NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XLIII)
Also, early church writer Ambrosiaster had something to say about leaving vengeance up to God. He begins by pointing out that Paul warns us to avoid anger because so often anger is the chief cause of doing things we later regret. We know that anyone who is motivated by fury will often demand more in return than the injury or abuse they received deserves. In doing so, they make themselves liable to do more harm than necessary while seeking revenge. They may end up destroying someone they could have been instrumental in correcting and restoring instead. This is why Paul cautions us not to seek revenge from those under us but also those who are our equals or superiors. Especially, do not seek to avenge ourselves against a brother or sister in Christ who may have wronged us in some way rather than waiting on the Lord to act. This will keep them from trying to find a way to get back at us for our vengeful attitude. Even worse, we may not even notice, because we are so angry, what has really taken place. Paul quotes God’s words when He: “I will make My shining sword sharp. My hand takes hold of what is right and fair. I will punish those who are against Me. And I will punish those who hate Me,”1 to back up his point. What Paul is saying is that we must pay attention to what God teaches. If we turn revenge over to God it benefits us in two ways: it overcomes our own anger and builds on our justification with sanctification.2
John Calvin is certainly against Christians taking revenge. The main reason is that it can go from seeking an apology to seeking retaliation. When that happens, it turns the believer into a prosecutor, judge, and jury. That is close to a person wanting to be God. How can any believer try and usurp the authority of God? Avenging the wrongs done to His children is part of God’s judgment plan. God has reserved this office for Himself. Paul is clearly saying that God is their defender. So why not patiently wait for Him to act. Believers must be willing to wait for God to do something in their place instead of trying to do something in God’s place.
Calvin goes on to point out that Paul not only cautions us not to execute revenge with our own hands but keep our hearts from becoming fixed on any desire of this kind. As Calvin sees it, it is pointless to make a distinction between public and private revenge. What difference is there between someone with malicious intent on getting revenge by taking someone to court and the person who comes up with their own plan of self-revenge? There is no difference! Seeking retribution is something we must turn over to God whether it is public or private. When believers go off on a mission to get revenge no matter what, they then turn God into being their Judge as much as the Judge of those who did them wrong. However, the wrong that God must judge in the heart of the believer is that they have a depraved passion to do harm to others, instead of seeking to get them out of a terrible situation. So Paul is saying that we should forget going after others to get even with them. Stay calm, look to the future when God will repay them His way. Why turn someone who might become our friend into a permanent adversary?3
John Bengel offers his view that by making this appeal for keeping a cool mind in a hot situation, Paul is attempting to calm down those in the church in Rome who might be angry at the way they were being treated either in the congregation or in the city. When Paul does this, he often uses exhortations that flow from a sense of the Divine grace which had been shown toward him as the encourager and those in Rome he is encouraging.4 His point is that anyone who attempts to avenge themselves is trying to seize without warrant all that pertains to the God as Judge. In doing so they ignore what is said in Scripture; that is: the wrath of God, which is the only one that’s fair, is also the only one that deserves to be called “wrath.”5 Some Christians do this because they believe they are worthy of religious reverence.
As Bengel sees it, then Paul takes the next step of inferring that personal acts of retaliation may elevate themselves to prosecution through a law-suit to make up for what they were unable to achieve on their own. The Apostle pleads with the believers in Rome, and everywhere, to suppress all desire for vengeance. Just think of this: Suppose that the person who offended you is not as bad as you think, and they end up thinking that you are worse than you think. They may end up obtaining God’s grace upon repentance, but you will not because you were not satisfied with the outcome. Furthermore, your grudge against them may be seen in God’s eyes as a barrier against their having access to Him. In fact, they would have been delighted in your forgiveness and remembering them in your prayers. But even if all this fails and they do not turn to God in repentance, it still does not absolve you from your fault and you will need to seek a pardon for what you did. At least, when it is left up to God, His advantage as supreme Judge will allow Him to punish those at fault if they do not take advantage of His grace and ask for a pardon.6
On the subject of believers staying away from becoming vengeful, Robert Haldane reminds us that when it comes to our fleshly desires and passions, the urge to take revenge on those who injure us is one of the strongest and hardest to control. The Apostle Paul, therefore, introduces this dissuasive appeal against practicing this corrupt principle. Christians will have more than one occasion to test out this precept by Paul. That’s because such occurrences not only involve believers against unbelievers but believers against believers. This seems to be Paul’s main aim but is open to it being heeded when arguments arise with those in the world. No doubt Paul takes it for granted that those who abstain from avenging their own cause will not essentially promote their happiness.
