No, Jesus Did Not “Close the Book on Vengeance”

In Luke 4, Jesus attends a Sabbath day service at the synagogue in his hometown, Nazareth. While at the service, he stands up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah is given to him. Jesus unrolls the scroll and reads a passage from what we now call Isaiah 61. After reading it, he hands the scroll back to the synagogue attendant. Then he makes his famous pronouncement, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

From time to time, various individuals have argued that because Jesus stopped his reading right before the line, “the day of vengeance of our God,” that he, in some way, “closed the book on vengeance.” They argue either that (1) Jesus is indicating a policy change on God’s part that he is not going to execute vengeance or retributive punishment any longer, or (2) Jesus is repudiating the idea of vengeance altogether; i.e., that it was never was a part of God’s actions, and that Jesus has come to correct our ideas of what God is really like, that he is really not like the way the OT portrays him in this respect.

It is a weak argument, for several reasons.

(1) It is an argument from silence. As has been recognized by biblical scholars, especially over the last two or three decades, to argue that when a passage is cited from the OT, and part of that passage is not explicitly cited, that the one citing the passage must be in disagreement with the part that is not cited, is not particularly cogent, and may in fact actually go against what is happening in the citation. Indeed, as Richard Hays has argued, NT citations of the OT are meant to call up in the reader’s or hearer’s mind the entire context of the cited passage. In other words, there is some connecting of the dots expected on the part of the reader or hearer. The least likely explanation is that the one making the citation is in disagreement with the part that is not cited.

(2) To reinforce the first point, we should note that this is not the first “deletion” in the citation. In Isaiah 61, the line “to bind up the brokenhearted,” does not show up in Jesus’s citation of the passage. This is important, because if you wanted to argue that Jesus didn’t cite “the day of vengeance of our God” because he was in disagreement with it, you would have to be consistent and say that since Jesus left out the phrase “to bind up the brokenhearted,” he didn’t agree with that either. In fact, you could argue that this deletion is even more significant. This is not a case of stopping short before a phrase; rather, this is a case of actually skipping over a phrase! Would anyone want to argue that because Jesus skipped over this phrase that he disagreed with it? Was it not part of Jesus’s ministry to bind up the brokenhearted?

(3) Not only this, but in the reading which Jesus does, he actually inserts a phrase from another chapter in Isaiah. He adds the phrase, “to set the oppressed free.” That is not in Isaiah 61, but in Isaiah 58. Commentators have suggested several reasons as to why this phrase was inserted, but, to my knowledge, have not come to any real consensus. Also, if Jesus was indeed reading from the scroll, did he have to find that phrase from another column in the scroll, and then come back to first column in order to complete the reading the original text? Or did he insert the phrase by memory? In any case, this is now the third alteration to the citation of the passage from Isaiah 61.

(4) The fourth reason is that, in fact, when you read the rest of Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels, you have to recognize that Jesus did not by any means close the book on vengeance or retributive punishment. As for the Gospel of Luke itself, this shows up most explicitly in Luke 21:20-24:

When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment [rather, “vengeance”] in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

I might add that it is an act of special pleading to argue that this “punishment” or “vengeance” is simply that of the Romans, and not God’s. As N. T. Wright forcefully argues, Jesus is not a political prognosticator, but a prophet of God. And when prophets speak of the punishment, or vengeance, or the coming wrath, that is always the wrath of God. That is what true prophets of God do.

This brings me back then to suggest a more likely understanding of what Jesus is doing in stopping short of the “vengeance” clause in his citation of Isaiah 61. There are two reasons:

(1) Jesus may have stopped short of reading the “vengeance” clause, because it was not especially pertinent to his first coming. This is definitely the majority position among biblical commentators. In his first advent it was not Jesus’s immediate goal to execute vengeance. There are a number of places in the NT where either Jesus himself or the NT authors draw a distinction between what Jesus did at his first coming and what he will do at his second coming. In his first advent, Jesus came in weakness; in his second advent, he will come in power and great glory. In his first advent, Jesus came to atone for sin; in his second advent, he will come to reward his servants, to avenge the blood of the martyrs, and to execute judgment against the wicked. Jesus does not read the “vengeance” clause because it was not part of the mission of his first coming. However, in his teaching ministry, there are increasing references to the judgment to come.

(2) The second reason for stopping short of reading the “vengeance” clause is on account of the expectation of the hearers that day in the synagogue at Nazareth, and, indeed, not just them, but of the majority of Judeans and Galileans in the first century AD. They were expecting, and hoping for, a Messiah who would come and rescue them from their enemies and carry out vengeance against those enemies. But when the Messiah actually did come to them, that was not his immediate mission. Rather, he came to save them from their sins, to purify a people for himself. But, by and large, the people rejected the Messiah. “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.” So, that day in Nazareth, he did not read the vengeance clause, because it would have given the hearers the wrong idea. He did not come to execute vengeance for them against their enemies. Rather, as so many prophets before him had to proclaim, he came to execute vengeance against them by means of their enemies, and this is exactly what happened in AD 70.

I was motivated to write this blog post by a confirmatory passage I read just recently in OT scholar John Goldingay’s Reading Jesus’s Bible: How the New Testament Helps Us Understand the Old Testament. In this passage, Goldingay is talking about the message of the prophet in Isaiah 61, and of Jesus’s use of that prophecy:

The prophet goes on to speak of a day of redress. The year of favor and the day of redress are different ways of describing the same event, from two angles. Putting the superpower down and setting Israel free are two sides of a coin. Jesus reworks the parallelism between the two expressions. In his sermon, he stops before the words about redress, but he takes up the theme later in his ministry, when he speaks of the “fulfillment of all that has been written” (see Luke 21:22). His ministry is the day of God’s favor, but favor will be succeeded by redress. The redress is not on the imperial power (as in Isa 61) but on the Jewish people itself. The prophecy is thus filled out in a chilling way.

Goldingay is correct. The year of favor and the day of redress (vengeance) are two sides of the same coin. But only one side of the coin is dominant at Jesus’s first coming. The second side of the coin will be employed to a much greater degree at Jesus’s second coming, though that employment had its first installment in AD 70.

The two-sidedness of this coin is important to emphasize. The year of the Lord’s favor and, as Goldingay puts it, the year of the Lord’s redress, are not opposed to each other. They are simply “different ways of describing the same event.” Nowhere does this play out any more evidently than in the book of Revelation. If, as many have said, the main message of Revelation is “We win!” or better, “Jesus wins!” then it is important to note that the victory comes by way of the fulfillment of both the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of the Lord’s vengeance. The year of the Lord’s favor is accomplished by avenging the blood of the martyrs and by the execution of punishment against the wicked who have rejected the kingdom of the Lamb. And in that day, the people of God will sing out in great praise to God:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Rev 7:10)

Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!” (Rev 7:12)

“These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’” (Rev 7:14-17)

Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for true and just are his judgments.
He has condemned the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.
He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” (Rev 19:1-2)

Jerry Shepherd
May 26, 2020