4 Things You Might Not Realize about the Old Testament Concept of Judgment

If we understood what the Biblical word “judgment” meant, we would probably use it a lot more. If we focus on just one aspect of the word, we miss the fullness of its Biblical meaning. If the word “judgment” makes us think only of condemnation and punishment, we are using it much more narrowly than the Biblical writers did.

Leon Morris, in his 1960 study, The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment, did much to unpack the word, both as it is used in the Old Testament and the New. Below are four lessons we can learn from Morris’ study of the Old Testament word shaphat, and the related word, mishpat.

1. The Israelites Talked a Lot about the Judgment of God

They also meant more when they said judgment than we usually do. For them it involved punishment, as it does for us, but also deliverance and victory. It meant peace and harmony where there had been conflict, and freedom where there had been slavery. It was natural for them to talk about their relationship with God in legal terminology.

Few men today would spontaneously use legal phraseology to describe their dealings with God. There is a dislike of ‘legalism’ and a suspicion of legal categories as means of explaining God’s relationship to His people. The Hebrews had no such inhibitions.

Morris found that in the Old Testament, judgment wasn’t contrasted with mercy, but included it.

It is a love of men and a love of right. Not the one and not the other, but both. With us legalism has acquired the notion of a soulless, rigid application of the letter of the law to the detriment of human values. Not so did the Hebrews understand judgment. For them law was the bulwark against oppression. The poor and the weak looked to law to save them from the might of the rich and the powerful. ‘Save me, O God, by thy name, and judge me in thy might’ said the Psalmist (Psalm 54:1), and such pleas are common. We may put a distinction between kindness and legal processes, but we should be clear that the Hebrews did not. Yahweh’s judgment is to be thought of as the outworking of His mercy and of His wrath. This to us seems something of a contradiction.

2. Judgment Was a Way of Life That Reflected the Ways of God

“All His ways are judgment,” said Moses (Deuteronomy 32:4).

When God is present among us, judgment will be the result one way or another. It’s not just one thing God does, it’s one aspect of how He does everything.

Morris described judgment as a “quality of action.” To walk with God includes being taught by God to use our discernment in the active pursuit of righteousness.

Judgment is not confined to legal matters. Indeed, we could go so far as to say that the really significant use of judgment begins when it is separated from all legal and governmental functions and applied to conduct in general. Judgment is a quality of action. Again and again men are urged to ‘do judgment and justice’, to ‘judge justly’ and the like. These are not exhortations to enter the legal profession. They are ways of driving home the truth that, in their ordinary lives day by day, men must exercise the quality of judgment, of discrimination. This does not mean simply that they are to discern right from wrong. They are to do that, but to ‘do judgment’ means that they will also actively pursue the right. Mishpat denotes a dynamic ‘right-doing’. This is not right action in general, but specifically right action as the result of discrimination. There is always the fundamental thought of distinguishing between the right and the wrong. But there is always also the added thought of decisive action as the result of that discrimination.

3. While Most Human Judges Are Supposed to Maintain Order, Divine Judgment Is Just as Likely to Upset Things

This is one way that the God of Israel was different from the pagan gods. In the nations surrounding Israel, the justice system was a way for the rulers, both political and religious, to stay in power and keep people complacent.

It was the prophets of Israel who were always stirring things up.

“In the Bible,” said Morris, “there is none of the quiet acceptance of the status quo so characteristic of the polytheistic religions.”

In the ancient world in general there is a concern to maintain the established order, and this concern is bolstered by official religion.

In Israel, however, the contrast is made between the righteous and the wicked. When the righteous ‘does judgment’ he does not necessarily preserve the established order. On the contrary, if the wicked are in power he disrupts it with considerable vigour. And what in this way he does partially and imperfectly he constantly looks for Yahweh to accomplish fully and perfectly. It is no coincidence that the men of the Old Testament looked for a ‘day of the Lord’ when there would be a catastrophic overthrow of the established order and the bringing in of God’s perfect order.

As an example of this disrupting tendency, Morris quotes the prophet Amos, where God contrasted His judgment with the very feasts that He had ordered to be observed.

…when Amos tells Israel that Yahweh says, ‘I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies … let judgement roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream’ (Amos 5:21-24), it is impossible to hold that he is urging the retention of the status quo. He is advocating radical reform. Far from denoting an adherence to custom, a retention of the old order, mishpat is nothing less than revolutionary dynamite.

4. Most Judges Let the Cases Be Brought to Them, Divine Judgment Goes out and Investigates

Remember that the rulers who were raised up by the Spirit of God in the years after Joshua died were called judges, even though officially settling disputes and punishing crime were the least of their duties. The leaders we read about in the book of Judges stirred up the people to action, got in the face of the enemy, fought for freedom and delivered the people. All of this was part of job for a judge in those days.

This is obviously not the job of a judge in the modern sense, nor should it be. Morris’ argument was that we tend to think about divine judgment through the lens of our modern-day image of a judge, which is much narrower than the Old Testament concept.

What is this function of judging? How was it exercised? While it is basically a legal process, it is not to be equated with judging in our sense of the term. We understand it of the activity of legal personnel, specially trained for the purpose, who give an impartial verdict on the basis of the evidence brought before them. We take for granted what Edmund Burke called ‘the cold neutrality of an impartial judge’. This was not the work of a judge in ancient Israel.

Judging was essentially dynamic. An Israelite could say to Moses, ‘Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? Thinkest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian?’ (Exodus 2:14). Moses’ slaying of the Egyptian hardly looks to us like the action of a judge. But it implied a passion for the right, an existential concern that justice be done. The judge not only discovered what was right, but acted on it. If all the evidence was not in he went out until he found what was missing, that justice, real justice, be done. Thus one and the same verb may mean ‘to punish’ or ‘to deliver’.