From Reflections on the Psalms
If there is any thought at which a Christian trembles it is the thought of God’s “judgment.” The “Day” of Judgment is “that day of wrath, that dreadful day.” We pray for God to deliver us “in the hour of death and at the Day of Judgment.” Christian art and literature for centuries have depicted its terrors. This note in Christianity certainly goes back to the teaching of Our Lord himself; especially to the terrible Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This can leave no conscience untouched, for in it the “goats” are condemned entirely for their sins of omission; as if to make us fairly sure that the heaviest charge against each of us turns not upon the things he has done but on those he never did – perhaps never dreamed of doing.
It was therefore with great surprise that I first noticed how the psalmists talk about the judgments of God. They talk like this: “O let the nations rejoice and be glad, for thou shalt judge the folk righteously,” (67:4); “Let the field be joyful… all the trees of the wood shall rejoice before the Lord, for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the Earth,” (96:12, 13). Judgment is apparently an occasion of universal rejoicing. People ask for it: “Judge me, O Lord my God, according to thy righteousness,” (35:24).
The reason for this soon becomes very plain. The ancient Jews, like ourselves think of God’s judgment in terms of an Earthly court of justice. The difference is that the Christian pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff. The one hopes for acquittal, or rather for pardon; the other hopes for a resounding triumph with heavy damages. Hence he prays, “Judge my quarrel,” or, “Avenge my cause,” (35:23). And though, as I said a minute ago, our Lord in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats painted the characteristically Christian picture, in another place he is very characteristically Jewish. Notice what he means by “an unjust judge.” By those words most of us would mean someone like Judge Jeffreys or the creatures who sat on the benches of German tribunals during the Nazi régime: someone who bullies witnesses and jurymen in order to convict, and then savagely to punish, innocent men. Once again, we are thinking of a criminal trial. We hope we shall never appear in the dock before such a judge. But the Unjust Judge in the parable is quite a different character. There is no danger of appearing in his court against your will: the difficulty is the opposite – to get into it. It is clearly a civil action. The poor woman (Luke 18:1-5) has had her little strip of land – room for a pigsty or a hen-run – taken away from her by a richer and more powerful neighbor (nowadays it would be Town-Planners or some other “Body”). And she knows she has a perfectly watertight case. If once she could get it into court and have it tried by the laws of the land, she would be bound to get that strip back. But no one will listen to her, she can’t get it tried. No wonder she is anxious for “judgment.”
Behind this lies an age-old and almost world-wide experience which we have been spared. In most places and times it has been very difficult for the “small man” to get his case heard. The judge (and, doubtless, one or two of his underlings) has to be bribed. If you can’t afford to “oil his palm” your case will never reach court. Our judges do not receive bribes. (We probably take this blessing too much for granted; it will not remain with us automatically.) We need not therefore be surprised if the psalms, and the prophets, are full of the longing for judgment, and regard the announcement that “judgment” is coming as good news. Hundreds and thousands of people who have been stripped of all they possess and who have the right entirely on their side will at last be heard. Of course they are not afraid of judgment. They know their case is unanswerable – if only it could be heard. When God comes to judge, as last it will.
Dozens of passages make the point clear. In Psalm 9 we are told that God will “minister true judgment,” (v. 8), and that is because he “forgetteth not the complaint of the poor, (v. 12). He “defendeth the cause,” (that is, the “case”) “of the widows,” (68:5). The good king in Psalm 71:2, will “judge” the people rightly; that is, he will “defend the poor.” When God “arises to judgment,” he will “help all the meek upon Earth,” (76:9), all the timid, helpless people whose wrongs have never been righted yet. When God accuses Earthly judges of “wrong judgment,” he follows it up by telling them to see that the poor “have right,” (82:2, 3).
The “just” judge, then, is primarily he who rights a wrong in a civil case. He would, no doubt, also try a criminal case justly, but that is hardly ever what the psalmists are thinking of. Christians cry to God for mercy instead of justice; they cried to God for justice instead of injustice. The Divine Judge is the defender, the rescuer. Scholars tell me that in the Book of Judges the word we so translate might almost be rendered, champions”; for though these “judges” do sometimes perform what we should call judicial functions many of them are much more concerned with rescuing the oppressed Israelites from Philistines and others by force of arms. They are more like Jack the Giant Killer than like a modern judge in a wig. The knights in romances of chivalry who go about rescuing distressed damsels. and widows from giants and other tyrants are acting almost as “judges” in the old Hebrew sense: so is the modern solicitor (and I have known such) who does unpaid work for poor clients to save them from wrong.