Laws of Justice and Mercy

Exodus 23:1-13

We are probing THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT that is recorded in chapters 21-23 of Exodus. Today, we come to THE LAWS OF JUSTICE AND MERCY. Most of the laws in Exodus 23:1-9 are expansions of the NINTH COMMANDMENT—

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

Exodus 23:1—

Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness.

This prohibition against slander (whether in court or not) is an amplification of the NINTH COMMANDMENT. Do not help a wicked man is the NIV’s rendering of SET YOUR HAND WITH; in other words, one who testifies falsely for another becomes a partner in crime.

Justice demands impartiality rather than unwarranted compliance with the many. The particle DO NOT appears five times in the first three verses, marking five principles that should guide members of the covenant community in maintaining justice. Verse 2 mandates—

Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.

A man is to have the courage of his convictions! The will of the majority, the crowd, or the mob must not be confused with justice, righteousness and equity.

The transgression of the law, DO NOT FOLLOW THE CROWD IN DOING WRONG, is the very reason why the Jews were cast out of the Promised Land from A.D. 70 to 1948 and as a nation remains blind to the Gospel to this day.

On Good Friday, the Jews perverted justice by siding with the crowd. The crowd said to Pilate, who had found Jesus innocent, wanted to set Him free, “LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED”, and shouted even more, “CRUCIFY HIM!” Matthew 27:24-25 records—

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”

The crowd was saying, “If there is any offense committed in slaying Christ, let us and our posterity suffer for it.”

Think of it! They wanted Christ’s BLOOD applied not for the cleansing of them from sin, but if there were any stain, blot, or pollution, through the shedding of it, they wished it might be on them and theirs: not for the forgiveness of sins, which that blood was shed for. To the contrary, if there was any sin and guilt in it, they desired it might be imputed to them. Not for their justification before God, and security from wrath to come, both which are by Christ’s blood; but all the reverse of this, that if there were any punishment, and condemnation, and death, due for the shedding of it, they cursed it all upon themselves, and their posterity.

What a fearful legacy! What a dreadful inheritance! What sad and frightful ignorance which self-will has brought upon a people who rejected the light! What a heritage that the Jews left to their sons!

The history of the Jews from that day on has been the darkest recorded in human history.

Not even Pilate could wash away his own guilt. The water did not wash away the blood of Jesus from his hands any more than Lady Macbeth could wash away the bloodstains from her lily-white hands. One legend tells that in storms on Mt. Pilatus in Switzerland his ghost comes out and still washes his hands in the storm clouds. There was guilt enough for Judas, for Caiaphas and for all the Sanhedrin both Sadducees and Pharisees, for the Jewish people as a whole, and for Pilate.

Had the Jews not been frenzied by hatred, the sight of Pilate washing his hands would have checked them; but in their rage, they take upon themselves and their children all the responsibility. At the siege of Jerusalem by Titus in A.D. 70, they answer in part for the blood of Christ, but God alone determines the extent of their responsibility, and He alone can say when their punishment shall end. But we know that it ends for all Israel when they repentantly seek His forgiveness during the Tribulation Period. The LORD Himself declares in Zechariah 12:10—

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.

Therefore, the Apostle Paul predicts in Romans 11:26—

And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.

The punishments of God are not vindictive, they are the awards of justice meted out by a holy, yet merciful hand. The very existence of Israel today manifests God’s mercy!

Verse 3—

And do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.

The scales of JUSTICE are to be kept in balance. One is not to show favoritism to rich or poor. The HEAD not the HEART is to be used in settling a lawsuit. The poor man is not to receive favoritism.

Whether upward or downward, whether because of sentimentality or ambition, justice must not be forsaken. God is no respecter of persons. Justice is not to be perverted in favor of mercy. Christ’s atoning death on the Cross is proof enough that God will not forsake justice for mercy.

Yet mercy is to be a guiding force in doing what is just, right and equitable according to the law in verses 4-5—

If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it.

