Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
One of the most base, hardest to fight urges that we face is the desire for revenge. Even amongst children, who shouldn’t even have such a concept in their minds, we can see the spirit of revenge at work. If someone hits you, what is your first impulse? Most people, if they’re honest, will admit that when struck, the first thought is to strike back. God never wanted this from us, though. While discussing the topic with someone, the Holy Spirit explained me a law that I had always found confusing.
“Doesn’t God sanction revenge in the Old Testament?” It’d certainly seem that way considering that the Lord had Moses teach, “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:23-25). Ah yes, there it is, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” This is an extremely popular phrase amongst people and appears a couple of times in the Law. Even today people will quote it as justification for vengeance- such folk may not even know that it’s from the Bible; they’re just quoting it as an old adage. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that in the non-Christian world, this is probably the most quoted Bible verse. What most people don’t realize though is that Jesus actually directly countered this verse in his teaching, “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 someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39). Well wait, what am I supposed to do then? I’ve got Christ on one side and God on the other.
The situation is confused even more when you consider that Jesus himself said, “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law” (Luke 16:18). And Paul, whose writings basically shaped Christian doctrine also noted, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If both of these Scriptures are true, then what’s going on? Does the Law stand? Is Jesus opposed to the law? The Holy Spirit explained to me that Jesus did not repeal the “eye for eye” law like he did the food restrictions. Rather, Christ explained where we are stand with it personally. The law itself is part of the laws of restitution. God demands that all things are accounted for. Here’s the full version of the Law of Restitution:
If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution- life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death. You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 24:17-22).
Direct restitution for wrongs is across-the-board the fairest way to deal with any crime. You steal? You have to pay it back. You injure someone? You must be injured. You kill? …Well, the law is fairly clear. However, this law was given to the Israelites as a whole, not to everyone individually. What I mean by that is that such laws were intended for the Israelite government to regulate. That means that when seeking restitution, you’d go to the judges, who’d then be responsible for seeing that restitutions are made- rather than have you exact vigilante justice. The Law still holds and this law is no exception; punishment should be carried out by the government, not the individual or the mob. We can know this because Jesus didn’t go around exacting restitution from sinners because that wasn’t his job; it was the government’s job. Rather we find the opposite in play with how Jesus conducted his life. History records,
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:11-13).
Jesus didn’t punish lawbreakers; he had dinner with them, showing the supreme mercy of the Lord at work.
But mercy isn’t exclusive to Jesus. There’s a fascinating story from the Old Testament that highlights this very idea. As he was establishing his kingdom and fighting the Philistines, King Saul was trying very hard to please God and keep the Lord on his side. To that end, he was sometimes a little fast with his oaths and declarations. We find this in action in 1 Samuel 14:24,
Now the men of Israel were in distress that day, because Saul had bound the people under an oath saying, “Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!” So none of the troops tasted food.
Keep in mind, these guys were fighting day after day and marching quite a bit, they probably would be aided by sustenance. Nevertheless, the law states,
Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said (Numbers 30:1-2).
So Israel’s army was tired, hungry, and distressed by Saul’s rash oath, but remained faithful. There was a slight snafu though,
When they went into the woods, they saw the honey oozing out, yet no one put his hand to his mouth, because they feared the oath. But Jonathan had not heard that his father had bound the people with the oath, so he reached out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it into the honeycomb. He raised his hand to his mouth, and his eyes brightened (1 Samuel 14:26-27).
Jonathan, Saul’s son, was busy when Saul made the oath (he was killing Philistines) and hadn’t heard what his dad had said, so he ate delicious honey. But it’s ok, right? I mean, he didn’t even know the people were bound under oath at the time, right? Oh, but this is the Old Testament, and the Law always stands:
So Saul asked God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them into Israel’s hand?” But God did not answer him that day.
Saul therefore said, “Come here, all of you who are leaders of the army, and let us find out what sin has been committed today. As surely as the Lord who rescues Israel lives, even if it lies with my son Jonathan, he must die.” But not one of the men said a word (1 Samuel 14:37-39).
So Saul decides to cast lots (kind of a holy coin flip) to find out the sinner amongst his men. Of course we already know who it is, Jonathan:
Saul said, “Cast the lot between me and Jonathan my son.” And Jonathan was taken.
Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.”
So Jonathan told him, “I merely tasted a little honey with the end of my staff. And now must I die?”
Saul said, “May God deal with me, be it every so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan” (1 Samuel 14:42-44).
What is with Saul and extreme oaths? Anyway, the verdict stands, Jonathan must die; it’s the law, right? Oh ho! Here comes a surprise from the Old Testament:
But the men said to Saul, “Should Jonathan die- he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the Lord lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help.” So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death (1 Samuel 14:45).
