William S. Plumer, 1865


"Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows." Galatians 6:7. Johnson defines retribution to be a return suitable to the action. Its general import is requital or recompense. Foster says, "Retribution is one of the grand principles in the divine administration of human affairs; a requital is imperceptible only to the willfully unobservant. There is everywhere the working of the everlasting law of requital—man always gets as he gives." Although God's government is perfect in principle and in conduct, yet the work of requital, because unfinished, is not perfect in time. Augustine, "If no sin were punished here, no providence would be believed; if every sin were punished here, no judgment would be expected."

Retribution results from all the principles of the divine government already considered. There is no flaw in it. There is no injustice in it. God will not clear the guilty. He will not condemn the innocent. He will not slay the righteous with the wicked. He never confounds things that are different. He will not permit the righteous to be punished as the wicked. For a season his procedure may be inexplicable—but in the end God will abase the proud and exalt the humble; rebuke the sinner and encourage the saint.

To a remarkable degree men are made to reap what they have sown, to gather what they have strewed, and to eat the fruit of their own doings. Like for like is an all-pervading principle of God's government. Retribution in kind is seen in all his finished dispensations.

In its operation this principle extends to both good and bad acts. They who sow to the Spirit, shall from the Spirit reap life everlasting. They who sow to the flesh, shall from the flesh reap corruption. Covetousness heaps treasure together as fire and fuel against the last day. Christian charity transports it to Paradise to be enjoyed after death.

Requital extends to the actions of both saints and sinners. God does not overlook wrong in any of his children. In their case wastefulness brings poverty, even as with the wicked. On the other hand, industry and frugality in worldly men are commonly followed by thrift and plenty, even as with the righteous. The doctrine of retribution is essentially connected with that of accountability. It is often stated in the word of God. In the law of Moses it is laid down as the rule by which magistrates shall award punishments to wrong-doers in Israel. This proves that the thing is in itself right. "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." "Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth—as he has caused an injury in a man, so shall it be done to him again." "Life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." Ex. 21:24, 25; Levit. 24:20; Deut. 19:21.

Our Lord warned against two abuses of this principle. The first was that men applied it to matters of private revenge. The other was that some cruelly insisted upon the literal application of the principle in judicature when it would have been more benevolent to waive the right to demand a punishment, which, if insisted on, the magistrate was bound to inflict. The same law of Moses ordained that a false witness should be punished by being made to suffer the ill which he sought to bring on his brother. Deut. 19:19. The same law says that God "repays those who hate him to their face." Deut. 7:10. This very phrase probably implies the great principle here contended for. It is repeated, "The Lord will not be slack to him who hates him, he will repay him to his face." Deut. 7:10.

Retribution in kind is often categorically taught in Scripture. "With the faithful You prove Yourself faithful; with the blameless man You prove Yourself blameless; with the pure You prove Yourself pure, but with the crooked You prove Yourself shrewd." 2 Sam. 22:26, 27. In Psalm 18:25, 26, we have almost the same words repeated. In both cases God teaches, says Clarke, that "he will deal with men as they deal with each other. . . . The merciful, the upright, the pure will ever have the God of mercy, uprightness and purity to defend them. And he will follow the wicked through all his windings, trace him through all his crooked ways, untwist him in all his cunning wiles, and defeat all his schemes of stubbornness, fraud and deceit. . . . If you perversely oppose your Maker, he will oppose you. No work or project shall prosper, which is not begun in his name and conducted in his fear." Poole, "Man's perverseness is moral and sinful—but God's shrewdness is judicial and penal."

At the dedication of the temple Solomon prayed that in coming generations the Lord would "condemn the wicked to bring his way upon his head, and justify the righteous to give him according to his righteousness." 1 Kings 8:22. So that this very principle is inwoven with the devotions of the true Israel.

In the sermon on the mount, our Lord twice asserts the same doctrine, "Blessed are the merciful—for they shall obtain mercy;" and "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Matt. 5:7; 7:2. So in Psalm 7:15, 16, of the wicked it is said, "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." Compare Psalm 109:17. No less clearly does Solomon assert the same thing, "Surely the Lord scorns the scorners," Proverbs 3:34; and one of the Apostles says, "He shall have judgment without mercy that has showed no mercy." James 2:13.

