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The Sermon On The Mount

Chapter Sixteen

The Law and Retaliation

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away."

Matthew 5:38, 42

In what is now to be before us we may perceive once more the deep importance of observing the scope of a speaker or writer, of ascertaining the meaning and relation of the context, before attempting to expound a passage. We will not enlarge any further here upon this, having already done so in the introductory paragraphs of one or more of the preceding chapters. It is failure at this very point which has resulted in some commentators of renown quite missing the force of our present portion. They suppose that our Lord here announced a higher standard of spirituality than Moses did, that He introduced a more merciful code of conduct than that which was required during the Old Testament economy. Yet, incredible as it may sound, these same men insist that other verses in this very chapter do not belong to us at all, but pertain only to some "Jewish remnant" of the future.

It does seem strange that men who have no slight acquaintance with the letter of Scripture should err so flagrantly. Yet nothing is more blinding than prejudice, and when a pet theory is allowed to dominate the mind everything is twisted and forced to conform to it. Surely it is perfectly plain to every unbiased soul that, as the same God is the Author of old and new covenant alike, there can be no vital conflict between them, that the fundamental principles underlying the one and the other must be and are in full accord. If those who are so desirous of being looked up to as men who "rightly divide the word of truth" would cease their grotesque efforts to illustrate what they suppose are "dispensational distinctions," and would rather seek to display the wondrous and blessed unity of the Old and New Testaments, they would be rendering a more profitable service and God would be far more honored.

A few of our own readers imagine that in our contending for the doctrinal and practical unity of the entire Scriptures we confound two of its principal objects and subjects, and deny that there is any radical difference between the Law and the Gospel. This is quite an unwarrantable conclusion. Yet do not such mistakes have their roots in the supposition that the Gospel is peculiar to the New Testament? But we ask, Does the Old Testament contain nothing more than typifications of the Gospel in the ceremonial law and predictions of it in the prophecies of Isaiah? Surely it does. Galatians 3:8, tells us expressly that the Gospel was preached unto Abraham, and Hebrews 4:2, insists that it was proclaimed unto Israel in the wilderness. Does not the whole of Hebrews 11 make it very plain that the Old Testament saints were saved in precisely the same way and on exactly the same ground as we are? Assuredly it does.

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away" (Matthew 5:28-42). Christ is not here pitting Himself against the Mosaic law, nor is He inculcating a superior spirituality. Instead He continues the same course as He had followed in the context, namely to define that righteousness demanded of His followers, which was more excellent than the one taught and practiced by the scribes and Pharisees; and this He does by exposing their error and expounding the spirituality of the moral law.

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" (v. 38). These words are found three times in the Pentateuch. They occur first in Exodus 21, a chapter which opens thus, "Now these are the judgments." The word "judgments" signifies judicial laws. The statutes recorded therein were so many rules by which the magistrates were to proceed in the courts of Israel when trying a criminal. The execution of these statutes was not left to private individuals, so that each man was free to avenge his own wrongs, but they were placed in the hands of the public administrators of the law. This is further borne out by the third occurrence of our text in Deuteronomy 19, for there we read, "And the judges shall make diligent inquisition . . . and thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (vv. 18, 21).

A century or so ago such verses as those last quoted were made the object of bitter attacks both by atheists and infidels, but today not a few who profess to be Christians denounce them as inhuman. In this flabby age, when sentiment overrides principle, the doctrine of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth strikes many as being cruel and barbarous. We shall not waste time in replying to such rebels: in due course the Lord Himself will deal with them and vindicate His honour. Nor is there anything in His Holy Word which requires any apology from us: rather does it strengthen our faith when we find so many caviling at its contents. Nevertheless, there may be a few of the saints who are somewhat disturbed by the barking of these dogs, so for their sake we would call attention to one or two details.

First, this Divinely prescribed rule was a just one: "And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour: as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again" (Lev. 24:19, 20). What is more equitable than an exact quid pro quo? Surely it is a most elementary and unchanging principle of sound jurisprudence that the punishment should be made to fit the crime-neither more nor less. So far were the ancients in advance of our moderns that we find a heathen owning the righteousness of such a law: "But Adoni-bezek fled; and they pursued after him, and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and his great toes. And Adoni-bezek said, Threescore and ten kings, having their thumbs and great toes cut off, gathered their meat under my table: as I have done, so God hath requited me" (Judges 1:6, 7). If it be objected that in this Christian era justice is far more tempered with mercy than was the case in Old Testament times, then we would remind the objector that "Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7) is found in the New Testament. "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Matthew 7:2) are the words of Christ Himself.

Second, this Mosaic statute was a most merciful one. It is to be observed that in Exodus 21, both before and after the rule recorded in verses 23-25, legislation is given concerning the rights of "servants" or, as the word really means, "slaves." If their masters, out of brutality or in a fit of rage, maimed them, then the magistrates were required to see to it that they in turn should be compelled to take a dose of their own medicine. Who can fail to see, then, that such a law placed a merciful restraint upon the passions of the owners and made for the safeguarding of the persons of their slaves. Moreover, this statute also curbed any judge who in righteous indignation at the cruel injury of a slave was inclined to punish his master too severely: he was not allowed to demand a life for an eye, or a limb for a tooth!

Third, such an arrangement was a beneficent one for society as a whole, for this law applied not only to masters and servants but to all Israelites in general. It was designed to protect the weak against the strong, the peaceful from lovers of violence. It was a wise and necessary means for preserving law and order in the community. This is clear from the closing verses of Deuteronomy 19: "Then shall ye do unto him as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you" (vv. 19, 20). The fear of punishment-providing that punishment be severe and summary-would deter the passionate and vicious. Thus, so far from this law being a cruel and barbarous one, it was a most just, merciful and beneficent one, calculated to remove "evil" and produce that which is good.

Ere passing on let it be pointed out that this law of judicial retaliation ought to be upon our statute books today and impartially and firmly enforced by our magistrates. Nothing would so effectually check the rapidly rising tide of crimes of violence. But alas, so foolish and effeminate is the present generation that an increasing number are agitating for the abolition of capital punishment and the doing away with corporal punishment, and this in the face of the fact that in those countries where capital punishment is most loosely administered there is the highest percentage of murders, and that as corporal punishment is relaxed crimes of brutal violence are greatly increasing. Those who have no regard for the persons of others are very tender of their own skins, and therefore the best deterrent is to let them know that the law will exact from them an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

"No man needs to be more merciful than God. The benefit that will accrue to the public from this severity will abundantly recompense it. Such exemplary punishment will be warning to others not to attempt such mischiefs" (from Matthew Henry's comments on Deut. 19:19-21). Magistrates were never ordained of God for the purpose of reforming reprobates or pampering degenerates, but to be His instruments for preserving law and order, and that by being "a terror to the evil" (Rom. 13:3). The magistrate is "the minister of God," not to encourage wickedness, but to be an "avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil" (Rom. 13:4). Let it not be forgotten that Christ Himself affirmed of the judge who refused to "avenge" the poor widow of her adversary that he was one "who feared not God neither regarded man" (Luke 18:2).

Of course we do not expect to carry all our readers with us, and we shall be rather surprised if we receive no letters condemning us for such "harshness." But let us point out what we are firmly convinced are the causes of the moral laxity and the immoral sentimentality which now so widely prevails. We unhesitatingly blame the pulpit for the present sad state of affairs. The unfaithfulness of preachers is very largely responsible for the lawlessness which is now so rife throughout the whole of Christendom. During the last two or three generations thousands of pulpits have jettisoned the Divine Law, stating that it has no place in this dispensation of grace. And thus the most powerful of all restraints has been removed and license given to the lusts of the flesh.

Not only has the Divine Law been repudiated, but the Divine character has been grossly misrepresented. The attributes of God have been perverted by a one-sided presentation thereof. The justice, the holiness, and the wrath of God have been pushed into the background, and a God that loves everybody thrust into the foreground. In consequence, the masses of church-goers no longer fear God. For the past fifty years the vast majority of pulpits have maintained a guilty silence on Eternal Punishment so that few now have any dread of the wrath to come. This logically follows from the former, for no one needs to stand in any terror of One who loves him. The repercussions have been unmistakable, drastic, and tragic. Sickly sentimentality regulated the pulpit until it dominated the pew, and this evil leaven has so spread that it now permeates the whole nation.

Conscience has been comatose: the requirements of justice are stifled: maudlin concepts now prevail. As eternal punishment was repudiated-either tacitly or in many cases openly-ecclesiastical punishments were shelved. Churches refused to enforce sanctions, and winked at flagrant offences. The inevitable outcome has been the breakdown of discipline in the home and the creation of a "public opinion" which is mawkish and spineless. School-teachers are intimidated by foolish parents, so that the rising generation are more and more allowed to have their own way without fear of consequences. If some judge has the courage of his convictions and sentences a brute to the "cat" for maiming an old woman, there is an outcry raised against him. But enough. Most of our readers are painfully aware of all this without our enlarging any further: but few of them realize the causes which have led up to it-an unfaithful pulpit, the denial of eternal punishment, the misrepresentation of God's character, the rejection of His Law, the failure of the churches to enforce a scriptural discipline, the breakdown of parental authority.

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." This Divine statute, like those which were before us in the previous sections, had been grossly perverted by the scribes and Pharisees. They had wrested its purport and design by giving it a false application. Instead of confining it to the magistrates in the law courts, they had made the statute a promiscuous one. The Jewish leaders had so expounded this precept as though God had given permission for each individual to take the law into his own hands and avenge his own wrongs. They intimated that it allowed each person to take private revenge upon his enemies: if thy neighbour smite thee and destroyeth one of thine eyes, then go thou and do likewise to him. Thus a spirit of resistance was cherished and the act of retaliation condoned.

Should it be asked, How came it that the scribes and Pharisees so glaringly wrested this law which was manifestly designed for the guidance of magistrates only? we would point out first that it is a natural opinion that a man may avenge himself in private when wrong has been done to him personally; second, answerable thereto there is a very strong desire for revenge in everyone's heart by nature; and as the Jewish leaders sought to ingratiate themselves with the people rather than to please God, they pandered to this evil lust. In this we may see the workings of the Devil; for in all ages his policy has been directed to the overthrowing of the Divine order. The great enemy of God and man has ever sought to move corrupt leaders, both civil and religious, so to temper things to the depraved inclinations and popular opinions of the people that true piety may be overthrown.

Perceiving the earthly-mindedness and materialistic outlook of the Jews, the Devil moved their teachers to dream about a Messiah who should dispense mundane rather than spiritual blessings, so that when Christ came preaching salvation from sin and exhorting men to lay up treasure in heaven, they despised and rejected Him. The Italians had ever been greatly addicted to sorcery and idolatry, as ancient writers testify; and though God vouchsafed them the true Gospel at the beginning of the Christian era, yet the Devil, knowing their natural disposition to superstition, soon corrupted the Truth among them, so that in a short time their church abounded as much in idolatry as ever they did when they were heathen. The like malicious tactics has the Devil used among Protestants, for when he was unsuccessful in corrupting doctrine in the mouths of its leaders, he has greatly weakened it among the rank and file, by causing them to receive in their hearts only that which accords with their evil proclivities.

It is at this very point that the true ministers of God stand out in sharp contrast with the Devil's hirelings. The latter are unregenerate men, with no fear of God in their hearts. "They are of the world, and the world heareth them" (1 John 4:5). They trim their sails to the winds of public opinion. They accommodate their preaching to the depraved taste of their hearers. Their utterances are regulated by a single motive: to please those who pay their salaries. But the servants of Christ shun not to declare all the counsel of God, no matter how distasteful and displeasing it may be to the natural man. They dare not corrupt the Truth and refuse to withhold any part of their God-given message. To glorify their Master and be faithful to the trust He has committed to them is their only concern. Consequently, they share, in their measure, the treatment which was meted Out to Him.

"But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (v. 39). In this verse and the three which follow Christ confutes the false application which the scribes had made of the Mosaic statute, and it is in this light that His exhortations here must be understood. To say He is exhorting His followers absolutely to a passive endurance of any and every injury they may receive at the hands of wicked and unreasonable men is to give a meaning to our Lord's words which the context does not warrant, and which other passages and important considerations definitely forbid. That which He was refuting was the taking of private vengeance on those who wrong us. Further proofs in support of this must be left for our next.

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