Justice and Judgment

Preparing for Sunday’s sermon on I Samuel 2:12 – 26, and so was looking again at C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on judgment. In his book Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis notes that Christians often talk about the thought of God’s judgment  as a terrifying reality and throughout history have often prayed for deliverance on the day of judgment. You could add to this, that many in the modern west are disturbed by the very idea of God as a cosmic judge, One who casts judgment and sentences people to the consequences of their sins. Many find it outdated, and the kind of conception of God that makes so many religious people fearful and intolerant. In any case, Lewis notes these kinds of problems, and therefore writes:

It was with great surprise that I first noticed how the Psalmists talk about the judgments of God.

Namely, in the Psalms (and prophets):

Judgment is apparently an occasion of universal rejoicing.

This is true. I’ve been reading through the Psalms and this week I happened to hit Psalms 96 through 101, which all prominently feature the theme of God’s justice and celebrate the theme of God as Judge of all the earth. And I mean celebrate. Most strikingly, the picture given in Psalm 96 and Psalm 98 is one of the whole world breaking into a great, raucous celebration. The forests are filled with joy and sway in anticipation, the rivers burst out of their banks, clapping their hands, and the mountains form a chorus (with what must be a deep, resonate sound). And why all this joy? Why all this celebration? Because the Judge is coming. Not the Savior, not the Redeemer, not the Lover of creation (though these aren’t unrelated concepts) – but the Judge. Judgment is coming – rejoice! Where’s the terror? Why is this such a good thing?

Lewis writes:

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.

Lewis points to the fact that around the world and throughout history, it has been (and often still is) very difficult for the “small man” to get his case heard; for those without power and without money for bribes to get justice. Altogether too often this is the state of justice in this world: might makes right and the small get squashed. But the existence of a transcendent Judge gives hope of a final accounting in the coming of His perfect judgment. So:

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, at last it will.

This is why the great book of worship – the Psalms – rejoices not only in the God of loving kindness, but in the God of judgment. For those who would look seriously at the evil and injustice in the world, only a God of justice is truly worthy of worship.

Now, if the God revealed in the bible is One of absolute justice – and therefore worthy of worship – then He is also necessarily a God who judges impartially, One who doesn’t play favorites, who doesn’t have favorite sins, and who alone upholds the whole absolute standard of what is good and right and just, judging each one accordingly. Which should make anyone who truly looks at his or her life uneasy.

But a God of justice and judgment is good and necessary. And the revelation of such a God is a source of enduring hope and a fact for the whole earth to celebrate – especially the oppressed. And the last word on that should go to Dr. King:

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