Local judges applying his law is God's ideal government. God has provided perfect law. Our challenge is to apply it to the various situations that arise in modern society. The best people to do this task will be wise and godly judges. Good judges are all that we need in addition to the law.
The system of law and judges was introduced by Moses and it worked effectively. It has never been set aside or replaced with anything better. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all people, the system should function even better as the judges are anointed with the gift of wisdom.
Christians often assume that judging ceased at the end of the book of Judges, but that is not true. Judges existed right through the Old Testament period. The role of the judge did not disappear when the kings became permanent military leaders. In David's time, six thousand Levites were set aside to be "officials and judges" (1 Chron 23:3-5). Kenaniah the Izharite and his sons were also assigned duties as judges over Israel during David's reign (1 Chron 26:29). Judges are also mentioned during the reign of Solomon Israel (2 Chron 1:2). Jehoshaphat appointed judges in the land when he was king (2 Chron 19:4,5). Even after the exile, God raised up wise judges for Israel.
And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates-all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them (Ezra 7:25).
Kings came and went and prophets were missing for long periods of time, but God ensured that Israel always had judges to interpret the law. The ministry of the judge was never abolished. Part of our hope for the future is that God will restore wise judges to administer his law.
I will restore your judges as in days of old, your counsellors as at the beginning. Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City (Is 1:26).
When righteous judges are restored, we will experience the city of righteousness and faithfulness.
The best judges were raised up by God. Once Israel had taken a king, judges tended to be appointed by the kings. King Jehosohophat was noted for appointing judges (2 Chron 19:4). This is not ideal as kings are a suboptimal option anyway. A judge that is appointed by a king will be loyal to the king. They will have difficulty deciding fairly between the king and a citizen.
After the return from Israel, Ezra the priest appointed judges to administer justice. This was not a normal situation either. Religious leaders should not take responsibility for appointing judges.
In the ideal situation, judges will not need to be appointed. They will emerge in their local communities, as people start going to them to for guidance about difficult disputes. When a person's wisdom is widely recognised, other people may start referring to them as a judge. The title is just recognition of what they are already doing (for more on this topic see Emerging Judges).
Moses and Judges
The first judges in Israel were not appointed. At first the people started took all their disputes to Moses, because they had misunderstood his calling. God established Moses as a prophet, He spoke the law through Moses, because his prophetic calling made him skilled at hearing the voice of God. Part of this prophetic calling was to teach the meaning of the law to the people, but God did not appoint Moses to the role of the judge.
The people assumed that the person who had received the law would be the best person to settle disputes. Moses made the same mistake and assumed that God wanted appointed him to be a judge, as well as a prophet and military leader. The truth was that God had not appointed him to be a judge.
Moses needed a wake up call because he had misunderstood God's plan for judges. The challenge came from his father-in-law (Ex 18). Jethro was a Midianite, so he did not understand the scope of Moses' calling, but he could see that something was dreadfully wrong. Moses was becoming exhausted by the huge responsibility of hearing every dispute for the entire nation. Exhaustion is often a sign that a person has taken on a ministry that God has not given them. Jethro did not understand this principle, but he could see the symptoms, so he challenged his Moses.
The Bible is very precise about what Moses did in response to this challenge.
So I took the leading men of your tribes, wise and respected men, and appointed them to have authority over you-as commanders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens and as tribal officials (Deut 1:15).
The word commander is a military term. Moses organised the nation into an army structure with units of tens, hundreds and thousands, based on family and tribal affiliations. This military style organisation was essential, while the nation was marching towards the promised land. He took wise and respected tribal leaders and made the commanders over the tens, hundreds and thousands.
The word for official means scribe or magistrate. The people went to these people to settle their disputes, because they were the wisest people in their families and tribes. The people already recognised as judges when, Moses appointed them to be military leaders.
They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves (Ex 18:26).
Moses gave these judges a challenge and freed them to get on with the task of judging. This approach worked, because God has put the judges in place. They were effective judges once they were allowed to do the job. If Moses had appointed the judges, their freedom would have been compromised.
These earliest judges functioned in a tribal environment. They would start off as leaders in their families and sub-tribes. The wisest of local leaders would become judges. The best would rise to be appeal judges for their entire tribe.
The same principle should apply in modern societies. Wise people should rise up in their local communities as their wisdom in resolving disputes is recognised. When their wisdom is acknowledged throughout a broader community, they have become a judge. Judge are not appointed, they are honoured.
The important innovation that Moses made was to introduce performance standards to role of judging. This standard gave the people the freedom to take their cases to the judges with the greatest wisdom. This standard ensured that the best judges would be recognised and widely used.
People will always go to judges that they trust. Judges that made good decision will get more cases to decide. If people do not like the decision that a judge has made, they will be able to appeal to another judge to hear their case. If a judge is constantly having their decisions overturned by another judge, people will stop going to them and they will lose their role as judge.
Character of Judges
Good judges will have good character. They will be impartial and honest. Moses challenged the judges with the following words.
Judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it (Deut 1:16,17).
Justice must be totally impartial. Good judges will decide on the merits of the case, ignoring the status of those making the claims. Foreigners and refugees should be able to obtain judgement without any bias against them.
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly (Lev 19:15).
Judges must not favour people who are important. On the other hand, they must not favour the poor either. This is still a temptation for modern judges.
Judges must not accept bribes.
Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you (Deut 16:19,20).
He told them, "Consider carefully what you do, because you are not judging for man but for the LORD, who is with you whenever you give a verdict. Now let the fear of the LORD be upon you. Judge carefully, for with the LORD our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery" (2 Chron 19:6-7).
Good judges must remember that they are not judging for themselves, but are acting on behalf of God. They should fear the Lord and judge carefully.
Love the Law
Good judges will know and love God's law.
I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law. Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws. Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble. (Psalm 119:163-165)
A judge should praise the wisdom of Gods law seven times a day. Love of the law will prevent many mistakes.
Modern day judges are trained academically. They learn about legal interpretation and the principle of precedence. These things are important, but they know very little about God's law. This is a recipe for injustice.
Unfortunately, very few Christians love the law. Most misinterpret Psalm 119 as a command to love the scriptures. This is a distortion. The entire psalm is devoted to the wonder of the law. Our refusal to love the law might be one reason we lack wise judges.
Anointed by the Spirit
Good judges will be anointed with the Holy Spirit of God. Israel tended to be dependent on a few heroic judges. Not many people were filled with the Spirit, so only a few had the capacity to be good judges. Jesus was the perfect judge, because he was full of the Holy Spirit and carried a Spirit of wisdom and counsel.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him-
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isaiah 11:2-4)
To function effectively, human judges also need to be full of the same Spirit. We need judges who have the spirit of wisdom and understanding.
When human judges make good decisions they are acting for Jesus, just as godly pastors are acting for the good shepherd. We do expect Jesus to Return to care for his sheep, because he is able to work through human shepherds by the power of the Spirit. In the same way, he does not have to Return to bring justice, as he can work through anointed judges.
When anointed judges apply God's law in the power of the spirit, peace will Return to the earth.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea (Is 11:6-9).
God's system of government is good judges filled with his Spirit and applying his law. It will bring great blessing to earth.
When King Solomon's settled the dispute over a live baby between two prostitutes, he showed the benefit of the gift of wisdom.
When all Israel heard the verdict (mishpat) the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice (mishpat) (1 Kings 3:28).
The gift of wisdom is essential for administering justice.
Judges will deal with cases that are brought before them. There are four aspects to their work.
The judges will thoroughly investigate the case collecting all the information that is relevant.
The judges must make a thorough investigation (Deut 19:18).
If necessary they will visit the scene of the crime and make observations and measurements (Deut 21:2).
The judges will listen to all the relevant witnesses.
A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15).
The judges will arrive at a verdict (Ex 18:22)
the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty (Deut 25:1).
Their verdict will acquit those who are innocent and condemn those who are guilty.
The judges will decide on a penalty for the guilty person.
they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment (Deut 17:9 NKJV).
They will determine what penalty is required by the scriptures. This is an important aspect of justice. The penalties for crime must be those prescribed by God and not driven by a desire for revenge.
Judges will not generally operate on their own (Deut 19:18; 25:1). Several judges will hear serious cases to reduce the risk the bias that one judge might bring. There is safety in numbers.
A key principle in the God's law is that a person can only be convicted of a crime on the evidence of at least two independent witnesses.
One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offence he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15).
This prevents one person making false charges against another. There must be another person to corroborate their evidence. For serious crimes there must be at least three witnesses. A person can only be convicted if there is strong evidence from three people who actually witnessed the crime. Hearsay is not sufficient. The requirement for two or three witnesses imposes a high standard for convicting a person of a crime.
An additional principle is that the witnesses must not have committed the crime with which they are charging the accused. This is what happened to the "woman taken in adultery". The men accusing her, turned and walked away, because they knew they were guilty of the same sin (John 8:3-11). I suspect that any group of men would find it hard to enter a house to catch a woman in the act of adultery and then make her stand naked in front of them, without falling into lust along the way. Lust was the same as adultery according to Jesus moral standard (Matt 5:28). However, lust is not a crime, because it is hidden from witnesses in the human mind, but it is sufficient to disqualify a witness to adultery.
The requirement for several witnesses will drive most relationship sins underground. Convicting a person of a crime committed in private will be almost impossible, as there will be no independent witnesses. Most of the people present when a crime is committed in private will have been participating in the crime, so they are not allowable witnesses.
Unless a crime is committed in public, it is unlikely that there will be three independent witnesses required for a conviction. Most people who choose to commit a sin like adultery will also make sure they only act in private, so there are no witnesses to testify against them. If they are wise and keep these aspects of their lives private, judges will not be able to touch them. This law will be to push illegal sexual activity out of public view into private places where it belongs. The rest of the society will be shielded from it.
Protecting the Innocent
The requirement for multiple witnesses will ensure that only the guilty are convicted. God's law gives priority to ensuring that innocent people are not convicted. The price of this principle is that criminals will sometimes "get away" with their crimes. This is not a problem for Christians, as we know that their escape from justice will only be temporary. They will have to face the perfect judge at the final judgement, where God has a record of every crime that they have ever committed.
For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5:10).
Justice is sure and certain. Criminals, who escape the punishment of judges in this age, because there are no independent witnesses to their crime, will receive perfect justice when they stand before God.
For tough cases, an appeal judge might invite other widely respected judges to hear the case with him. This will improve the quality of his decision and strengthen the sense of justice. A case decided by several wise judges would be more likely to be accepted.
For really difficult cases judges might call in people with spiritual discernment or prophetic insight.
If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge-whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults-take them to the place the LORD your God will choose. Go to the priests, who are Levites, and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict (Deut 17:8,9).
Following the work of the cross, there are no priests or Levites as such, but every society should have men and women of God with the "gift of discernment" or "wisdom of God to administer justice" who can assist judges with good advice.
God is our final judge. Any mistakes that are made by human judges on earth will eventually corrected when we stand before the perfect judge at the end of the age. This is the ultimate court of appeal. All mistakes will be corrected by this supreme court.
An important aspect of voluntary justice is that either party to a decision made by a local judge is free to appeal their case to another judge, if they think the decision is unfair. An appeal would normally be taken by the loser of a case. The winner of case would often agree to an appeal, if the judge had been unable to make a decsion that is obviouly correct. If the winner is confident that their case is just, they would be willing to go to appeal in order to put it beyond the shadow of doubt.
An appeal would need to have reasonable grounds to get consideration by a good judge. If the decision was obviously correct, no wise judge would be willing to hear an appeal. The best judges would want to protect their reputation, so they would avoid frivolous cases. This would prevent people from shopping around to find a judge who would give them the decision they wanted.
The appeal process will expose unwise judges. If people do not like the decision that a judge has made, they will appeal to another judge to hear their case. If a judge is constantly having decisions overturned by another judge, people will stop going to them and they will cease to be a judge.
The initial appeal would be to another judge in the same town. The advantage of multiple judges is that there would be other judges who could re-hear the case. For serious issues, an appeal could be made to a judge in a larger city, who might be experienced at dealing with this type of case.
If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose. (Deut 17:8).
