Mormon 3:14-20, Mormon 4:5 – LeGrand Baker — Vengeance is the Lord’s

Mormon 3:14-20, Mormon 4:5

14 And when they had sworn by all that had been forbidden them by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that they would go up unto their enemies to battle, and avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren, behold the voice of the Lord came unto me, saying:
15 Vengeance is mine, and I will repay; and because this people repented not after I had delivered them, behold, they shall be cut off from the face of the earth.
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20 And these things doth the Spirit manifest unto me; therefore I write unto you all. And for this cause I write unto you, that ye may know that ye must all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, yea, every soul who belongs to the whole human family of Adam; and ye must stand to be judged of your works, whether they be good or evil;

Mormon 4:5

5 But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished;

These scriptures expresses an underlying principle that surfaces frequently in the scriptures. The principle is difficult to understand because it seems to be completely contrary to human nature. For example, a few years ago a candidate for the Vice Presidency of the United States thought she was showing her fearlessness, but was actually unveiling the essence of her personality when she said, “I don’t get mad, I get even.” A similar idea whose source I do not remember is, “Revenge tastes best when it is served cold.”

Both of those ideas expose a lingering canker that corrodes the finer qualities of the human soul. The danger of seeking revenge is that it is fed by a festering anger that either sits and molders in one’s consciousness, or else actively dominates all or part of one’s Self. It cripples one’s ability to get on with the business of discovering and perfecting one’s Eternal Self.

While Mormon applied this principle of not seeking revenge to a culture-wide situation, the Savior and the prophets have made it very personal.

Paul tried to teach this principle by urging his audience to just let things go and not become vindictive. But even that teaching has a barb. He wrote:

30 For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.
31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:30-31).

The barb is that people can “leave judgement to God” but still be spiteful and wish God would just get on with exacting his revenge. Besides the assertion that the rights of vengeance belong only to the Lord, the other thing those passages have in common is the notion that God will exercise that prerogative and do dreadful things to the wicked. If read that way, our desire to get even is transferred to God because he has more power to do damage than we people have.

Some people relish the satisfaction of watching that “fearful thing” and of seeing the bad guy wither under its oppression. There is self-destruction in that relish. Our desire for vendetta only increases when God does not administer his vengeance quickly enough to satisfy our pleasure.

There are a number of Old Testament scriptures that support Paul’s statement “for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”

35 To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste (Deuteronomy 32:35).

1 O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself.
2 Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth: render a reward to the proud.
3 Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph? (Psalms 94:1-3).

3 Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees.
4 Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence (Isaiah 35:3-4).

6 Flee out of the midst of Babylon, and deliver every man his soul: be not cut off in her iniquity; for this is the time of the Lord’s vengeance; he will render unto her a recompence.
7 Babylon hath been a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, that made all the earth drunken: the nations have drunken of her wine; therefore the nations are mad (Jeremiah 51:6-7).

The prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah were true enough. Nineveh and Babylon eventually became wasted deserts, but the prophecies were not fulfilled right away, and certainly not as quickly as their enemies hoped.

It is important to note that not all the scriptures that speak of God’s judgment revel in the desire for vengeance. In another letter Paul wrote:

19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:19-21).

Alma taught the same principle:

14 Therefore, my son, see that you are merciful unto your brethren; deal justly, judge righteously, and do good continually; and if ye do all these things then shall ye receive your reward; yea, ye shall have mercy restored unto you again; ye shall have justice restored unto you again; ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again; and ye shall have good rewarded unto you again (Alma 41:14).

In Alma’s words, it is very easy to see “merciful” and “mercy” as hesed or a version of it. As in Psalm 18:

25 With the merciful [hesed – adj.] thou wilt shew thyself merciful [hesed – verb]; with an upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright (Psalms 18:25). {1}

The Savior was apparently paraphrasing that psalm when he said:

7 Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy (3 Nephi 12:7).

A key to understanding how self-destructive the desire to do vengeance is, is the fact that only God has the right to do it, but even he does not exercise vengeance. Alma explained:

22 But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
23 But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence, to be judged according to their works, according to the law and justice.
24 For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved (Alma 42:22-24).

In the final analysis, the eternal principle is this: God does not, never has, and never will punish any of his children. He taught that the reason the prophets speak in harsh terms is so “that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men (D&C 19:7)” and encourage them to repent.

Mormon explained that there are real this-world consequences to wickedness, but those consequences are not imposed by God. He wrote:

5 But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished ( Mormon 4:5).

In my trying to sort out what all this means, this is what I have concluded: All people are placed on this earth to exercise their agency and thereby expose their true nature. God does not inflict punishment, and we must not seek revenge. An ancient truth is:

17 The merciful [hesed] man doeth good to his own soul: but he that is cruel troubleth his own flesh (Proverbs 11:17).

In the Savior’s teachings, peace and being a peacemaker are the grand prizes for righteousness. Peace is the power to transcend both sorrow and hurt. Peace and the need for revenge are mutually exclusive. Vendetta precludes peace. Therefore, we are advised to leave the judgements to God and get on with doing what we have covenanted to do. God has promised us that he will enable us to keep our eternal covenants so we need not interfere with his ability to do that.

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FOOTNOTE

{1}     25 With the merciful [hesed – adj, Strong # 2623 ] thou wilt shew thyself merciful [hesed – verb, Strong # 2616]; with an upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright (Psalms 18:25).

As observed elsewhere, Psalm 25 is set in the context of our premortal covenants. In it, words translated “lovingkindnesses” and “mercy” are from the Hebrew word hesed. {A} The psalm uses the Hebrew word hesed four times, and by so doing, it brings those covenants into a deeply personal friendship/relationship. The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament shows the power of that friendship/relationship:

We may venture the conjecture that even in cases where the context does not suggest such mutuality it is nevertheless implicit, because we are dealing with the closest of human bonds. {B}

An explanation and clarification of their phrase, “dealing with the closest of human bonds,” is found in a new edition of Strong’s Concordance:

hesed, unfailing love, loyal love, devotion. kindness, often based on a prior relationship, especially a covenant relationship. {C}

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Footnotes within the footnote

{A} Katherine Doob Sakenfeld of Princeton University Seminary wrote a dissertation on “hesed” in which she argued that it meant “to do what is expected of one.” With regard to the covenant, God does what is expected (keep his covenant promises); man should also maintain “hesed” (keep his covenant promises). Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, The Meaning of Hesed in the Hebrew Bible: A New Inquiry (Missoula, Montana; Scholars Press for the Harvard Semitic Museum, 1978).

{B} G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, eds., trans. Davod E. Green, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 15 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1986), article about hesed, 5:45-48). The Greek equivalent is Philadelphia, fraternal love, as explained in fn 905, p. 680.

{C} John R. Kohlenberger III and James A. Swanson, The Strongest Strong’s, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), Hebrew dictionary # 2617.

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