Do me a favor and please read Psalm 82.
Our psalm today begins and ends with judgment. And so when I think of “judgment” I think of a ruler or someone in a position of power that enacts punishments upon those who break laws. As a judge would hand down a judgment (a punishment) so too would a committee or group of people who investigated and handed down their findings. Judgment, from my perspective of this word, becomes the handing down of findings and punishments upon someone in response to something they have done (how they have broken or offended something). Now this isn’t wrong, this is simply what we (or I) understand this word to be. And while this isn’t necessarily incorrect with the Hebrew understanding it also isn’t fully correct either. It’s more complex than that. And so in order to understand our text we need to understand the word and theme that flows throughout it.
The Hebrew word for “judge” looks like this: שׁפט. And this word is rich and diverse and yet extremely focused in its meaning. For Asaph and his readers, “judging” means to hand down punishments (like we understand it) but also defending, leading, guiding, settling disputes, making decisions, acting as a judge, and ruler too. To be a “judge” or finding “judgment” is all about doing those things a leader does (this may help us also understand why the book of “Judges” isn’t about judging but about leading and defending God’s people). So when Asaph cries out to God to hold and render “judgment” (vs 1) and then to “judge the earth” (vs 8) it’s literally a call to God to act and do the very thing these people (that are “judges” in their own right) aren’t doing. So we have God as this overarching “judge” and moral leader (vs 1 and 8) and then this middle section (vs 2-7) where he then calls the other judges (and moral leaders) to not only judge but bring, show, and enact justice. To do the very things that they are TO do as God already does.
Justice, just like judgment, is another very interesting word and actually comes from the same root as “judgment” (so they are of the same essence). And while I won’t go into all its vast meanings I do think we all would agree that justice is good. Justice implies that right is happening and that wrong is ending. Justice renders this idea that good is overcoming evil, that wrongs are being addressed, and that all things are being restored. It’s a word that pulls on the heartstrings of a man (Asaph) who is simply tired of seeing the recklessness and abuse all around him.
Asaph isn’t calling out God to act – he’s calling out those who “judge” and are to show “justice” to act like their supposed to act and judge the way you’re supposed to judge. And if they don’t? If they refuse to act justly and render wisely – then the ultimate Judge will do so upon them. And while we don’t know who these words are aimed at its absolutely clear that for Asaph his understanding of the way the world SHOULD work and the way leaders SHOULD judge just isn’t happening. Judges are supposed to be people who seek the heart of God. Who are morally above reproach, who don’t take bribes, who defend the meek and broken, who don’t side with the wicked, who come along side and lift up the fatherless, the poor, and the oppressed. Being a “judge” means that you actually are a true and good leader in all its sense – and showing “justice” means that you, yourself, must be good and true. Think of this psalm as a challenge and encourager to current judges (magistrates), leaders, kings and all others in power to simply hold true to their duty. And a stark reminder (and request) that if you don’t…God will.
So now let’s take a step back, further, and wider and draw you and me into the conversation (finding our own context today). Who are our “judges” today? Pastors, community leaders, mayors, elected officials (governors, senators, presidents, etc)? I think this is included but we could easily add more into this list as well. Asaph would argue, as would the Christian and Jewish believer, that those leaders…ALL leaders, must lead from a place of godliness. It’s not about you, it’s not about your desires, it’s not about what you want or don’t want – it’s simply about leading from a place where God leads first. Your actions must be reflective of God’s heart. Your role as a leader in the community must be about making sure those who need help are helped, those who are hungry are fed, and those who need hope are given it. It’s not about pandering to those who give more to you in the community or the church. And it’s not about doing what those who donate more money or anything else want either. It must simply be about being God’s hands and feet, his voice, and his heart to those who need it.
Does this mean we ignore those outside of those specific “needs?” Do we ignore those who ARE fed and who don’t NEED shelter because they have it? Not at all…but Christ’s mission and voice was to help the very people that needed it most and couldn’t get it – and part of his commission to his disciples and followers was to do likewise. To show love and give hope to those that were cast aside. Judgment and justice is about righting the wrongs that society has created, sin has destroyed, and restore relationships that need mending. It’s about ushering in peace and hope to a hopeless person, community, nation, and world.
And guess what…YOU are a bringer of that as well. You may not be a “judge” in the full sense of the word…but you can hold judges accountable. You may not be a “leader” of a group of people but you ARE a leader in its truest sense. We all are. And while YOU are held accountable to those things (as a Christian) you too should hold others accountable – even when they aren’t Christian because it’s not about being a Christian or Jew. It’s simply about doing God’s work. And I think we could argue that all religions have this sense of helping others. And ultimately, while God is the final Judge and will bring his justice once and for all, you and I have the difficult and yet hopeful job of being and showing God’s justice (both in mercy and correction) here today.