Judging and Judgment (2)
“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which the LORD your God gives you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. You shall follow what is altogether just, that you may live and inherit the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” Deuteronomy 16.18-20
A new people
Having escaped the Egyptians through the Red Sea, the people of Israel began their journey toward the mountain of God. They had been 400 years in Egypt, and for the last generation at least, they had known nothing but slavery. Their Egyptian masters ruled every aspect of their lives, telling them where to live, when to work and what work to do, and supervising all the details of their private lives.
In short, the people of Israel were not required to make many decisions.
As they journeyed toward Mt. Sinai, where Moses was leading them, the question must have occurred to many of them, “Now what?” How would these twelve tribes of former slaves ever manage to become a real nation?
God provided the answer for them at the very beginning of their journey, giving them fresh water in the desert, and instructing them through Moses to “heed the voice of the LORDyour God, do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes” (Ex. 15.26). His grace and His truth would be their salvation.
Then, to reassure Him that His grace and Word would be sufficient, He brought them to Elim, where the twelve wells of water spoke to each tribe of God’s faithfulness and sufficiency, and the seventy palm trees reminded the people of how God had grown them, through their time of enslavement, from an immigrant band of seventy refugees to a nation of more than a million.
But still, some must have wondered, “How is this going to work? How will we ever become an orderly people?”
God’s answer was to structure His people so that sound judgment could be exercised at every level of society and in every community in Israel.
The structure God intended for His people was foreshadowed during their sojourn in the wilderness. God gave His people His Law – commandments, precepts, statutes, and judgments designed to enable them to flourish in love for God and their neighbors. And to make certain that the people would all gain the benefit of this holy and righteous and good Law, God led Moses to structure the people so that they could be watched over by men carefully instructed in sound judgment according to God’s Word (Ex. 18): “Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people: rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. So they judged the people at all times; the hard cases they brought to Moses, but they judged every small case themselves.”
That pattern continued for forty years, until the people were assembled on the plains of Moab, opposite Jericho, preparing to enter the land of promise. What was instituted in the wilderness was now to be established in every community: Israel was to appoint judges in every city, and by their wise decisions and careful choices, the people would “live and inherit the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”
Judges were to be appointed in every city to “judge the people with just judgment.” These judges would meet in the gates of the city to consider matters relevant to the overall wellbeing of their community. They would discuss the Law of God and determine the best ways of ensuring its faithful practice in all the households of the community. If cases arose within the community where a decision needed to be made between disputing parties, the judges would assemble in the open air, hear the plaintiffs and defendants, and determine before the Lord the decision most in line with the demands of justice. Their deliberations would have been open to the public, and thus would have provided an opportunity for further teaching and learning of God’s Law.
Beginning at home
But the work of judges was only the most visible aspect of judging and judgment in God’s plan for Israel. Teaching the Law of God was to begin in the home, in formal and casual situations, under the oversight of faithful parents, so that each person in Israel could have the Law of God written on their heart. Moreover, every aspect of their cultural lives, whether in the home (“doorposts”) or the community as a whole (“gates”), was to reflect the order, wisdom, beauty, decency, and justice encoded in the Law of God (Deut. 6.1-9).
All the people of Israel were to learn God’s Law and to exercise just judgment in applying it to every aspect of their daily lives. Thus they would show that they feared and loved God, and they would have little doubt in any situation concerning what was right to do in loving their neighbor. When individual judgment broke down, and failed to fulfill the requirements of God’s Law, community judgment would be appealed to before the elders and judges of the city.
The work of judging and judgment in ancient Israel had one overarching objective: to realize the shalom of God. The shalom of God is that sense of His presence, expressed as righteousness, peace, and joy. As the people of Israel grew from a rabble of slaves to a nation of Law-keepers, their example would capture the attention of surrounding nations, who would marvel at their Law, and wonder about the God Who gave such wisdom to men (Deut. 4.1-8).
From the beginning of His redemptive work with the people He had chosen for Himself, God built a structure of judging and judgment into the life of the nation, and of the communities and households that comprised that nation. It was the duty of every Israelite to read, study, submit to, and obey the holy and righteous and good Law of God, to exercise just judgment in all their roles, relationships, and responsibilities. For thus it would go well with them and they would prolong their days in the land of promise, and realize all the covenant blessings of God (Deut. 4.39, 40).
How would this straggling rabble of ex-slaves become a nation characterized by shalom? By embracing God’s structure for judgment, and judging sound judgment in all their ways.
1. Why were judges necessary in all the cities of ancient Israel?
2. The Law of God was holy and righteous and good in ancient Israel, and Paul explained that it remains the same today (Rom. 7.12). What does this suggest about the structure for shalom that God’s people should follow in our day?
3. Today we refer to God’s shalom as His Kingdom (cf. Rom. 14.17, 18), and we pray and seek its fuller coming in our lives and world (Matt. 6.10, 33). Can we expect to realize this apart from sound judging and just judgment at every level of life? Explain.
Next steps – Preparation: How would you describe the role of God’s Law in your life at this time?
T. M. Moore
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This week’s study is part 1of a 4-part series, To Judge the World. Each part consists of seven lessons and is available as a free PDF download at the end of the study. In the tag for part 7, we’ll give you a link to download part 1, Judging and Judgment. Why not line up some friends to study through all three parts of this series?
An excellent companion to this series is our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics. Here you’ll discover the basis on which Christians learn to judge with righteous judgment. You can order a copy by clicking here.And when you order, we’ll send you a free copy of Bricks and Rungs: Poems on Calling.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission.