4 Kinds of Retaliation in the Bible
Image: Peter defends Jesus from being arrested.
As a Christian, when you are wronged, how should you respond? We know that God is a God of justice, but he is also a God of mercy. When we read Scripture, we see instances of God’s people seeking hard after justice and retaliating for wrongdoing, and at other times we see them being rebuked for seeking retaliation.
In his sermon titled “The Extermination of Enemies”, pastor David Jeremiah shared four types of retaliation found in the Bible, and helps us to distinguish which kinds are required of believers. I found it to be a helpful distinction; perhaps you will as well. I have re-stated his points in my own words.
1. Unlimited Retaliation
In the days before Moses was given the law, the people chose to retaliate for wrongdoing however they saw fit. They had no moral code to follow, except that which God had placed on their hearts. Therefore, although people retaliated to any degree they desired, that does not mean God does not hold them accountable for any sin they commit in the process.
We see unlimited retaliation taking place in the story of Lamech.
Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:23-24)
Lamech is proud of what he has done. Apparently, he murdered a young man who hit him. The story doesn’t share the details of what exactly happened, so it’s hard to know if the young man was in the wrong, and if so, to what extent. Yet it is clear that Lamech’s response was over-the-top, an outburst of violence that was excessive, given the initial wrongdoing. He is a bully, a man with an “I don’t take nothing from nobody” kind of attitude. We should consider Lamech’s unlimited retaliation to be a sinful response in all situations.
2. Limited Retaliation
The law of Moses had in it stipulations for how to respond to wrongdoing. Essentially, limited retaliation functions under the principle “the punishment should fit the crime”. We see a number of examples of this given in the Pentateuch, all following this decree:
But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:23-25)
Limited retaliation is what most people would consider to be justice served. The wrongdoer suffers in proportion to his crime. And, because limited retaliation was decreed directly from the mouth of God, we know that it is not necessarily a sinful response to sin.
However, limited retaliation has changed from the time of the Old Testament to the time of the New Testament. The difference between the two is that in the Old Testament, the system of justice that God laid down was largely the responsibility of the people to carry out. God’s people were literally a nation, and so there was no distinction between personal retaliation and civil retaliation.
On the other hand, in the New Testament era, God’s people are no longer a literal nation on earth. The civil laws given to Israel do not pass over to Christians, and so the specific retaliation laws of the Old Testament are not binding for believers. However, the principle of justice (ie. the punishment should fit the crime) continues forward. The major difference is that the responsibility of carrying out justice has passed from the individual (OT) to the government (NT). Therefore, when a believer is wronged today, they do not take justice into their own hands, but hand the case over to the proper authorities to dispense judgment. For more on this, see Romans 13:1-7.
3. No Retaliation
In handing over the responsibility to execute justice to the proper authorities, the individual seeks retaliation from a third party. This is right. In effect, that individual is using the third kind of retaliation, which is no retaliation at all – at least, no retaliation on a personal level. For instance, if my car is stolen and I discover the thief, in calling the police on them I am not personally retaliating against them, but giving the case over to another to decide.
But there are more complicated situations than that. What happens if a wrong is committed, but no civil law is broken? For instance, if a husband commits adultery on his wife, she has been sinned against, but he has not committed a crime. What is the proper response here?
Although a wife would be justified in doing some kind of damage control (seeking counselling, separating for a time, etc.) she may not seek retaliation. That is, she may not seek to make him pay for what he has done. In doing so, she would be taking retaliation into her own hands, something that is not to be done by believers. In seeking to bring harm to him, she adds to the problem with sin of her own.
In such a situation no one would blame a person for having a desire to get even. Some sins are so personal and hurtful and malicious that anger is the obvious response. Yet in our anger, we must not sin. In cases such as these, the Christian response is to not seek personal retaliation but leave the execution of justice in the hands of God.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
It is an act of faith on the part of the injured party to trust God to ensure that the wrong will be avenged. It is a hard thing to do because often the wrong is not met with justice in this life, so there can be a temptation to feel that the sinner will get away with it. Yet faith tells us that the God of justice will see to it that, when all is said and done, every wrong in the world will be righted. Rather than seeking revenge, we give it to God and let him take care of it. There is actually great freedom in doing so, for it relieves us of personal responsibility to punish the wrongdoer. We can move on, knowing that eventually justice will be served, in this life or the next.
4. Replaced Retaliation
Replaced retaliation is not the same as no retaliation. The difference between the two is that replaced retaliation doesn’t merely avoid revenge but puts something else in its place. What ought to replace retaliation? The answer is grace.
Jesus taught more clearly than anyone the principle of replaced retaliation. In the life of a believer, not only are we to not seek revenge, but we are actually called to seek the welfare of those who wrong us.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matthew 5:38-44)
Picking up on this principle, the apostle Paul echoed it in his own writings.
To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:20-21)
Of the four kinds of retaliation, replaced retaliation is the most distinctly Christian. Jesus was the one who first shocked the world by calling for those wronged by others to do good to them. Extending grace to those who wrong you goes completely against human nature, which is precisely the point. When Christians give grace to those who sin against them, it makes others wonder what would make them do such a thing. Evidently, getting even is not where that person finds their joy. Their joy must be somewhere else. And, of course, we know that their joy is in God. If we have God as the greatest source of happiness and peace and satisfaction in life, then we are freed from the clutches of revenge. We can pray for our enemy, do good to those who harm us, and help those who hate us, and in doing so we shine a light on the difference Jesus makes in a person’s life.
This is in fact the very thing that God does for us. Despite our constant rebellion against him, he loved us enough to die for our sins…and he did that before we felt bad about it.
…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
In aiming to love our enemies, we are imitating God. He loved us while we were still his enemies. And, in that great act of love, God won us over. Anyone who becomes a Christian does so because they are overcome with a sense of guilt for their sin and awe that God would love them anyways. When we follow in those footsteps toward our enemies, we are shining the light of God’s love into the world. And, in so doing, some people will be compelled by it and find God’s love for them too. Because of this, it is a great and high Christian calling to respond to those who sin against us with as much grace as God will supernaturally provide.