Who Understands Justice Completely?

Maybe it is simply because justice is such a buzz word lately, but this verse leapt out at me in my reading of Proverbs 28.

Proverbs 28:5

Evil men do not understand justice,
but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.

Here we have an antithetical parallelism. That is a poetic technique often employed in Hebrew poetry, especially in wisdom literature, in which a clear contrast is made. We often will see two opposite kinds of people or attitudes compared and two opposite results obtained.

In this verse we are dealing with who understands justice. One group lacks the capacity to understand justice at all. Another group will have complete understanding of justice. If the Bible is going to be this clear on who gets and who does not get justice, we probably should pay attention.

The comparison is simple too. We see evil men on the one hand. That should lead us to expect a polar opposite on the other. And, in fact, we get that opposite, but not perhaps what people would expect. The opposite of evil men is not good men. No, the opposite is those who seek the Lord. Of course, this would open a nice can of worms regarding seeking God. WE know from other passages in Scripture that no one seeks after God without God first doing a work in their hearts, but that is a point for another post.

How do we seek the Lord? One might seek the Lord through prayer. One might seek the Lord through sincere participation in acts of worship. But I believe we know enough to recognize that, in a biblically sound church, we understand that seekers of God are those who look for the ways and will of the Lord in his holy and inspired word. (Note: My argument here hangs on an acceptance of the fact that the way to seek the Lord and to know the Lord is through his word. I’ll not take the time here to prove that this is the case.)

Thus, we see that we have a comparison between those who cannot grasp justice and those who understand it fully. The difference in those groups is a difference of either being evil or seeking God. And if we accept that seeking God is something we do through the word of God, then we must understand that having a grasp of justice, true justice, God-pleasing justice, non-evil justice, is only available to the one who seeks for justice in the seeking of God through his holy word.

In this understanding is a warning for many modern believers. Many today are seeking for justice in people’s expressions of their experiences. Others are seeking for justice in the embrace of critical theory with all of its rejections of biblical standards. Many are claiming that the only justice they can find is the justice being sought, not by the word of God, but indeed by those who reject the standards of God at every turn.

But God’s own word and his wisdom teach us that to understand justice requires, not first a seeking of an understanding of systemic oppression or secular theories of intersectionality, but first a seeking after the Lord in his word. God has shown us who he is and what he requires. God has shown us what he proclaims to be true about every human being, every nation, every people group. And if we want to understand justice, if we want to not be counted as evil, we must seek our understanding of justice in a biblically faithful seeking of the Lord. That means we never twist Scripture to make it fit a secular theory. Nor do we read Scripture through a filter of secular ideas. Instead, we go humbly to the word, let God’s law define justice for us, and then seek with all our hearts to please the Lord revealed in that law.

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A Quick Thought on Biblical Justice

The word justice is being thrown around so much in recent days that I fear many have no idea of its meaning. So many sources present to us so many various standards for what is just, what is right, what is required. But how do we have the wisdom to speak of real justice, not a political ploy, but genuine justice?

Psalm 37:30-31

30 The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks justice.
31 The law of his God is in his heart;
his steps do not slip.

In my daily reading, I ran across the above psalm which I believe tells us something that we absolutely must not forget. There seems to be a person who speaks wisdom and justice. There seems to be a way to have God-honoring, God-pleasing justice just roll off your tongue. And in a messed up world where all sorts are crying for very different ends and declaring them to be justice, we need to know how to have that wisdom.

Verse 32 shows us what we need to know to get justice right when it says, “The law of his God is in his heart.” How do we find justice? The law of God is where we find justice. The holy, perfect, law of God is full of all we need to grasp justice.

It is tragic when Christians do not love the word of God. That word of God, Old Testament and New Testament, with its commands and wisdom is our only solid source for actual justice. God has told us what pleases him. God has told us how to treat each other with rightness and fairness. God has even given us an example of one ancient nation’s system of justice in all sorts of civil cases. And that standard teaches us justice.

So, today, when you hear a person call for justice, compare what they are asking for to the word of God. Are they asking for what God calls just? Are they treating others with God’s standard? Are they trusting God as the final and eternal judge? Are they seeking to please the Lord in obedience to his revealed will in all things? Is Their handling of the word of God in keeping with the clear commands and obvious principles of justice that flow from Genesis through Revelation and over every book in between?

Friends, simply put, if you want wisdom, if you want justice, if you want righteousness, you must find it in the word of God.

Perverting Justice Is Not Complicated

Sometimes the simplicity of the book of Proverbs is what we need to straighten us out. Life feels so hard and so complicated. But the wisdom of the word of God speaks quite plainly.

Consider this thought on justice, especially in the light of the social confusion about justice today.

Proverbs 17:15

He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous
are both alike an abomination to the Lord.

Here we see two things put together about genuine, biblical justice. We see two things that are deeply wrong, an abomination before the Lord. One is to justify the wicked. The other is to condemn the righteous. God hates both of these things.

Now, consider where we have gone in our society. Justifying the wicked is a popular thing. How can I say that?” First, our society has rejected God’s word and his ways. Thus, as a people, our nation has willfully rejected God’s definition of what is wicked. Therefore, when wicked people do wicked things, as a society, it is celebrated. Hollywood and politicians see things happen that God has called absolutely abominable, and these folks applaud it and demand that all others join them in that applause.

Of course, the primary focus in the proverb is one of legal justice. If a person commits a crime, it is an abomination to the Lord to pretend it did not happen. Sadly, in our society, we are hearing a regular call to allow criminals to be justified. If a person commits a crime, but they have been somehow socially oppressed, we want to ignore their wrong in order to continue to push forward a political narrative.

How about the idea of condemning the righteous? Do we do that too? You bet. A person might be doing things that are absolutely right in accord with the word of God or even the law of the land. But we are seeing them condemned in society today. Perhaps we see them condemned because they are of the wrong class, the descendants of privileged oppressors. Perhaps we see them oppressed because they refuse to applaud the actions that God has declared to be wicked.

Again, allow biblical justice to speak to us. It is evil to look at a person who has done evil—evil as defined by the word of God—and say to them that they are OK. It is also evil to look at a person who has not done evil—evil as defined by the word of God—and declare them guilty because of their ethnicity, their wealth, or their refusal to applaud that which God condemns. May God save us from our twisting of justice to call good evil and evil good.

Some Thoughts on Justice and Accusations

When significant accusations are made against a person, especially when issues of loss are involved, how do we deal with them? Do we take the modern legal motto of innocent until proven guilty? Do we use the criminal justice standard that says that guilt must be proven beyond doubt? Do we take the civil standard that guilt must be proved simply by preponderance of the evidence? Do we take the line of the #MeToo movement in which we believe all accusers regardless of evidence?

The problem here is that none of the above standards is the best standard. Why? None of those is the standard of the word of God. It may surprise you to realize that the Lord actually spoke quite clearly to his people about what must be the standard met in a case of accusation. And the Lord made it clear that there are also consequences for malicious false accusations.

Deuteronomy 19:15-21 – 15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. 16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

First, note that a charge will not be established without a witness (cf. Num 35:30; Due 17:6-7). The idea of a he said she said or a she said he said claim is simply not admissible. I’m not going to deny that, in our era of modern technology, video surveillance, DNA evidence, and all the rest perhaps this model could shift a bit. There are methods of proof that were not available to the men of the second millennium BC. But it should be a normal standard that we do not attempt to adjudicate claims of one person against another person without a witness and without any sort of physical evidence. Something other than the claim of the accuser has to point toward the guilt of the accused.

Note, in the issue of witnesses, the Scripture is also very clear that any person with evidence regarding a crime is obligated to come forward. It is a crime to conceal a crime in the biblical standard (cf. Lev 5:1).

But, if a person makes an accusation, particularly one that includes consequences for the one accused, the accuser also is to be held accountable for their actions. There is no such thing as a free pass at making a charge against someone if that charge is intended to do the accused harm. Deuteronomy 19:19-21 above shows us that one found to be bringing a false accusation was actually subject to the penalty they attempted to have imposed on the one they accused if they are found to be a malicious witness (cf. Due 5:20). Deuteronomy 17:6-7 adds the provision that one who accuses another of murder must also be the first one to begin the execution of the murderer. Thus, God intended to dissuade people from making false accusations by making it impossible for a person to simply accuse and then walk away.

You might wonder how it could be that God would speak so strongly seemingly on the side of the accused. Obviously the Lord does not want victims to not see justice. Obviously God does not want people to be afraid to speak out and tell the truth. So why would God make this seem so hard?

