Forgiveness is a recurring theme in the Bible, which makes it obvious that God considers it very important. It’s something we grapple with more than ever, it seems, when we live in an age of increasing lawlessness where often the guilty go free and may never be arrested for their crimes, the innocent are imprisoned, and the immoral are glorified. The world system constantly tells us revenge is okay and necessary when we see vengeance played out in the media with movies like Colombiana, shows like Revenge, or on “reality” TV. And sometimes we see it played out in the lives of people we know.
Several years after God delivered Israel out of the land of Egypt “with a mighty hand,” he gave them a very curious commandment in Deuteronomy 23:7–“Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite; for he is thy brother: thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian; because thou wast a stranger in his land.” The word abhor means to hate or despise.
Now how could God expect the Israelites NOT to hate or despise Egyptians after all that they suffered from them? As is acknowledged in Deuteronomy 26:6, “…the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.” That affliction included killing their babies, beating them mercilessly, and an attempt to wipe them out at the Red Sea. Was it really realistic for them to forgive all the wrongs they suffered? Yes it was realistic and here’s why:
Egypt gave shelter to Israel in their hour of need: Before a pharaoh rose up to enslave the Israelites, there were pharaohs beginning in Joseph’s day that welcomed Jacob and the 12 patriarchs with their families into Egypt with open arms during the severe seven-year drought that hit northern Africa and southwestern Asia [Genesis 41-50]. The Egyptians let the Israelites have their city of Goshen and created conditions that allowed them to prosper and increase for many years.
God punished Egypt, so it was unnecessary for Israel to retaliate: As God told Israel in Deuteronomy 32:35 “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense.” Judgment for the enemies of God’s people is ultimately in God’s hands. God heard Israel when they cried out in anguish over what Egypt was doing and when the time was right, he stepped in when they were powerless. When God sent the 10 plagues on Egypt and wiped out pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, justice had been served and Egypt had paid its debt for its evils, so there was no longer any need for Israel to mete out its own punishment by hating the Egyptians. And not all of the Egyptians were evil. Some of them even left their homeland to join Israel on its journey to the Promised Land [Exodus 12:38].
God blessed Israel above and beyond the evils Egypt committed against them: As Israel left Egypt, the Egyptians gave their riches to Israel which included all kinds of jewels [Exodus 12:35-36]. Additionally, they had God’s promises that they would be blessed to conquer all of their enemies and that they would possess lands that were already cultivated and live in houses already built in the land of Canaan. In essence, they would have less work than they did in Egypt and all their needs would be taken care of. If it weren’t for Israel’s unbelief at the time, the generation of 20 years old and over would have seen God’s promises come to pass.
What we can learn from this scenario
If God expected Israel to forgive Egypt for its atrocities, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we are required to do the same for those who harm us. If our Lord Jesus forgave unbelievers for persecuting him, giving him an unfair trial, and forgave them in the midst of their executing him, surely his commandment for us to forgive our enemies isn’t too much to ask.
I know we sometimes like to bring up the “what about” situations that seem to be the things that God would understand if we are unforgiving of, but from what I’ve seen in the scriptures, even the most difficult injustices should be forgiven. That includes being defrauded of possessions, unjustly sued, physically assaulted, sexually assaulted, and having a loved one murdered. Most people in the world who hold grudges against someone haven’t even faced these “what about” situations, so if God expects us to forgive major infractions, the majority of us are definitely without any excuses for our unforgiveness.
Forgiving someone who wrongs us doesn’t mean we have to trust them or be buddy-buddy with them. Trust and friendship are things that have to be earned and agreed on by all parties involved. Forgiveness is a gift that a person willingly gives based on their trust that God will work all things out for their good even when they don’t understand how or when he will work it out. Forgiveness frees a person mentally from hatred, resentment, and bitterness or from being focused on the evils they suffer and from being preoccupied with trying to figure out how they will exact their revenge so they can focus on the blessings God has for them right now and in the future. It also allows them to focus on the ministry God wants them to fulfill for the benefit of someone else so his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
In the same way God told Israel not to abhor Egyptians and that vengeance belongs to him, he has told his New Testament church we are to be so forgiving to our enemies that if the need arises, we should take care of the basic necessities of our enemies–
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. [Romans 12:19-20]
–posted by Harry A. Gaylord–