Justice and Mercy in the Old Testament: Part 1
Years ago, on a cold day in New York City, a 10-year-old boy, barefoot and shivering, peered in the window of a shoe store. A woman came to the boy and asked why he was looking so earnestly in the window; he said that he was asking God to give him a pair of shoes. The woman took him by the hand into the store. She asked the clerk to bring six pairs of socks; she also requested a basin of water and a towel. Taking the lad to the back of the store, she removed her gloves, washed his feet, and dried them with the towel. The clerk returned with the socks. The woman placed a pair on the boy’s feet and then bought him a pair of shoes. She patted his head and asked him if he felt more comfortable now. As she turned to go, the astonished lad took her hand and tearfully asked, “Are you God’s wife?”—http://www.inspirationalstories.com/1/198.html.
That little boy spoke more truth than he realized. God’s church is His bride, His wife. His character is expressed in the memory verse. As transformed members of His church, we must reflect that character. If we are truly His, we will passionately care about and provide for the poor and the powerless.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, July 16.
Even in early Israel, social justice was very much a part of God’s laws and His ideal for His people. Justice is God’s original intention for human society: a world in which basic needs are met, people flourish, and peace reigns.
Mercy and justice also are highlighted in the Sabbath laws given to ancient Israel. God outlined three types of Sabbaths.
Here, in the very fabric of Hebrew society, we can see how justice and mercy worked together in favor of the less fortunate in society.
If we truly observe the Sabbath, we will not remain satisfied with only our own rest (Exod. 23:12), redemption (Deut. 5:12–15), and ultimate restoration in the new earth (Isa. 66:22, 23). Indeed, the seventh-day Sabbath tells us that God is the Creator and Rest Provider of all who live on this earth. The universality of the Sabbath rest implies a commonality among all of us, rich or poor. The common Fatherhood of God means a common equality and concern among human beings.
Also, as we saw yesterday, the concern for justice extends from weekly Sabbaths to sabbatical years and to the year of jubilee. The principles behind the three Sabbaths portrayed in Leviticus 23 and 25 extend to Christians as well. The seventh-day Sabbath will forever point back to Creation, as well as forward to the Cross and new earth. It will strengthen our relationship with our compassionate Creator and Savior, thus bringing us closer to the ones He deeply loves—people who have deep needs, who are poor or suffering.
Please note, however, that the Sabbath year and the year of jubilee illustrate eternal principles, but this doesn’t mean that we are to literally observe these festivals now. We aren’t. Unlike the seventh-day Sabbath, which was instituted at the Creation in a pre-Fall world, these are among the ceremonial Sabbaths that were a “shadow of things to come” (Col. 2:16, 17), pointing forward to the ministry and sacrifice of Jesus and then ending with His death on the cross. Instead, these ceremonial Sabbaths point to a principle in regard to how we should treat others, especially those in need. As a redeemed people, Israel had an obligation to be a light to the world, showing forth God’s mercy to others with no partiality. With thanksgiving they were to represent God’s character to those who didn’t know Him.
“ ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy’ ” (Prov. 31:8, 9, NIV).
So far this week we have noted that God wants His people to express His characteristics of mercy and justice as part of the ideal behavior of His people. The Hebrew prophets often spoke up on behalf of the needy, calling God’s people to repentance for misrepresenting His concern for the marginalized and oppressed. In fact, God equates selfless redemptive behavior with true worship.
Though, of course, many of the Old Testament prophets pointed to future events beyond their lifetimes, they also heavily focused on spiritual and moral reform and unselfish service in the present. The prophetic voice of God’s servants rang loudest when His people made extravagant efforts to worship but did not reflect God’s compassion for the suffering of those around them. One can’t imagine a worse witness than those who are too busy “worshiping” God that they don’t have time to help those in need. Might not a form of “worship” be revealed by those who are serving the Lord by ministering to the needs of others?
Isaiah 58 provides a special prophetic message of rebuke and hope for God’s people in Isaiah’s time and for us today.
Though we don’t know the exact “tone of voice” expressed here, it is clear that the Lord is condemning their outward shows of piety and faith because He knows how false it all is. The NIV translates it like this: “ ‘For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God’ ” (Isa. 58:2, NIV).
Notice something crucial here: so often worship can be self-centered: Lord, do this for me and do that for me. And, of course, there’s a time and place for seeking the Lord for our own personal needs. But what the Lord is saying here is that true worship will include reaching out to “the hungry,” to “the afflicted,” and to the “poor.” But the amazing thing is that this ministry to others blesses not only the recipients of the help but those giving the help. Read what the texts say about what happens to those who reach out and help those who are in need. In ministering to others, in giving to others, we get blessed ourselves. Who hasn’t, at some point, experienced to some degree the reality of these promises from God? Who hasn’t seen what joy and satisfaction and hope come to those who help others who can’t help themselves? It’s hard to imagine a better way to reflect the character of Christ to the world.
Having the truth, however wonderful, is not enough. In Isaiah 58, God’s people were passionate about their religious forms and practices and yet weak in applying their faith in a practical manner. God is calling His church today to be a force for good, echoing the call of the Old Testament prophets to demonstrate the truth about His character.
One urban church is in a community plagued by gun violence. In 2011 the clear prophetic voice of its pastor rang out during an urban ministry congress in a large city. Here are sample thoughts found in his speech: “Christians must stop the death march!” Referring to the biblical story of when Jesus stopped the funeral train for the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11–17), he explained how the church could not sit idly by while street violence escalated in their community. He asked his audience, “Are we simply a church that stands up to do eulogies? Is it not to ask God, ‘Why do You allow suffering? God says, ‘Why do you allow suffering.’ ”
This church also is very active in community development. For seven years, the church choir went to the streets of their community. They sang, passed out fliers, and offered the services of the church to those who had needs. From this contact with their community, the church helped their neighborhood in numerous ways that greatly benefited those in need. Through various and numerous programs, the church made a big difference in the community.
This church is just one example of the many ways that we as a church body can be a ministering and healing force in our communities.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “The Law Given to Israel,” pp. 307–314; “God’s Care for the Poor,” pp. 530–536, in Patriarchs and Prophets.
The concepts of justice and mercy are seen all through the Old Testament. Look at, for instance, Deuteronomy 24:10–22. Look at the specific instructions given in these cases. We can see so clearly the Lord’s concern for the poor, for the workers, for those in debt. This concern is expressed not merely in abstract and lofty language about care for the less fortunate; instead, at least here, it also is expressed in concrete and practical instructions on what to do and what not to do in specific instances, such as with someone in debt or with a poor worker. These concepts were too important to be left totally to one’s own personal notions of what justice and benevolence were. Notice, too, how the Lord referred them back to where they had once been, to when they certainly were among the less fortunate. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this” (Deut. 24:22, NIV). As Christians, regardless of our financial situation, we must always remember the grace and unmerited favor God has bestowed upon us. Thus, out of the richness and fullness of what we have in Christ (Eph. 3:19, Col. 2:10), we need to be ready to serve and help those who need our service and help.