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A Picture of a Just Society from Deuteronomy

August 23, 2020

Teacher: Daniel Baker
Scripture: Deuteronomy 16:18-20

A Picture of a Just Society from Deuteronomy

Deut 16:18–20 – God: The Center of it All – August 23, 2020

Introduction

The baptism of Claire Catalano. Show picture. Praise God!

Name change. And the new name is CORNERSTONE FELLOWSHIP CHURCH!!! Cue the video…

Why are we excited about the new name? Because it reminds us of what Christ is to us. And it communicates something about who we are. What we are as a church.

As we transition in the next four weeks—road sign, website, some features inside and outside the building—we hope you feel what we do: (1) This really reflects who we are. And (2) this is a new chapter for our church. A chance for new vision. For new growth. For new ministry.

A lot has happened in the last year. A year ago we were Sovereign Grace Church in the denomination Sovereign Grace. Now we’re Cornerstone Fellowship Church in a different denomination Trinity Fellowship Churches. But we believe this positions us well for a new season of growth and fruitfulness. Pray for it!

******

I recently re-watched the 1988 Gene Hackman movie Mississippi Burning. The name of the movie comes from the name the FBI gave to the case file. This was the Deep South before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If the three big eras of race relations in the US can be divided into (1) our founding till the Civil War, (2) the Civil War till the Civil Rights Act, and (3) the Civil Rights Act to the present, this was that second era. Slavery had ended but civil rights were still a goal.

The historical events behind the movie was tragic. Concern three young civil rights activists, all 20–24 yrs, one black James Chaney (MS), two whites Andrew Goodman (NYC), Michael Schwerner (NYC). These three had been working to see civil rights for blacks advanced in Mississippi—things like the ability to vote and attend universities. Something we’d all agree to.

The town of Philadelphia, MS wanted no part of this. When they heard the three activists were coming to town they conspired to kill them. A deputy picked them up for speeding to get them to the jail. Then he released them at a prearranged time. After left the jail they were abducted, killed, and buried in an earthen dam.

Eventually all the men involved would be identified. This was not a good time in MS for the cause of justice, however. Officials refused to prosecute the killers.

The federal govt instead prosecuted them for what they could—civil rights violations with much lower sentences.

That was a different day in MS. The MS of 1964 isn’t the MS of 2020. Eventually new evidence would be uncovered in the case and in 2005 one of the men involved would be found guilty in MS for the charge of manslaughter. Can’t call that “justice” in the case, but it’s something.

The effect of this crime in June 1964 was that the very next month the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be passed.

As I said, that was a different day in the timeline of civil rights. But it’s a vivid negative example of many of the things we’ll see in the book of Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy gives us a picture of a just society. A key aspect for justice is how crimes and criminals are handled. If there’s a breakdown there, justice itself is abandoned. No protection for the weak, might makes right. Survival of the fittest.

God has a better way for people to build a society. A key aspect of that is how that society works for justice.

God: the Center of it All. If he’s the center of everything, he must be at the center of how we understand basic principles of law and justice. We’ll see four aspects:

  • Impartial Judges
  • Honest Witnesses
  • Merciful Justice
  • Daily Justice

Let’s pray.

I. Impartial Judges

We start with one of the most critical pieces of how justice will be achieved in a society: its judges. The kind of judges required. Deut 16:18–20:

“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deut 16:18–20)

16:18: Hebrew for judge, shophat, related to judgment, mishphat.

16:19: Hebrew for justice is same as judgment in v. 18, mishphat.

“Partiality” in the Hebrew is literally, “you shall not recognize faces” (Woods, TOTC, 215).

Bribes corrupt our eyesight—we can’t see right. And it “subverts/overturns the word/cause of the righteous.”

Adjective “Righteous” fr. tsadik. And related to noun at start of v. 20.

16:20: Written in an emphatic manner, “Justice and only justice you shall follow!”[1] That’s a good translation. The Hebrew is, “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” Noun “justice” is from tsedek.

This is a banner text over these chapters. Moses the pastor is exhorting his people to live in a way that is just. The use of the noun doubled like this makes it emphatic. Judges must be just! The people must be just!

