God Raises Judges

In a system of voluntary justice, people will be free to choose a judge to decide their case. They will choose judges whose wisdom and skill is recognised by other people that they know. If people have the freedom to choose their judges, they will always go to people that they trust.

This will work best in a society where people either know the potential judges personally, or trust people who know them. In a community of trust, people can talk to someone who knows about the record of the judge. Wise judges will be trusted because they have a good reputation in their community.

Tribal Societies

The earliest judges functioned within a tribal environment. They would start off as wise men in their families and sub-tribes. Those who consistently made good decisions would be recognised as judges in their local community. The more astute of these local judges will be invited to sort out differences between families and between people from different tribes

The best local judges will be noticed by their tribal leaders. The leaders may start encouraging people with complicated conflicts to take them to these judges. The people would sort out simple disputes within their families and sub-tribes, but would refer complex cases to the judges trusted by their tribal leaders. The best judges would rise to be appeal judges for their entire tribe.

Moses and Judges

While they were slaves, the Egyptians settled all disputes, so the Israelites did not need judges. Once they left Egypt, Israel had no judges and they did not understand the process by which judges emerge in a tribal society. Moses just assumed that he should be the judge, although God had not given this role. He took responsibility for hearing every legal case for the entire nation.

Moses did understand that the role of a prophet was different from being a judge. Communicating God's law to the people was a prophetic task and Moses had done this very effectively. However, success in his prophetic role did not mean that he had to be judge and jury as well. The fact that he had been given the law did not mean that he was the only one who could apply it.

Moses missed God's purpose for judges. Like many political leaders, he believed that he could do a better job than anyone else, but exhaustion proved him wrong. His father-in-law Jethro saw him hearing disputes from dawn to dark every day and realised that Moses would collapse under the strain, He challenged Moses to do something different.

Moses needed a wake-up call, because he Moses had been trained in the hierarchical Egyptian system, so once he realised that Israel needed a system of judges, he assumed that he should appoint them. However, he did not have a word from God, but acted on advice from Jethro.

Select capable men from all the people and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times (Ex 18:21,22).

Jethro told Moses to appoint judges, but he did not fully understand the problem. The problem was not that there were no wise or respected people in the tribes and families of Israel. The problem was that Moses had taken a role that God had not given him. Moses had to change and allow judges to emerge. The Bible is very precise about what happened.

Judges Freed

Moses did not choose the judges himself. That would be impossible, because he did not know the people well enough. Rather he took the tribal leaders who were already respected for wisdom by their families and communities and recognised them as judges. He could not hear all their cases himself, so he asked them to name the wise people that they trusted for wisdom within their families and tribes.

How can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself? Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you (Deut 1:12-13).

Moses did not appoint these judges. Rather, he surrendered some of his authority to judge down to the people respected for wisdom within their families and tribes. Wisdom and respect are the two marks of a judge, so these men were already recognised as judges and had been acting as scribes (shotare) for the people when Moses gave them authority to judge.

Moses gave these judges a prophetic challenge and freed them to get on with the task of judging.

And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien (Deut 1:16).

Moses did not appoint these people as judges, as Jethro had suggested. When they came before him, Moses realised that they already were judges, because God had given them wisdom that was recognised and honoured by their families and neighbours. By calling them "your judges", Moses admitted that these people had demonstrated wisdom among their families and tribes and were already respected as judges. He did not appoint them, but simply acknowledged their calling and gave them back the role that he had stolen from them.

Moses discovered that he did not need to appoint judges. All he had to do was get the people to take their cases to the judges that were already trusted among their families and communities. God already had judges in place that Moses did not know about. The people knew who they were, but Moses had failed to acknowledge their calling. Because Moses received the laws on Sinai, the people had assumed that they had to go to him for judgments. Moses had never corrected this error. Once he honoured the judges among the people by calling them "your judges", the people were willing to go to them with disputes, because their wisdom was already respected among their Tens and Hundreds.

This approach worked, because God has put the judges in place. They were effective judges once they were allowed to do the task. If Moses had appointed the judges, their freedom would have been compromised.

Kings and Priests

Once Israel had taken a king, judges tended to be appointed by the kings. King Jehoshaphat was noted for appointing judges (2 Chron 19:4). This is not ideal as a judge that has been 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, as the system was being restored. Judges appointed by religious leaders may be biased towards them.

In the ideal situation, judges will not need to be appointed. They will emerge as wise people in their local communities. They will become judges when people start going to them for guidance in dealing with difficult situations. The title judge will be recognition of what they are already doing.

We should be nervous when someone claims the right to appoint a judge. They are robbing the people of the right to choose their judges from those they know.

Modern Judges

Societies with strong communities can provide an environment of trust in which wise judges will emerge and be recognised. Potential judges will have learned their skill as parents, resolving clashes between their children. They will have proved their abilities in their families and local communities, before being recognised as a judge by their tribe.

The pathway to becoming a judge begins when a person resolves a dispute between two members of their family. Other members of the family may also notice their wisdom and start going to them for advice about resolving differences. If the wise person continues being successful in settling disputed issues, they will be recognised in their extended family for being skilled at judging.

People in the local community who know their family will see the impact of these decisions and begin to recognise their wisdom. At some point, people from other families in the neighbourhood will start taking their disputes to the wise person, because they know them and trust their wisdom. This will be a natural sifting process. Some who coped well with family disputes will not be to step up to the more complicated interactions of the local community. Others who keep making good decisions will gradually be respected within their wider community for their wise judging.

The sifting process will go on through every level of society. Judges that make good decisions will get more cases to decide. Those that make bad decisions will get fewer cases. Those who make good decisions would become widely known in society.

As a person's reputation for wise judging spreads, people will start referring to them as a judge. The title does not change a wise person into a judge. It just a recognition of what they are already doing. The reality is that a judge will only be as successful as their last few cases. If they start making bad decisions, people will stop bringing them cases, and they will cease being a judge.

Limited authority

This is not a process for electing people to a position of power. A judge has no permanent authority. Their authority is limited and temporary, because it is gained through voluntary submission. When people take a dispute to a judge, they delegate authority to judge. This authority of a judge is limited to the situation that is submitted to them. The judge has no authority over any other aspect of their litigant's lives. The judge's authority is temporary. It ends when the case has been decided and any required restitution paid. When the case that has been submitted to the judge is complete, the authority that has been delegated is gone.

The process is not democratic, because only the parties to the dispute get to decide on the judge. The people with authority in their community would give them advice about who they should trust. Other people in the community may influence the choice of judge, by supporting the implementation of a judge's decision. If they undermine the decisions of a particular judge, by supporting a person who refuses to make restitution, people with disputes will avoid that judge.

Even during the trial, the parties to the dispute can withdraw the judges authority at any time, if they think he is not being fair. They have submitted freely to the judge, so they can withdraw their submission at any time.

Even if a judge is paid a retainer, that does not give them any authority. Most people in the community would not contribute to the retainer and even those who did contribute would not have to submit their cases to the judge they support financially.

These judges can never gain permanent authority. Once the cases they are handling are completed, they lose all authority. The most that a judge can gain is reputation. If a judge develops a reputation for wisdom, they are more likely to have similar situations submitted to them in the future. However, reputation is not permanent, so one mistake can destroy a reputation. A judge with a good reputation will be given authority to hear cases in the future, but if their reputation is damaged, their authority will disappear.

No Monopoly

If people are free to choose a judge to hear their case, no judge will ever have a monopoly over judging. There should always be many local judges. The benefit of having many judges is that people have a choice. They can choose the ones that are best.

In most modern countries, the state claims a monopoly control over the judicial process. Litigants have no choice but have to use the judges provides by the state. In any market, monopoly power tends to increase the price and reduce the quality of services. This has happened in most countries. The cost of maintaining the judicial system has increased dramatically, while obtaining justice takes longer and longer. In some commercial disputes, companies are going to private arbitration to secure quicker and better judgments.

The Old Testament always speaks of multiple judges (Ex 22:8,9; Deut 19:17,18; 25:1). People will get better justice when a number of judges are competing to provide a better service. The influence of good judges can expand, when people are free to choose the judge that will hear their case.

