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Lesson Text:Exodus 23:1-9
Background Scripture: Exodus 22:1 – 23:9
Devotional Reading:Deuteronomy 32:1-7
1Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness.
2Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment:
3Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause.
4If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again.
5If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him.
6Thou shalt not wrest the judgment of thy poor in his cause.
7Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not: for I will not justify the wicked.
8And thou shalt take no gift: for the gift blindeth the wise, and perverteth the words of the righteous.
9Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
To explain characteristics of godly social behavior.
To understand that God expects us to live up to His high moral standards when it comes to others.
To realize that God wants us to grow in our love for Him, to mature in our spiritual wisdom and understanding, and to become more like Jesus in our thoughts and actions.
To identify the commands in today’s lesson which are hard to keep and make a plan for change.
God’s Justice for God’s People
Though traditional junk mail has always been a nuisance, junk e-mail takes the annoyance to a whole new level. Junk e-mail, also known as spam, costs senders almost nothing for promoting the product or idea of their choosing. Christian spam is no different. Some well-intended Christians use spam to encourage other believers with inspirational messages, to enlist them in various causes, etc. One of the most common causes is that of supporting or trying to elect public officials who vow to administer godly justice in the land.
Such spam may promote divisive debates among Christians. Some of the debates center on which official’s policies are most just. Other debates revolve around whether Christians have any business at all trying to engineer justice through the world’s political machinery. These debates have driven many Christians to a false choice between advocating justice on the world’s terms or ignoring justice altogether. They think they must choose between fighting worldly politics the world’s way or neglecting political concerns altogether.
Scripture’s approach to justice moves beyond false choices. God’s people make their most fundamental contribution to justice by ordering their personal lives before the watching world according to God’s ideals. Beginning with Abraham, God began forming a people whose common life was intended to reflect God’s justice in every way, regardless of what the nations around them believed or practiced. Though some of the world’s elected officials will waffle with the changing polls, God’s people are called to remain steadfast in their witness to divine justice. This witness began with ancient Israel and continues with the church. In today’s passage we catch a glimpse of the justice to which God called the Israelites shortly after He delivered them from Egypt.
Time:about 1450 B.C.
After the flood, God covenanted with all creation never to destroy the earth again by water (Genesis 9:9-17). Sin would come back, but repeating a cycle of destructive floods to bring renewal could not be the permanent answer. Thus God committed himself to bring permanent peace and order to a world made violent and chaotic by sin.
God’s solution began with making Abraham and his descendents into a special people through whom all nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). Before He could do this, however, this people would be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. During that time, God increased their number and prepared the then-current occupants of the Promised Land for judgment (Genesis 15:13-16).
After delivering His people from Egypt with a show of great power, God declared them to be His “peculiar treasure” and “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Exodus 19:5, 6). If the Israelites were to be a kingdom of priests, they first had to order their lives according to God’s principles.
This “holy cultivation” would provide the proper soil through which the Messiah could come. In this light, it is a mistake to view God’s laws for Israel as a legalistic formula to achieve a form of righteousness by means of good works. Rather, these laws were God’s means of forming a special people who would get the world’s attention by their faithfulness to God’s will. God’s laws cover a wide range of topics.
Today’s passage focuses on the everyday practice of justice. The ninth commandment (20:16) is amplified and God’s people are warned not to endorse falsehood and promote injustice because of what the crowd is doing (Lev. 19:15-16; Deut. 22:13-19). Nor should God's people be influenced by the wealth or the poverty of the accused or by the bribes people offer them for their support (16:18-20; Isa. 1:23; Micah 3:11). To condemn an innocent person for personal gain is to become guilty before God, and God doesn't acquit the guilty. But Moses also reminded them to be kind to their enemies and to the enemies' animals (vs. 4-5; Deut. 22:13-15). Our goodness should be the result of obeying laws but practicing love. (Wiersbe, Bible Exposition Commentary - Old Testament).
FALSE ALLIANCES (Exodus 23:1-2)
1. Why were the Israelites commanded not to “raise a false report”? (Exodus 23:1)
This verse echoes the ninth of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Exodus 20:16). This command is critical to Israelite justice. Since this era lacks video surveillance, fingerprinting, and the ability to perform DNA testing, the legal system relies most heavily on eyewitness testimony.
As a result, the most significant threat to the legal system of the day is witness tampering. The best way to engineer a false verdict is to convince a witness that it is in his or her best interest to mislead the judge into believing that the innocent party is guilty and/or the guilty party is innocent (compare 1 Kings 21:1-14). Therefore, this verse warns the Israelites not to partner with wicked people who would subvert justice by means of engineering false eyewitness evidence. Verse 8 (below) discusses bribery as a primary problem in witness tampering.
