On my return trip from holding a meeting in Ramstein, Germany (April 27-May 1), I was sitting on the back seat of a plane flying from Toronto, Ontario when I looked ahead and saw a gentleman about half-way up the aisle reading a Toronto newspaper. It had a large photo of Osama bin Laden on it and the headline read, “Osama bin Laden is De . . . .” I could not read all of the title from where I was sitting. The passenger beside me was asleep. When we finally landed in Indianapolis, I asked him about the headline and he related to me the basic facts surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden.
When I got home, I listened to the news reports and read them the next day in The Indianapolis Star. A side-bar article contained comments from various religious leaders about the conflict between one’s attitude toward his enemies and the joy so obviously expressed by so many Americans upon hearing of bid Laden’s death. Some were obviously conflicted in their feelings. I would like to suggest several thoughts about this.
Personal Revenge is Forbidden in Both Testaments
The Scriptures forbid vengeance, in both the Old and New Testaments. Paul wrote,
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 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 (Rom. 12:19-21).
The Old Testament had already taught this principle, long before the time of Jesus.
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Lev. 19:18).
Do not say, “I will do to him just as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work” (Prov. 24:29).
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 (Prov. 25:21-22).
The Mosaical Law taught the responsibility to help one’s enemy when he lost his animals.
If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it (Exod. 23:4-5).
One should be careful not to imply that the morality of the New Testament is superior to that of the Old Testament with reference to exacting personal revenge in light of these passages.
Jesus distinguished between punishment of the wicked and personal retaliation when He said,
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away (Matt. 5:38-42).
Distinguishing Revenge from Justice
Having noticed that personal revenge is condemned in both testaments, one needs to distinguish between personal revenge and the execution of justice. The distinction may be easier for us to perceive inasmuch as civil government is ordained to avenge crime by bringing criminals to justice, whereas under the early days of the Old Testament a family member known as an avenger of blood was the administrator of justice.
Paul spoke of the role of civil government immediately following his comments forbidding revenge. He wrote,
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing (Rom. 13:1-6).
Peter added, “or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:14).
One should understand from the reading of these Scriptures that what happened in the punishment of Osama bin Laden was exactly what God ordained government to accomplish — to punish those who are evil doers to stop them from perpetrating their crimes.
In circumstances in which civil government was not available to punish criminals, the clan fulfilled the same role. Numbers 35 alludes to this practice in its instructions pertaining to cities of refuge which were designed to offer protection for a personal who accidentally killed someone. Implied in the background of that instruction is that families members (one or more) would avenge the death of one of its own. The one avenging the death of a clan member was known as the “avenger” (35:12), “avenger of blood” (35:19), “revenger of blood” (35:21). God expressed His will that when one was shown to have committed murder, “The avenger of blood himself shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death” (Num. 35:19).
In the circumstance of fulfilling the role of being the “avenger of blood” or in lesser than capital cases the exactor of justice, a family member would be particularly susceptible of confusing the spirit of personal revenge with the execution of justice. Divine law limited the punishment that could be afflicted on one who inflicted harm on another. The divine law said that the punishment is to proportionate to the crime: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod. 21:23-24). In light of so many Hollywood movies that feature someone suffering injury at the hand of another initiating a vigilante justice that inflicts death and destruction of a multitude of people (albeit, usually it is a criminal gang), we need to be reminded that divine justice is justice fitted to the crime committed. Jury awards that dish out millions of dollars to someone who spilled on himself a cup of hot coffee from McDonalds is not divine justice!
God’s people in both Testaments were taught to distinguish between personal revenge and the execution of divine justice.
The Imprecatory Psalms
When one realizes that God’s will is executed when (a) civil government punishes the wicked and (b) wicked nations are overthrown by other nations to retard the spread of wickedness, he can better interpret a section of Scripture that may be difficult for him: the imprecatory psalms.
There are a whole host of such Psalms, some containing imprecatory verses and others in which the whole psalm is imprecatory. Imprecatory psalms are those that invoke judgment, calamity, or curses, upon one’s enemies or those perceived as the enemies of God. Here are some examples of imprecatory verses in psalms:
Pronounce them guilty, O God!
Let them fall by their own counsels;
Cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions,
For they have rebelled against You (Psa. 5:10).
Plead my cause, O Lord, with those who strive with me;
Fight against those who fight against me.
Take hold of shield and buckler,
And stand up for my help.
Also draw out the spear,
And stop those who pursue me.
Say to my soul, “I am your salvation.”
Let those be put to shame and brought to dishonor
Who seek after my life;
Let those be turned back and brought to confusion
Who plot my hurt.
Let them be like chaff before the wind,
And let the angel of the Lord chase them.
Let their way be dark and slippery,
And let the angel of the Lord pursue them (Psa. 35:1-6).
Let them be ashamed and brought to mutual confusion
Who seek to destroy my life;
Let them be driven backward and brought to dishonor
Who wish me evil.
Let them be confounded because of their shame,
Who say to me, “Aha, aha!” (Psa. 40:14-15).
God shall likewise destroy you forever;
He shall take you away, and pluck you out of your dwelling place,
And uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
The righteous also shall see and fear,
And shall laugh at him, saying,
“Here is the man who did not make God his strength,
But trusted in the abundance of his riches,
And strengthened himself in his wickedness” (Psa. 52:5-7).
Psalm 69:22-28 contains this extensive imprecation:
Let their table become a snare before them,
And their well-being a trap.
Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see;
And make their loins shake continually.
Pour out Your indignation upon them,
And let Your wrathful anger take hold of them.
Let their dwelling place be desolate;
Let no one live in their tents.
For they persecute the ones You have struck,
And talk of the grief of those You have wounded.
Add iniquity to their iniquity,
And let them not come into Your righteousness.
Let them be blotted out of the book of the living,
And not be written with the righteous (Psa. 69:22-28).
As we witness the death of one who has been the mastermind behind so much human suffering, let us not be ashamed of our joyous feelings that retributive justice has been executed. Osama bin Laden issued two fatawa — in 1996 and then again in 1998—that Muslims should kill civilians and military personnel from the United States and allied countries until they withdraw support for Israel and withdraw military forces from Islamic countries. He has been indicted in United States federal court for his alleged involvement in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, and was on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Although bin Laden had not been indicted for the September 11, 2001 attacks, he claimed responsibility for them in videos released to the public. In addition he helped train other assassins who have attempted to carry on his terrorists acts.
What should be done for such a man – erect a monument in his honor and grace it with flowers? Elect him president of the United States? Obviously not! He should be given the full punishment that the law allows: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man” (Gen. 9:6). The blood could have been shed after a court tried him and found him guilty, or it could be shed as a result of him resisting his arrest, but in either case, this is the just punishment for such conduct and those who love God, far from being ashamed of their joy upon hearing of his demise, should rejoice that justice has finally caught up with the criminal!