Ready When Injustice Prevails

| Exodus 23:1-9

The Point:  God calls us to defend those who can’t defend themselves.

God of Justice:  Exodus 23:1-9.

[1]  "You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. [2]  You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, [3]  nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. [4]  "If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. [5]  If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him. [6]  "You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. [7]  Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. [8]  And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. [9]  "You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  [ESV]

False Witness.  Truth and justice were just as hard to find in the days of Moses as it is today, but the Israelites served a righteous God, who in the interest of justice wanted them to guard the truth. Therefore He gave His people basic laws for truth and justice. These laws were included in the Book of the Covenant  – the part of God’s law that applied the Ten Commandments to various life situations. The first law was a direct application of the ninth commandment: You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. The verse begins with a general prohibition on any kind of gossip. Then it gives a specific command for someone called to give evidence in a formal trial. A wicked man is someone who is guilty. A malicious witness is someone who causes trouble by deliberately lying in court. So what is in view here is a conspiracy in which a witness gives false testimony in order to get someone who is guilty declared innocent. This command is for everyone, not just witnesses who pervert the course of justice. In order to apply it to our lives, we need to know what it means to spread a false report. A false report could be one that is untrue. There are countless ways to say something that is not true. The most obvious is to say what we know to be false, but most of our lies are more subtle. Sometimes we tell only one side of the story, leaving out the details that do not fit our interpretation. Sometimes we take what people say out of context. Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear. Then when it comes time to tell someone else what we heard, we are not really telling them what was said. Whenever we fail to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we are spreading false reports. However, there is another meaning of the word false. A false report can also be one that is unfounded. To be false in this sense is to be empty or worthless. In other words, the report does not have a firmly established basis in fact. It may or may not be true. Usually it turns out to be false, but not always. But whether it is true or not, the person spreading it does not know for certain, and this is the problem. The report is based on an unreliable combination of hearsay and conjecture, usually with a little bit of prejudice mixed in for good measure. Even if some of it may prove to be true, it is not well-founded, and thus it should not be spread. A great deal of trouble could be avoided if people would only follow this simple command. Thankfully in most churches it is rare for someone to tell an out-and-out lie. Yet sadly it is not uncommon for people to spread the kind of false reports that God forbids. Invariably, what we think we know to be true is tainted by self-interest and tarnished by the unjustified conclusions we have reached about other people’s motives. Most people would deny ever spreading false reports, but we should know ourselves better than this. We ought to be more savvy about our own depravity. We tend to believe what we want to believe and repeat what we want other people to hear. We tend to be overconfident about the accuracy of our judgments concerning others. We also tend to put too much confidence in what we heard about who said what to whom. Therefore, it is very easy for us to spread false reports, sometimes without even fully realizing what we are doing. The trouble is, false reports are terribly destructive. They are prejudicial to the truth. They stir up controversy. They damage relationships. Even a rumor can destroy a reputation, and once a false report gets repeated, it tends to take on a life of its own. Although we may try not to be influenced by what we have heard, it is hard to put it out of our minds. In these and many other ways gossip poisons the well of any community. When it happens in the church, it brings dishonor to Christ. So God has given us this command: You shall not spread a false report. How can we avoid spreading them? By not listening to unfounded rumors in the first place. If someone tries to tell us something that is none of our business, we should not even listen. If it is our business, then we should go back to the people involved and make sure that we have the story straight. We should be careful not to believe everything we hear, especially from someone who is angry or has an ax to grind. We should also be careful not to repeat everything we hear. We should only say what we certainly know to be true. Even then, we should only say it if it is our place to say it, if it is said out of true love for others, and if it will advance God’s work in the world. If our words are unable to pass these simple tests, it would be better for us not to say anything at all!