2. What warning was given concerning following a crowd in subverting justice? (v. 2)
Sometimes an outside party will bribe witnesses to falsify evidence. But at other times a witness will feel the pressure of a crowd that is somehow subverting justice. To speak in a cause to decline after many is a way of describing that problem.
To be truthful when the multitudes are lying is to invite the scorn of many and to risk being ostracized by one’s community. Nevertheless, God demands that His people rise above the fray of peer pressure. Pagans may try to cheat the system either individually or collectively. But this must not happen among God’s people. The Israelites must set themselves apart as different—holy.
What Do You Think?
How do we teach our children and grandchildren to avoid following a crowd in doing wrong?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
-Peer pressure issues
-Getting over on the system
-Media influence issues
NO FAVORTISM (Exodus 23:3)
3. How is justice not to favor the rich or poor? (v. 3)
God shows a special concern for the poor throughout Scripture (examples: Leviticus 19:9, 10; James 2:1-4). When justice is subverted, frequently it is the poor who are cheated (examples: Amos 5:12; Luke 20:47). The poor are prime targets for legal abuse because they lack the funding and connections to influence judges and witnesses. Even when modern society provides legal representation through public defenders, the quality of such representation can pale in comparison with the best lawyers money can buy.
Yet as sympathetic as God is to the plight of the poor, He insists that true justice does not show favoritism to them (Leviticus 19:15, next week’s lesson). The divine answer to a system that is ripe for favoring the rich is not one that favors the poor, but one that favors none. All the guilty are equally guilty before their Creator. None may hide behind economic status. None are immune to divine scrutiny and justice. Discrimination in any form is wrong.
SHOW COMPASSION (Exodus 23:4-5)
4. How were God’s people to overcome evil in their treatment of neighbors? (vs. 4-5)
The practice of godly justice extends beyond the formal procedures of the ancient legal system. Godly justice also is to affect one’s everyday treatment of neighbors. Though many will speak truthfully in court and under oath, these same truth-tellers may be inclined to look the other way when no one else is around. This is especially so when they have the opportunity to see personal foes suffer economic loss.
This foe may be a neighbor who has cheated or slandered a person. When such a foe appears to suffer loss, it is tempting to think that he or she is receiving “just deserts.” It is tempting to smile on the inside as such a neighbor gets what seems to be deserved. Yet this too fails to reflect God’s nature.
The God who teaches Christians (through Jesus) to pray for their persecutors teaches the Israelites to care for the property of their enemies. This involves going out of one’s way to restore stray animals or otherwise protecting enemies from suffering loss. As Jesus notes, this kind of love reflects the Father’s own love and moves beyond the self-interested love of pagans (Matthew 5:43-48). God’s people are called not just to avoid practicing evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21; quoting Proverbs 25:21, 22). God’s justice moves beyond human conceptions of justice. It is too small a task that God’s people merely avoid contributing to injustice; God expects His people to join Him in acting out godly concern for the good of all.
What Do You Think?
What are some ways to apply this verse in a nonagricultural context of the twenty-first century?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
-Fellow church members
JUSTICE (Exodus 23:6-9)
5. How are we to be sensitive to justice for the poor and disadvantaged? (v. 6)
Though God warns the Israelites not to show partiality toward the poor when it comes to justice, He also stresses that injustice is unacceptable for the poor as well. Thus God keeps steady pressure on His people to understand the pure, unbiased nature of justice.
This pressure is just as necessary today. The economic, cultural, and political forces of sinful society may place certain parties at a disadvantage. To do nothing to correct this is to displease God. A system that reflects God’s justice will be sensitive to abuses of the legal system so that injustices that are normal in the world will not be seen as normal among God’s people.
Modern society tries to root out discrimination by legal means. Within the church, however, it is grace that makes us sensitive to those who are being alienated, oppressed, or ignored. God’s people can remain sensitive because we are committed to honoring one another (Romans 12:10). We can remain sensitive because we are not competing for positions of power and influence. We have rejected the world’s power-mongering ways (Mark 10:42-44). Those who have received positional power from God are instructed to use it to serve those in their care the way Jesus loved and served us. Noble intentions within a broken system can produce devastating effects. So God has formed a people whose life together should reflect His justice from the inside out.
6. Why must God’s people avoid anything to do with false accusations? (v. 7)
The text moves to outline the most common forms of injustice that God’s people must avoid. He begins by warning us to keep far from a falsehood. To keep thee far from prohibits a person of God from having anything to do with false accusations. There is to be no waffling or rationalizing in this regard. To partner with injustice and deny a true verdict to the innocent is to participate firsthand in the evil that wrongfully befalls the righteous. God will not turn a blind eye to such actions, particularly since justice is a foundation of His throne (Psalm 89:14). Thus God presents the Israelites with a choice: they can show the world what true justice looks like by their common life, or they can suffer at God’s hand the punishment that awaits those who ignore His justice, for He will not justify the wicked.
