On the Bench

I’ve been thinking recently about leadership in general and judges and judging in particular.

Judges lead by helping us sift and settle on what is right.  Justice is a key concern of judges. This is why we call them “Justices.”

We presume that judges are knowledgeable and wise. We want them to be able to weigh difficult decisions, to balance competing or conflicting interests, and to affirm, shape, or set principles that will guide us now and into the future.

We call judges “your honor” partly because they represent and embody the foundation and force of law, and partly because we want them to be honorable, above reproach and, as far as is humanly possible, incorruptible. We depend on their impartiality, and that their word is their bond.

We are deeply disappointed when a judge falls short of these characterizations. On the other hand, we may disagree with a particular ruling, but if a judge has reached that ruling fairly, we can still respect both the office and the person.

The controlling interest for judges in all levels of our courts is upholding the spirit and the letter of our Constitution and our other fundamental documents, but justice and fair judging are far more ancient concerns.

We sometimes hear people say, “We don’t want any of that ‘eye for an eye’ or ‘hand for a hand’ stuff anymore. We’re far more sophisticated than that.” But what is often misunderstood is that this ancient “law of retribution” was designed to deter retaliation on the level of an ‘eye for an insult,’ or ‘a hand for a loaf of bread.’ It was an early and positive attempt to balance justice, and make the punishment fit the crime.

The Book of Genesis simply presumes that its readers will understand God’s response when Abraham intercedes to him on behalf of any supposed righteous inhabitants of Sodom:

            Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?

Psalm 96 connects joyful worship with the confidence that God is both in charge and fair:

            Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

                 let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

                 let the field exult, and everything in it!

            Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord;

                 for he comes to judge the earth.

            He will judge the world in righteousness,

                 and the peoples with equity.

In his first letter, St. Peter writes:

            If you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each

one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your

exile here, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways of life

inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as

silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without

blemish or defect.

Scripture of course has much more to say than this about justice, and judging, and about authority, righteousness, and mercy. Yet it is good to remind ourselves that God is known to us in part as Judge because justice – putting things to right – is an inherent part of his person and plan.

Today our media headlines are filled with argument, conflict, controversy, and turmoil. We are uncertain and off-center about the future of our people and our nation. In some ways, the final verse of the book of Judges might aptly characterize us:

            In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was

            right in his own eyes.

Or Proverbs 29:18 may be the wise oracle we most need to remember:

            Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint.

No one leader or group of leaders has an exclusive market on vision. But the good news today and every day is that, even if our national outlook grows opaque, Jesus remains the clear center of Christian faith and focus. According to Hebrews 12, he cheers for us just across the finish line of the race we are running – seated at God’s right hand as pioneer, Savior, intercessor, and ultimate, merciful, and loving Judge.

Michael Denham

Author: expositionalvision

Michael Denham has served many years as Director of Music Ministries at The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.

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