Minority Rules. Another temptation witnesses sometimes face is to tell people what they want to hear. We are easily influenced by the opinions of others. We want others to like us, and as a result we often stretch and squeeze the truth to make it fit our audience. But God says, You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit [2-3]. Once again, these laws regulate the testimony given in a public trial. This time the witness honestly intends to tell the truth but finds it hard not to be influenced by the verdict that has already been reached in the court of public opinion. The courtroom is not the only place this happens. Every day we feel pressure to play to the crowd. So the Bible commands us to say only what is true, even when we know it will be unpopular and unwelcome. This law deserves special attention because it is so hard to obey. Even though the majority is often wrong, we are so used to going along with the crowd that we join right in. But the Bible says, You shall not fall in with the many to do evil. Rather than letting the majority rule, we are called to follow Jesus Christ, and often this means going in the opposite direction. This is the law to remember when everyone at school is making fun of the kid that nobody likes or in college when everyone wants to go out drinking on Friday night. It is the law to remember when your company is cheating or when everyone on the board wants to approve something immoral. These are only the pressures we face from our peers. Add to them all the pressures we face from the culture around us. What does the crowd tell us? It tells us to get as much as we can, to prize outward beauty more than inward piety, to go ahead and gratify our sinful desires, and not to let ourselves be inconvenienced by other people’s needs. Before we know it, we are not only dressing the way other people dress and buying what other people buy, but thinking the way they think and doing what they do. But God has called us to be different. He says, ‘Do not follow the crowd in doing what is wrong, you belong to Jesus, and you need to follow Him’. Judges and juries face other temptations as well. One is to entertain charges they know to be false. Another is to condemn a man they know to be innocent, maybe even to death. But the law says, Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked [7]. This is the flip side of verse 1, where the injustice was to help the guilty go free. Here the injustice is to treat the innocent as if they were guilty. God’s law also ruled out any form of bribery: And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right [8]. Justice can never be for sale. Whether it comes in cash, in a gift, or in some other form of quid pro quo, bribery always corrupts the course of justice. It closes a judge’s eyes to the truth and thus leads to blind injustice. It is also contrary to the character of God: For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe [Deut. 10:17]. Then there is the temptation to deny justice to outsiders. The law said, You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt [9]. God told His people to show kindness to strangers back in chapter 22. Here the same command is repeated, only this time in the context of public justice. In legal matters, as in everything else, the people of God were not allowed to take advantage of foreigners. These regulations have special relevance for anyone involved in a public trial. Witnesses should tell the truth. Judges should be fair. Juries should make sure that justice is done. The same principles apply to the disputes we have at home, at work, at school, and in the church. As followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are always called to be truthful, impartial, and fair. We need to be careful to do what is just because God Himself is just, and He wants us to be like Him. But whether we act justly or not, God will see to it that justice gets done in the end. God assures us of this when He says, I will not acquit the wicked [7]. God has promised that one day He will judge the world in righteousness. When the day of judgment comes, the guilty will get exactly what they deserve, whether or not they were ever brought to justice here on earth. How, then, can anyone be saved? The more we study the law, the more we see how guilty we are. But God has said that He will not acquit the guilty. So how can we be saved? Only by trusting in Jesus Christ. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for all our guilty sins. Now that He has met the law’s demand, we can be declared innocent – not because of what we have done, but because of what He has done. This is something we could never deserve, which is why the Bible calls it grace.

Love Your Enemies. The next set of laws also has to do with grace – the grace we ought to show our enemies. Usually people hurt their enemies. This is what an enemy is – someone we hate, and therefore someone we think it is okay to abuse. But God holds us to a higher standard. Rather than hurting our enemies, we should help them: If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him [4-5]. These case laws come in the middle of the rules for witnesses and judges, and it is hard to know exactly how they fit in. Possibly the kind of enemy God has in mind is a legal adversary, someone on the other side of the courtroom. But the law applies more broadly to any situation in which we have trouble getting along with others. If we have the chance, we should help them out. The law gives two examples. One is a situation where a man chances upon one of his enemy’s animals. It would be tempting to do nothing at all and let the animal wander off. After all, no one would ever know. But the right thing to do is to catch the animal and take it back to its rightful owner. The second situation involves an actual encounter with the enemy. A man is walking along, when suddenly he sees his adversary struggling with his donkey. It has fallen, and it cannot get up. When something like this happens, it is hard not to enjoy it. But the Scripture says, Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles [Prov. 24:17]. Instead, God calls us to rush to our enemy’s side and lend him a helping hand. Do you have any enemies? Has anyone mistreated you? Is there someone who antagonizes you? Are there people you secretly try to avoid? Is there anyone who arouses your animosity? If there is, then this is the person you are called to love. The Bible says, If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink [Prov. 25:21]. One of the distinguishing marks of the followers of Jesus Christ is that they do good to those who hate them. Jesus said, You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven [Matt. 5:43-45]. This is what we are called to do as an ordinary part of our Christianity: love our enemies. This is the kind of love we give because it is the kind of love we have been given – a love that treats enemies like friends. It is the love that Jesus showed us when He died on the cross. The Bible says, For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life [Rom. 5:10]. Now, having been reconciled to God, we can reconcile our enemies by reaching out to them in practical deeds of love.”  [Ryken, pp. 745-752].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Think of the last time you were the object of gossip, either a complete lie or a half-truth. How did this make you feel? What did you do in response? It is almost impossible to correct the damage done by such false reports. Think about this the next time you are ready to gossip about someone else.

2.         God’s word commands us to not spread a false report. This includes half-truths which are more dangerous than an outright lie because it is more believable since it contains some truth. How can you avoid spreading false reports? What should you do when someone tells you something about another person?

3.         Ryken gives us three tests for repeating what we hear, even if it is true. (1) We should only say it if it is our place to say it. (2) We should repeat it only if it is said out of true love for others. (3) And we should repeat it only if it will advance God’s work in the world. Pray that God will enable you to apply these three tests in your relationships, especially those in your church.

References:

Exodus, John Mackay, Mentor.

Exodus, Philip Ryken, Crossway.

Exodus, Douglas Stuart, NAC, Broadman.