The answer is one of ultimate justice. When dealing with fallen humanity, we must understand that mistakes are going to be made in our criminal and civil courts. And we must make a decision as to where we err. Will we err on the side of punishing the innocent or acquitting the guilty? Obviously we want to do neither, as both are injustices. But the Lord has shown us in his word that it is better to err on the side of not punishing someone than to err on the side of wrongly punishing someone.

Why would that be? The answer lies in the truth of the absolute justice of God. Even as we are prone to error in our judgments, the Lord our God never makes a mistake. God will perfectly do justice. No one who appears to get away with a crime in their lifetime will find that their sin goes unpunished. God is just. He will always see to it that justice is done.

If we punish someone wrongfully, we can do nothing to give back to them what they have lost. But if we fail to punish a person who turns out to be guilty, the Lord will perfectly do justice. Thus, a belief in the Lord and in his word is what helps us to see exactly where to risk erring.

Let’s also remember that biblical justice, as a friend pointed out to me recently, is more than punishing the guilty. Biblical justice is about the glory of God. Justice is about restoring as much as possibly can be restored when wrong is done or crimes are committed. Justice is also about sanctifying people, preventing future crimes, bringing about purity in a land, and teaching all people to treat all people as image-bearers of God.

The hardest part of this concept given our social and political environment is that I would never want a man or woman, a boy or girl, to be afraid to tell the truth. If a person has been abused or attacked, they need to know that it is safe for them to speak out. At the same time, we must not develop a culture in which every accusation is so completely believed as to destroy a person’s career and reputation without any form of evidence.

What then must we do? IN general, we love those who accuse and love those who are accused, protecting the dignity of all humanity—people created in the image of God. We do not pretend that any person’s accusation is not a big deal. We do not make anyone think we will not take them seriously. And we counsel, and we apply the healing grace of the gospel to all our wounds. But that cannot mean that we automatically pre-judge all who are accused. As we see in Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” We do not defer to the strong or the weak, the rich or the poor, the accuser or the accused.

We love the accused by seeking genuine, biblical justice. Are they guilty? Is there real evidence? Are there witnesses? If there are , we love the guilty best by doing justice so as to punish crimes and to call for repentance. WE preach the gospel to the guilty and point them to the Savior. That may not get a woman her job back or keep a man out of prison, but eternal life is worth far more than any loss in this present world.

But what if the accusation is proven false? Then we must consider biblical justice there too. False accusers are attempting, for some reason, to damage other people with their words. Can we discern intent? Can we find out that a person was malicious in their motivation? IF so, then we should enact just penalties for that crime.

What if we cannot discern intent? What if there may be a genuine false belief based on a problem with memory or simple misunderstanding? Or what if the one accused might be guilty but we just cannot prove it? Is justice thwarted? Of course not. In such a situation we entrust the situation to the eternal justice of God, we strive to biblically comfort the hurting and the oppressed, and we move forward knowing that, at the final day of judgment, the Lord of Heaven and Earth will do rightly.

Love and Justice in Parallel

What is the longest book in the Bible? Psalms. What is the longest chapter in the Bible? OK, Psalms are not chapters, but individual units; however, Psalm 119 has 176 verses. With such a long Psalm right in the middle of the Bible, there are many things to notice, far more than I grasp in any single reading. Here is a thought that hit me today from late in the Psalm

Psalm 119:149

Hear my voice according to your steadfast love;
O Lord, according to your justice give me life.

Verse 149 catches me for the poetic parallelism. This is a chiastic structure, the four parts of the verse arranged as A, B, B’, A’. “Hear my voice” is a parallel with “give me life.” Clearly David thinks that, as God hears his voice, the result will be life for him.

The center parallels, the B part, are what grabbed me. “According to your steadfast love” is parallel with “according to your justice.” Do you think of those two as synonymous parallel thoughts? Do you attach the justice and the love of God as if they say anything like the same thing? Biblically you should.

In our culture, we love the love of God. We sometimes cringe at the justice of God. WE boldly proclaim the love of God, but we try to hide the justice of God behind our backs like a kid hiding something he does not want mom to see. And when we do this, we are missing the truth of God. The Love of God is a depiction of the perfectly good character of God. Similarly, the justice of God is a depiction of the perfectly good character of God. A God who is not interested in justice is not loving. A God who is not loving will not do justice. May we pray that God will help us see that his justice, his judgment, his proper punishment of sin and his love, his kindness, and his mercy are all part of the same holiness that make us love the Lord.