The Lex Talionis, Micah 2:1-5


Micah 2:1-5

Text Comments

This next oracle is a pronouncement of judgement against the venal, mercenary leadership of Judah.

v.1       “At morning’s light” = when the law courts met; they had the law in their pocket.

v.2       2a concerns property; 2b concerns the person himself. In that culture, if you took away a man’s land, you took away his living. He could be then a day laborer at best and potentially a slave. “Defraud” is thought to refer to the means by which they gained possession of these fields, viz. lending money to the landowners and then foreclosing. The result of this was the evacuation of the middle class — most people in prosperous Israel were in the middle class in those days — and the creation of a large poor class serving a smaller but much wealthier ruling class. (Not unlike what has happened times without number in human history and in Russia today, for example.) And it all comes from “coveting.” A failure to recognize that what one owns, as what is owned by others, all really belongs to God and is a stewardship from him to be used in his service and for the accomplishment of his will.

[Rudy’s praise of Max Belz at Cono’s 50th anniversary celebration. Especially his pointing out how Max always saw his purpose in the grain business as, among other things, to employ people! And he always employed more people than a bare concern for profit would justify.]

v.3       “this people” — corporate solidarity. But a reminder that the people who were being ruined by these wealthy land barons, were not innocent themselves! The idolatry, the infidelity to God’s covenant was endemic, as all the prophets indicate. Certain people and certain sins are pointed out for special mention, but the entire social and religious fabric was rotten. [We might be distressed and given to talk about the moral corruption of our leadership, but all of this has as well revealed how thoroughly unprincipled we are as a people, an entire nation. The people did not object to many sins against God and man; it was only when their own land was grabbed that they cried out against the injustice.]

v.4       The Assyrian is no longer just demanding tribute. He is taking the land itself, the “promised possession,” the sacred grant the Lord had given to Israel when she entered the Promised Land.

“traitors” should probably be “the apostate” — the normal meaning of the term. Hence the idea is that the sacred land of Israel is being distributed to infidels — the people who have curried the favor of the Assyrians.

v.5       In the midst of this judgment there is a ray of hope for the remnant, but not for this wicked generation of wealthy Israelites. The idea of the verse is that when God returns in grace and settles his people in the promised land again, you land barons and your descendants will not be there to share in the restoration. An OT way of speaking of eternal judgment and loss.

Now, what we have here is not simply a promise of judgment, such as we have already read, first against the northern kingdom in 1:6-7 and then the southern kingdom in 1:8-16. In this oracle we have one of the sins for which Israel shall be judged specifically identified. But, what is more, we have emphasis placed upon the nature or character of the divine judgment as a “lex talionis,” that is, a retribution in kind! That is, God is going to deal with these people in a manner that fits their crimes.

It is a theme of which the Bible is full, as a matter of fact, but which Christians little reflect on today because the entire doctrine of judgment and wrath is so little represented in Christian preaching and teaching. We are being given here in Micah a sophisticated understanding of the divine judgment, one very important to have in a day when that judgment is little regarded, understood, and feared.

You see this more clearly in the Hebrew than can be revealed in an English translation. The word “plan” in v. 1 is the same word as “planning” in v. 3. That is, the Lord is saying, “You plan evil; well, I’m planning too. Then, the word translated “iniquity” in v. 1 is another form of the word translated “disaster” in v. 3. [The English words “evil” or “bad” have the same elasticity. They can refer to a moral fault or to a catastrophe, something terrible. “The evil day,” for example. So there is a balance between the two verses. These men plan evil against their fellows; and God is planning evil against them in return.

The same balance appears in a comparison of v. 2 and v. 4. These greedy materialists covet the fields of their neighbors and seize them. And what shall be the outcome of that? God will see to it that the Assyrians take those fields and give them to others.

And then you see the same idea in 3b and 4a. The rich and powerful, who rose above the rest by their rapaciousness, will now be torn down from their high places and made the object of ridicule.

This is the biblical doctrine of the lex talionis, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and God promises to judge mankind (1:2: “O peoples; O earth and all in it” — this is relevant for everyone, not just Israel and Judah!) by the same principle.

Years ago in my “through the Bible in a year” reading, I was struck by how often this theme surfaced in the Bible and I began noting the variety of ways the Bible said that the divine judgment would take its cue from the sins that had been committed, that the punishment would be tailored to fit the crime. I commonplaced my Bible on this subject at Psalm 7:15-16: “He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made. The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head.”

And, there is the margin, I find references such as:

Esther 7:9-7, where we read that Haman was hung on the gallows — 75 feet high — that he had made to hang Mordecai on.

Matthew 26:52, where Jesus makes his famous statement that “those who draw the sword shall die by the sword.”

2 Samuel 12:10-12, where God promises David, after his great sin, that just as he had broken up and destroyed a family, his own family would be broken up and destroyed. (And when it began to be, it was by his son Amnon doing what David had himself done — satisfying illicit sexual desires.)

And many others. In Ezekiel 36:6-7, for example, the Lord promises his people that because they have been scorned by the nations around them, those nations will in turn suffer scorn themselves. And the law itself — an eye for an eye. That is, if you gouge out someone else’s eye, your punishment will be the loss of your own. No more, but no less. In the ancient world the lex talionis was as much a moderation of punishment as an increase of it. According to it, you couldn’t execute a person for stealing a loaf of bread.

