“He has sent me to… proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.”
– Isaiah 61:2
In our text from Isaiah today, in the midst of great words of hope, there is this jarring line that might have stood out to you a bit…
God’s messenger is sent, in part,
“to proclaim…. the day of vengeance of our God.”
Mind you, Isaiah is mouthing the words of God’s Messiah here, the one who, just eight chapters earlier was also revealed to be the suffering servant! Chapter 53:
“He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression[a] and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.”
Reading this again the other morning, it occurred to me that the people causing the oppression and affliction here might well be thinking:
“Serves this ‘Messiah’ right! Serves his followers right! They are made weaker by this, and we are growing stronger, and that is good… it is right for us to have our way with them…. And to exact some measure of retribution for the troubles they have caused us…”
Now, when I was young, I remember often hearing in sermons (I’m guessing it was my dad, because he was my pastor) that man is oppressed and man is an oppressor.
Man is afflicted and man is an afflicter!
The idea that we might in any sense be responsible for the oppression or affliction of another person or group is something that doesn’t sit well with any of us, I think.
We really don’t want to think of ourselves this way. So perhaps we might be inclined to close our eyes to some things.
And we might, for example, laugh at the person who wants to know about all of the people involved that made their iced latte – or their iPhone – possible (you know, the slave labor and the like).
Nevertheless, when God’s prophets says things like…
“…justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us.…truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter..” (Is. 59:9, 14)
Or, “[My people] sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals…” (Amos 2:6)
…perhaps we ought to pause for a minute or two…
And do passages like this mean, as people say:
The chickens will come home to roost?
The piper must be paid?
We will reap what we sow?
One also might think that those who really have been oppressed – let’s say because of their religion or their nationality or even their skin color – might be even more tempted to think along lines of retribution:
“For years we bore a heavy yoke and were shown little compassion or affection…. For years we endured your chains, your disdain and contempt, your feelings of superiority, your disregard for our family ties when you broke them up for your convenience, selling them to the highest bidder….”
So why shouldn’t such men and women look for some measure of vengeance?
Many of these who suffered such things also confessed faith in Christ. Why shouldn’t they be like the saints that the Apostle John mentions in Revelation 6, who cry out to God for vengeance?
We read there:
9”When [the Lamb] opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, e were killed just as they had been.”
Remember these ones crying out to the One Isaiah says:
“….put[s] on the garments of vengeance
and wrap[s] himself in zeal as in a cloak….”(Is. 59:17)
And so in the book of Malachai, we hear about the day of judgement “in its fulfillment when the ‘arrogant and all evildoers’ burn like stubble in a fire, while God’s people dance over the ashes of their enemies….” (quote from a pastor’s sermon on Weedon’s blog).
Then why not indeed?
Why should all those who are oppressed and afflicted today not say:
“We, too, in many ways, are like these saints….”
This brings to mind something else that I read this past week… I heard about the death of a great thinker, who, frankly, I knew little about.
George Mason University economist and syndicated columnist Walter E. Williams died this past week, and I read a few articles about this man’s character and depth of thought.
The more or less universal consensus seems to be that Williams was quite a wonderful person.
And he also seems to have had quite a sense of humor. On his web site, one can find a PDF file of a printable certificate which reads the following:
Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon Granted to All Persons of European Descent
Whereas, Europeans kept my forebears in bondage some three centuries toiling without pay,
Whereas, Europeans ignored the human rights pledges of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution,
Whereas, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments meant little more than empty words,
Therefore, Americans of European ancestry are guilty of great crimes against my ancestors and their progeny.
But, in the recognition Europeans themselves have been victims of various and sundry human rights violations to wit: the Norman Conquest, the Irish Potato Famine, Decline of the Hapsburg Dynasty, Napoleonic and Czarist adventurism, and gratuitous insults and speculations about the intelligence of Europeans of Polish descent,
I, Walter E. Williams, do declare full and general amnesty and pardon to all persons of European ancestry, for both their own grievances, and those of their forebears, against my people.
Therefore, from this day forward Americans of European ancestry can stand straight and proud knowing they are without guilt and thus obliged not to act like damn fools in their relationships with Americans of African ancestry.