Good judges would not make decisions that undermined justice, because this would damage their reputation. People who may have experienced injustice would be able to appeal to wise judges. People who are just unwilling to submit to justice would not get their cases heard.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul affirms this system of government by excellent judges applying God's law. He supported this system by urging all people to freely submit to excellent judges.
Submission to excellent judges means less skilled judges admitting their mistakes and correcting them, when a more skilled judge points out an error in a decision. As the system of judges develops, some of the better judges will specialise in hearing appeals. Often several judges may hear the appeal together.
Some judges might specialise in particular aspects. A local judge might never get to deal with a complicated insurance case. Judges who understand a particular apect of law might begin to specialise in that area.
Appealing to Moses
After Moses received the law, he acted as judge for all the people. Once he understood his mistake, he released local judges to be judges.
They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves. (Exodus 18:25-27).
The local judges decided all the cases that were brought before them. However the harder cases were appealed up to Moses. These appeals had an educative effect. By watching his decisions, the judges would learn how to decide cases in the future.
Moses was able to act as the highest court of appeal, because God had given the law through him, so he understood it best. No one was appointed to that role after he died. What would happen is that some judges would get a reputation for understanding the law and making wise decisions. People wanting justice wanting start appealing their case to the best judges. Appeal judges would be raised up by their reputation for good decisions.
Prophets and Judges
The prophets will have a role in exposing decisions that are unjust. Micah challenged the judges of Jerusalem for accepting bribes.
Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money (Mic 3:11).
Jeremiah warned the judges for decisions that protect evil people and resisting justice.
How can you say, "We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD," when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? The wise will be put to shame; they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what kind of wisdom do they have?
From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when they are punished, says the LORD (Jer 8:8-12).
As the Kingdom of God expands, the need for judges should diminish. When Christians have disputes with unbelievers, they will mostly "turn the other cheek" or settle before they get to court.
But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well (Matt 5:39,40).
Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison (Matt 5:25).
Christians should only use judges as a last resort after all other possibilities for reconciliation are exhausted. Going to court is a failure of love.
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers (1 Cor 6:7-8).
As more and more people become Christians, the role of judges will diminish. If every member of a society is a Christian, judges would be redundant.
Under God's law, judges do not have power to enforce their verdicts. Their authority is limited to declaring a verdict and specifying just restitution. Sometimes the guilty person will be convicted by the Holy Spirit and agree to make the required restitution. More often the family or community of the convicted person will pressure them into accepting the judge's verdict and paying the specified penalty. The local people will exert this pressure, because they want justice to prevail in their community. They will realise that in the next case, they might be the victim and want justice to be enforced in their favour. If the social pressure on the criminal is strong, the only way to avoid paying restitution might be to leave their community. However, that would also have a high cost.
Judges have is a moral authority that is given to them by their community. This moral authority is given in two ways. It comes when parties to a dispute submit a case to a judge. It is multiplied when the local community honours the judge, by pressuring the parties to the dispute to accept the verdict.
Reasonable actions by members of a local community to enforce a judicial verdict will be immune from prosecution. For example, a neighbour or employer who assists with the return of stolen goods would not be charged with theft, even though they have taken something that does not belong to them. A wise judge would not consider a charge of theft against a person seizing stolen goods from thief, because they would risk losing their reputation for wisdom, if they undermined justice, by supporting the thief.
Sometimes leaders of the community might enforce the restitution. If a group of elders and their friends arrived at the door of the thief's house, the thief would be hard pressed not to make restitution. If they refused the leaders requests, they would be ostracised by the rest of the community until they did pay what was owed. If they wanted to continue participating in their community, they would have not choice to give in and pay restitution.
Busy judges might employee people assist with enforcing their decisions. These people would need to be wise and sensible and have a high level of respect in their community. They have had experience at getting repayment of debts without using force. If this person became careless and gets into trouble, the judge would stop using them, and find another person who is more sensible and careful.
That authority of judge is similar to that of an elder in a church. They both have authority while people choose to submit to them. If people who have submitted to an elder or a judge lose confidence in their wisdom, they can walk away. Once they walk, the judge or elder are powerless to do anything, so their authority is gone.