Live by the sword, die by the sword

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"Live by the sword, die by the sword" is a saying of Jesus quoted in the Bible, to the effect that if you use violence, or other harsh means, against other people, you can expect to have those same means used against you; "You can expect to become a victim of whatever means you use to get what you want."[1]

The saying comes from the Gospel of Matthew, verse 26:52, which describes a disciple (identified in the Gospel of John as Simon Peter) who draws a sword to defend against the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but is rebuked by Jesus, who tells him to sheath the weapon:

Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52, King James Version)

Interpretation of Matthew 26:52 in Christianity[edit]

Literal interpretations[edit]

"Live by the bomb die by the bomb" at the White House Peace Vigil, started by Thomas in 1981.

The verse can be interpreted as an instruction for Christian pacifism.[2]

Non-literal interpretations[edit]

Origen suggested that "sword" in the Gospels be interpreted as a sapiential image.[3] The sapiential interpretation is consistent with Ephesians 6:17

"And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:17 KJV)

and Hebrews 4:12

"For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12 KJV).

The phrase is also seen in the Book of Revelation, chapter 13: verse 10:

"He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints." (Rev.13:10 KJV)

Peter actually drew a physical sword and smote a servant's ear, defending the Christ:

"And, behold, one of them which were with Jesus stretched out [his] hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest's, and smote off his ear." (Matthew 26:51 KJV)

According to Luke, Jesus then restored the man's ear: "And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him." (Luke 22:51 KJV)

"And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28 KJV)

Usage in English literature[edit]

While a common modern interpretation[4] means "those who live by violence will die by violence", suggesting nonviolence or pacifism as an alternative, it is also used for a variety of situations which contain an element of poetic justice. A deeper meaning alludes to "those who judge will be judged" in reference to Matthew 7:2 and Luke 6:37 which can also be interpreted as poetic justice for those observed to be wrongfully condemning others. Other variants on this phrase are also commonly used.

It has been related to the concept of karma, as well as other similar sayings:

"Many sayings from folklore express pearls of karmic wisdom: "Reap what you sow," "Live by the sword, die by the sword," and "Troubles come home to roost."[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richard A. Spears McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs "Live by the sword, die by the sword" Prov. If you use violence against other people, you can expect to have violence used against you.; You can expect to become a victim of whatever means you use to get what you want.
  2. ^ John David Geib (2007). Gail M. Presbey, ed. Philosophical Perspectives on the 'War on Terrorism'. p. 401. War and Peace in Christian Tradition: Why I am an engaged Christian pacifist 
  3. ^ Gerard E. Caspary, 'Politics and exegesis: Origen and the two swords', (UC Press, 1979)
  4. ^ "Idiom definition at". 
  5. ^ Weinstein, Marion, Positive Magic: Ancient Metaphysical Techniques for Modern Lives, retrieved October 27, 2015