Walter E. Williams, Gracious and Generous Grantor[i]
Now we might laugh, but of course the certificate also addresses and makes a number of very serious points. I also take note that Dr. Williams was evidently known to have been a devout Christian man.[ii]
So should we expect those who have been wronged in great ways…treated with disdain and afflicted, to cry out for vengeance?
Or, alternatively, should we just expect all persons having the background of Dr. Williams to say the kinds of words he does?
What should Christians think?
I can’t say that all people, even all Christians, should be gracious in just the way Dr. Williams seems determined to be gracious.
I will say however, that even as someone whose ancestors only came to the American north and Midwest from Germany and Finland in the 1860s (so on the one hand, his statement doesn’t seem particularly relevant to my own ancestors or myself)…
I am nevertheless happy to hear him say what he says, given that today the very issue of having lighter-toned skin seems to be an increasingly important factor for many.[iii]
William’s words do, in that regard, communicate real hope when it comes to such issues.
He makes us think that maybe, just maybe, there can be some real hope for the future…
He makes us think that perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel – at least for believers – where things will not end in retribution and bloodshed between people at odds.
…I know the issue of hope is on many people’s minds these days… in the midst of the chaos and the many problems we increasingly see in more and more quarters, where is our hope?
This past week, I came across some excellent words on that topic well worth sharing:
“Advent is a season of hope. But “watch yourselves,” for the world would draw you away from the hope we have in God’s word. Right now, especially, the world and its evil prince would lure you into many vain hopes. Hope in a man sitting in the White House promising benefits he cannot or may not deliver. Hope in a vaccine that may or may not cure this pandemic. Hope in a “new normal” that is anything but normal, but warped and perverse. Hope in a false unity based not on concord among people, but on fear of exclusion and persecution. That’s on top of all the usual hollow dreams of money, gifts, and gadgets all decorated in glitter and lights this time of year. “Watch yourselves,” do not let your hearts be weighed down with the cares of this life.
Our true hope is in none of these things. Certainly, God may use any or all of them to execute His will in this world; and for those who fear Him, He will work all things for your good, come health or virus, unity or conflict, prosperity or poverty, life or death. But our sure hope is always in His word. In His promises. In the proclamation of true joy and gladness in His Son. It is a gladness without end for you who “live in harmony in Jesus Christ,” even if the world should be set ablaze. In fact, Jesus tells us, “when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”[iv]
And our passage from Isaiah this morning, which describes the Kingdom that God’s promised Messiah is bringing, is exactly the kind of passage that offers us the hope that pastor talks about![v]
But again, look at what is embedded within our passage for this morning….
What does the notion of vengeance have to do with hope?
Should this vengeance, this judgment, also give us some hope?….
Today, many talk about the hope found in social justice. To be too brief, social justice is “understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.” (United Nations)[vi]
Some politicians also talk about this in terms of equity and equality. Talking about equality suggests that everyone should get the same amount. This can’t happen, however, by giving people equal help because some people start with a greater disadvantage than others do.
And so this is where “equity” or “equitable treatment” comes into play. “Equitable treatment” means doing things so that we will all end up in the same place….
And what does the Bible say? First of all, even as God desires fairness and speaks, though His Apostle, of not wanting the rich to have too much nor the poor to have too little, it never talks about ensuring or securing this kind of equality.
And not only this, but an honest reading of the Bible will inoculate us vs. all utopian ideals, even ones that don’t make the same mistakes that today’s “social justice warriors” do.
Here is a key question though:
If some visions of social justice are things that we should at least have some interest in (and some are), why not also social vengeance as well?
Now, some might think that that is an unfair and loaded question.
After all, justice is a popular word these days… Not so much vengeance or revenge (at least, it’s not so popular out in the open….).
Still, this matter is worth exploring.
With justice more classically understood in the Western world, dependent as it has been on Greek and Roman ideals, we have the idea of a fair and proper scale…
Lady Justice is blind, and makes the good and right and impartial determination of innocence or guilt…
And there is an exacting of either blessing or punishment.
This is not so much the case in our pictures of vengeance, or revenge.
