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Retribution

The Little Hills church in Missouri did a sermon series this past March on "Six Poisons" (https://littlehills.church/safari/article/995.html) based on Proverbs 6 (e.g. haughty eyes, lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood...). The middle of the series had a sermon titled, "They'll know we are Christians by our anger?" The summary description reads, "We have so much we feed our anger on: politics, our neighbors, pop culture, the world in general. Is that what God has called us to?"


It's an excellent question.



Isaiah 34 has to do with end-times judgment on the nations, with a special case example of Edom. Israel and Edom shared a common ancestor: Isaac. However, Israel descended from Jacob and Edom from Esau. Tension existed with these brothers and continued with their descendants. The Edomites famously denied passage to the Israelites during the Exodus, in a particularly un-brotherly move laced with anti-Semitism. These are definitely enemies. We could focus on the racial tension and this historic conflict, but I'm first interested in considering some personal applications.


In the NIV Application Commentary for Isaiah, author John Oswalt writes,


We do not need to destroy the Edom that may have crushed us under its heavy boot because we can trust God to do the right thing in the end, both for Edom and us.

We may look at the ritual destruction described in Isaiah 34 with modern abhorrence. The Hebrew word used to describe the destruction has to do with a religious sacrifice, and the text describes the fat and blood that coats the sword used for the ritual. It's pretty yucky.


And yet, our modern selves have, of late, been giving free reign to our our retribution and cycles of hate--via physical violence, verbal violence, relational aggression, and dismembered relationships.


Isaiah 34 is a fantastic reminder to not take up retribution for wrongs committed against us or for evils perceived in others. It's been said that it's known what Christians stand against but not what they stand for. I think the Little Hills Church is right to take this a little further--not only are Christians often spending more time talking about what they are against, but it may lapse into much anger and hate. It's very telling if these thoughts occupy a lot of mental space, in contrast to what the Bible tells Christians to focus on ("whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right..." Philippians 4).


Hatred can take on a religious fervor, much like the ritual destruction described in Isaiah 34. And, actually, by definition, when we as individuals seek to punish others, we engage in revenge rather than retribution, which has to do with a corporate response rather than an individual one.


Another important caveat is this: we aren't God! We can't judge perfectly. In fact, we so often judge others for the same kinds of things that we ourselves do.


As Oswalt indicates above, these Edoms may be real. What they've done to us or toward those whom we identify with may be legitimately terrible. But if we're taking up our own sword (whether verbally or otherwise), we're pushing God out of the way so that we can blunder into a retributive battle that we're ultimately going to lose and we're actually not qualified to undertake. It's a battle that only He can win, because only He sees reality clearly enough to enact justice in a way that is best for all.


In the case of Edom, what Isaiah 34 predicts does in fact happen...the land becomes deserted and kind of a wonderland for desert animals. The descendants of the Edomites become intermixed with other people groups and are no longer a distinct unit to look down upon others.


Letting God do the right thing, however, doesn't mean that we necessarily take a passive role. It's just that we don't take a retributive one. This blog could have focused on the very real racial tensions and violence that exist in our world and country right now. Despite being on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, American Christians arguably haven't carried the cause of justice for oppressed groups except in certain pockets. Our submission to God as the only King who can enact truly just consequences shouldn't prevent us for standing for what is right--as we should for any other moral issue.


Lord, please forgive me for when I am so focused on wrongs committed against me that I don't listen to what your word says about defending the cause of the powerless. I release to you, and must do this daily, negative feelings that arise from benign offenses and ask that you please help me to redirect this to helping those who are truly oppressed.





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