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A Free Life Found In the Justice and Mercy of the Old Testament


I define what is right and just.  In other words, what is “just” is subjective.  It is what I think is just—is just.  That is the natural condition of my human nature.  I have a rough time with the concept of an external definition of justice that does not take into account how I feel or how I am treated.

I also have the ability to use logic to develop an argument that adequately explains my sense of injustice in any given situation.

This concept is expressed in Arthur Leff’s 1979 Duke Law Journal article “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” where he states:

I want to believe-and so do you-in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe-and so do you-in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.

That subjective rationalization is the very mischief that the Old Testament (OT) pierces.  The OT presupposes that God is just and by extension His law is just as it reflects Him.  It rejects the idea that I have within myself the very ability to know what is just and right.  For if that were the case then there would be 7+ billion definitions of justice and mercy on this planet.  It simply does not follow.

Human civilization is possible because we have a concept of justice and mercy that is external from us.  The OT has the very concepts of justice that Arthur Leff longed for.

The justice of God is contained in His law and the maintenance of that law.  The respect due to God’s law requires consequences for disobedience.  It is only just that everyone, rich or poor, whatever the race or station in life, is treated the same for any failure to abide by God’s precepts of how we ought to live.

The overwhelming beauty is that as much as God is just He is merciful.  Though the children of Israel sinned and became subjects of Babylon the Lord declared that they would rise yet again.  They would be as dry bones brought back to life – “I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,” says the Lord’” (Ezekiel 37:14). Wherever His rivers of mercy flow there will be healing.  (Ezekiel 47:9)

By extension we, as followers of God, who have been forgiven for our own misdeeds are in turn to be His instruments of mercy for our fellowmen who have fallen short.  The Old Testament is as if someone placed a mirror in front of us to contemplate our own spiritual condition.  The OT may be seen, in our age of rampant individualism, as an ogre yet it has the beauty of ultimate freedom as the guilty conscience is liberated through divine mercy—“To comfort all who mourn, To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”  (Isaiah 61:1-3)

Then in such freedom we may partake in the joys of life by rebuilding the ruins of our lives as we seek to revive our neighbours who have fallen into the same traps we did. Now we can assist the foreigner, encourage the prisoner, feed the hungry, and cloth the naked.  We, who were condemned, can express “everlasting joy” as we are clothed with the garments of salvation, covered with the robe of righteousness.  “For as the earth brings forth its bud, As the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11)

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