Christian Judges

Judges emerge best in communities where people know each other well. In a society where tribal connections have broken down, a local community church can provide an environment where good judges can emerge and be recognised. Paul reminded Christians that there should always be people among them who can resolve difficult disputes.

If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church. I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers (1 Cor 6:1-5)?

Christians should take any legal disputes with Christians to judges raised up in the Church. Christians will eventually judge the angels, so some among us should be capable of judging legal disputes. When Christians have legal disputes, they should submit to wise people in the church.

Most churches will have an elder who is capable of making a wise decision. All elders should be wise and well respected by outsiders (1 Tim 3:7). Some elders will develop a reputation in their church for handling legal disputes wisely. As their reputation spreads, Christians from other churches will start submitting their disputes to these wise elders.

Wisdom to Administer Justice

The wisdom of a good judge should be obvious to anyone. When Solomon dealt with the dispute between the two prostitutes, there was no argument about the outcome. When he gave the order for the baby to be cut in half, the women responded differently.

The woman whose son was alive was filled with compassion for her son and said to the king, "Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don't kill him!" But the other said, "Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!" Then the king gave his ruling: "Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother" (1 Kings 3:26-28).

When Solomon ordered the baby to be given to the woman who showed compassion, there was no argument. Solomon did just decide which of the two women was telling the truth, he revealed information which allowed everyone to see the truth. There was no debate about his decision. No one suggested that he had made a wrong decision. He made the right decision in a way that everyone could see the right decision.

When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice (1 Kings 3:28).

Christians should be praying that God would raise up elders with the wisdom to resolve disputes in a way that makes the solution obvious to everyone. This gift is called "the wisdom of God to administer justice." It is a gift that we urgently need. Christians with the "wisdom of God to administer justice" will be held in awe by everyone in the community. Their wisdom will be obvious to everyone so they will be sought out by everyone to administer justice.

The World Will Come

As Christian judges are recognised for their wisdom, unbelievers will start to bring their disputes to them as well.

Do you not know that the saints will judge the world (1 Cor 6:2)?

When Paul wrote these words, he was not thinking about the "last judgment". He expected Christians to demonstrate such superior wisdom when deciding legal issues that the people of the world will recognise their ability. They will seek to benefit from the wisdom of Christian judges in the same way that pagan kings were drawn to Solomon.

The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart (1 Kings 10:24).

The whole world was drawn by Solomon's wisdom. Christians who are full of the Spirit and carry the gift of wisdom should be able to match the wisdom of Solomon.

For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit (1 Cor 12:8).

Some Christian judges should develop such a reputation for wisdom that unbelievers will come to them to settle their disputes. These Christian judges will be so wise that the people of the world will go to them when they need wise judicial decisions. The entire world will be drawn to "the wisdom of God to administer justice" that will be carried by some Christians.

As more and more people become Christians, the world's judicial system will become redundant. The world's system will wither away and die as the Kingdom of God expands. Eventually, most of the legal disputes will be handled by Christian judges. The worldly system of judges should become redundant, as the wisdom of Christian judges is recognized everywhere.

A Christian society will never be perfect. There will always be imperfect people. Mature Christians will sometime lose the plot. New Christians will often behave like they used to behave. Many of the problems that result will be sorted out by goodwill and honest communication, but some bad stuff will have to be dealt with by the rest of society. God's law provides this bottom line. Stuff that cannot be sorted by love will be sorted out by local judges using God's law.

Not Appointed

Christians are required to submit to the judges that God has established.

The judges that exist are established by God (Rom 13:1b).

This verse implies that these judges just exist. They are not elected or appointed, they just are. This is quite odd, but really important.

If judges are appointed, the person with the power of appointment has the power to distort justice. Judges appointed by kings or politicians lose their independence, because those who appoint them can also remove them. The people also lose their freedom to choose the best judges.

The biblical system is superior. Wise people get to be judges when people start taking cases them. If a person gets a reputation for making wise decisions, more and more people will submit their cases to them. The community gradually recognises the best people to be judges by observing their decisions. Judges are not appointed by anyone. Ordinary wise people become judges, as people choose to submit cases to them.

This is why the scriptures urge us to submit to excellent judges.

Every person should submit to the more excellent judges, because there is no legitimate judicial authority except under God (Rom 13:1).