Now the Lord doesn’t say in 2:3 that he is planning an immediate disaster against this people. God’s judgment is not always swift. Jesus tells the story of one grasping farmer who thinks to build bigger barns and that very night has his life taken from him. But he also tells the story of a rich man who lives all his life in wealth and comfort only to discover his doom after he has died an old man and full of years.

As Longfellow put it in a famous verse:

Though the mills of God grind slowly,
Yet they grind exceeding small,
Though with patience he stands waiting,
With exactness grinds he all.

But, what the Lord promises is that his judgment will inexorably fit the crime and will be a recoiling of man’s evil upon his own head.

Now, there is, by the way, an important piece of the apologetics of divine judgment here, one that Christians should be quite ready to explain in justification of their belief in divine judgment. Too often in the past, the biblical doctrine has suffered an unnecessary contempt in the minds of people because they have imagined that hell is a place where everyone gets exactly the same punishment — little babies, happy but unevangelized Pacific islanders, the Jews who died in Auschwitz and Adolph Hitler and his henchmen who murdered them there. All will be thrown alike and forever into this burning sulphurous lake of fire, there to writhe in helpless agony forever. But there are two facets of the divine judgment here in Micah 2 that are likewise taught in many other texts. 1) The first is that the punishment will fit the crime; that people will receive the just recompense of what they have done, no more, no less. And 2) which is here more by implication than by direct statement — but surfaces in v. 5 certainly (where it is the rapacious land barons who are specifically excluded from future grace, a penalty not necessarily visited upon all) — viz. that punishments will differ in degree, precisely because they are suited to the sins committed. As Jesus would later say, “Some will be beaten with many stripes; some with few” (Luke 12:47-48). [A very important part of the doctrine of divine wrath, it seems to me, and a very important part of the defense of it. We are not speaking about a divine fit of temper; we are speaking about an exactness of divine justice!]

But Micah here is interested in the other aspect of this doctrine of the lex talionis, the threat that divine justice poses to those who contemplate sinning against God! (So 1:2!)

In other ages, this thought was elaborated in ways that were calculated to bring it home to the conscience and to keep it in the mind.

For example, in Dante’s Inferno, there are different scenes of punishment that reflect the particular sins for which the damned are being punished. One of them, interestingly, is that punishment that the rapacious, venal, greedy people — just like these in Micah 2 — suffer in the fourth circle of hell.

Just as the mighty wave above Charybdis
Shatters itself on the opposing tide;
So must these spirits dance and counterdance.
More numerous than elsewhere, I perceived
On both sides of the ring, a screaming crowd
Pushing heavy weights by strength of chest.
They came together with a shock; and there
They wheeled about, shouting to one another:
‘Why do you squander?’ ‘Why do you hoard?’
And then
Along the gloomy circle they returned
On either hand, shouting their words of shame
Till at the opposite point they met again.
Then each one turned around, when he had reached
The other joust, along his semicircle.

They gave their lives to acquiring more wealth for themselves, others be damned. And now they face an endless, fruitless competition, going nowhere, reaching nothing.

Or, take Dante’s picture of the punishment, in the eighth circle of hell, of those who, in this life, presumed to predict the future.

Lo! how he makes
The breast his shoulders; and who once too far
Before him wished to see, now backward looks,
And treads reverse his path.

In other words, those who aggrandized themselves and deceived others by claiming the power that God alone has to know the future, must now spend eternity walking backwards, never seeing what is ahead, only what is behind! The punishment fits the crime.

And, in how many other ways, we can think of this. People who sin against God — some of you young people struggle here as some of you older — by choosing to spend your time with bad company, with people who do not love the Lord or help you to love him, will be consigned to spend eternity with that same company. What a terrible place hell will be precisely because of the company one must keep there — a world of people who do not care for other people! Horrible! A world of people who will not care for you, but will think of you only in regard to themselves and their own interests.

Here is Micah’s warning. God is able and he is planning to punish sins with the appropriate sentence. Think of your sins and imagine what such a sentence, such a punishment must be: financial sins, sexual sins, marital sins, sins of rebellion against parents, sins of indifference to other people, sins of neglect of God’s house — I can imagine very easily that punishment — you didn’t want to have anything to do with God’s house in this world, you thought it a burden to be in worship — well you shall be shut out of that house forever!

In that lone land of deep despair
No Sabbath’s heavenly light will rise,
No God regard your bitter prayer,
Nor Savior call you to the skies.

Or as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Great Divorce, there are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘thy will be done.'” You can see what he is after. The punishment of sin is the outworking of that very sin itself.

Dorothy Sayers said a similar thing, though perhaps a bit too provocatively:

“God sends nobody to Hell…But he has so made us that what in the end we choose, that in the end we shall have… Neither can he force any soul into beatitude against its will [a true enough statement in the context]; for He has nothing but Himself to give it. And it is precisely the light of His presence which the self-centered soul can know only as burning and judgment.” [In Coomes, 188]

Micah is warning us to reckon with this. It should take the attraction away from sins to contemplate what sort of judgment would be their fit answer and to remember that such a judgment is inevitable unless our sins are taken away in Christ through faith and our faith in Christ is a living faith, leading to a life of obedience and loyalty to God. Here is a warning and we will all do well to take it to heart, all the more as it is a warning the Bible sees fit to repeat many times over.