Many of us have hitched our wagons to the devil. Most of us have no clue that's what we've done. We may only see enemies, not recognizing our part in evil.
If you worry about doing such a thing, there is good news. A proxy stood for us, God himself. He entered into our realm, exhibited the character of God for our witness, set up hosts to testify to who he was, and he left anyone who will allow the Holy Spirit to live in them a direct access to himself.
Weirdly, we may be meant to see our enemies squirm. And they will also see us.
Image by Mahbub Hasan
Let me witness the vengeance you take on them, for to you I have entrusted my cause!
OK. It can’t just be me. But that’s a weird witnessing hope, there. And, Jeremiah asks God for the opportunity. “Let me witness the vengeance you take on them . . .” Really? I must apologize for the length of this reflection, because this subject takes a bit of work to deal with. I do get to a good place on this strange scriptural conflict. I hope you can bear with me. It's an important topic.
After some digging, it's probably a request that God allows, because God is certainly not quiet about taking vengeance. In the Responsorial Psalm the recognition that God gets even comes up again.
“A just judge is God, a God who punishes day by day.”
Before we address the uncomfortable vision of Jeremiah drooling over his enemies getting a shellacking, the very idea of God exacting punishments as an expression of vengeance needs to be dealt with. For avid readers of the bible this is not news. Vengeance is all over the place in the Old Testament. Genesis 4:15, Exodus 21:21, Leviticus 19:18, and Deuteronomy chapter 32. Does that mean the subject of a vengeful God is only in the Jewish Torah? The New Testament certainly doesn’t make vengeance a characteristic of God.
Not so fast.
In Romans 12:19, Paul brings up the OT text, citing that vengeance is not ours to wield, because it belongs to God. “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'” Hebrews repeats the same verse, In Hebrews 10:30.
You might argue that vengeance is still just spoken about in the Old Testament, if you can only find New Testament quotes that refer back to the Genesis and Deuteronomy.
Again, not so. Look at this verse is in the last book of the New Testament.
From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.
You could, almost, maybe, make hay in claiming all the vengeance talk still just emanates from the Old Testament. That isn’t proof of a different God, or a purposeful drop in vengeance after Christ. The New Testament verses don’t countermand the Old. There is only confirmation of the proper place for vengeance. It belongs to God, not us.
The very small book of Nahum, seldom referred to in any Sunday reading, should be considered the scripture of vengeance. The breadth of God’s justice and forthcoming judgment shout from the book. The destruction of Nineveh is a stunning, crushing blow when God has been pushed to the breaking point. The second verse in Nahum summarizes a major emphasis of who God is both then and now:
“A jealous and avenging God* is the LORD, an avenger is the LORD, full of wrath; The LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries, and rages against his enemies . . .”
God is one God. He does not change. So, what are we to make of this wrath, this tough guy talk?
The issue, here, is threefold. The vast separation of character, power, and authority between creation (including us) and God. Next, the audiences to whom God speaks in reference to vengeance. And, third, the enemies, the perpetrators of evil to whom God will exact vengeance.
God's power is not so obvious to us authority-damaged folks. Nonetheless, God knows what he's doing. That's not something we can lay claim to.
Second, God talks to those who rightly are victimized, assuring them they will not be left behind. He tells the oppressed that our suffering will vanish in heaven. We get moments of respite here, enough to feel God’s comforting hand. Yet, all of us die. Death is no cakewalk. Nothing is worse than death.
Third, The author of death, and those who join him in his evil attacks, will pay. Not out of bounds to say that, even though it smacks of a black and white decision-making process. Guess who can make such a delineation? Yeah, God.
There is another part to this wrath thing. In the Old Testament, God promised the destruction of death’s consequence. He didn’t remove death from our life here, though. He identified it's destruction in our resurrection from life's injustices. The conquerer of death? God himself. Jesus, the second person in the Trinity of God, rose, destroying death.
Nonetheless, the perpetrator and his associates, the one who wields pain and misery upon people of faith, the innocent, and unaware bystanders still needs to be dealt with. In the book of Nahum, the writer records the words of God. I selected three pithy pieces, exact in their teaching. First, God is slow to anger, but anger he must. Second, there will be "one" who will bear good news, news of peace. And, third, all will be restored as God planned. He uses the metaphor of the vine and branches. Remember, we Gentile Christians are grafted branches to the core vine of Israel.
The LORD is slow to anger, yet great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished.
At this moment on the mountains the footsteps of one bearing good news, of one announcing peace!
The LORD will restore the vine of Jacob, the honor of Israel, Because ravagers have ravaged them and ruined their branches.
