The Poison of Revenge

Lesson 49: Romans 12:17-21


The Poison of Revenge

by Bob Burridge ©2012

Violence has been a part of our world since its earliest recorded moments. It uses whatever technologies are available to do damage and harm. There was a time when swords and well crafted clubs were the best and only weapons of terror. In time arrows, cross-bows, and the powerful long-bows extended the arm of terror and made it possible to penetrate the best protection and defenses available at the time. Not long after that gunpowder made it possible to hurl projectiles like canon balls and bullets hitting targets at greater distances and with more penetrating power. Riffling made the bullets even more accurate. Firearms became more portable, higher powered, and more sophisticated in their ability to hit targets quickly. Explosives have evolved into sophisticated nuclear devices able to be lobbed at enemies by missiles crossing oceans and continents with ease.

It is wrong to blame our present dangers on advances in technology. History records that some of the most devastating and savage acts of terrorism were not caused by bombs or automatic weapons. Entire populations were left maimed and dying in the wake of sweeping attacks by enemy nations in the time when the most sophisticated weapon was the sword.

The poison that gets out of control in terrorists and in unstable people is present in every fallen heart. We see it when aggressive drivers on the highway try to run others off the road, or take shots at them. We see riots where neighbors using rocks and clubs take out vengeance upon one another. We even see fights break out on playgrounds between children at play.

Vengeful attacks are not limited to physical violence. They may be launched in a barrage of hateful words spoken in hatred and revenge. People use cutting remarks or a sarcastic gestures to hurt others by belittling them or insulting them. They lash out to hurt back when they have been hurt. Vengeful attacks cannot be excused on the grounds of self defense. They are moved by a self-deified heart.

Paul explained the root of it all in Romans 5:12 where he said, “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men.” The result is what Jeremiah described in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?”

Justice is imperfect in our world. Often the wicked appear to be getting away with evil. When victims see justice not carried out as quickly or as severely as they see fit, they may take the law into their own hands, or lash out to get even.

Revenge can be a sophisticated poison, one that is in some ways socially accepted and encouraged. They call it standing up for yourself, getting even, or sweet revenge. But it is not sweet at all. It’s a bitter poison to the human heart. It eats up the soul of those who steal God’s sole prerogative and right. Getting even often gets us a sour spirit. It usurps what is God’s, and shoulders a divine duty which no one can bear.

In Romans 12:17-21 Paul reviews God’s prescription for his children


Christians ought to resist the
temptation of personal vengeance.

Romans 12:17, “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.”

Evil done toward us should not be paid back with evil of our own. It is the natural tendency of the lost human soul to seek revenge, retaliation, or retribution. That attitude must be replaced by a more proper view of justice and its deserts. Only our faith in the power of the risen Christ can enable us to overcome that urge to get even on our own. Testings of our character when we are wronged often expose the false hearted “Christian”.

We should be careful that our behavior is honorable in the sight of everyone. We should never let vengeance move us to lay aside right principles when we are wronged. There is no good moral law of God that can be set aside just because someone else is wicked. Personal vengeance is an unhealthy attitude, and it brings reproach upon the gospel, upon the name of Christ which we bear.


Believers are bound to do all they can to promote
peace rather than to return evil for evil.

Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”

Jesus said that the peacemakers are the ones God blesses. When we promote peace we also fight against the misery that comes from revenge. The best thing for our own souls is to live as the God who made us prescribes. No one knows better than our Creator about what is good for us.

However, in this sinful world our attempts at peace are not always accepted. We cannot control all situations or how others respond to what we do or say. Our duty is to persevere toward promoting peace.

We also need to remember that peace at any cost is too great a price to pay. We cannot compromise with evil or abandon the demands of justice simply to make things seem to be peaceful. That which is purchased at the expense of duty or godly obedience cannot truly be called “peace.”


Revenge is not ours to take. It belongs to God.

Romans 12:19, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

People read the expression “give place to wrath” in different ways. Some have taken this to mean we should give room for the wrath of those who are against us, that we should step aside and give it room to rush on by. Though that is certainly correct in one sense, it is not what the words mean here.

The grammar indicates that this is making reference to the wrath of God. To clarify this the NASB translates it as, ” leave room for the wrath of God.” We ought to let wrath occur, as God has instructed us. It should not come by our personal attacks on others, but by just and proper authority. Let those God has put in charge deal with justice, though it may be imperfect for now. Give it time, give it room, and in the end, justice will be done without our violating God’s order.

Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy 32:35 which confirms that interpretation. There it says, “Vengeance is Mine, and recompense; Their foot shall slip in due time; For the day of their calamity is at hand, And the things to come hasten upon them.”

The Lord is the only one who has a right to vengeance. He will deliver it justly in his good time.

Here on earth God assigns justice to be carried out only by certain people. Parents are to raise their children in love. When they disobey, their parents must discipline them kindly in ways that will encourage them in godliness. Elders are to shepherd the members of the church. When members are unrepentant, the Elders admonish them, bar them from the sacraments, or in extreme cases remove them from the church. Masters are to provide fairly for their employees. When they are unfaithful workers their employers may withhold pay, or dismiss them from work. Civil judges and governors are to keep the peace in society for their citizens. When crimes are committed they may impose fines, or even execute capitol offenders.

However, even those who hold these offices are not to take vengeance personally. They are to impose the corrections they are authorized to administer as agents of God. To interfere with these authorities is to defy God’s designation of his ministers (Romans 13). When we respect these authorities, and refrain from taking our own vengeance, we promote happiness for ourselves, and for all whose lives we touch.


Instead of personal vengeance,
we are to overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:20-21,”Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

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While there are some confusing things about this passage, its meaning is clear. When people do evil against us and behave as enemies, we are to overcome the evil by doing good to them.

To illustrate this Paul uses the most common needs we can provide for them: food and drink. The principle is that we are not to return evil for evil, but should do good when ever we can. This was the law of God from the beginning. Human philosophy and culture perverts this idea as the Pharisees did in the time of Jesus. They said in Matthew 5:43, “You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.” That is found no where in Scripture. It was a horrible corruption of God’s word.

Jesus corrected them and said in the next verse, “But I say to you, love your enemies” Then he expanded on that with references to the law they should have known: he said, “… bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

This fits perfectly with the elements of love we derived from Scripture in our last study. The foundation of love is a heart regenerated by the work of Jesus Christ. In our fallen estate we cannot love as God defines it. Only when new life is given to the lost by grace, can self-centered concerns be replaced by God-centered motives. The actions which are called “love” are the obediences to what God commands us to be and to do. Without God’s revelation, love would have no definition. When we do what God commands toward our neighbors and toward our enemies we are loving them. Jesus is said in John 14:21, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me.” When we love as we should, God blesses us with a feeling of peace and satisfaction because we are being what he created and redeemed us to be. The “feeling of love” is a fruit of love, not its cause.

The confusing part of this passage is when Paul adds that in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head. Paul was quoting from Proverbs 25:21-22 following the wording of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament commonly used by the Jews at that time). This passage reads, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For so you will heap coals of fire on his head, And the LORD will reward you.”

Paul quotes this to explain why we should do good to those who do evil to us. this is our proper motive. But how is heaping coals of fire on an enemy’s head like doing good toward him? This is obvious figurative. It should not be taken as literal. Giving food and drink is not the same act as putting burning coals on a person’s head.

So what did this figure mean to those Hebrews who first read Proverbs 25? It seems to have been a common figure of speech or idiom understood by God’s people representing some judgment of God being poured out upon the wicked. For example we see in Psalm 140:10, “Let burning coals fall upon them; Let them be cast into the fire, Into deep pits, that they rise not up again.”

The idea of Dr. Ridderbos that this meant a neighborly gesture of given them a bucket of coals for their fire which they could carry home on their heads is creative. But he shows no support that this expression ever had that meaning.

So why should we hope that our doing good would bring down God’s judgment upon them? Certainly making them suffer should not be our motive in doing good. We do not leave them to God because he can hurt them more than we could. That goes against the whole context here. However, if our doing good is an evidence of God’s work in our own hearts, then it serves as a testimony to the truth and power of the gospel. Just before Jesus said that we should love our enemies, he also said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

This judgment of conscience (as God describes it in Romans 1 and 2) will show them their own corruption which they do not want to admit. It hurts them and works against what they want to believe, but God will use it to bring his chosen ones to repentance and conviction of sin. In this way some of those who are enemies are transformed into brothers in Christ.

Those not brought to repentance will become all the more angry when we respond kindly to their attacks. It reveals their lost rebellious hearts. It shows them as vessels of God’s wrath designed to reveal his power, justice and holiness (Romans 9:22). To them whose debt to God is not paid for by Christ, one day judgment will come eternally. The weight of their conscience serves as a warning to them of the wrath to come. Dr. Haldane points out that when a person is not overcome by good done to him unworthily, he must be in “the most awful state of hardened wickedness, and their punishment will be dreadful.”

