One occasionally hears this expression, but in fact there is nothing whatever of “sweetness” about revenge. An ancient Jewish Proverb says, “The smallest revenge will poison the soul.” The Roman lawyer and satirist Decimus Juvenal (circa 60 – 140 AD) said, “Revenge is the abject pleasure of an abject mind.” In more recent times Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) said, “Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.”
This is an important subject, one that deals with a violent emotion of human nature. There is in fact a quartet of such feelings, Anger, Hatred, Jealousy, and Revenge, all of which can get completely out of control, and the results fill our history books with the violence that ensues.
Let us go over to France for a moment and take a quick look at three of their novelists. First of all, Alexandre Dumas (1802 – 1870). His voluminous writings include “The Count of Monte Cristo”. This book, written in 1844, deals with the unfortunate circumstances of Edmund Dantes, wrongfuly convicted and sent to the infamous Chateau D’If, with no chance of reprieve. The story tells of his eventual escape, the finding of the treasure trove left by the Abbe Ferrier, and the setting up of himself as “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Under this guise he hunts down those who plotted his conviction and mercilessly revenges himself on them one by one, until he finally comes face to face with Mercedes, the girl he was to marry. But realising the type of man he now is, she is revolted by him. The “sweetness” of his revenge thereby turns sour, and that is the crux of the tale.
Next we turn to Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885), the author of many books, but perhaps best remembered for “LesMiserables”, written in 1862. Jean Valjean is convicted of petty theft, for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a hungry family. Eventually he serves 19 years hard labour before being allowed out. He finds a bed for the night at a Bishop’s residence, and repays him by stealing his silver. Apprehended for this, the Bishop asks why he didn’t take the candlesticks as well, and faces Valjean with the possibility of a new lifestyle, free from revenge, free from violence, and in pursuit of mercy and forgiveness. “I gave him the silver,” says the Bishop to the authorities, and Valjean is released. The effect of this on the convict is to bring about a change, as he realises the power of forgiveness and mercy, and the rest of the story shows how this was worked out, line by line, event by event, as he was severely tested on this principle. The recent (1998) film, although brief compared with the book, does justice to the theme.
Finally, we turn to the true story of Henry Charriere, known as “Papillon”, the butterfly. Like Jean Valjean, he was convicted of petty theft, and sent to a penal colony in French Guyana, where he tried unsuccessfully to escape. Realising the strength of will of this prisoner, they transferred him to “Devil’s Island” where the only chance of escape was the ocean. There he found Louis Dega, who helped him in his endeavour to escape. The book shows the intense drive of this man to free himself from injustice. However, right at the end of the book, he records that he spoke to God as follows. ‘Lord, forgive me if I do not know how to pray; look into me and You will see I don’t possess words enough to express my gratitude to You for having brought me as far as this. It has been a hard struggle; making my way along the Calvary inflicted upon me by other men has not been always very easy; and the reason I have been able to overcome all these obstacles and go on living in good health up until this blessed day is certainly because of your helping hand. What can I do to show You that I am sincerely grateful for your care of me?
‘Renounce thy vengeance.’
Did I really hear these words or did I only think I heard them? I don’t know: but they came so suddenly, like a smack in the face, that I’d almost swear I really did hear thern. Oh no! Not that! Don’t ask me that. These people have made me suffer too much. How can you expect me to forgive those bent cops, or Polein, that perjured witness? How can I give up the idea of ripping out that inhuman lawyer’s tongue? I can’t do it. You’re asking me too much. No, no, no. I’m sorry to offend You, but at no price whatsoever will I give up carrying out my revenge.’
I have chosen these three books because they are well known, and each tells a tale. Edmund Dantes did the wrong thing, and it turned sour on him. Revenge was sweet until he found its fruits to be bitter. Jean Valjean was so completely non-plussed at the Bishop’s merciful action that it gradually changed his life into one of mercy. Papillonshows the indomitable struggle in the human soul for justice, is thankful to the Lord, but still requires vengeance.
What can be learned from the Scriptures about revenge? Was it not Paul who wrote, “Avenge not yourselves, my brethren, for ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.’?” That is the point. None of us has the capability of meting out punishment in the exact measure. At the best we make fools of ourselves, at the worst we become like EdmundDantes.
If Vengeance belongs to God, how does He work? Victor Hugo had the answer, through the person of the Bishop, and Jean Valjean became a dramatically changed man as a result. When God takes vengeance on wrong, He gives man another chance. His punishments are always directed towards re-construction of human character. God is not the author of destruction, but the author of life. God’s mercy is so powerful that it drowns men in tears of repentance because it is diametrically opposite to the way in which man thinks and behaves.
Some theologians have spoken about “divine satisfaction for sins committed”, and as a result God is depicted more or less as a tyrant, condemning men to endless torment and torture for their sins. But there is no infinite sin that requires infinite punishment. The “satisfaction” that God requires consists of three basic commodities, namely, Repentance, Forgiveness, and Restitution. The first of these, Paul tells us, is the gift of God. The second is the Master’s plea as He hung on the cross. The third comes quite naturally to those who have savoured the unspeakable love of God in forgiving them of their sins.
Let us not besmirch the character of God by making him like Edmund Dantes, ready to take vengeance in a totally destructive manner. Let us rather emulate the character of the French Bishop who insisted on giving Valjean another chance, even though he had robbed him. And remember Papillon. He shows the unquenchable spirit of man in desiring justice and freedom. Shall not God Himself be even more desirous of perfect justice for all? Yes, our God is rich in mercy.