and desired them to depart out of the city' [Acts 16:35?39].
So you see how the apostle drew a distinction there. He was not avenging himself, he was not concerned about the personal wrong, the personal iniquity to which he had been subjected. But all law ultimately derives from God and Paul was concerned about the dignity and the honour of law and of justice. Here were men who were supposed to be administering justice and they were being most unjust. These magistrates were violating the law that they were meant to uphold and the apostle objected to that. He reprimanded them and showed them exactly how they should be behaving. Paul refused to leave the city like that and the magistrates had to come down and carry out the law.
We see another example of this principle when Paul was arrested and taken before the Sanhedrin. We read: 'And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God unto this day. And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?' [Acts 23:1?3].
Paul was objecting to the injustice of being struck on the mouth by a man was who supposed to be administering law. Incidentally, the apostle had not been aware that this man was the high priest ? not that that matters. What does matter is that here was a man who was abusing his position, and the apostle, not to vindicate himself or to get vengeance for himself, but in the interests of truth, of law, of justice, and righteousness, reprimanded this man and asserted the great principle that the law should not be broken.
But there is another still more interesting example which has always fascinated me. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: 'Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works: of whom be thou ware also; for he hath greatly withstood our words. At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge' [2 Tim. 4:14?16]. Notice the different way in which the apostle reacts to Alexander the coppersmith and to his fellow Christians who all forsook him at his first trial. Here was the apostle up on trial for the first time, and they all suddenly disappeared, leaving him to stand alone. Christian people have tended to do that throughout the centuries and are still doing so. Such people are fair?weather friends who are not there when you need them, perhaps, most of all.
But the apostle did not react to the friends who had deserted him as he did to Alexander the coppersmith who was militantly opposing and hindering the truth. Of him, the apostle says, 'The Lord reward him.' This man had done Paul grievous harm ?'much evil'? and Paul knew that he was ready to harm Timothy and the others. But Paul did not try to get his own back on Alexander. He did not avenge himself. He did the very thing he is telling the Romans to do. He stood aside and said,
'The Lord reward him according to his works.' He was leaving it to God to judge the case and to decide the punishment.
As for the weak Christians who had deserted Paul, there was nothing really harmful in them, they were just rather feeble. 'At my first answer', said Paul, 'no man stood with me, but all men forsook me' ? just cowards, weaklings. And the apostle's attitude to them was very different from his attitude to Alexander. He says, 'I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge.' He pleaded for them with God. He did not just leave them in the hands of God, but asked God to have pity and to have mercy upon them, to remember that they were weak. He interceded on their behalf.
Now why have I felt it necessary to show that the apostle's injunction here in Romans 12:19 does not inculcate a flabby kind of passivity and is not some vague talk about the love of God which does not believe in truth, righteousness and justice, discipline, punishment, retribution and the wrath and vengeance of God ? why am I emphasizing this point?
My first reason is that when we understand this doctrine correctly, we understand the so?called 'imprecatory' or 'vindictive' psalms. There are many psalms where the psalmist prays for terrible punishment to come upon unbelievers. Take, for instance, Psalm 69 where we read this: 'Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not; and make their loins continually to shake' [verses 22?23]. Or the last statement in Psalm 104: ' Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth.'
People have often stumbled at these psalms, but there is no difficulty if you approach them along the lines that I have just been putting before you. In all those psalms, the psalmists are not writing from a personal standpoint. They are not writing from a desire for personal vengeance. No, no; they are writing entirely from the standpoint of the honour and glory of God. They are grieved as they see these people flouting God's laws, trampling upon the sanctities, speaking in arrogance. It is zeal for the Lord and the name of the Lord that makes the psalmists write as they do. That is the real and sole explanation of the imprecatory psalms. If you just draw the distinction between the writers and the glory of God, His justice and righteousness, you will have no difficulty. Remember, of course, that these men were men of their own time. Life was like that then and they expressed themselves in everyday images. But it is the principle that is important.
Now I have to admit that some teachers and preachers in the past have, it seems to me, gone much too far in stating the principle of God's retribution. There were old preachers two or three centuries ago who used to say that the righteous should greatly rejoice at the thought of seeing the torments of the ungodly in hell. That is carrying the principle too far. I repeat that we should never be concerned about personal vengeance but about the glory of God and His holy name; and if we are not concerned about that, there is something wrong with us. If you do not grasp this principle, you cannot really understand the Old Testament, and if you do not understand the Old Testament, you will not understand the New Testament, because they go together.
The second point is that this teaching is also the answer to pacifism. You are familiar with the teaching of the pacifists. Pacifism teaches that at all times and under all circumstances it is wrong to kill, and those who fought in the Second World War or in any war, were sinning grievously. When you ask pacifists for their reasons, their reply is that the commandment says, 'Thou shalt not kill.' They also say that our Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount, 'Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also' [Matt. 5:39]. 'So,' they say, 'the explanation is quite simple.'
But it is not as simple as that, is it? That is an example of what I call extracting statements out of the Scriptures, instead of comparing scripture with scripture. God said, 'Thou shalt not kill', but the same God commanded the children of Israel to exterminate the Amalekites. We also read that King Saul actually got into terrible trouble because he had not fully carried out that commandment, but had spared some of the enemy. He was punished for not killing every one.