For revenge, we associate this not so much with lady justice, blindfolded and determining things impartially and properly, but with feeling and emotion instead.
Revenge, whether taken on one’s own behalf or on behalf of others, is not so impartial, and not done through a mediator like a judge…
It’s personal… even social…, and first and foremost, we might think of the notion of, the desire for, “payback”…
And also tied up with our impressions of revenge is the desire to cause someone to suffer for what they have done to another…
Interestingly, the prophet Jeremiah says of his “friends”:
“All my friends are waiting for me to slip, saying, ‘Perhaps he will be deceived; then we will prevail over him and take our revenge on him.’”
In the book of Leviticus, the Lord talks about both justice and revenge in chapter 19:
15“ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly….
18“ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.[vii]
Here, we see that when God speaks about revenge, He addresses the feelings that come with it, and immediately pivots us to “love our neighbors as ourselves…”
We desperately need it. The real problem is not vengeance itself, but that our intimations of vengeance are deeply wrong.
And our God shows us this particularly when He takes on human flesh as Jesus Christ.
What was His vengeance like?
No, for God – even as Jesus Christ, the God-Man—there is not a whole lot of light between justice and revenge.
The difference is in us. Our emotionally volatile “impartiality”. God, alone, knows a pure impartiality…
Clearly, the difference between him and us is that his anger – though white hot for the moment before quickly succumbing to compassion[viii] – is never wrong, while ours often is.
Hence, the Apostle Paul urges us, for example, says “In your anger do not sin” and “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…”
So, how does God do vengeance? Perhaps the tone that we can detect in Psalm 99 can help us here:
Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel was among those who called on his name;
they called on the Lord
and he answered them.
7 He spoke to them from the pillar of cloud;
they kept his statutes and the decrees he gave them.
8 Lord our God,
you answered them;
you were to Israel a forgiving God,
though you punished their misdeeds.[a]
9 Exalt the Lord our God
and worship at his holy mountain,
for the Lord our God is holy.
The “though you punished their misdeeds” is more accurately translated “though you took vengeance on their deeds”….
In other words, for God, revenge is simply the negative side of justice: giving people their “just desserts” in response to their sinful desires, thoughts, words and deeds.
When good parents punish their children, they might say something like “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” and, as unbelievable as that might sometimes seem to children, Isaiah essentially says the same thing of God, “In all their affliction he was afflicted.” (Is. 63:9).
And when it has to do with His own children, revenge, or the exacting of punishment, is one thing, while it is another thing for those who oppose His children.
For He is also their Avenger, which means that they will receive vengeance, that is, receive justice.
And yes, that finally means hell for their enemies.
Two things we see in the Scripture about this topic that are true:
The Lord is gracious and merciful to those who sin against Him. And the Lord also brings punishment for the wicked and blessings for the faithful…. Isaiah writes:
17 …no weapon forged against you will prevail,
and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,
and this is their vindication from me,”
declares the Lord. (Is 54:17)
So you see, the judgment of the nations will not only be Israel’s relief from their enemies but also their vindication.
The saints begging for that under the throne of God in the book of Revelation will be satisfied.
For though God’s servants be afflicted and broken in this world – though they be racked by suffering – they will have glory and favor in the next!
The Lord is indeed impartial, but He is impartial in an important sense.
Impartial in line with the cause of Zion, that is, Zion’s cause (Is. 34:8).
So just how is the Lord impartial?
The Lord is impartial because Zion’s cause, or purpose—namely to fear, love, and trust their God and to proclaim the glories of His goodness and steadfast love—is to be the purpose of all men.
You can pray the Psalms against your enemies. “The imprecatory Psalms” they are called…
But always remember how the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine… I will repay”.
Even as He also wants your enemies to be His — that is His own dear faith-filled children! — as well…
So trust him to work it out!
To quote Abraham, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).
So what in the end, will win?
Who will be those who are victorious?
Why, those who trust in the Lord and His promised Messiah, and hence those who seek true justice, or vengeance, true righteousness… true reconciliation….
As Jesus says, wisdom will be vindicated by its children.
The world that we face each day indeed will be unjust.
This, however, is why He not only urges us to love our enemies, but does so Himself, dying even for us great sinners.
This is evidently why, when Jesus launches his ministry in Luke 4 by reading parts of our passage from Isaiah today in the synagogue, He stops right before He gets to the vengeance, and then has the nerve to say that He is fulfilling Isaiah 61 in their hearing that very day!
He then goes on to talk about not how God took vengeance on the “nations,” the “Gentiles,” that is, non-Jews, in the O.T., but how He was reaching out to them in love even in the days of Elijah and Elisha!
And yet, it seems that the vengeance part is just what those around Him wanted to hear about.
“God, please take care of those imperialists! Please judge the Romans, won’t you? Take our enemies, take Babylon, down!”
And so, while Jesus goes on to talk about God’s showing mercy to non-Jews in the Old Testament, the people from his own town try to throw Him off the cliff!
Well, it’s like Mary was told, isn’t it?:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
It is not just Rome who is fallen, but the world. People in all places everywhere.
And so we must see, from that story in the book of Luke and elsewhere, that the Lord does not ultimately want us to be a people fixated on attaining justice, or vengeance, for ourselves and the communities we call our own — but those who are full of pity and mercy for lost souls.
So, for example, for those who have withheld fair wages from their workers….
For those who have rolled over everyone en route to attaining the status they think will bring them security….
For those who, acting worse than pagans, do not care for their own flesh and blood, perhaps even putting to death their offspring…
For those who treated their employees or servants with disdain and abuse….
For those living for sex, drugs, and violence…
For those who thought peoples should be grateful to them as they colonized and harvested the goods of their world…
For those who finally, in the end, do not begin to fear, love, and trust in God… or who even fall away from Him….
All this is why the Apostle Paul gives us this advice:
…the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will (II Timothy 2: 24-26)
And who, finally, will win in the end? The One who attaches himself to — attach yourself to! — Isaiah’s suffering servant:
“After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life[d] and be satisfied[e];
by his knowledge[f] my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,[g]
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,[h]
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors…”
You see? Because He did this, “I will give him a portion among the great…and he will divide the spoils with the strong…”
You know, it might look like that Lamb of God loses everything.
But in the end, wonder of wonders, by His great act of righteousness which pays the debts of the world and brings life to the many, He gains the whole world.
When He is weak, He really is strong.
And He gains for Himself a people who love Him, and who will enjoy the overflowing fruits of His goodness forever and ever, world without end.
[iii] This satirical article speaks to the sentiment: https://babylonbee.com/news/in-its-a-wonderful-life-remake-angel-tells-george-bailey-to-go-kill-himself-because-hes-white/
[v] More good stuff from another pastor preaching from the book of Isaiah (chapter 35):
“He has redeemed me” is so powerful to rescue you from all that, and to keep you safe in God’s arms. So it’s a great thing for you to be called “the redeemed.” We hear it at the end of Isaiah 35: “The redeemed of the LORD shall walk there,” is speak-ing of you. This is a promise, a beautiful Gospel promise spoken to you.
We have to back up, though, and survey the landscape. In Isaiah 35, the prophet pictures it for us as a desert, a wilderness, a wasteland. He goes on to further picture it as a dry, waterless, parched ground, a harsh landscape. It’s the place of deprivation and death.
There are many such descriptions in the prophets. Normally I’ve had to work to reveal how this is the world we live in. But as 2020 goes out, I don’t have to work to show you the bleakness of our landscape, how this is a wilderness. You see and feel it all the time, don’t you, especially all the things you have to say you can’t count on…”
Our Old Testament passage from Isaiah this morning is meant to give us great hope!
61 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
The first thing to realize here is that first and foremost, these words are meant by Isaiah and a spiritual and/or metaphorical sense.
