Scripture: “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. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” Deuteronomy 16:19-20 ESV
Observation: Moses continues his review of various aspects of living under the laws of God, including sacred worship, celebrations, and rest. Having addressed tithing (a response to laboring the soil under God’s provisions of rain and sunshine), Moses elaborates on the necessary rest and restoration of the land and God’s people (the Sabbatical year, chapter 15) and celebrations of Yahweh’s goodness (Passover, Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths, chapter 16). He then turns Israel’s attention to national concerns, starting with their future governing system: judges and officers (officers were to implement the judges’ decisions).
While Moses began leading Israel to the Promised Land as their sole judge, thanks to Jethro’s wise counsel, he extended his leadership structure to include judges under his supervision (Exodus 18:13-26). With his imminent exit in view, Moses now instructs the people to appoint judges and officers in all their towns for which they will settle to uphold adherence to the Levitical law. He then speaks to those who will soon become judges and reminds them (as he did at Sinai) to not abuse their privileged position of authority by perverting justice, whether by showing partiality or accepting bribes. Lastly, Moses sternly reminds all of Israel that upholding justice is a matter for all of God’s people—that they may live well and possess the Promised Land (above verses).
Takeaway: The structure of Moses’ closing remarks concerning justice echoes that of the fourth of our Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12 ESV). So is there a correlation between honor and justice in our text? Certainly, an element of submission, honor, and justice marked a healthy familial system in ancient Israel. And Jesus and Paul respectfully addressed those in power over them while facing interrogation under a compromised judicial process. Even today, our legal representatives address our judges as “your honor.”
Still, the primary focus of this last verse is not on how to show justice (albeit it will go well for us if we conduct ourselves honorably). Moses is concerned that the people will see justice solely within the magistrates’ domain. Moreover, if the people only seek justice for themselves while ignoring injustices imposed on others, the Lord will dispossess them from the Promised Land. Indeed, much of the later prophecies against Israel and Judah that foretold exile centered on inflicting or ignoring injustices.
So how does this text apply to us? We live in a litigious society today, where Billboards and TV advertisements entice us to seek justice for ourselves with big financial payoffs. And yet, we can be incredibly insensitive to how our “me-first” actions inflict injustices on others, whether advancing our careers over the needs of others or simply driving recklessly and causing an accident because we think our time is more important than others. But when we pause and consider the suffering of others inflicted by injustices and respond with compassion, care, and advocacy, we do our part in strengthening and stabilizing the wellbeing of our nation as a whole, and we bring honor to God.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you and your Son for pursuing justice over the Evil one and setting us free from sin’s tyranny. Would you please help us follow your Holy Spirit’s lead in seeking justice for others in a manner that would bring you honor? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling