Lawful and right

Simultaneously with the call of Jeremiah in Jerusalem to judgment and justice discussed in the second article in this series, we find Ezekiel with the captives in Babylon. For some unclear reason, in the book of Ezekiel, the King James Version translates “judgment and justice” as “lawful and right” even though it appears to be the identical phrase. We have this in the two companion passages – Ezekiel 18:5, 19, 21, 27 and 33:14, 16, 19. In the margin alongside Ezekiel 33:14 there is the note saying, “Heb. justice and judgment”. It is such an important principle that life hangs on it. A person who does this will “surely live” (e.g. 18:19, 21; 33:16). In its rst instance, this promise related to them avoiding the destruction of the Babylonians: “he shall save his soul alive” (18:27). In its eternal signi cance, if one turns from unjust ways to do justice and judgment then the reward will be eternal life.

Again, the principles of judgment and justice are explained by Ezekiel (18:7; 33:15). First was to restore the pledge. It might be felt a matter of justice that the debtor should lose his pledge if he is unable to pay the debt – surely this is only fair! But this is human justice and not divine. With God’s justice there must be a spirit of generosity. Under the Law this included not taking a family’s tools to sustain life (Deut 24:6), not going into his house to recover the pledge (Deut 24:10-11), and giving back his garment at nightfall so he would not be cold (Deut 24:12-13). Another principle of reversing a lack of judgment and justice was to give back anything robbed of another and more, as demonstrated by Zacchaeus in Luke 19:8, compensating for the previous lack of principle. Not taking interest and rightly judging between man and man (Ezek 18:8) complete this principle in Ezekiel’s explanations.

Ezekiel explains that judgment and justice is active behaviour. Within justice and judgment, Ezekiel (18:7) includes giving bread to the hungry and covering the naked with a garment. It is not just being scrupulous in what we do not do; it is also about what we do in relation to the poor. This includes spiritual support as much as physical. It is summed up by the principle of “walking in the statutes of life” (33:15). Israel had walked in the statutes of the nations (Lev 20:23), but were now asked to attune themselves to the principles of divine judgment and justice and so behold wondrous things out of God’s law (Psa 119:18).

In the Kingdom

Justice and judgment will be central qualities of Christ’s reign. Psalm 72 does mention the prevailing moral goodness of Messiah as king, but the early emphasis of the chapter is on the judgment and justice that the King will dispense to the world: “Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king’s son” (v1). These two words then become the principles of his reign: “He shall judge thy people with righteousness (tzedek), and thy poor with judgment (mishpat)” (v2). As we look around our world at the corruption and op- pression, seeing rich men paying appalling wages and widespread unemployment, we can understand why the righteousness and judgment of Christ is going to be so valued. All around our world there are people from Syria to Somalia, from Bangladesh to Burma who need a righteous judge. He will ensure that the poor are no longer downtrodden and that the rich do not oppress them. Only then will abundant spiritual and physical blessings ow to the earth.

So as Isaiah explains the wonderful character of Immanuel as the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6), he details the results of that rule: “To establish [his kingdom] with judgment and with justice” (v7). When Christ is king the whole world will be surrounded with judgment and justice: “Then judgment shall dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field” (Isa 32:16). Christ will ensure that all who rule with him follow the same principles. is will start in the middle of the earth with the nation of Israel (Psa 99:4). When Christ rules from the eastern portal of the Temple, the princes of Israel will receive specific instruction: “Remove violence and spoil, and execute judgment and justice, take away your exactions from my people” (Ezek 45:9).

Judgment and justice in the ecclesia

While we have sketched the principles of judgment and justice, we need to think about why we struggle to follow this divine practice. The first problem must be ignorance. We are bombarded with humanism; human ‘justice and judgment’. If we do not heed the Scriptures we will find ourselves espousing views contrary to God’s principles. The mental map of divine justice can be quickly over-whelmed by alternative interpretations of justice. e Corinthian Ecclesia, new in the faith, ‘tolerated’ and did not deal with an incestuous brother (1 Cor 5). Corinthian pride had led them down the wrong path.

is leads us to the second problem, the ego. Obsession with self was the cause of Jehoiakim’s oppression. His personal pride created a pattern of thinking in which he could not practice judgment and justice. He was enjoying his magnificent palace and if others had to suffer for his benefit, well that was just the way life was. Our pride creates a way of thinking where we are sure that we are right, and our behaviour is fine even when the Scriptures teach us something else.

A third problem is a lack of balance. In the first article we alluded to that other important couplet, “mercy and truth”. We know that in God and Christ these two principles are perfectly balanced (e.g. Psa 85:10), but we naturally err to one side or the other. Judgment in truth without mercy is harsh and unreasonable. Mercy without truth can be slack, humanistic, and tolerant of sin. If we are going to err it should be on the side of mercy: “For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment” ( James 2:13).

A final concern in our ecclesial life is the problem that has pervaded the history of God’s people–respect of persons. This is something that is deeply entrenched in our courts where the rich can hire the best lawyer for thousands of dollars an hour and get away with the worst behaviour, although, occasionally, public outcry restores better judgment. In Old Testament times it was achieved by the rich bribing the judges who knew what was right. In the days after Christ, this persisted but there was also the problem of respect for the rich as being people of status (e.g. James 2:1-5). We can still look up to brothers with money and attribute status; class distinctions in the ecclesia can exist in our thinking. There can be other grounds for respect of persons such as extroversion, a charming personality or a forceful character. None of these will wash with the Righteous Judge but unfortunately, they can become part of our decision processes.

Sometimes the principles of judgment and justice require us not to judge. Jesus was not willing to arbitrate a family argument over inheritance (Luke 12:13-14). “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” said Jesus, echoing words spoken to Moses around 1500 years previously. Jesus urged this man and his audience to examine their own reasoning (v15-21). If the accuser understood he had a problem with covetousness, then he would appreciate that he had as much a problem in demanding his inheritance as his brother had in not giving. Had we been in Jesus’ position we might have been tempted to intervene. Sometimes the wisest and most realistic course is simply to outline the scriptural principle and leave the hearer to judge for themselves.

We want to be part of the great multitude who are “made” kings and priests by Christ (Rev 5:9-10). On our part we need to develop qualities of kings so that we might be found worthy to reign with Christ. Justice and judgment are core values and core practices, fitting saints for this eternal role. This starts today with judging the simplest matters.