Throughout the book of Isaiah, certain physical realities – such being poor, blind, and a prisoner (see Revelation 3:17: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”) – are meant to stand in for spiritual truths (this is not to say that the people of Israel were not in a wilderness of sorts, not like after the days of the Exodus, wandering in the real wilderness. They were may have well been physically poor and thirsty as well (see 41:11-18, particularly v. 17))
In like fashion, there is no doubt that as Isaiah prophesied, the people of Israel really would be plundered, looted and even faced physical imprisonment from the Babylonians (Is. 42:22,24 ; see also 51:14, 19) – this being punishment from God. Nevertheless, when Isaiah elsewhere speaks the famous words about “those who sitting in darkness who have seen a great light,” echoed also in the Gospel of Matthew, he is not talking about the literal blind and literal prisoners so much as talking about spiritual realities….).
He is, after all, zeroing in on people whose sins have separated them from God (Is. 59:2) …as darkness covers the earth (Is. 60:2).
Therefore, even though Isaiah is constantly talking about the blind and the deaf, He also quotes the Lord commanding believers like him, for example, to “lead out those who have eyes but are blind (In fact, Israel itself is called the blind and deaf servant (Is. 42:18-19 ; see also 42:15,16), but we are told that the Lord’s coming Messiah, the Suffering servant, will be a “light for the nations” (Is. 42:6) and “open the eyes that are blind.”), who have ears but are deaf.” (see 43:1-9, particularly v. 8)
[Again, none of that is to say that those who really are healed from physical blindness and deafness do not make a great illustration of this spiritual truth, just like none of this is to say that the Lord is indifferent to the plight of those who are blind and deaf. We know for a fact that is not the truth.
That, however, is really not the focus. The endgame. The Lord has come to save us not just from temporary problems on earth, but the problem of earth itself ; the problem of Adam that wearies Him with sin.
For we have fallen, and without His aid, cannot get up. Fallen man, what we also call the “old Adam,” is sick not only externally, but internally: to the core.
And in like fashion, man is not only poor externally, but internally…. spiritually poor.
We might not only feel physical hunger and thirst – and note that He satisfies His people like He did when they wandered in the desert — but we are to sense our spiritual hunger and thirst… to pant for the living God, as the Psalmist says…. (Isaiah 41:17-18 ; 43:20)
This is what Isaiah is on about….]
And the Messiah will “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is 42:7 ; see also Is. 49:8-13, esp. vv. 9 and 10, the latter which is quoted in Rv. 7:16-17 as a picture of heaven.)
Even as God has allowed Israel to endure punishment on earth, through their earthly foes, He also promises to redeem them again, and tells them not to fear:
12“I, even I, am he who comforts you.
Who are you that you fear mere mortals,
human beings who are but grass,
13that you forget the Lord your Maker,
who stretches out the heavens
and who lays the foundations of the earth,
that you live in constant terror every day
because of the wrath of the oppressor,
who is bent on destruction?
For where is the wrath of the oppressor?
(It goes on in chapter 51:
“…. 21Therefore hear this, you afflicted one,
made drunk, but not with wine.
22This is what your Sovereign Lord says,
your God, who defends his people:
“See, I have taken out of your hand
the cup that made you stagger;
from that cup, the goblet of my wrath,
you will never drink again.
23I will put it into the hands of your tormentors,
who said to you,
‘Fall prostrate that we may walk on you.’
And you made your back like the ground,
like a street to be walked on.”)
The reasoning seems to be “How can we fear men and their oppression, when our God is so great?”
This is part and parcel of the hope that belongs to God’s people…
[vi] In a Mar 24, 2016 article, the San Diego Foundation offered the following definitions:
- “Social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.”
- “Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities. Social workers aim to open the doors of access and opportunity for everyone, particularly those in greatest need.”
National Association of Social Workers
- “Social justice encompasses economic justice. Social justice is the virtue which guides us in creating those organized human interactions we call institutions. In turn, social institutions, when justly organized, provide us with access to what is good for the person, both individually and in our associations with others. Social justice also imposes on each of us a personal responsibility to work with others to design and continually perfect our institutions as tools for personal and social development.”
Center for Economic and Social Justice
The Oxford English Dictionary tries to sum it up more succinctly:
“…justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.”
As in: “individuality gives way to the struggle for social justice”
[vii] More context: 15“ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
16“ ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“ ‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.
17“ ‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
18“ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
[viii] “For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
8 In a surge of anger
I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord your Redeemer. – Isaiah 54:7-8 (see also, e.g., 60:10)