“An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” Back in the 20th century, many world leaders have reflected on this sentiment to encourage peace and mercy when everyone bore some guilt. The idea is that returning evil for evil accomplishes nothing but a bloody field and destruction. Paul taught, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Rom 12:17 ESV). For this reason, Paul taught that love fulfilled the Law (Rom 13:8–10). However, the quote among so many is a misinformed mockery of the Law of Moses outside of its biblical setting.
Whenever someone carelessly hurt a pregnant woman to cause her to miscarry her child, Moses commanded, “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” (Exod 21:24). Moses wrote that the person who lied and slander should receive the punishment that he intended to bring upon another (Deut 19:19–21). For this reason, Moses commanded justice for the judges to decide and instructed the people, “Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut 19:21; cf. Lev 24:20). This is to be done for “the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you” (Deut 19:20). Discipline that causes fear is a good thing for everyone, and it belongs to the governing authority and to a moderate extent in the home.
Jesus gave further instruction upon this command, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth” (Matt 5:38). Christ was revealing that the individual did not have the right to inflict one’s own personal justice. Instead, Jesus taught, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt 5:38). Much good can come enduring injustice before others. Evil is exposed and authorities have reason to take action. Therefore, Jesus taught to turn the other cheek, give away your cloak to whoever takes your tunic, and go the extra mile with the person who compels you to go one mile (Matt 5:39–42).
“An eye for an eye” belongs to justice in a civil society. However, “an eye for an eye” does not belong to your own personal vengeance. Paul taught, “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.’” (Rom 12:17). How does God justly avenge? Paul revealed about the governing authority, “For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). Christians must trust God to bring about vengeance through the governing authority on those who do wrong or trust God to come with providential wrath upon the governing authority when they do wrong. “An eye for an eye” belongs with God’s minister of justice — the governing authorities.
The context of “an eye for an eye” came with instructions from God to the ancient republic of Israel to maintain justice by cross-examining witnesses to any crime. Moses taught, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deut 19:15). That is justice fairly applied. The same standard stands among most civilizations and in the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, trust God’s plan.
Following these words from the Scriptures can be difficult because this is an act of faith. The person who endures a beating does so trusting that God will accomplish a greater good (1 Pet 2:19–25). That is a lot to believe to do what most others would never consider doing. Thank God for His mercy and justice. Trust Him to resolve injustices.