Retribution: The Foundation for Biblical Forgiveness



The foundation for
Biblical Forgiveness



Table of Contents


The Concept of Retribution

Immediate and Delayed Retribution

The Principle of Immediate Retribution

The Principle of Delayed Retribution

Immediate and Delayed Retribution Compared

Two Levels of Retribution

Retribution Delegated

The Purpose of Immediate Retribution in This Life

Retribution and Biblical Forgiveness



Forgiveness is often presented as the obligation of the offended rather than the offender. The offender can walk away never confronted by his/her deed nor expected to pay restitution. The offended, on the contrary, is obligated to forgive without any expectation of compensation for the damage done whether physical or emotional. The slandered must bear the consequences of the damaged reputation yet forgive. The rape victim must forgive the rapist even though the perpetrator may not be known to the victim or be held accountable. The family of the victim of a homicide must forgive in the face of injustice and devastating loss. This article explores the concepts of vengeance, retribution, and restitution in the matter of biblical forgiveness.

The Concept of Retribution

When the concept of retribution is raised in discussions of forgiveness, it has become popular to take a view of vengeance that is inconsistent with the biblical view. This lack of harmony with the Bible is immediately apparent when Smedes takes the approach that vengeance is the opposite of justice and that to forgive, one must “give up vengeance.”[1] He states:

What is the difference between the two? Vengeance is our own pleasure of seeing someone who hurt us getting it back and then some. Justice, on the other hand, is secured when someone pays a fair penalty for wronging another even if the injured person takes no pleasure in the transaction. Vengeance is personal satisfaction. Justice is moral accounting.[2]

In the King James translation of the Old Testament, the term “vengeance” consistently translates the Hebrew term, naqam/neqamah. It is instructive to note that the first occurrence is in the account of the mark of Cain in Genesis 4. Moses wrote:

“So the LORD said to him, "Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold." And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, lest anyone finding him should slay him.[3]

The context is that of the first murder of a human being. God’s response was to place a mark on Cain so that everyone who saw him would remember that he was a murderer and to be a warning to everyone not to kill him. Anyone who did would face God’s vengeance (naqam) sevenfold

This term also occurs in Moses’ song to Israel just before his death in Deuteronomy 32. The song begins:

"Give ear, O heavens, and let me speak;
And let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
Let my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew,
As the droplets on the fresh grass
And as the showers on the herb.
"For I proclaim the name of the LORD;
Ascribe greatness to our God!
"The Rock! His work is perfect,
For all His ways are just;
A God of faithfulness and without injustice,
Righteous and upright is He.[4]

After a lengthy condemnation and litany of human failures, Moses sings:

'Vengeance is Mine, and retribution,
In due time their foot will slip;
For the day of their calamity is near,
And the impending things are hastening upon them.'
"For the LORD will vindicate His people,
And will have compassion on His servants;
When He sees that their strength is gone,
And there is none remaining, bond or free.
"And He will say, 'Where are their gods,
The rock in which they sought refuge?
'Who ate the fat of their sacrifices,
And drank the wine of their libation?
Let them rise up and help you,
Let them be your hiding place!
'See now that I, I am He,
And there is no god besides Me;
It is I who put to death and give life.
I have wounded, and it is I who heal;
And there is no one who can deliver from My hand.
'Indeed, I lift up My hand to heaven,
And say, as I live forever,
If I sharpen My flashing sword,
And My hand takes hold on justice,
I will render vengeance on My adversaries,
And I will repay those who hate Me.
'I will make My arrows drunk with blood,
And My sword shall devour flesh,
With the blood of the slain and the captives,
From the long-haired leaders of the enemy.'
"Rejoice, O nations, with His people;
For He will avenge the blood of His servants,
And will render vengeance on His adversaries
And will atone for His land and His people."[5]

The only way to deny or dismiss divine vengeance is to ignore the plain-literal meaning of the term or to allegorize the term as a figure of speech. However, every time the word group, naqam/neqamah, is used in the Old Testament, it is plain-literal language and never figurative-literal language. As the Holy Spirit led Moses to write the Pentateuch, He led Moses to use this term like bookends at the beginning and end of the Pentateuch to warn all readers that God will one day inflict vengeance upon all who offend Him with a righteous retribution. There are additional lessons to be drawn from the many occurrences of the term in the Pentateuch. Space does not permit examining all of them.