It is a painful thing to think that we will not receive compensation for our injuries and abuses. However, Paul believes that by forgetting them and turning them over to God it will give us more peace and happiness than if we did get our way of punishing them. How different this is from the principles of this world. So many in the unregenerate society go by what they call the laws of honor. In many cases, in obedience to such a law, a person is willing to make a cold-blooded vow that they are ready to risk their own life to make sure that such revenge is carried out to either settle an insulting, heartbreaking confrontation or the most trivial injury. So the question now becomes, how much gross ignorance does any believer manifest when they even consider acting in this manner. Not only that but to suggest that they drop their effort to get revenge and turn it over to God would be misunderstood by them as an insult to their intelligence.
Then Haldane goes on to point out that all believers must come to the realization that God will avenge the injuries done to His people. So you may ask, what, then, will be the punishment of those who misuse their time to persecute, injure, reproach, and slander the disciples of Christ? That is God’s decision, and His right to pick the time and place. However, Haldane does not believe, as some have suggested, that this prohibits Christians from appealing to the courts in case of injuries. Not to get back at the perpetrator, but simply recover any financial or property losses. I think we all agree that this is true, especially of auto insurance, worker’s compensation, and home insurance against flooding, break-ins, and robbery.
Haldane agrees with Calvin that while we must be careful when going to court to recover losses, never should it be done based on the principle of seeking revenge. Both Haldane and Calvin look at filing a lawsuit based on a principle of revenge is the same as taking up revenge with one’s own hands. To go to court simply to get revenge is simply using a judge and jury to do the work of revenge for us. This must be considered as a misuse of justice to satisfy a personal, selfish passion. Yes, there are many cases where it would be highly irresponsible not to punish evil-doers, such as in the case of murder, embezzlement, or needless killing of innocents by drunken drivers. No judge will think it wrong to appeal to the court under such circumstances. However, as believers, we must never use even these atrocious and heinous acts as an excuse to execute vengeance.7
Girolamo Savonarola, an Italian Dominican friar, and preacher during the Renaissance period once said, “A Christian’s life consists in doing good and forgiving evil.”8 This is certainly an ideology that goes beyond what Paul is preaching. Even Christians must let justice take care of those who break the law. H. A. Ironside puts it in perspective by saying that we should never take matters into our own hands. We should see what Paul is saying here in verse 19 in light of what he will say in verses 20-21. It is a matter of simple confidence that God will not allow any trial to come upon the believer through the acts of others but what He will not eventually work it out for the believer’s good9.10
Charles Hodge breaks down one important phrase in this verse when he talks about three interpretations of what the KJV that renders as, “give place unto wrath.” The NIV has, “leave room for God’s wrath.” The Complete Jewish Bible renders it: “leave that to God’s anger.” Hodge says that first, we must look at this anger or wrath as coming from the injured person. We should then take what Paul says as meaning, “allow it to pass,” namely, let it go, don’t hold on to it or pander to it. Such an interpretation would be in direct contradiction to the common and proper meaning of the phrase in question, which signifies that we should let it run its course. Hodge points out that in Latin, the phrase is frequently used in the sense of deferring the gratification of anger, giving it space or time to cool.
The second interpretation refers to the wrath that the person causing the injury should suffer. This interpretation would imply that we should not avenge ourselves, but rather yield or submit to the anger of our enemy. This is consistent with the literal meaning of the phrase that tells us to get out of the way so that it does us little harm. Hodge points to German scholar Johann Christian Schöttgen, who in his NT commentary says that Jewish writers use the corresponding Hebrew phrase in the sense of “avoiding.” However, there is no example in the Bible for such understanding. When it comes to being the object of wrath we are never told to just allow anyone the free exercise of such vengeance on any person or thing.11
That brings us to the third interpretation. This points toward the wrath of God, and out of the three, is the only one consistent with the meaning of the phrase as used in this context. In other words: Dearly beloved, don’t attempt to avenge any wrong done to you on your own. Leave that matter up to God. Get out of His way. Let God take care of it based on what He knows and what He can do. After all, it’s up to Him to see to it that those who deserve it are properly punished. Then the quote by Paul from Deuteronomy 32:35, is obviously cited to show the propriety of the command to leave vengeance to God, and not attempt to take it into our own hands. Hodge doesn’t believe that we should desire that divine vengeance overtake our enemies because of the joy we would get out of watching it happen. Rather, we should do nothing that would usurp the prerogative of God as the true avenger.12
1 Deuteronomy 32:41
2 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Cf. Romans 12:1
5 See 2 Chronicles 24:18
6 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 344-345
7 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 572-573
8 Agnes of Sorrento, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ch. 21
9 Romans 8:28
10 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 See Ephesians 4:27
12 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 622-623