Folks often confuse the concepts of justice and vengeance, but God is not confused. He makes a clear distinction. Justice concerns dealing with someone according to a fixed law or standard—particularly a standard by which all are governed equally. Vengeance, on the other hand, concerns an individual or group who perceive a wrong against them and seek revenge in response. They forego justice for revenge.
Clint Eastwood’s famous film The Outlaw Josey Wales was an exercise in blurring the distinction between the two concepts of justice and vengeance. Josey went after a band of murderers who had killed his family. In taking on the mission personally and seeking revenge for the wrong done against him, Josey Wales enacted vengeance. He subverted the law. However, the men who were killed genuinely were guilty of murder and, thus, should have been punished. So, in that sense, there was ultimately justice. We call this kind of justice a vigilante justice. All of Clint Eastwood’s acting and directing after Rawhide were directed towards the gray areas just off the edge of justice (think Dirty Harry).
No matter how Eastwood and others attempt to murky up the water’s edge, there is a pool of clear water out of which the Lord has established justice. Deuteronomy 19 makes the point plain. As the people of God were entering the Promised Land, they needed a system of justice to maintain order against the chaos of vengeance. The Lord established for them cities of refuge in order to maintain the distinction between justice and vengeance. His justice was displayed in several ways.
First, the Lord commanded that there be 3 cities of refuge, evenly spaced throughout the land. The proportional spacing meant there would be refuge within the reach of all citizens, justice for all, not just for the privileged few. In the event that Israel increased her land and population, she could add 3 more cities of refuge, again, ensuring justice for all.
Second, the cities of refuge were designed to promote justice and diffuse vengeance. Whenever someone was killed, the family of the victim understood that they had the right to kill the killer in return (life for life). However, the cities of refuge offered protection for the killer. If he fled to the city of refuge, no one could kill him, thus providing protection for him against vengeance.
Third, the city of refuge offered justice. If the person killing another actually were guilty of murder, he would not be allowed to stay in the city of refuge. The elders of the city of refuge would have to apprehend the suspect and hand him over to those seeking justice. I use the word justice here rather than vengeance because the family allowed the system of justice to work. The family allowed the killer to reach the city of refuge. They allowed the city of refuge to pronounce judgment as to guilt or innocence. And they were right in their judgment against the man. Because the killer was guilty of murder, he deserved to die for murder. This is justice, not vengeance.
Fourth, the system of justice displayed by the cities of refuge is a remarkable manifestation of the justice of God. In reality, there are no innocent people in the eyes of God. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And yet, God makes a refuge for the innocent. Though in an ultimate sense, all men are guilty of crimes against God, in a lesser sense, not all men are guilty of all crimes evenly. If a man kills another man by accident, he is not guilty of murder. The Lord Himself knows this and accounts for this reality in His great justice and mercy. God is perfectly just, and His justice and mercy are displayed in all His ways—even in the way that he maintains the distinction between justice and vengeance.