Imagine you were creating a new nation, and you were responsible for writing a document that would become the guiding principles for this whole new society. What would you include? If you could narrow it down to just a few key ideas, what is necessary? What is the basis of good governance?
As we saw yesterday in the first post of this series on Deuteronomy 16:18-20 and 17:8-20, God’s heart for Israel was to have good governance, starting with the people choosing wise local judges. But how were these judges to handle their position? Look at chapter 16, verses 19-20, and we see that justice is to be primary. The New International Version, and many other versions of the Bible translate the first phrase as, “do not pervert justice.” I prefer the New American Standard, which translates the phrase, “do not distort justice.” The Hebrew word here can be translated, “to stretch out” or “twist”. It is an image of changing something into what it was not meant to be.
God wants governance where justice is clear and unchanged. But what does that look like? Thankfully he gives the people some examples.
First in verse 19, he says, “Do not show partiality.” Who normally receives partiality? Think about our day and age. White people. Rich people. The principle is clear. No matter who you are, you should be treated the same. Justice is impartial
Next he says, “Do not accept bribes.” Who do bribes favor? Those with the ability to pay them. The rich. Bribes also favor those in positions of power who can receive the bribes, usually government officials. Justice should not be for sale.
He further explains this in verse 19 saying, “bribes blind the eyes of the wise and twist the words of the righteous.” That’s an accurate image. One scholar I read said that this could also be translated, “bribes subvert the cause of those who are in the right.” Bribes do that. They take a situation that is supposed to be based on justice and righteousness and twist it, and subvert it, making it unjust.
Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve had the opportunity to give a bribe? I have, in places like Jamaica and Guyana. Bribes were/are a part of their culture. Go to the DMV, for example, and unless you wanted to wait in line forever, you would give a bribe. Or what if you get stopped by the police, but you weren’t doing anything wrong? You knew what they were looking for. Give them a bribe and you have an easy day. Don’t offer a bribe, and you get a ticket for a false violation.
The Lord repeats, therefore, his heart for just governance in verse 20, “Follow justice and justice alone.” So what is justice? He has already illustrated it two ways: it is not showing partiality, and it is not taking bribes. But what about the word itself? In these verses, there are actually two words for “justice.” Let’s look at both.
In verse 19, he uses a word which refers to a just decision in an individual case.But in verse 20, he uses a word which is the abstract quality of justice – what is right, often translated “righteousness.”
There is a famous verse, Amos 5:24, that includes both words: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
I know the USA is not perfect, but we do believe in justice as the foundation of society. It is in the last line of our pledge of allegiance. “With liberty and justice for all.” Think about that. It really matches up nicely with what we just read.
When is the last time you read the Declaration of Independence? What you’ll find is that justice is all over the place in the text. A major concern of our founding fathers was that the Colonies were being treated unjustly by the British King and government. After winning independence, those same founding fathers crafted our Constitution, and the opening sentence, the preamble, says this:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The United States was created on a foundation of justice.
But remember that what we are reading in Deuteronomy is not God’s covenant with America. It is God’s covenant with the ancient people of Israel. God doesn’t have a covenant with America. But we can learn his heart, his desires for how his people should live. God is saying that justice is the best foundation for society, and so it is best for any nation to make justice the foundation of their land.
Here in America, ours has been a roller coaster history of trying to live up to the idea of justice for all. How just was it for Europeans to sail to Native American lands and take possession of the land by force or by unfair purchases? How just was it for Americans to enslave millions of people from Africa, people who had been ripped from their homeland and shipped perilously to ours? While we can proud of our American ideal of justice for all, we must also confess there are many ways we have allowed massive injustice to reign.
That is why God had Israel to set up law courts in all their towns. Because he knows there will be injustice. There will need to be wise, godly judges who have the authority to bring justice to any situation where there is injustice.
So in Israel’s local law courts, and in their whole nation, justice rules. Check back in for the remaining posts in this series, as we will look at God’s heart for justice in our world.