The rest of the army voted to spare Jonathan for eating and breaking the oath is father had made. And here’s the real shocker: nobody was punished despite there being no restitution for two oaths being broken. Instead, we read,
After Saul had assumed rule over Israel, he fought against their enemies on every side: Moab, the Ammonites, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. Wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment on them. He fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them (1 Samuel 14:47-48).
Rather than enact holy justice upon Jonathan, the people gave him mercy, and the Lord rewarded them for doing so, and Israel flourished.
As people, it’s not our place to enact revenge, justice, or retribution. Leave restitution for wrongs to higher powers, like the government or God. “But wait,” you may ask, “what if my government is weak on crime?” Then we are to presume it is the will of God; because Scripture tells us,
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves (Romans 13:1-2).
If your government is weak on crime, so be it, for that government is only in power because God is allowing them to be there. But know that the Lord is more than able to dish out justice himself. If your government can’t handle crime, don’t worry: God will take care of it. The church in Thyatira had a problem like this. Check out what God said,
Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of foods sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways (Revelation 2:20-22).
God said, “Nobody is doing anything about this woman and her followers. I’ll take care of it.” Even the Law notes that if the government isn’t helping people, then he’ll step in and take care of the restitutions required. We read,
Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless (Exodus 22:22-24).
God has no problem getting his hands bloody for a good cause, so why then would one of God’s children want to dirty their hands with vigilantism?
Even if your government is evil or corrupt, don’t take care of retribution yourself, but rely on the Lord’s ability to exact justice. While Saul was trying to kill David out of jealousy and fear of losing his kingdom (King Saul made a lot of poor decisions), David was constantly on the run. David, who had done nothing wrong, couldn’t trust his government at all, since they were all out to kill him on the king’s orders. So check out what he does. The Bible records in Psalms 52:Title-5,
For the director of music. A maskil of David. When Doeg the Edomite had gone to Saul and told him: “David has gone to the house of Ahimelech.”
Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man?
Why do you boast all day long,
You who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
Your tongue plots destruction;
It is like a sharpened razor,
You who practice deceit.
You love evil rather than good,
Falsehood rather than speaking the truth. (Selah)
You love every harmful word,
O you deceitful tongue!
Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin:
He will snatch you up and tear you from your tent;
He will uproot you from the land of the living. (Selah)
Doeg, an agent of Saul’s had learned of David’s location and brought word to Saul so they could go and kill him. What could David do? His government was against him and yet he was compelled to respect his government and its head. So instead, David trusted God. He knew that since he’d receive no justice from his government that the only thing he could do was to rely on the Lord to take care of it. For those of you who live in places where your government won’t help you, trust God, because the Lord demands restitution and will exact it himself if need be. Just focus on keeping your hands clean and let the Lord do what needs to be done. Proverbs 20:22 states, “Do not say, ‘I’ll pay you back for this wrong!’ Wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.” As Christ followers, we’re called to be kind and merciful and let the Lord settle our accounts. For it is written,
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge, I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:19-21).
Don’t let yourself be sucked into a cycle of violence, rather, let the Lord take care of it. Surely he won’t ignore such an act of faith.
Ok, this brings up a whole new question then: “If God can handle justice and actually allows our governments to be weak on crime, then why even make a law about restitution in the first place?” Well, there are a couple of answers. First of all, the world was given to us and we should do our best to keep it clean. When God made the first people, he gave us this task of taking care of the planet that we occupy. We read,
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28).
Therefore, restitution for wrongs is a duty that falls to governments first, but God will clean up after us when we fail to keep up with his laws. The second reason is that the Law of Restitution points to Jesus. Paul reminds us, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The price of sin is ultimately death; not just physical death, but spiritual death in hell. And since no person is perfect, all of us carry a death sentence. This is where Jesus comes into the picture. It is written,
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).
We already read that when sin is committed, according to the law, restitution must be made, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and life for life. As we have a death sentence on our head, someone has to die. Therefore, only another life would be able to redeem us from our prescribed destruction and torment in hell. However, nobody on earth can do that because everyone has the same death sentence, therefore when they die they’re only fulfilling their own punishment. But Jesus was without sin during his life on earth; so we read,
Such a high priest meets our need- one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself (Hebrews 7:26-27).
And, since Jesus is also God, his sacrifice was big enough to save everyone who has and will come to him for salvation. And so our own sins have found their restitution on the cross of Christ when he was crucified in our stead.
The end is this: Don’t take revenge, my friends, but leave it to a higher authority (like the government or God). Rather, as children of God, pardoned by Jesus, follow the teaching of Christ:
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:44-45).