Excellent judges not appointed to their role. Judges increase the scope of their authority when people submit their cases to them. If people submit to the best judges, excellent judges will gain wider recognition.

Excellent judges are not appointed, but get recognised when free people submit their cases to them. As more and more people submit their cases to the better decision makers, they are recognised as excellent judges. Foolish judges will get fewer and fewer cases, as people hear about their mistakes. When a judge goes sour, people will stop submitting to him altogether and they will cease being a judge.

God is Judge

Paul says that the judges that emerge in a free society are the ones that are established by God. By submitting to excellent judges, we allow God to raise up the judges that he has chosen.

The judges that have emerged in a free society have been arranged by God. Anyone resisting the decision of a good judge is rebelling against what God has put in place and will receive a sentence from God (Rom 13:1-2).

There is no legitimate judicial authority except from God, so the people that come to be "the judges that are" are God's order for justice. The judges that still function as judges because people trust them are those placed (tassa) by God. Only those judges that come into their positions through voluntary submission have a legitimate authority. All other political powers are usurpers of God's authority.

Paul describes judges that only do good.

For he is God's servant to do you good (Rom 13:4)

This only makes sense under a voluntary system. Good judges do good because if they stop doing good, people can stop submitting cases to them and they will no longer be judges. By only submitting to excellent judges, we can force judges to do good.

Performance Standards

Moses made an important innovation by introducing performance standards for judging.

And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and 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 (Deut 1:16-17).

Judges are acting for God, the perfect judge (Jud 11:27), so they must demonstrate wisdom and integrity. They must not be motivated by the fear of men.

This standard gave the people the freedom to take their cases to the judges with the greatest wisdom. If a judge made a bad decision, they could appeal to a judge with a stronger reputation for wisdom. This standard ensured that the best judges would be recognised and widely used.

People will always go to judges that they trust. Judges who make 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 become a judge in name only.

Prophets and Judges

The prophets will have a role in exposing judges who 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 protecting evil people and not establishing 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).

When the prophets expose bad judges, the people will be encouraged to take their cases to better judges.


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. 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. 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.

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 confidence in justice. A case decided by several wise judges would be more likely to be accepted.

Paying Judges

An important issue for Christians is the payment of judges. If judges are God's servants, do they have authority to impose taxes for their support? The answer is a loud "No". In a godly society, being a judge will be a part-time work. Most local communities will not have enough cases to occupy a full-time judge. Judges will be able to earn their living by pursuing another career.

If a case is complicated and involves a lot of work for the judge, litigants might be requested to pay costs. The biblical principle that a workman is worthy of his wages would apply (1 Tim 6:18). Judges hearing a lot appeals might also need payment for their work. The person causing the case and the person benefiting would have a responsibility to cover the costs of the judges. One reason for three- or fourfold restitution is that the the person benefitting from a legal decision will receive enough compensation to be able to pay the judge's expenses.

Retaining Judges

As the kingdom of God expands, the incidence of crime will decline, so there will be less work for judges. Sometimes, some of the people of a community might decide to pay a wise person a retainer, so that they might always have a judge that they trust available to hear cases when they arise. This would give the judge time to study God's law and keep up-to-date with decisions being made by other judges. Any contributions to the retainer would be voluntary and should not give those who pay any benefits in terms of justice.

God's people want everyone to have access to good judges. To ensure this happens, we should provide financial support to the best judges, so that they can handle more cases.

Judges do not have authority to decide what they are worth to the people of the community. Only the people can decide what value they place on justice. They are the only ones who can decide what they receive. Some people may decide they do not care about judges and pay nothing. Most will decide that good justice is worth having and make a contribution, just as most people freely pay for fire insurance. They will hope that they will not need a judge, but they will be willing to pay a small amount to ensure that a good judge is there when they need one.

Citizens will decide themselves what the judge is worth. Judges cannot impose taxes, but they should be paid what they are worth to their community. This is a burden we owe to those who have provided justice to us.

Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law (Rom 13:8).

We must decide what we owe them. Good judges help maintain a peaceful society, so I owe a debt until I have made a contribution to them.

The role of judges is described more fully in the book called Government of God.