“Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.'” (ESV)
Do you want to know what one of the most natural expressions to come out of the mouths of humans is? The very one the writer of this proverb tells us not to say. This declaration of human justice is totally natural. It does not need to be taught at all. And, it begins to manifest itself from a pretty young age.
Consider your own children if you have them. How early did they start to express this idea whether verbally or simply by their actions? Mine each started this at least by the age of three. On more than one occasion I’ve heard my older boys attempt to justify something unkind they’ve done to the other by declaring that, “I’m just doing to him what he did to me.”
And again, this is totally natural. In fact, this instinct is a reflection of their (and all of our) being created in the image of God. God is just. The idea of justice is a commitment to do what is right. When someone has done something wrong, justice demands that the person suffers some consequence for it. Perfect justice would hold that the consequence be perfectly measured to whatever the crime was in a kind of one-for-one correspondence. As evidence of how natural and ancient this instinct is, consider the Code of Hammurabi. This Babylonian King’s legal decree is several thousands of years old and yet aptly captures this idea of retributive justice.
So then, why does Solomon here declare it is something we should not say? Gandhi actually captured it rather well when he observed that living under the old law of an eye-for-an-eye eventually leaves everyone blind. When we live by lex talionis, the law of the tooth, we will all eventually wind up eating only mush. Gandhi borrowed his non-violent approach to resistance from Jesus, so we can take his advice as mostly sage here. But there’s more to it.
Because of sin, we almost never settle for simply doing what has been done to us. Sin takes our natural desire for justice and twists it into something more sinister. We do what has been done and then raise the bar by adding something more to it. This something more is intended to send the message that we are not to be trifled with again. Yet, in most cases, things don’t stop here. Instead, the other person, the original offender, now feels slighted himself and so returns the deed plus one just like we did. Eventually the plus ones begin to add up and become entirely more destructive than they were in the beginning. In the end, Gandhi actually didn’t take things far enough with his observation on the inadequacy of this approach. Taking the path of an eye-for-an-eye doesn’t leave everyone blind, it leaves everyone dead.
There is a better way. This is the way of the cross. In the way of the cross we do not return to those who have offended us a reflection of the offense. Instead, we trust in the God who has said, “vengeance is Mine,” and, “I will repay,” rely on the sufficiency of the punishment for sin taken into Himself by Jesus, and return only a portion of the grace extended to us by God for our own offenses against Him. When we return grace for sin and blessing for offense, we break the cycle of human retribution and put in its place a new cycle of life. This life is not just any life, though, but a foretaste of the eternal life made available by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to all those who would receive it.
Is this way immediately satisfying in the same way getting even often feels? No, it is not. It will require us to consciously, intentionally, actively set aside the natural (but sin-twisted) desire for justice and vengeance that beats in our hearts in exchange for God’s perfect-but-not-on-our-timetable justice. This isn’t easy, but if we can fix our eyes on the life this more difficult path will bring both in the end and along the way there, it will become easier over time. Grace will eventually become a reflex. When grace is a reflex, we know we are on the path of life. So, to edit this proverb a bit: Do not say, “I will do to him as he has done to me.” Instead say, “I will do to him as God has done for me.” Then you will know the life you are seeking.