The meaning is quite clear—one is not to allow personal animosity to destroy one’s willingness to be of assistance in time of need. Again, God insists that we are to be OUR BROTHER’S KEEPER! Deuteronomy 22:1-3 says—

If you see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to him. If the brother does not live near you or if you do not know who he is, take it home with you and keep it until he comes looking for it. Then give it back to him. Do the same if you find your brother’s donkey or his cloak or anything he loses. Do not ignore it.

In a godly society, everybody’s property is secure. Everyone looks out for the welfare of his brother or neighbor. The principle is simple—everyone is to be a GOOD SAMARITAN!

The act of compassion is owed to one another, regardless of whether the man was an enemy or one who hated him. Kindness to one’s enemy is commanded in Proverbs 25:21-22—

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.

Israel was to show kindness to their enemies as brothers. Jesus advanced man’s relationship to the highest level by invoking the LAW OF LOVE for one’s enemies in the Sermon on the Mount—

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Never does the OT command, “Hate your enemy,” as the oral tradition of Jews of Jesus’ day expounded. God teaches in His law that moral and social responsibility transcends personal enemies.

Favoritism to the poor is not to be shown, but neither is justice to be denied them. Verse 6—

Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.

Some scholars think YOUR POOR PEOPLE should be translated YOUR OPPONENT, ADVERSARY. When called to testify or to adjudicate between your enemy and someone else, do not pervert the judgment against your enemy just because he is your enemy. Whether POOR or ADVERSARY, justice is God’s mandate.

Verse 7 warns against the very thing Jezebel would later do to Naboth—

Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.

Justice demands that we distance ourselves from any false charges. Yahweh is the last Judge and every person will give an account!

God’s people should never be partners with injustice. Verse 8—

Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous.

Bribery must have been a common temptation in the ANE, for many passages in the Bible warn against it. Deuteronomy 16:19 reads—

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.

In the last three verses, DO NOT marks off three specific warning to the people of God. First, justice must be available to everyone, no matter what one’s status in life. Second, false charges slay the innocent and honest. Third, brides subvert the cause of those who are in the right by blinding the eyes of the judges.

Those who do subvert justice, the LORD will not hold guiltless or acquit! Throughout God’s law, He has made every effort to guarantee justice for everyone, whether native born or alien. Verse 9—

Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.

This verse is placed here as one of those great motivators for all Israelites to exercise justice. Remember how you felt when you were aliens (and all that implies) in Egypt.

Again, God inserts into the Book of the Covenant laws to remind Israel that they are to be absolutely loyal to Him. Verses 10-11—

For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unploughed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.

The SABBATICAL YEAR calls for the people to have faith in God to supply their needs for a year without farming the land. Jesus called for the same faith when He taught in Matthew 6:31-33—

So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

The SABBATICAL YEAR is grounded in the Biblical view of Divine ownership. The land belongs to God, and man uses it as a trustee, ultimately responsible to God. Leviticus 25:4 decrees—

But in the seventh year the land is to have a sabbath of rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.

According to God’s Law, every seventh year the land had to remain uncultivated. Letting land lie fallow every seventh year allowed the soil to restore its fertility. It called for individual and national dependence upon the LORD as well. This law is broke the back of any idea of self-sufficiency and pride!

Whatever grew of itself during that year was not for the owner of the land, but for the poor and the stranger and the beasts of the field. There is little evidence of the observance of the Sabbatical Year in Biblical history. It appears to have been much neglected until two centuries before Christ when during the Intertestamental Period of the Maccabees it became a more common occurrence.

Failure to observe the Sabbatical Year had devastating results for Israel. We have already discerned that transgressing God’s Law BY SIDING WITH THE CROWD perverted justice for Christ. This perversion resulted in Israel’s expulsion from the Promised Land for 1,879 years from A.D. 70 to 1948. Israel’s failure to keep the SABBATH YEAR was one of the primary causes for the nation’s expulsion during the seventy years of Babylonian Captivity. In 586 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 states—

He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power. The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah.

