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A friend wrote a letter, describing her re-immersion in college life, as “pleasant vengeance.” “I am back on campus with a pleasant vengeance, enjoying everything like a freshman all over again.”

A nice and clever turn of phrase, which works quite well in its context. But I’ve been struck with the utility of the phrase as a philosophical and Biblical concept, and for me, it works nicely.

Consider one of the strongest vengeance passages in the Bible, Zephaniah 3:8, in which God says that all the world will be devoured by the fire of his vengeance. Unpleasant! But then the next verse says, “Then, I will turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent.” Huh? I thought the earth was devoured. Yet people are left, and they are converted and unified in the aftermath of the vengeance.

So clearly, the fire and even the term earth are symbolic. And the vengeance has a pleasant result.

Here’s another one: Psalm 10:15. Here, the writer asks God to not spare the wicked. But what does he really, ultimately ask? That the Lord seek out the wickedness until He doesn’t find any more. The implication is that by exposing the wickedness repeatedly, eventually the wicked will reform until they are wicked no more, because they have corrected their ways.

Another interesting text in this vein is Isaiah 26:9, which precedes a point that is obvious to any parent: “Though the wicked is shown favor, he does not learn righteousness; he deals unjustly in the land of uprightness…”

But different are results are promised in verse 9, if God’s judgments are seen — in other words, if there are clear consequences meted out for every act of disobedience. “For when the earth experiences Thy (God’s) judgments, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.” People WILL learn the right way to act, not by throwing them into a utopian state, but by gradually exerting discipline and a combination of favor for goodness and punishment for moral obliquity. This is vengeance with a goal of correction; “pleasant vengeance”.

And so I take great comfort in Jesus’ promise that, as king, he will “shepherd the nations with a staff of iron.” The iron rule is designed to remove the waywardness from the sheep. Of course, Jesus also balanced all of this pleasantness with the parable of the Sheep and the Goats — and there, the sheep are people who are so unconsciously loving that they don’t even remember doing good deeds, while the goats are apparently outwardly righteous — just not loving enough to see opportunities of doing gracious good to their fellow men. What a searching standard of love and unselfishness is held out as the standard for entrance into God’s eternal kingdom!

May your experiences of thinking freely and looking for the lessons of life take you through the crucible of pleasant vengeance!