What do we mean by “justice” in this sense? What exactly is “justice”? One historic definition is helpful,

Justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due.
The Institutes of Justinian (AD 535)

Two thousand years before this, Moses was appealing for the same thing. Let each be given his due—if mercy is owed, give mercy. If punishment is owed, give punishment. Whether rich or poor, man or woman, let each be given his due.

In these ancient courts, the judge was everything. There was only the accuser, the accused, and the judge. Maybe several judges if the case was brought to the elders of a city. There were no lawyers to go to bat for the accuser or the accused. That meant it was up to the judge to hear all relevant evidence, make sure there was no power imbalance that tips the scales of justice. And most important of all, he then had to make a fair and right decision.

The two key Hebrew words in this section are mishphat and tsadik, “judgment” and “righteousness.”

The motivation to righteousness is no throwaway comment or token promise. “That you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (v. 20).

Chris Wright:

Prosperous life in the land could not continue if they abandoned Yahweh. But likewise, it could not continue if judicial corruption set in like a cancer at the social level. The integrity of the judicial system was (and still is) basic to the preservation of society. Any society will have some level of crime and some levels of injustice, but if the means of restitution and redress themselves become corrupt, then there is only despair. Justice itself turns to wormwood. 
Chris Wright, Deuteronomy[2]

In this they imitate our God. Deut 10:17–19:

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:17–19)

The total breakdown in the Mississippi Burning case had a lot to do with the judges, the officials involved.

A deputy and a sheriff were two of the conspirators. State officials wouldn’t prosecute the killers. When those entrusted to judge and enforce laws do this unjustly a society has little chance to be a place of justice and righteousness.

Deuteronomy calls us to justice at this basic level. It’s basic but it’s powerful. Nothing to take for granted. So many of the injustices we’ve seen and personally experienced have to do with government officials not doing their jobs as righteous men and women accountable to God.

II. Honest Witnesses

The second piece has to do with the other key person in a trial, the witness.

Two or three witnesses required. Deut 17:6–7:

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. 7 The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deut 17:6–7)

Remember the 9th commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

“On the evidence of” is literally, “on the mouth of.”

“Two or three”: Protects against false accusations (but not perfectly). Bigger the charge the higher the bar for evidence.

“Hand of the witnesses shall be first”: This brings a sobriety to the case. Protects against frivolous lawsuits. Justice is a matter of life and death. This arrangement designed so you wouldn’t forget that.

The words to malicious witnesses bring this out as well.

Deuteronomy 19:15–21:

“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.” (Deut 19:15–21)

Again, it’s two or three witnesses to establish a charge (v. 15).

But now there’s this idea of a “malicious witness” (v. 16). Someone who lies to hurt someone.

In this case they are to come before “the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office” (v. 17).

Then, “inquire diligently” (v. 18).

If malicious witness, proportional but firm justice (vv. 18–21).

Verse 21 – “Life for life…” The lex talionis (“law of retaliation”) is not a recipe for violence and recklessness. It’s the opposite. It’s meant to guarantee that punishments are proportional. It requires punishments to fit the crime. In words familiar to us it prevents “cruel and unusual punishment.”[3]

In the Mississippi Burning case witnesses lied and many witnesses were silent. Fear of retaliation silence many good people at that time.

Being honest when someone’s life and welfare are on the line is vital. It’s right that in our courts today, “perjury,” lying under oath, is still a big deal. Malicious witnesses, just like corrupt judges, can bring down the whole framework of justice.

III. Merciful Justice

Justice is impartial but not blind. Lady Justice in statues at the Supreme Court is depicted in several places with a blindfold. The idea is that justice must be blindfolded in order not to be partial to the parties before it.

But God’s justice requires something more. It requires being impartial but not blind. To be just to the party in the case, sometimes you have to be aware of who the person is in front of you.

No perversion of justice for the weak. Deut 27:19:

“‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ (Deut 27:19)

Deut 24:17–18:

“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, 18 but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. (Deut 24:17–18)

God identifies four categories in Deuteronomy—“the sojourner,” “the fatherless,” “a widow,” “the poor.”