7. How can money and gifts be used as instruments of wickedness? (v. 8)
At the root of injustice is often the desire for money or status. The wicked can thus use the practice of gift-giving as a means of injustice. Indeed, humans seem to be able to find ways to turn all good things into instruments of wickedness. So bribery is entirely out of the question for God’s people. To receive bribes is just as sinful as to give them because to do either is to participate in and endorse the same web of deception (Deuteronomy 16:19; 27:25).
The righteous are not immune to the power of a bribe. The righteous can be tempted to rationalize how God’s work might be able to use for good the “gift” that they are receiving. Perhaps the money can free the recipient from debt so he or she can be more generous in giving. “Maybe I can give a portion of the money to a worthy cause.” Even the godliest people can deceive themselves into embracing evil as a supposed means for good.
8. Why was just treatment to be extended to strangers? Why should God’s people be able to relate to strangers? (v. 9)
One temptation that the Israelites might face is to think that justice is only for the pureblood Israelite. After all, God’s laws clearly distinguish between Israelites and non-Israelites, right?
God will not allow the oppression of injustice on non-Israelites who live among His people. The world was created for everyone. God’s gift of life is for all humanity. The order God intended for His creation applies to everyone.
God did not free the Israelites from slavery so they could become a new Egypt that enslaves others. This precept is so important that God mentions it more than once (Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:33, 34). The “congregation of Israel” consists of those who are born into the tribes of Israel and those who are not (Exodus 12:19). There are not separate laws for each (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 17:8-16; 20:2).
The Israelites were once strangers in the land of Egypt. That fact means that the Israelites know how it feels to be in that position. Their memory in that regard should cause them to treat kindly the stranger in their midst, now that the shoe is on the other foot.
After Christ’s ascension, God sent His people out into the world to win the lost. Yet God’s people of the New Testament era are strangers in a world that does not accept Christian values (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). Thus we know what it feels like to be strangers in the world. Let us make sure that unbelievers or new Christians who come into our church are not made to feel like “foreigners.” Lead them gently!
What Do You Think?
How should the fact that we were once strangers in the land of sin affect how we treat others?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
-Treatment of fellow Christians
-Treatment of nonbelievers, those still held captive by sin
POINTS TO PONDER
1.God expects His people to practice justice and not be influenced by what the world does. (Exodus 23:1-3) Rather, we should be influencing the world. (Matthew 5:16)
2.We should treat people as we would want to be treated if we were in their position. (vs. 4-5)
3.God’s people should value justice and fairness and work to ensure justice for all. (vs. 6-7)
4.We are not to use our positions to enrich ourselves or violate the trust of those we serve. (v. 8)
5.God’s will is that we are kind and helpful to even those we do not know. (v. 9)
Justice in the Church
Hindsight makes it easy to see how Israel should have witnessed God’s justice to the world. Israel was a God-chosen people that had to enforce a God-given legal code throughout her God-chosen territory. It is a bit more difficult to discern how the church should best represent God’s justice in concrete ways today.
As God sends us throughout the world to make disciples, we realize that our primary identity is not tied to a particular nation inhabiting a specific location. Even so, the church can and must reflect God’s justice. The apostle Peter quoted Exodus 19:6 to support his claim that the church, like Old Testament Israel, possesses a distinct identity: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
The church is not a “normal” sort of nation, but it is still a nation. Its people live throughout the earth but are citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:20). It has a king who makes demands of His subjects and calls them to live just lives that point the watching world to the splendor of His kingdom. So we should not be surprised that Jesus and the New Testament writers frequently instruct Christians to live out many of the same principles of justice that we see in Exodus 23. We are instructed to be hospitable to strangers (Hebrews 13:2), love our enemies (Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:19, 20), see to the needs of the poor (Galatians 2:10; James 1:27), avoid wrong partnerships (2 Corinthians 6:14; James 4:4), and resist showing partiality to those who are financially well off (1 Timothy 5:21, 22; James 2:1-9).
In this way the church continues Israel’s witness to God’s justice. When we order our lives accordingly, we serve as God’s sign to the world that its twisted versions of justice stand under His supreme judgment.
Lord God, we thank You for so loving this world that You refuse to abandon us to our own faulty visions of justice. We thank You for entrusting Your people with Your laws and Your teachings regarding the shape of true justice. Help us to discern how we ought to live this out in our daily lives. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
Order your life according to God’s justice.