God is an Activist Judge

There is a common notion abroad that the justice of God is neutral to man. That is, so long as due process is upheld, a man is guilty or innocent regardless of their station. And of course, that is partly true. But this is a mostly Western notion of justice that cannot (pardon the pun) do justice to how the Bible speaks of God’s justice.

“Righteousness” in Scripture, is far different. The root word sdq has two common forms, sedeq and sedaqa. There is probably little difference between the meaning of the words. Sedeq refers to an abstract ideal of justice to which one was to live up too, often personified as watching over the earth or man’s dealings (Psa. 85:12; Isa. 45:8). Sedaqa refers to the concrete act of living up to this standard, and “later it became the Hebrew word for giving alms to the poor (Dan. 4:24),” (Weinfeld, Social Justice, 34).

Thus, God’s call to give generously to those in need was actually, for the Hebrew language as well as the Jewish people, a form – if not the premiere example – of “doing justice.” This again contrasts with the Western view of justice, which can be abstract and often cruel in its merciless enforcement of the letter of the law. So long as due process is followed, we reason, true justice has been done no matter what the verdict. For God, as much as for Israel, justice, mercy, and righteousness are all caught up in one another. Schofield writes,

In justice, there was more mercy than we recognize, and in righteousness, justice and mercy were not opposed terms. So strong was this element of mercy or benevolence in “righteousness” that in later Hebrew the word becomes the usual term for almsgiving (cf. Matt. 6:11) – that is, for gifts to needy members of the group, which cannot be legally demanded, but are an obligation,” (Schofield, “‘Righteousness’ in the Old Testament,” 115).

The reason for the close connection between care for the poor and true righteousness is because these words are all highly relational, rather than legal and abstract as we understand them in our Western sense. Gossai notes that in order for one “to be saddiq [righteous], it means that of necessity he or she must exist and live in a manner which allows him or her to respond correctly to the values of the relationship,” meaning that “right judging, right governing, right worhshipping and gracious activity are all covenantal and righteous,” (Gossai, Justice, 55-56).

The other term used is spt, the verb of which (sapat) refers to judicial activity. Wright notes that “in its widest sense, it means ‘to put things right’, to intervene in a situation that is wrong, oppressive, or out of control and to ‘fix’ it. This may include confronting wrongdoers, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, vindicating and delivering those who have been wronged,” (Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 256). The other root, mispat, refers to

what needs to be done in a given situation if people and circumstances are to be restored to conformity with sedeq/sedaqa [righteousness]. Mispat is a qualitative set of actions – something you do. ‘As it is frequently used in biblical texts justice is a call for action more than a principle of evaluation. Justice as an appeal for a response means taking upon oneself the cause of those who are weak in their own defense [cf. Isa. 58:6; Job. 29:16; Jer. 21:12],’ (Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 257).

That is, to judge with justice in the Biblical sense, one is obligated to take up the cause (or be on the side of) those who cannot defend themselves. The “just” judge in Scripture is the one who takes proactive steps to aid those who cannot defend themselves and right the balances, “put things to right,” and this out of covenant loyalty and love.

To be a righteous judge, Scripturally speaking, one must be an activist judge, helping those who cannot defend themselves. God’s balanced scale and disregard of station in dispensing justice is to actively be on the side of the defenseless out of His covenantal love toward them. His disregard for persons is always primarily about discarding the trappings of power and influence of the rich. Certainly the law says a judge should not regard a poor man as much as a rich, but this does not undercut the central point. All it means is that if a poor man is truly guilty of a crime, he must be convicted of it. But most of the time God’s neutrality and righteousness is in refusing to be manipulated or cajoled by the power and wealth of the rich.

Conservative Christians pride themselves on resisting “judicial activism” in our national and state elections in our law courts. They claim to want merely “constitutional judges,” those who just read the document and apply what it says across the board without bias. This is a Western view of law, not a Biblical one. While there are abuses on the part of judicial activists that we must resist and be aware of, they are at least conscious of the fact that a righteous judge must redress balances and have mercy and compassion on those who cannot defend themselves or are not granted full legal protections under the law as they ought to be. God’s neutrality is actually biased, the bias of His own sedeq/sedaqa [righteousness], which He will preserve by way of mispat [justice – ‘putting the world to rights’].

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3 thoughts on “God is an Activist Judge

  1. Also, how do you differentiate, and how do you treat differenty those who are poor through no direct fault of their own, and those who are poor because they have boldly, and unrepentantly done things that resulted in them being poor? Poor being broadly categorized…

    1. The short answer is that I don’t. Chrysostom is representative of my view here: “‘But he fakes all that weakness and trembling,’ you tell me. And, saying so, you do not fear that a bolt of lightning will strike you from heaven? Forgive me, but such words make me burst with wrath. You who fatten yourselves and enjoy our ease, you who drink well into the night, and then cover yourselves with soft blankets…you dare demand a strict account from the needy … and you fear not the account you will have to render before the court of Christ, terrible and frightful? … I shall say something that is harsh and will enrage you; yet I say it not to hurt, but to correct. We point out finger at the idleness of the poor, and yet we ourselves often work at things that are worse than idleness…You who spend the day in the theatres and in merriments, you who gossip about the whole world, think that you are not idle. And then you will look at someone who spends the entire day asking and begging, in tears and suffering, and you dare ask for an account?”

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