We live in a world where vengeance or retaliation is what most people resort to when an injustice or violation of personal rights has been done to oneself or loved ones. Vengeance comes in different methods and forms, from verbal insults and lawsuits to physical violence and even social media. Secular society has even welcomed the idea of revenge as a reasonable act for every injustice done, and even literature and popular media promote it. You can find it in novels and movies where main characters seek justice through personal vendettas, and we cheer them on as we watch them triumph in their pursuit. There’s also that popular expression, “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” which means that taking revenge is much more satisfying when it’s done much later in the future when the offender has already forgotten the wrongful act. You find this kind of revenge in the famous story of Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo. Retributive acts can be found in many societies around the world; some cultures even encourage them. There are those that come in great magnitude –family against family or tribe against tribe – and can even go on for many generations. These are what is called a feud—violent and bloody pursuits that are usually unending. For every man who feels wronged, vengeance has always been a very appealing resort.
In the Old Testament, ancient Mosaic Law called this the “law of retribution,” or lex talionis in Latin, and it can be found in Exodus 21:23-25.
“ And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,  Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,  Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
Does this mean that God approves of revenge? If so, every act of vengeance can be considered lawful or sanctioned by God. Without proper context, this law can easily be misconstrued and abused. If one would observe, this law actually does not allow the offended person to inflict punishment beyond the specific injury done by the offender. In fact, man always retaliates in excess. For instance, when a man is verbally insulted, he retaliates with an even more grievous insult or physical violence. If we take this law literally, it may seem that God allows retribution as long as it is proportionate to the harm done. But there was never any account in scripture about an Israelite being mutilated because of this law. The Old Testament laws do contain capital punishment, as found in Exodus 21-22, Leviticus 18-24, and Deuteronomy 13-22. The grounds for the death penalty are capital crimes like sacrificing to Gods other than Yahweh, human sacrifice, premeditated murder, kidnapping, witchcraft and sorcery, prostitution, cursing and assaulting one’s parents, blasphemy, false prophecy, adultery, incest, homosexual acts, bestiality, and others.
The law of retribution is to be taken in light of a judiciary system established by God for the peace and order of His people. An “eye for an eye” was meant to define the fair amount of penalty given to the offender and is not meant to be used for personal vendetta or vigilante acts. The appointed judges were the ones authorized to exact just punishment, not civilians. The offender has to pay the amount equal to the actual and foreseeable damage done to the injured. For instance, if the offended person was disabled due to the injury and is unable to earn a living, the offender must pay the amount equivalent to the injured person’s lost income. Therefore, we can say that apart from God’s appointed civil authorities, man does not have the right to retribution.
In Deuteronomy 32:35, God said, “To me belongeth vengeance and recompense…”
Vengeance does not belong to man but to God. He is the only being who has the moral authority and ultimate legal ascendancy to exact revenge. He does not execute vengeance with unfairness or with evil motives. Man does not have such a capacity—we seek revenge out of malicious desire or anger. That is why God had to command us to leave revenge to Him (Leviticus 19:18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.). Even in times when we feel like people should get what they deserve for the hurtful things they’ve done, we should remind ourselves that “vengeance belongs to the Lord.” We should not take on His rightful role but we have to trust in the ultimate judge of all. His justice is always better than our own version of justice; God does not make mistakes in his judgments.
Going back to the principle of “eye for an eye,” the Israelites in the time of Jesus had misunderstood and abused this law. That’s why Jesus redefined their understanding by saying, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” If you would observe, He used the words, “Ye have heard that it hath been said,” instead of saying, “it is written.” This implies that He wants to correct a wrong understanding. Then He took it deeper as He went on, saying that we should not resist an evil person, and if anyone slaps us, we should also let him have the other cheek (Matthew 5:39 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.). Jesus took it even further by saying that we should love our enemies. It must have been quite a shock to the Jews as they listened to Him. Jesus’ teachings seemed to be antithetical to the law of retribution they’d gotten used to and had often misapplied. The slapping here actually meant personal insult, not physical violence or criminal threat. When we turn the other cheek, Jesus meant to say that we must be ready for more insults—to forgive instead of retaliating. But Jesus is not promoting pacifism or telling us that we should allow ourselves or other people to be in grave danger. This principle does not forbid self-defense or the use of necessary force to protect oneself or others from imminent, life-threatening violence. It also does not repudiate the use of violence by the police and military forces to maintain peace and order. In fact, Paul reminds every Christian to submit to governing authorities as they are God’s servants, and he endorses their capacity to use the “sword” or necessary physical violence to enforce justice (Romans 13:1-5).
Essentially, the message of “turning the other cheek” means we should not pay evil for evil but respond in forgiveness and love to those who personally insult and persecute us (Matthew 5:38-48). He commands us not to take revenge but to respond as Jesus did. When Jesus was betrayed, persecuted, shamed, accused, punished unjustly, and crucified to death, He did not retaliate. He could’ve easily defended Himself by commanding twelve legions of angels to rescue Him, but He held back His power (Matthew 26:53), and He chose to forgive and suffer for us because of His great love. How about us? We must also learn to forgive those who have offended us, just as Jesus did. We deserve the wrath of God’s vengeance (Ephesians 2:3-5) but He chose to pour it upon His Son so that we may be saved. We used to be enemies of God but He loved us despite our constant rebellion and stubborn hearts (Romans 5:10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.). So, we must also learn to love and pray for those we regard as enemies. Jesus called us to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) not avengers. Scripture even tells us that God rewards us if we show kindness to those who are hostile toward us. As we do so, it’s as if we’re heaping burning coals over their head (Proverbs 25:21-22). This does not mean that we cause harm to befall them, but our acts of kindness amid their hatred may melt their hardened and hostile view of us and may cause them to be won over. So, let us trust God’s justice and leave revenge to Him. Our part is to show God’s mercy and grace to the world.
For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
(1 Peter 2:19-24 NIV)