What, then, is the explanation? Again, it lies in the difference between the personal and the general. The commands not to kill and to turn the other cheek are addressed to the individual. They are not spoken to the state, nor to society at large, and I prove that by showing that the God who says
'Thou shalt not kill', commands the Israelite nation to kill certain enemies who are His enemies as well as theirs.
And when we come to the thirteenth chapter of Romans, we shall find that the teaching in verse 4 about the magistrate not bearing the sword in vain maintains precisely the same principle. There is a difference between my seeking personal vengeance and my believing that it is my duty to uphold the law of God. And the law of God is expressed in the law of the land, as Paul wrote in Romans 13:1: 'The powers that be are ordained of God.' So we are not to misinterpret this teaching concerning vengeance as meaning that there should never be any vengeance at all. There should, but not ours. It is to be God's vengeance.
Then there is one other matter. You will often find that people say, 'That teaching about the vengeance and the wrath of God and so on, that's Old Testament teaching, not New Testament.' And you may have read in the press that people preaching from Christian pulpits have said that they have no use for the God of the Old Testament, but they believe in 'the God of Jesus'. Now there is nothing new about this teaching ?it started in the first centuries of this Christian era?but it has been very popular in the present age because it seems so loving and wonderful.
So what do we say in response? The first answer is that it is always wrong to create division or antagonism between the two Testaments. God is the same in the Old Testament and in the New. But if you want the best argument of all, it is that our Lord accepted the teaching of the Old Testament in its entirety. So you are not pitting yourself against the Old Testament, but against the Son of God.
But, further, if these people took the trouble to read the Old Testament, they would find that these Old Testament characters, whom they despise so much, were able to rise to very great heights indeed. Look at a man like job who suffered so much from his false friends, yet look at his magnanimity; look at his readiness to forgive everything.
Or take the case of David. David, perhaps, was a man we understand still better, a man of strong feelings and passions. But read the story of David. It is amazing. Look at the way in which he was maltreated by Saul, the first king of Israel, who hounded him, as David points out, as if he were chasing a flea. Look at the indignities which Saul heaped upon him. The way David reacted to that is almost incredible. Many times he could have killed Saul but he would not. He said to Saul, 'The Lord judge between me and thee, and the Lord avenge me of thee: but mine hand shall not be upon thee' [1 Sam. 24:12]. Indeed, when David was told about the death of Saul and his son Jonathan, David's heart was broken. Now you would have thought that David would have rejoiced in view of the fact that Saul had insulted him in every conceivable manner, but, on the contrary, he was overwhelmed with grief. Read the first chapter of the Second Book of Samuel and his lament over the death of Saul.
Then take, too, the story of David's handling of that terrible man Nabal who deserved vengeance if ever a man deserved it. David listened to the pleadings of Abigail and he left judgment to God. And God dealt with Nabal and brought about his death in His own way. Now David was a man like ourselves who was ready to avenge himself; but he did not. And, to me, one of the most glorious statements in the whole of the Old Testament is to be found in the Second Book of Samuel, in verse ro of chapter 4. When some of David's foolish men, who had killed a good man out of jealousy, came and reported it to David, they thought that he would rejoice. But this is what David said: 'When one told me, saying, Behold, Saul is dead, thinking to have brought good tidings, I took hold of him, and slew him in Ziklag, who thought that I would have given him a reward for his tidings.' No, no, says David. The man did not understand me, he did not know me. He came rushing to me and thought I was going to reward him when he told me what he had done to Saul, but I was not pleased.
So when you read the Old Testament, you find that these men were able to rise to the height of this injunction that we are considering together in Romans 12. But apart from that, the New Testament itself is full of this teaching about the wrath of God and the vengeance of God upon His enemies. If you read our Lord's parable of the tares in Matthew 13, you will see it very plainly. The master told the servants not to pull up the tares, but to leave them until the harvest ? that is, the judgment of God. Read again the story of the rich man and Lazarus. And read the parable of the sheep and the goats where you find our Lord, in the plainest language possible, talking about God's final retribution upon men and women who have disobeyed Him. Let me quote the words to you because they are so often forgotten today that we cannot afford to take the risk of assuming they are known.
'Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat . . . Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal' [Matt. 25:41?42, 45?46].
So those who omit God's judgment are not only quarrelling with the Old Testament, they are quarrelling with the Incarnation of God's love. We have had this teaching already many times over in this great Epistle to the Romans. It is found, too, in an unmistakable manner in 2 Thessalonians: 'Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; and to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ' [2 Thess.1:6?8].
And what is the Book of Revelation but a great exposition of the wrath and the vengeance of God upon His enemies, upon those who have rejected His gospel, spurned the voice divine, and refused His great offer of love in His only begotten Son, the One crucified? In Revelation we are given a vision of the saintly beings under the altar, and there they are crying out, 'How long, O Lord?' And if you and I do not have a zeal for the name of God, if we do not have a zeal for the righteous judgment of God, our Christianity is seriously defective. You must never feel a desire for personal vengeance, but if you do not look for the day when God will vindicate Himself, and when all the scoffers and the sinners of today and of all ages will receive their just recompense, then your understanding of the Scripture is at fault, and your worship of God is seriously defective. Paul does not teach some flabby passivity or sentimentality, but inculcates the great principle of the difference between personal vengeance and the vengeance of Almighty God. May He by His Spirit give us wisdom in these matters.