The prophet had predicted in Jeremiah 25:11—

This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.

Yahweh was Israel’s King and they were subject to the laws He decreed.

The American Colonies rejected the King of Great Britain’s right to rule and decree laws and they declared their independence on July 4, 1776. Israel declared their independence gradually with violation after violation of the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant.

What a lesson for God’s people today! The Church must be aware of the same kind of gradual spiritual decay. Christ is the head of the Church—He is Lord and King. We cannot act independent of His rule. Jesus said in John 15:10—

If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.

Yahweh promised in the SECOND COMMANDMENT to show love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments. But Israel rejected God’s love for independence. They chose to walk the broad road of independence instead of the narrow road to dependence. Verse 12 calls upon Israel to depend upon Yahweh by repeating the FOURTH COMMANDMENT—

Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed.

Both the LAND and TIME belong to God, and there is a decided attempt to return to creation, in both time and the freeing of man and beast from the constant burden of toil since the curse.

The Sabbath is not for its own sake but for the service of wider human concerns. This same priority is enunciated by Jesus in Mark 2:27—

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

God continues to weave His laws regarding worship with social justice in such a way that one cannot divorce the sacred from the secular. His concern to the poor and unprotected are integrated into the ritual calendar.

This whole chapter is filled with kindness and thoughtfulness for others. The LORD’s famous closing words in the Book of Jonah demonstrate His concern for man and cattle, when He said to the pouting prophet—

But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?

Human care for the animals is a way of being in tune with God’s own creational concerns. It was no accident that Jesus was born in a stable at Bethlehem and laid in a manger. Christ came to remove the curse for man and beast and both are to rest on the seventh day and be refreshed!

Peter declares to Israel that their spiritual condition is directly tied to the nation’s physical condition in Acts 3:19—

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.

The Bible looks forward to the times of refreshing, that is the Millennial Kingdom, when Christ will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. A time when life and worship will merge.

The prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos insist that Israel’s life of worship cannot be separated from the practice of social justice. The life of the people of God is one piece, and the worship of God is to manifest itself in everyday life by the way in which people and animals are treated.

The character of worship and quality of life are inseparably interwoven. The people of God, therefore, must be closely attentive to the ethical implications of God’s laws. Verse 13—

Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.


Why did Israel fail? Because the people were NOT CAREFUL—they turned from the LORD and worshiped false gods. At first, their godless worship was in secret—they worshiped the LORD in the Temple, but also worshiped Baal and other gods in secret—like the members of the Masonic Lodge of today!

Then they openly turned from the LORD to worship the gods of their enemies. When the LORD sent chastening to them, they repented for a time, but soon they went back to their evil ways. Whenever the LORD would raise up a godly king, his influence didn’t last, because the people REFORMED but didn’t REPENT and TURN to God with all their hearts. Whatever the king did was the popular thing to do, so they did it.

The Church today must be aware of the same kind of spiritual decay and rebellion. 1 Peter 4:17 warns that like Israel the Church is not exempt from God’s justice—

For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?

At any time during the centuries of spiritual decay and rebellion, the people of Israel could have met the conditions of 2 Chronicles 7:14—

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

But Israel would not turn back to God, so God had to turn against them!

What a lesson for us today! Our nation has engraved on its coins and currency, “IN GOD WE TRUST.” Our Founding Fathers in THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE declared themselves to have certain rights as God’s people—

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

If we have been blessed by God as a nation because of the faith of our forefathers, the faithful remnant better be prepared for the judgment that is most assuredly to come if we don’t as a nation humble ourselves and pray and seek God’s face and turn from our wicked ways!

One does not need to be a prophet to read the handwriting on the wall—the history of nation of Israel warns America of what happens when God’s laws are ignored and transgressed!

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