God may at times use the pain to their conscience to cause them to back off. Regardless of how God uses the good we do to those who oppose us, it is the right thing for us to do because God commands it. Our motive in doing good is not to punish our enemies. It is an obedience to our Redeemer. To yield to anger is to be conquered by the enemy.

Vengeance shows weakness and frailty, not strength. The idea of personal vengeance is totally un-Christian. If we are vengeful, desire to get even, and if we inflict pain on those who hurt us (either physically or by our words), we reject this biblical teaching. We should have the attitude of Christ in us.

One of the sad chapters in my own childhood was the time I hurt a friend. As a child I was not a fighter. It was not something I would have been very good at anyway since I was one of the smaller kids in school. But my size made me a good victim when some of the bigger ones wanted to impress somebody. They would come up behind me as I walked home from school and start pushing or saying provoking things to make themselves look tough. Of course I was not so foolish as to give in and start a fight. That’s what they wanted me to do. I tried to turn the issue aside by the way I responded to their prodding. Most times it worked. Now and then I would end up taking a few hits, no serious harm. It was done more for show. They would walk off with their easily impressed friends.

One day I had a disagreement with a friend of mine, a boy whose family had moved to Buffalo from England. His name was John. He and I had the same birthday which we found to be a good start for a friendship. Now I don’t remember what the issue was, but John and I got into an after-school argument one day.

There were others who had gathered around watching us argue. Those more violently minded kids sensed a good opportunity to provoke a fight. That was a favorite after school pastime for some who lacked other things in which to excel. They started pushing us together and adding to our argument. We started to rather tamely poke at one another. Somehow, in the heat of the situation, the confrontation escalated into an all out punching match. Then I noticed that the bullies who had used me as their victim before, were actually urging me on and cheering for me against this new guy who wasn’t quite as well accepted yet. My selfish desire to take advantage of the moment, and to show John who was really right in our disagreement got the best of me. With one well thought out swing I gave it all I had. My little fist flew through the air and hit poor John right in the face below his eye. He bent over and grabbed the bruised spot and started to cry. The gang crowded around me with congratulations. For that moment I felt like a real hero.

The next day in class my already troubled conscience was stirred by my 4th grade teacher, Miss. Turner. I highly respected her and the patience she had with the class. I remember her noticing John’s bruise and asking what happened. There was no way I was going to help her out on this one. But the witnesses who had urged the whole thing on proudly shouted out that I did it. There it was — my moment in glory. The bullies actually attaching my name to victory and justice. But Miss Turner didn’t seem to see it that way. She looked at me with her kind but obviously troubled smile and said, “So I guess that means you won.”

It didn’t sound like she was really asking. Her tone of voice cut deeply. I didn’t feel like a winner at that point. And I knew I hadn’t proven that I was right about anything we had been arguing about either. I had done something I had no right to do. I felt very cowardly and defeated as that moment. I realized that the teacher I had so respected was disappointed in me. She had put her finger directly upon the real issue. There was no victory or justice there at all. Later that day I apologized to John. We continued as good friends until his family moved away again. Since then we have lost touch with one another as so often happens with our childhood friends.

That incident drove home an important lesson for me. When in God’s providence we are treated with cruelty, belittled, or taunted, we should realize that such matters cannot always be avoided. In God’s hidden purposes our suffering always has a very important purpose. Our responsibility is to respond to it in a proper way.

We should try to promote peace. We should do it prayerfully, depending upon God alone, and only in ways prescribed to us in Scripture. Peace with others is never found by abandoning the demands of justice when civil order is violated. Judicial penalties are the exclusive duties of the offices God has designated. Parents should deal with their children when they disobey. Elders oversee the spiritual lives of the members of their congregations. Business managers may terminate or redirect the responsibilities of workers who do not fulfill their responsibilities on the job.

When victims try to take justice into their own hands and execute wrath aside from God-given authority, society descends into chaos rather than peace.

The world glorifies the “tough guy” who stands up for himself and makes those suffer who get in his way. In reality, that person is neither strong nor tough. He is weak and to be pitied for his inability to overcome evil with good, and to leave vengeance to the Lord. His is the way of a child, not of one with maturity and strength.

If in moments of sinful weakness we resort to personal vengeance, we need to confess it to God. We should apologize humbly to those we hurt, and work hard to grow in Christ so that others will see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

By God’s grace, through Christ, may we find the strength to love as God tells us to love.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
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