Near the end of his life, Moses recited a song to the Israelite people. The song affirms God’s steady support for the children of Israel and prophesies that they will be unfaithful to Him in spite of everything He has done for them. It says that they will worship other gods and provoke Him to jealousy. Then, the Lord says, “O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!” The false gods they will worship have no power to save them. Only He can do that. To emphasize this point, the Lord makes the following declaration: “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense” (Deuteronomy 32:35). This sentence appears in other translations of the Bible as: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay” (See Deuteronomy 32:35 on biblehub.com).
Moses ends the song by affirming that God will use His power to bless those who trust in Him: “Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people” (Deuteronomy 32:43).
The word “vengeance” refers to punishment for an injury or an offense. When someone harms us, or when we see someone harming another person, we have a natural desire to see that person punished. People ought to pay for their crimes, and the punishment should be proportionate to the crime. We want to believe in a just universe, where good deeds are rewarded and harmful actions are punished.
As the all-knowing and all-powerful Governor of the universe, God is uniquely capable of administering punishment. When we as humans get into the business of taking vengeance, we will get it wrong every time. We don’t know enough, and our decisions are more likely to be guided by passion than by reason.
After Mormon led his armies to a great victory over their enemies, he hoped that they would be grateful for the blessings they had received from God. Instead, he saw them behave savagely:
Because of this great thing which my people, the Nephites, had done, they began to boast in their own strength, and began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies.
And they did swear by the heavens, and also by the throne of God, that they would go up to battle against their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land (Mormon 3:9-10).
Because they were filled with rage, they were no longer thinking rationally. They were far too confident in their own abilities and shockingly willing to discount the value of human souls among their enemies.
In response, Mormon resigned as their commander. He said that when he heard their oaths of vengeance, the voice of the Lord said to him, “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay” (Mormon 3:15). He could not in good conscience continue to lead a group of people who had lost all feeling of compassion and who insisted on taking vengeance into their own hands.
Mormon’s son, Moroni, later elaborated on that same Biblical passage:
The same that judgeth rashly shall be judged rashly again; for according to his works shall his wages be; therefore, he that smiteth shall be smitten again, of the Lord.
Behold what the scripture says—man shall not smite, neither shall he judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord, and vengeance is mine also, and I will repay (Mormon 8:19-20).
And the apostle Paul derived the same lesson from this scriptural passage:
In 1831, Joseph Smith received a revelation in which the Lord taught members of the Church about forgiveness. The Lord said:
Ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds (Doctrine and Covenants 64:11).
So forgiveness doesn’t mean that we are okay with crimes going unpunished. It simply means that we are humble and respectful enough to recognize that we may not be the appropriate person to administer the punishment. If we can trust the Lord to set everything right, then we can move on and leave our bitterness and anger behind.
Today, I will remember that vengeance belongs to God. I will be grateful that I have the freedom to forgive, because I know that God will establish perfect justice in the end. I will focus my attention on constructive activities—building, serving, and healing—not on forcing others to pay a price for their errors.