Theme: God’s Indictment of Injustice
From this week’s lessons we learn that government is given by God for the good of its people, and those who rule are responsible to act justly.
Scripture: Psalm 82:1-8
In the New International Version, the next three verses are set apart as a separate stanza, and rightly so, for they constitute God’s indictment of the injustice practiced by Israel’s judges. Technically, the first part is a question: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked” (v. 2)? The second part is a command: “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (vv. 3, 4).
Regardless of the form of these sentences, these verses are actually an indictment of the judges, saying that they have not punished wickedness; nor have they defended the weak or orphans, the poor or the oppressed; nor have they intervened to save the weak from those who are more powerful. The duties of the civil rulers are twofold: 1) to establish, promote and maintain justice; and 2) to defend citizens from aggression both from within and from without. But these judges had done neither. They had failed on both counts.
Continuing his challenge to the secular rulers, Luther wrote, “These…three verses, indeed the whole psalm, every prince should have painted on the wall of his chamber, on his bed, over his table, and on his garments. For here they find what lofty, princely, noble virtues their estate can practice, so that temporal government, next to the preaching office, is the highest service to God and the most useful office on earth.”1
Extolling the value of these secular princes, Luther declared, “I would rather be a pious secretary or tax collector for one of these “gods” than twice a Hilary [the founder of the monastic life in Palestine] or a Jerome among the angels.”2
Can justice like this ever be established and maintained in the ongoing flux of sinful human affairs? Well, Job claimed to have done it. Job was a “prince” in his day, a ruler among the people. He sat in the gate and gave justice. He said of himself, “…I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him. The man who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing…I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth” (Job 29:12, 13, 16, 17).
This is exactly what is required of the judges of Israel (and indeed of all civil rulers) in Psalm 82. But the point of the psalm is that they had not done it. Hence, the consequence, following on the indictment of verses 2-4, is that “they know nothing…They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken” (v. 5).
This is a right description of all godless governments, whether overtly godless governments like that of the former Soviet Union and the communist bloc, or clandestine godless governments like our own. A government that does not acknowledge God and try to govern according to the responsibilities for it that God has laid down will inevitably succumb to the three perils listed in this verse. First, ignorance. It will not perceive what is happening or what to do about it; events will outstrip its ability to cope. Second, inept action. When it does act, it will operate “in darkness” and its programs and policies will be ineffective. Third, the foundations of common life will be shaken. That is exactly what happened in the communist countries when their governments collapsed in the late fall of 1989, and it is what seems to be happening in our own country in a less obvious but nonetheless steady and insidious way even now. Our most basic institutions, like the courts, public schools, and even government itself, are in turmoil, and it is increasingly unsafe even to walk on our streets. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do (Ps. 11:3)?
1Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 13, Selected Psalms II, p. 51.
2Ibid., p. 56.
What three perils befall a godless government?
What indictment does the psalmist make against Israel’s judges?
How does the example of Job apply to the study of these judges?
Reflection: What is your answer to the question, “What can the righteous do?” when you are surrounded by godlessness?