The same law of requital prevails respecting the good deeds of men. "Blessed is he who has regard for the weak; the Lord delivers him in times of trouble. The Lord will protect him and preserve his life; he will bless him in the land and not surrender him to the desire of his foes. The Lord will sustain him on his sickbed and restore him from his bed of illness." Psalm 41:1-3.

Thus frequently does the Scripture assert this principle in express terms. It also gives us many examples. Jehovah has often "written the cause of the judgment in the forehead of the judgment itself." The builders of Babel form a league, binding themselves together forever. The Lord dissolves the league by confounding their language, and making them a torment to each other. The Egyptians destroy the infants of the Israelites by drowning them in the Nile. In God's anger the waters of their great river are turned into blood, and finally their king and his army are drowned in the Red Sea. They delighted in drowning, so God let them have their fill of it. They delighted in overtasking the Hebrews, and exposing them to the intense heat of the brickyards. So the dust from the furnaces, where the bricks had been burned, being scattered in the air, the Egyptians were covered with boils and with blisters. Thus they were made to smart as they had made others to smart.

By fraud and deception Jacob supplants his brother. Time rolls on. Jacob leaves his native land. Far from home he often finds his wages changed. Worse than all, in the matter of marriage he is miserably deceived. He loves Rachel and cheerfully serves seven years for her; and in the hour of his rejoicing finds that Leah has been palmed off on him. Thus he is made to feel in the tenderest possible manner the nature of his own wickedness to his brother. "If men deal treacherously with others, by and by others will deal treacherously with them."

When the Israelites took Bezek, its cruel prince, "Adoni-Bezek fled, but they chased him and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes." Then this guilty man began to reason on the moral government that is executed in this world, "Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them." Judges 1:5, 6.

The ninth chapter of Judges contains fifty-seven verses, and gives the history of the crimes and end of Abimelech, the son of Jerubbaal, who conspired with the men of Shechem for the destruction of all the children of his father, being seventy people, one only, Jotham, escaping. The awful deed was done. The rivals for power were put out of the way. For a season things seemed to prosper. Still there were difficulties. By the Spirit of God Jotham had uttered a fearful prediction respecting his bloody brother and his accomplices. Before long Abimelech himself in a cruel manner destroyed the men of Shechem. Not long after "a woman on the roof threw down a millstone that landed on Abimelech's head and crushed his skull." The conclusion of the inspired record is solemn, "Thus, God punished Abimelech for the evil he had done against his father by murdering his seventy brothers. God also punished the men of Shechem for all their evil. So the curse of Jotham son of Gideon came true." Judges 9:56-57. Fuller, "If our backslidings have consisted in unfaithfulness towards one another, God will oftentimes punish this sin by so ordering it that others shall be unfaithful to us in return."

Dreadful was the course of divine judgment towards Agag, the king of the Amalekites. By God's direction Samuel said to him, "As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be made childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal." 1 Sam. 15:33.

In like manner for lying to Naaman the leper of Assyria, and for lying to his master, the leprosy of Naaman cleaved unto Gehazi and unto his seed forever, and he went out from the presence of Elisha, as a leper. 2 Kings 5:20-27. Dreadful was the sin, and dreadful the punishment. Shame and misery follow a man and all his posterity through all their generations for this willful, deliberate falsehood.

History tells of horrible sufferings coming on those who delighted in inflicting horrible sufferings on others. Nero, who loved to shed blood, the blood of his best subjects, and especially of Christians—was condemned to be punished according to the custom of the ancient Romans. He turned executioner of their sentence, slew himself; and left the world exclaiming, "I have lived shamefully, I die more shamefully." Domitian first trained himself and then his minions to acts of tormenting cruelty. He was in the end murdered by his own servants. Dogs licked up the blood of Ahab, where he had caused them to lick up the blood of the conscientious Naboth. The same cruel prince had trained a set of men addicted to bloody deeds. So soon as he was gone, these very men rid the land of his posterity. In Cilicia A. D. 117 died Trajan, the persecutor. His joints were loosed. His life was drowned out by the waters of dropsy, while thirst was burning him up. His successor, Adrian, departed this life A. D. 139 by a disease, which took most of the blood from his body. He, who had shed innocent blood, now reluctantly and in agony shed his own blood. Maximin and his little son were both put to death by the servants and soldiers, whom he had educated to deeds of carnage. As they slew his child, they said, "Not a whelp of so cursed a stock shall be left." Diocletian became a madman. His palace was consumed by fire from heaven. His end was fearful.

