Vengeance (in Jeremiah)

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The inflicting of pain or harm, either to oneself or another, in return for pain or harm done. Humanly speaking, vengeance is retaliation. When his eyes were put out by the Philistines, Samson wanted to settle accounts, and prayed, “O God, please strengthen me once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judges 16:28). It has been argued that proper vengeance belongs to the highest authority. Vengeance as retribution is essentially God’s prerogative—“It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Deut 32:35; cf. Rom 12:17–19; Heb 10:28–31).

The prophets envision the day when God in his sovereignty will settle accounts: “Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you’” (Isa 35:4 NIV).

Only rarely, and that when God specifies, are persons themselves entitled to take revenge (e.g., Num 31:2–3). “Of the seventy-eight passages in the Bible where the [Hebrew] root NQM [vengeance] occurs, fifty-one involve situations in which the actor is either Yahweh Himself, or an agency to which the power to act is specifically delegated in a specific situation” (Mendenhall: 82). Since the act of vengeance belongs to God, those who sincerely believe in God do not take retaliation for evil into their own hands, but call on God to take vengeance (1 Sam 24:12; cf. Ps 18:47).

In Jeremiah one finds several assertions about God’s role in taking vengeance on Israel and on nations (5:9, 29; 9:9; 46:10; 50:15; 51:6, 11, 36). The prophet also prays for God to take vengeance on his personal enemies (11:20; 15:15; 20:12). Jeremiah never speaks of “my vengeance.” Here he is in accord with the scriptural teaching to leave the settling of accounts to God.

The Old Testament forbids the exercise of personal vendetta—“Do not seek revenge . . .”—and in the same breath sets a high standard, reiterated in the New Testament, “but love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; Rom 12:17–21; Matt 5:44). While Jeremiah turned over his case for revenge to the Lord, it cannot be said, judging from his laments, that he moved to the second stage of loving his enemies.


  • Mendenhall, George E. The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

Elmer A. Martens