In the above quote of Deuteronomy 32:35, we find the term “retribution.” This translates the Hebrew term, shilluem. Keil and Delitzsech give the meaning of this term “compensation or restitution.”[6] This is the only occurrence of this form of this Hebrew term in the Old Testament. A similar form of the term, shilluwm, is found only three times in the Old Testament (Isa 34:8; Hos 9:7; Mic 7:3) and it also is given the same meaning by Keil and Delitzsch.[7]

Concerning the term shilluem or shillem and its cognates DR. G. Lloyd Carr states:

The general meaning behind the root s-l-m is of completion and fulfillment—of entering into a state of wholeness and unity, a restored relationship.[8] It is instructive to note that shilluem/shilluwm come from the root word, shalom, which is the common Jewish greeting, “peace.” This is helpful for understanding Gen 32:35 and the matter of biblical forgiveness. There is a clear distinction between vengeance and retribution in Gen 32:35. It should properly read, vengeance and restitution. This demonstrates the importance of a careful study of the terms and their meaning in this context, when exegeting this passage and attempting to expound upon it.

This association of meanings would be an especially important word study but is not within the scope of this paper. In this paper, for stylistic purposes and for clarity, I will use the English terms, “vengeance” and “retribution” interchangeably to describe the act of giving back what is due. With vengeance, the thought in this paper will always be negative. With retribution, it may be either positive or negative depending upon the context. Restitution, on the other hand, is the peace or satisfaction rendered because of the retribution given.

Immediate and Delayed Retribution

From the account of the mark of Cain, we find that there are two aspects of retribution, immediate retribution and delayed retribution. In the immediate context for Cain, there was protection from immediate retribution because the Noahic law concerning murder had not yet be given. Also, for Cain the retribution permitted Cain time to repent and seek God’s forgiveness. Regarding the mark itself, it provided immediate warning that retribution would be enacted upon any who killed Cain despite the mark. It provided delayed response against the murder to allow for the progress of revelation until the Noahic covenant established the authority of human government to exact retribution with the enactment of the death penalty.

The Principle of Immediate Retribution

Retribution is the penalty that is incurred when a law has been broken. The only one who has the right to exact retribution is the lawgiver or someone whom the lawgiver designates to do so. In our justice system in the United States there are three steps leading up to exacting retribution: the arraignment, usually preceded by a grand jury, when the charges are presented and a plea given, the trial, and the sentencing. In the arraignment phase, the purpose is to state the charges. In the trial phase, the purpose is to present the evidence and render a verdict. In the sentencing phase, the purpose is to determine the penalty according to the law. Once these three steps have occurred, the next step is to exact retribution. Retribution must be immediate because there is no other step in between unless the verdict is challenged on appeal. The legal maxim, sometimes attributed to British Prime minister, William Gladstone, justice delayed is justice denied, requires that sufficient time must elapse between arraignment and trial to gather information and for discovery, i.e., for both sides to learn what the other knows. The trial phase must be of sufficient length for all the evidence to be presented and/or challenged by opposing parties and the verdict rendered. The time between the verdict and sentencing must be of sufficient length to allow the judge to determine the parameters of the sentencing guidelines for the crime and to allow for appeal. Once this process is complete the penalty must be carried out with dispatch. This is what is meant by immediate retribution.

The principle of immediate retribution is perhaps what causes the most confusion when studying retribution because of the ways the judicial system in the United States has hamstrung itself by creating loopholes and delays in carrying out the sentence before and after a guilty verdict has been rendered. It might be said that retribution delayed seems that retribution will never occur. Because American jurisprudence has been so encumbered today, many have come to the opinion that justice cannot be obtained for the victim, or that the offender can get away with breaking the law through plea-bargaining or simply by appealing and appealing and appealing.

The Principle of Delayed Retribution

In the account of Cain, God demonstrated delayed retribution. By delaying retribution, God gave Cain time to repent. Also, by delaying it, He impressed upon others the fact that there are consequences to murder and other similar offenses against God.

There are two results of delayed retribution in this context. First, when God delayed, Cain was left with the dread of not receiving retribution. This to him was greater than immediate retribution because it impressed upon him his loss of fellowship with God and the loss of the blessings that went with that fellowship. Cain complained:

And Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is too great to bear! "Behold, Thou hast driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Thy face I shall be hidden, and I shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and it will come about that whoever finds me will kill me."[9]

The second result was that Lamech concluded that, since God had delayed exacting vengeance on Cain, Cain got away with murder. He then concluded that he could get away with murder also. He also concluded that since, in his mind, he was more important than Cain, his life was worth seventy times what Cain’s life was worth. Therefore, he decided he could violate God’s moral standard with impunity.

In the case of Cain, God, the perfect Lawgiver, had the authority to delay retribution. Also, the law governing murder had not yet been written. Therefore, God was justified in delaying retribution whereas, human government does not have that right.

Immediate and Delayed Retribution in This Life

Examining another incident in the progress of revelation, we find a combination of both delayed and immediate retribution. In the account of the flood, there was a delay of many years. This allowed time for Noah to preach to that sin-sick generation, time for men and women to repent and turned to God, and time for God to prepare man and beast to be spared by His grace and mercy.

