Question: "What does it mean that the Lord is the God of recompense (Jeremiah 51:56)?"
Answer: God is sovereign over every person and power on earth. In the Old Testament, heathen nations rose up and exacted judgment on the people of God, but, ultimately, God was in control. Babylon dominated the scene in Jeremiah’s day, but this world superpower was a prime enemy of God, and, therefore, the Lord pronounced His judgment upon that nation in Jeremiah 50:1—51:64.
Jeremiah brings good news to the captive Israelites. Once God was finished using Babylon for His purpose, He would come against the proud empire to punish and destroy her:
“Because the plunderer comes against her, against Babylon,
And her mighty men are taken.
Every one of their bows is broken;
For the Lord is the God of recompense,
He will surely repay” (Jeremiah 51:56, NKJV).
The Hebrew noun translated as “recompense” here means “a reward or punishment (whether tangible or intangible) based upon what someone deserves.” Because of their sins, God allowed His chosen people to be taken captive in Babylon. But when they had humbled themselves and repented, they would return to Jerusalem and renew their covenant relationship with the Lord. The scattered children of Israel would be gathered back to their homeland. The Lord would forgive their sins and restore His blessings. The time would come for Babylon to get what it had coming—the Lord’s day of reckoning would arrive. The God of recompense would topple Babylon and leave her in ruins.
The prophet Isaiah delivered a similar message regarding the Assyrians after they mistreated and oppressed God’s people:
“According to their deeds, accordingly He will repay,
Fury to His adversaries,
Recompense to His enemies;
The coastlands He will fully repay” (Isaiah 59:18, NKJV).
As believers, we can trust God to punish those who deserve punishment and reward those who deserve a reward. The apostle Paul explained that God “will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:6–11, NLT; see also Deuteronomy 7:9–10; Luke 14:14; Jeremiah 25:14; Isaiah 13:11).
The Jewish exiles cried out to the Lord, feeling disgraced and insulted because of what the Babylonians had done to them (Jeremiah 51:51). As Christians we can pray and ask the God of recompense to bring His judgment upon those who deserve it. But we must not take on the job of repaying “evil for evil” ourselves (Romans 12:17). Scripture advises us to wait patiently for the God of recompense to act: “Do not say, ‘I will recompense evil’; Wait for the Lord, and He will save you” (Proverbs 20:22; see also Proverbs 24:29; Leviticus 19:18; Hebrews 10:30). Paul urged, “Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘I will take revenge; I will pay them back,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19. NLT).
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that personal revenge has no place in God’s kingdom: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38–42).
In due course, God will achieve His sovereign purpose in our lives, in national affairs, and in human history. When the people of God walk in disobedience, the God of recompense knows how to humble them and bring them back to repentance. Likewise, when the enemies of God work evil and injustice against the Lord’s people, the God of recompense promises to pay them back the wages they deserve in His time and in His way.