Toward a Proper Understanding of the Biblical Importance of God as Judge of All

November 13, 2013

The importance of any biblical doctrine can be accurately assessed only within the broader framework of biblical teaching on that subject. The doctrine of judgment includes many passages that correspond to contemporary conceptions of a judge as the one who renders verdicts in court cases (Dan. 7; 2 Cor. 5). The Scriptural data on the work of God as Judge, however, transcends such conceptions, as is clear from key passages such as Genesis 3.[1] None of the main Hebrew words typically studied in treatments of judgment in the Old Testament occurs in Genesis 3.[2] Yet God’s judging in that passage is plain, and New Testament data show that it is an account of His judgment (Rom. 5:16).

In Genesis 3, God’s judging includes confronting, interrogating, and rendering the verdict as well as enacting and enforcing the penalty. His judging also includes directing others to confront sinners: “And you, son of man, will you judge, will you judge the bloody city? Then cause her to know all her abominations” (Ezek. 22:2).[3] Furthermore, God’s judging goes beyond the pronouncement of sinfulness or guilt: “The Arameans came with a small number of men; yet the Lord delivered a very great army into their hands, because they had forsaken the Lord. . . . Thus they executed judgment on Joash“ (2 Chron. 24:24).

Accounting for the scriptural conception supports defining the work of God as Judge as all the actions that He performs, either directly or through others, in righteously assessing and repaying all those who are under His sovereignty for their attitudes, actions, and words.[4] This approach treats verses as pertaining to judgment even though they do not contain any of the words usually examined in studies on judgment, such as shaphat in Hebrew or those built on a krin- root in Greek, if they include statements of divine actions such as rewarding, punishing, killing, or destroying someone as a consequence of his actions.

In such verses, the occurrence of words that are found in other passages in parallel to the typical words for judgment or as explanations of one of those typical words supports viewing these words in appropriate contexts as part of the doctrine of judgment.[5] If God’s work of judgment is understood in that manner, every book of the Old Testament, except for Esther and Song of Solomon, explicitly speaks of God in some judicial capacity.[6]

In the New Testament as well, every book does so except Philemon, 2 John, and 3 John.[7] These facts show the importance in Scripture of God as the Judge of all.


 

[1] “Word studies are an important part of Old Testament studies that also are susceptible to simplification and overstatement. Important passages that contribute significantly to a particular concept may be overlooked because they do not contain the word or words being studied [Meador gives Genesis 3 as an example in a footnote to this sentence.]. . . . The modern image of a ‘judge’ is fostered by the concept of strict separation of executive, judicial and legislative functions that pervades western culture. Thus the word ‘judge’ to the modern mind almost automatically conjures up an image of a robed jurist sitting on a bench overlooking a courtroom and presiding over an action at law. The judge is seen as an impersonal arbiter, detached from both the initiation of the proceedings and their consequential execution.” Marion F. Meador, “The Motif of God as Judge in the Old Testament” (PhD diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1986), 10-11. Cf. Psalm 75:6-8; James 4:12. In defining krinw, BDAG refers to the important aspect of the penalty as being part of the scriptural teaching on judgment: “Often the emphasis is unmistakably laid upon that which follows the Divine Judge’s verdict, upon the condemnation or punishment: condemn, punish” [italics in original], 568.

[2] For example, Leon Morris discusses shaphat, dayan, palal, yakakh, ‘elohim, paqad, and ribh. Morris, The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), 7-41. Following that discussion, Morris writes that assessing those main words does not exhaustively account for the Old Testament data concerning judgment. Ibid., 41. The word ‘elohim does occur numerous times in Genesis 3 as a title for God; treatments of judgment in the Old Testament examine its occurrence with reference to humans as judges and not as a title for God (Exod. 22:8; Ps. 82:6).

[3] Cf. Ezekiel 20:4 and 23:36. The teaching of these verses illuminates Christ’s judging for God in His encounters with sinners where He confronts them with their sinfulness and pronounces woes on them but does not inflict actual punishment on them at that time (e.g., Matt. 23).

[4] This definition is based in part on the following statement: “All of the passages associated with God as judge in the Old Testament have been identified and classified . . . The selection shown . . . reflects a broad understanding of God’s role as judge and includes those passages which might imply strict juridical activity, plus any others which present God as assessing the actions or attitudes of persons or groups.” Meador, 13-14. See Psalm 7:9; 94:2; Matthew 12:36; Romans 13:4; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9; 2:8.

[5] For example, Genesis 18:16-32 presents Yahweh’s conversation with Abraham concerning His intention to judge Sodom. Abraham’s rhetorical question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” shows that the work of God as Judge is in view in that entire discussion. The discussion of His judicial work includes several verbs that are not typically examined in treatments of judgment in the Old Testament: sweep away (sapah, 18:23), slay (muth, 18:25), spare (nasa, 18:26), and destroy (shakhath, 18:28). In Genesis 19, none of the typical words for judgment is found. God’s judgment in that passage is clear from the preceding chapter. Because that is true, God’s raining fire on Sodom and Gomorrah (matar, 19:24) and overthrowing them (hapak, 19:25) are judicial actions and should be viewed as such in similar contexts (Isa. 13:19; Jer. 50:40; Amos 4:11).

John 18:31 reads, “So Pilate said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.’ The Jews’ saying to him, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death,’” shows that judging includes putting someone to death (apokteinw). First Corinthians 11:31, “But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world,” teaches that God’s judgment of His people includes His disciplining (paideuw) them. These passages provide a biblical basis for treating other occurrences of apokteinw and paideuw in similar contexts as part of God’s work of judgment. Cf. Romans 2:5-6; Hebrews 10:30; Revelation 6:10; 19:2.

[6] Although there are no direct statements about God in Esther, the book mentions Nebuchadnezzar’s exiling Jeconiah and many other Jews, which other books of the Old Testament present as the result of God’s judgment, when it speaks of Mordecai as one “who had been taken into exile from Jerusalem with the captives who had been exiled with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had exiled” (Est. 2:6).

[7] God’s judgment is implicit in the apostolic warning, “Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward” (2 John 8), and the assessment of the works of false teachers (2 John 9) as “evil deeds”(2 John 11). It is also implicit in the apostolic promise to deal with the unjust accusations of Diotrephes (3 John 10) and the following instruction not to “imitate what is evil” (3 John 11), which implies that John assessed his actions as evil.

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