Here we see another characteristic of immediate retribution. God was the one who personally brought the retribution. In this way, we might say that retribution was immediate even though there was a delay of many years. Therefore, immediate means more than simply that no time passes. It refers also to the personal involvement on the part of the one who has the authority to carry out the retribution. On the other hand, delayed retribution refers to retribution that is delayed because some intervening circumstances must occur before retribution is carried out. This brings us to a discussion of the different levels of immediate and delayed retribution.

Two Levels of Retribution

We have noted two types of retribution, immediate and delayed. With each type, there are two levels. There is temporal and eternal retribution. Temporal retribution applies to this life only. With eternal retribution, the consequences are never ending. The level of retribution depends upon the law that was broken. If it is a temporal law governing behavior in this life, retribution will be temporal. On the other hand, if it is a violation of God’s moral law, which forms the basis of any temporal law, it will be eternal.

As we approach this section, we need to guard against shading off into any thoughts of mortal and venial sins or pardonable and unpardonable sins. When temporal laws are in view, retribution will always be temporal even though this may involve physical death. On the other hand, any time a temporal law has been broken, God’s moral law has also been broken and the consequences are eternal. This is what Paul meant when he wrote, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.[10]

Retribution Delegated

From the death of Able until the flood, no one other than God had the authority to exact retribution. God reserved that for Himself. However, following the flood, immediate retribution passed into the hands of human government with the Noahic Covenant. A part follows:

Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.[11]

Here we see that, even though God would not personally carry out the sentence, it was still immediate.

The Mosaic legal code is a further clarification of the responsibility of exacting immediate retribution given to human government, particularly the nation of Israel. Toward the end of the Old Testament dispensation and up to and beyond the time of Jesus’ ministry, we find what is known as the period of Gentiles. By the time of the first advent of Christ, Israel no longer had the freedom to enforce the Mosaic Law but was forced to defer to the government of Roman. Here we find an overlap between Israel who retain God’s authority through the Mosaic Law and the gentiles who claimed that right. This is why I posit the beginning of the period of the gentiles four hundred years before Christ. God continues to entrust human government with authority to exact immediate retribution. This is seen in Paul’s statement to the church at Roman:

Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil. Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.[12]

The Purpose of Immediate Retribution in This Life

The purpose of immediate retribution in this life is to curtail sin and its impact on the world. It is to be based upon justice and is to promote justice under the sun. However, injustice continues to exist because human government is itself plagued by sin and often refuses or is unable to secure justice. This was true of Israel under the Law of Moses and is true today in the period of the Gentiles.

In John 10, Jesus confronted the leaders of the Jews in His day with the challenge:

"Has it not been written in your Law, 'I said, you are gods'? "If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world,' You are blaspheming,' because I said,' I am the Son of God'?[13]

At times we find it difficult to understand the way Jesus and New Testament writers use d quotations from the Old Testament. However, by going back to the immediate context of the quote and employing a proper hermeneutic, we are able to not only interpret that Old Testament context correctly, but also discover insights for interpreting the New Testament context where the quote is used.

The text Jesus quotes in John 10 is taken from Psalm 82. There God was chiding the leaders in Israel for their lack of justice in their dealings with God’s people. Because of their failure, God would have to take His stand in the congregation personally and bring justice. In His denunciation, He describes the leaders of Israel as gods and sons of God.

In other words, in the matter of justice, they were to have the character of God who is a God of justice. They were responsible to exact justice on earth on His behalf. Because of this lack of true justice, Asaph the Psalmist cries out to God to exact justice because of the failure of Israel’s leaders to do so.

God takes His stand in His own congregation;
He judges in the midst of the rulers.
How long will you judge unjustly,
And show partiality to the wicked? Selah.[14]

Returning to the context of John 10 we find that the entire chapter is a rebuke to the leaders of the Jews who failed to shepherd the flock of God as good shepherds. They were blind (John 9:39-41). They were thieves and robbers who did not know the sheep, nor were they recognized by the sheep. In other words, they did not belong in the position of leadership (John 10:1-6). They were hirelings concerned only for their own welfare who allowed wolves to devour the sheep (John 10:13) On the other hand, Jesus declared Himself to be the Good Shepherd who would lay down His life for His sheep and thereby provide a means for justice.

