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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Turns out "judge" doesn't mean "everyone goes to hell"

The Justice League. Image source.

Psalm 98 is a celebration, the whole earth singing and praising God. And why, exactly, is the whole earth singing and praising God? "...for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity."

So basically, EVERYONE, HOORAY!!!!!! Because God will judge.

Now that seems a little odd, right? Shouldn't judging be a scary thing, about punishment and "everyone goes to hell"?

So I looked up all the Old Testament references with the words "judge", "judges", and "judged" to see just what the bible means exactly when it talks about God judging. (I removed the times it used "judge" or "judges" as a noun. And this is using the NIV bible.)

Okay I broke everything down into categories and here's what I got:

Judging "between" people (15 verses, 11 of which are about God judging)

For example, in 1 Samuel 24:12, David tells Saul, "May the Lord judge between you and me." This is when Saul is trying to kill David, and David does not try to kill Saul. Basically, David is saying he's right, Saul's wrong, and God should be the one to back David up on that.

Using the term "between" when talking about judgment means that there are multiple parties and the judge will decide who is in the right and who is in the wrong. So, that seems reasonable. Not like the scary "everyone goes to hell" thing.

Judging a thing (2 verses)

Yeah this one's not important, there were just some examples in Leviticus 27:12 and 27:14 where the priest judges the value of some object.

Punishment (25 verses, 12 of which are from Ezekiel. Odd.)

In these examples, the word "judge" is used when talking about punishment. Take a look:

1 Samuel 3:13- God tells Samuel he will punish Eli: "For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them."

Ezekiel 7:8 "I am about to pour out my wrath on you and spend my anger against you. I will judge you according to your conduct and repay you for all your detestable practices."

These are mostly the scary kind of "judging," which fits in with the "everyone goes to hell" definition. However, there are a few cases where someone is asking God to judge someone else- presumably meaning that the first person believes himself to be innocent and deserving of God's help:

In 1 Chronicles 12:17, David says to his new fans, "But if you have come to betray me to my enemies when my hands are free from violence, may the God of our ancestors see it and judge you."

In 2 Chronicles 20:12, King Jehoshaphat prays for help against an enemy army: "Our God, will you not judge them?"

Helping those who deserve it (5 verses, all from Psalms and Proverbs)

3 of these references are about human judges, and 2 are about God:

Psalm 7:8 "Let the Lord judge the peoples. Vindicate me, Lord, according to my righteousness, according to my integrity, O Most High."

Psalm 76:8-9 "From heaven you pronounced judgment, and the land feared and was quiet— when you, God, rose up to judge, to save all the afflicted of the land."

Interesting that "judge" can mean "save." The "everyone goes to hell" understanding says it's love that saves people from justice. Justice can never save.

Judgment which is celebrated (4 verses)

These examples weren't so clear about what they meant by "judge," but they were clear that it was something to be massively celebrated. (All of these examples were about God doing the judging.) Here are a few:

1 Chronicles 16:33 "Let the trees of the forest sing, let them sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth."

Psalm 98:8-9 "Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity."

3 out of 4 are about the earth celebrating. The odd one out, about people celebrating, is Psalm 96:10 "Say among the nations, 'The Lord reigns.' The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity."

Punishing some, helping others (9 verses)

Some verses which talk about judging include both lifting up the weak and bringing down the powerful:

1 Samuel 2:9-10 "He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness. It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the Lord will be broken. The Most High will thunder from heaven; the Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed."

Psalm 75:7 "It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another."

Isaiah 11:4 "but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked."

In other words, some people deserve better than what they have in reality, and some people deserve worse. God's judgment will correct that.

Making decisions like a judge (10 verses, only 3 of which are about God judging)

Mostly these were about human judges, like this example from Leviticus 19:15, "Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly."

For these ones, "judge" is pretty neutral, it's just the job that a judge does. Even in the verses about God, it doesn't say whether the judging is for punishment or to help those who deserve it. For example, Ecclesiastes 3:17, "I said to myself, 'God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.'"

In conclusion:

According to the Old Testament, "judge" means bringing down those who are powerful and corrupt, and raising up the poor and oppressed. For me, raised as an evangelical Christian with the understanding the "judge" and "justice" mean everyone deserves to go to hell and you can only get out of it if Jesus covers you with his Jesus-ness, this is kind of a surprising conclusion.

I'd be interested to see if the New Testament agrees with this use of the word "judge."

God's judgment is good news for the world. It's something that makes sense. But that doesn't mean we're all off the hook. Take a look at your life: are you benefiting from others' oppression? Are you enjoying advantages that your brothers and sisters in the human race do not have access to? Are you using what you have to help those in need? Because the bible has some things to say about that.

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This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 98. To read other people's posts, click here: Singing a New Song.

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