The devil is certainly in these details. He cannot know what is coming. Many of us have hitched our wagons to the devil. Most of us have no clue that's what we've done. You can find sure clues if you have set up plans to stop Jesus from "infecting" folks. You can find out if you're secretly attached to the devil if you have turned off the volume on the Holy Spirit affecting your conscience. You can also recognize your friendship with evil if you repeatedly deny God authority in your life, dismissing the creator as a prop, or a lie.
If you worry about doing such a thing, there is good news. Even Nahum spoke of it. A proxy stood for us, God himself. He entered into our realm, exhibited the character of God for our witness, set up hosts to testify to who he was, and he left anyone who will allow the Holy Spirit to live in them a direct access to himself.
It's almost too corny to say it today, a well-fought linguistic battle has been lost, but not totally. The devil and his henchmen still sound defensive. We can say openly, even if most folks cringe at the thought, that Jesus called upon himself the consequences of all sin. I think it's important to clarify that Jesus wasn't just a proxy for our sin, though. He didn't do what any of us could do. He did only what God could do.
A proxy of vengeance is someone who has nothing to lose because they’re used to responsibility and punishment. The proxy I'm separating from God is the mobster who is our friend. The bad guy who stands in for us. He doesn’t want his innocent brother to get hurt. This "already criminal brother" is just a courageous proxy taking blame for his innocent, falsely charged, law-abiding friend.
No, that’s not what God did. God isn’t our proxy for taking our punishment, or assuaging someone else's revenge. God is the de facto owner of order, love, and mercy who changed the rules. All will be forgiven. Why do that? We're all guilty, that's why. We're the accursed in Nahum, and we're the victims too. We curtail God's design by our missteps and bullheaded ways. We're the ones who inject hatred into a loving system. It’s not us who should exact revenge, because all sin is deadly. God decides how vengeance is wrought, to whom it gets brought, and when the hammer falls. And, he brought himself to the hill, was beaten, humiliated, and destroyed, so that all our guilt, even the guilt still coming, would no longer require God's wholesale vengeance.
Who is God coming after? He clearly identifies them. It’s not the one who hates us, but the ones who hate him.
“From you has come one plotting evil against the LORD, one giving sinister counsel.”
God identifies the criminal as one who preys upon people and their land, members of his creation. “For who has not suffered under your endless malice?”
We still have that strange desire of Jeremiah to attend to. He wanted to watch his oppressors get their due, which seems clearly out of bounds. Here is where the Son of Man and the Son of God changes the picture of Jeremiah's watchful eyes. Jesus, the Christ, bore the brunt of sin’s temper, of sin’s destructive bent, and of sin’s desire to control everything — to control even God.
God himself took the whipping of vengeance for all of us to awaken us to love. It’s the craziest thing, because the ones who put evil against the Lord and give sinister counsel to others is us. We’re the oppressors of others who have suffered under our relentless malice. Suffering includes confusing folks, misdirecting their yearnings, and destroying their hopes.
Don’t be too quick to complain about the crosshairs I place on us. All sin is deadly. Even the quiet, back-handed sins, the passive aggressive manipulations, and the sneering, gullet-filled weaknesses. We level our crimes with as little fanfare as we can, but level them we do.
Not to fret, if we’re on board with the man who hung on the tree for us. Maybe you don’t know Jesus very well. You might wish there was a Jesus, though. You might hope God is so merciful that he really would take the blame for every crappy thing you’ve ever done. Maybe there is a Jesus who loves you that much, and a Spirit who’s eager to live in you, mentoring your behavior and changing your heart as your sins slowly fall away. Maybe he'll stay as long as it takes. Maybe there is a Father who’ll meet us anyway, even though we couldn't see him and felt sure he didn't exist. Maybe Jesus will still claim us as his friend when we ignored the possibility of his existence, but we kinda hoped he did exist. Maybe we listened to the Holy Spirit all along, though we thought the conscience trying to adjust our behavior and our heart was all our own doing.
It could be that God really means to flip every sinner on our head, so much so that we wake up.That’s what I like to think, anyway. What Jeremiah is going to watch isn't the damage and horror being done to his enemies, and that's it. He's going to see his enemies repent, because God helped them come to their senses. That's an interesting way to look at it.
You can have the vengeance, God. You’ll do a better job of it, and maybe save the sorry butt of the folks I’d like to punch in the nose. Maybe I’m like Jeremiah after all. I’d like to watch that happen — those who make me furious turning to God for forgiveness. That would be awesome to see!
And my enemies can watch me get my due also, happily forgiven, ecstatic to be loved.