John records that about two months later, at a time when Jesus was teaching in the temple area, He was again accosted by the Jewish leaders regarding His teaching. The time was the Feast of Dedication, which memorialized the cleansing of the temple under Judah Maccabeus. The place was the Court of the Gentiles. By juxtaposing these two events together, John wants us to see that the figure of speech depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd also applied to Christ’s role as Shepherd of gentiles who would believe as well. This is what He meant when He said, “‘And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd.’”[15]

Now that we have discovered the context of John 10:31-39, we can see that the condemnation of the Jews for their failure to seek justice among the Jews can also be a condemnation of gentile governments that fail to perform the responsibility for securing justice given to them. This is the foundation of Romans 13 noted above where Paul exhorts the Roman church to submit to human government. Peter also underscores this when he instructs the scattered Christians:

Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.[16]

While immediate retribution can and may be exacted either through human government or directly by God, individuals have always been forbidden from taking it upon themselves to exact retribution. This was the purpose of the mark of Cain. The Noahic Covenant did not abolish this prohibition on the part of individuals. This distinction is often missed in the hyped atmosphere surrounding the death penalty as well as the debate regarding serving in the military. Therefore, when Paul wrote to the church at Rome warning them against taking vengeance personally, he was not stating a new principle but merely clarifying an old one. He wrote:

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord...[17]

It is the very next paragraph in chapter 13 where Paul reiterates the principle that God has given to human government the responsibility to exact immediate retribution. This observation is important to any serious discussion of the doctrine of retribution and forgiveness. The next paragraph, Romans 13:8-10, instructs the Roman believers to:

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.[18] (see my short articles concerning biblical love in the New Testament under the category, Christian Living, and my in-depth study on the doctrine of Love in the New Testament under the category, Bible Exposition)

From this we see that the concepts of love, justice, and vengeance, when properly defined and biblically applied, are not paradoxes or contradictory but are parallel concepts. Since vengeance has never been the prerogative of individuals but has, since the flood, been the responsibility of human government, seeking to exact immediate vengeance as individuals is wrong. From this it is easily deduced that much of the discussion regarding forgiveness, where philosophers debate whether or not individuals should forgive or seek retribution, is moot as far as the biblical data is concerned. On the other hand, to confusion what is forbidden by Scripture for individuals with what has been assigned as a duty to human government is to totally misconstrue the facts. When government fails to exact immediate retribution where circumstances and justice warrant, then government is abrogating its responsibility and will one day be held accountable.

Retribution and Biblical Forgiveness

Forgiveness is not based upon immediate retribution. When the law requires immediate retribution, it is never the right of an individual to exact it. This is the responsibility of government. Forgiveness is the prerogative only of individuals who are the offended party. However, this does not mean that forgiveness is some emotional or mental function to balance the scale tipped by the offense of another who has somehow caused us to suffer loss without any thought of retribution. Biblical forgiveness is based upon a higher principle than setting aside immediate retribution. It is at this point that biblical forgiveness often departs from other approaches to forgiveness.

Biblical forgiveness is based upon the principle that God’s righteous retribution has been once and for all set aside because of the substitutionary death of Christ on the Cross. Once a person receives Christ as savior, the One who paid the price for the sins of all men, there is no longer any retribution. (cf. 1 John 2:1-2) Anyone who receives eternal retribution receives it because he/she has not accepted the retribution that fell upon Christ. (cf. John 16:8-11; 1 John 3:16, 17)

It is the opinion of this writer, space does not permit for a full explanation of this opinion, that biblical forgiveness does not require the offended to forgive if the offender does not repent, pay restitution where possible, and request forgiveness. To do so is to require the offended to do more than what God does. Instead, the offended who does not receive satisfaction is simply restricted from exacting personal vengeance. In biblical forgiveness, the offended is justified in expecting the offender to repent, make restitution where possible, and seek forgiveness from the offended. This forgiveness is not based upon any inherent goodness on the part of the offended party but is based upon justice. To ask for any less is not justice. Biblical forgiveness is also based upon the truth that God will, in time or in eternity, bring justice for the offended and retribution to the offender.

It is a cruel injustice to those who have been offended to demand that they forgive the offender when the foundation for biblical forgiveness has not be laid. It is proper to encourage the offended party to not carry a grudge, become bitter, focus on the injury, and allow emotional damage to occur because of the offense. To do any of the above only inflicts further harm to the offended but does nothing to the offender nor promote justice. In such cases, the individual should entrust the situation to God who will, in His time, bring justice and then to move on.


[1] Lewis B. Smedes, The Art of Forgiving, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996)., 7

[2] Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament: New Updated Edition, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1996 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., Lev 3:1-5.

[3] Gen 4:15. KJV

[4] Deuteronomy 32:1-4.

[5] Deu 32:35-50.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, (New York: Random House, 1999), 1446.

[8] The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1980), 930.

[9] Gen 4:13-14.

[10] Rom 3:23.

[11] Gen 9:2-6.

[12] Rom 13:1-7.

[13] Jn 10:34-36.

[14] Ps 82:1-2.

[15] John 10:16.

[16] 1 Peter 2:13-17.

[17] Rom 12:17-21.

[18] Rom 13:8-10.