This makes sense. You fine a millionaire $1k, he reaches into his wallet and gives you the cash. You fine “a sojourner” who is also “the poor” $1k and now he’s in a bind. He has no means to get the money, no connections.

The point is not for “the alien” in this case to avoid consequences. The point is that sometimes there are factors that affect what punishment is given out or what punishments even make sense. This isn’t partiality where you favor your friends and the powerful. Or some kind of reverse partiality where you punish the rich and punish the powerful simply because they’re rich and powerful. It’s not partiality.

It’s simply seeing the bigger picture enough to know whether she’s a widow and so you shouldn’t take her “garment in pledge.” Justice can’t be that blind.

But this is not communism. The widow, the poor, the alien, the orphan are to be provided for, but the rich aren’t made poor and the poor aren’t made rich. This is not a raw egalitarianism where all property belongs to everyone and everyone has a right to everyone else’s property.

But the vulnerable are provided for. The society and the judges involved are to be aware of their situation and to treat them accordingly.

IV. Daily Justice

Justice is about the big and historical—Mississippi Burning. But also the daily choices we make to be just and not unjust.

Just weights. Deut 25:13–16:

“You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small. 15 A full and fair weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the LORD your God.” (Deut 25:13–16)

“A full and fair weight” and “full and fair measure” in Hebrew is first the word for “whole,” shalom, and then the word for “righteousness,” tsedek. With the repetition here of “righteousness,” we’re called back to 16:20’s double-cry of, “Justice [tsedek], and only justice [tsedek], you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you!” (Deut 16:20).

Verse like 25:13–16 reminds us that social justice and creating a just world for our children and grandchildren often boils down to the simplest actions. We all have a part to play here. It’s how you handle a simple transaction when someone wants a pound of flour and you sell them a pound of flour.

Two kinds of weights means when you’re buying something you pull out the heavy weights. Now when you say you’re buying a pound of flour, it’s really more than a pound of flour. Since you pay so much per pound, you want that number small.

But when you’re selling, you pull out the light weights. Now the same amount of flour gets weighed out as two pounds. They pay you twice as much.

Moses tells us this is a matter of “righteousness.” A just society is about you being honest and fair in the simplest transactions. It’s not only about the laws passed in Washington, D.C.

Conclusion

When it comes to the whole discussion of justice in a society, a lot more would need to be said. But these aspects are essential. There can’t be true justice without these four elements. Without these the weak will be crushed, criminals will rule, and God’s law will be abandoned.

May God lead us in building this kind of society!

As we close we want to see how this picture of justice helps us understand the gospel.

First it helps us see the Lord Jesus Christ himself. He is the perfectly just Judge.

Isaiah 11:1–5:

1   There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. 
2 And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 
3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 
5 Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (Isa 11:1–5)

And this judge cannot and will not compromise the perfect law of righteousness he himself has given.

If that’s true, we’re in trouble. Because we’re lawbreakers.

But God has provided the solution.

The glory of the gospel is that it honors God’s perfect justice. The gospel isn’t avoiding judgment, ignoring sin, getting off on a technicality. The gospel isn’t some rigged system where good ol’ boys get off but outsiders don’t.

The good news of the gospel is that God is both “just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.”

Rom 3:23–26:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:23–26)

From The Valley of Vision:

Every event and circumstance of my life will be dealt with—
the sins of my youth, my secret sins,
the sins of abusing Thee, of disobeying Thy Word,
the sins of neglecting others’ admonitions,
the sins of violating my conscience—
all will be judged;
And after judgment, peace and rest, life and service,
employment and enjoyment, for Thine elect.
O God, keep me in this faith,
and ever looking for Christ’s return.
“The Second Coming”[4]

Prayer and closing song.

 

[1] “As signaled by 16:20, the text [i.e., 16:18–17:13] exhibits a pervasive concern for “righteousness.” The threefold occurrence of tsedek in verses 18–20 sets the tone for this literary unity, and the variation in expressions for culpable behavior keeps the focus on the key issue” (Block, NIVAC, 401).

[2] NIBC, 205.

[3] Wright, NIBC, 225–226.

[4] Valley of Vision (Banner of Truth, 2002), 49.

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