Lucian derided the Christians by barking at them like a dog. His death was in this way. He was torn to pieces by the dogs. A modern tyrant and murderer prepared two cups of wine, one for himself and one for his guest. He gave special direction to his servant as to the disposition of the cups. Yet in carelessness his servant gave him the cup of poison. He drank it all, and expired in convulsions.

Charles IX of France caused the shedding of the blood of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew's day. Voltaire tells us that the blood of that cruel prince burst through the pores of his skin. His nature was at war with itself. Several writers tell us of the old man, whose son dragged him by his gray locks to the threshold of his door, when looking up he said, "Stop, my son; this is as far as I dragged my father by his hair." For a while cruel and bloody men may seem to have it all their own way; but before long God's hand will lay hold on vengeance. They may mock and afflict the innocent. But among such, who ever lived and died happily? Sooner or later a pitiless storm beats them down.

This arrangement of Providence enables us to see and feel the justice of many things in the orderings of the Lord. Were our sufferings something foreign from our own conduct, we might often be perplexed with occurrences that happen to us. But when sorrow comes to us in the Spirit of the wrong we have committed, we say, Righteous are you, Lord God Almighty.

In the same way we learn to study the book of Providence. Its lessons are made easy and forcible. Thus also we see how just is God in his dealings. He who gets what he gives, cannot complain of wrong. It is right the murderer should feel in his own person, the pangs of the death he has inflicted on another.

In like manner God teaches us that it is an evil and a bitter thing to sin against the Lord. There is no evil so great as sin. By this arrangement of his providence, he makes us feel that sin is horrible.

So also we learn the folly of sin. O what shame and confusion, running perhaps through life, come on us for one wicked deed. Before long no doubt every sin will appear as foolish as the most silly conduct is sometimes made now to appear.

Let every man honestly and earnestly inquire in the day of adversity, Why, O Lord, do you contend with me? It is a rational and proper inquiry. He, who will not make it, must expect to be hardened under judgments.

In applying this principle of God's government to ourselves, we may be strict and even severe. Our self-love will hold us back from excess. If we are innocent, conscience will shield us. Few men are harsh in their judgments of themselves. It is far otherwise in judging of our fellow-men. We must give them the benefit of any doubt in their case. In passing the conduct of others under review we must be lenient. A charitable judgment of godly men is more apt to be true than one that is harsh.

Whenever our sin is brought to view, let us repent of it, abhor it, ask forgiveness for it and forsake it. Newton says, "If a man will make his nest below, God will put a thorn in it; and if that will not do, he will set it on fire." Beware, O man, how you behave towards God in the day of chastisement for your sins. "Get up, go away! For this is not your resting place, because it is defiled, it is ruined, beyond all remedy." Micah 2:10

Let every man be warned and deterred from courses of conduct, which by this great law of requital must yet involve him in trouble, perhaps even down to old age. Some sixty years ago there lived on the borders of civilization a man who had an aged, infirm, and blind father. The old man frequently broke the plate on which his food was served. His son's wife complained of it, and the son at last determined to take a block of wood and hew out a tray on which to feed his father. Accordingly he took his axe and went to the forest, followed by his little son. He found a poplar, that looked as if it would suit his purpose, and began to cut out a block of the desired size. Having swung his axe a few moments, he became weary, and his son said, "Father, what are you going to make?" The father replied, "I am going to make a tray for your grandfather, to eat out of." The little boy loved his grandfather very much, and supposed it all very kind, and said, "I am so glad; won't it be nice? Father, when you get to be old and blind, I will make a tray for you." The father, conscience-stricken, and fearing sorrow for himself, took up his axe, returned home, and ever after seemed to treat his aged parent kindly.

God's people are safe though his enemies are not. "For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool—but my righteousness," says God, "shall be forever, and my salvation from generation to generation." Isaiah 51:8. Temptations may assail them; enemies may revile them, and persecute them. But God says, "Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults." Isaiah 51:7.

Let us, however, beware of the error into which Job's friends fell. "They maintained that God governed the world upon the principle of minute retribution, rendering to every man in the present life according to his works;" and that this requital was perfect in this world. Against this theory Job argued irrefragably, and God himself condemned them and approved Job, saying unto Eliphaz, "My wrath is kindled against you, and against your two friends—for you have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job has." Job 42:7.