Ezekiel 20-22: A Study of Old Testament Judgment

         The Hebrew word for judgment is the word “tpvm” which is pronounced, “mishphat.”  Judgment doesn’t quite effectively convey the essence of this Hebrew word.  An example of what it means may readily explain what it means.  Solomon, when he prays for wisdom, asks God to give him wisdom so that he can “misphat” the children of Israel.  Mishphat means to establish an order.  The establishment of the correct understanding of order or government is mishphat.  The essence is the establishment of an order where justice is the normal function of the recognized system.  This word has also been translated as manner or custom.  This implies that Mishphat establishes a system that yields a social more or law that all are expected to follow and order their lives according too.  This is what Solomon asked God for and this is what was granted to him.  Mishphat became the spiritual environment from which he ruled Israel  It became what he “did.”

     The most common form of the word for “to judge” is a similar to “mishphat”.  It is the Hebrew word “tpv” pronounced “shaphat.”  One will immediately notice that this is the same word as mishphat but it is missing the “m” or the Hebrew letter “mem m”  The primary function of the word is to exercise a form of or process of government.  This involves deciding between what is right and what is wrong.  This comes in many forms in the Old Testament.  For example, the congregation (Numb 18:22-28), certain individuals (Ezekial 22:2), and God (Ps 96:13) all judge and this judging is the Hebrew word “shaphat.”  Additionally, it was a function of the priest to teach the people the difference between what was clean and unclean according to the law, which is also a type of “shaphat.”  The Greek word that is used in the Septuagint and the New Testament is “krinos” pronounced “krinos.”  Krinos carries a very similar meaning but also carries the idea of separation.  This implies that “shaphat” will separate the people of covenant from all other peoples.  Shaphat is just what we do.  In shaphat, there is no favoritism and all deserve to be treated equally.  There is no bias regardless of talents, looks, or personal attributes.  Holiness is the standard.  Law is not shaphat but the “doing” of the pentatutacheal ordinances by God’s people is considered mishphat and shaphat.  Mishphat and shaphat is how we relate to God, who holds the ultimate seat of government” and how we are to respond to Him, as His covenantal people.  God says “do” and in our “doing” we are guarding and keeping Mishphat. The application here of the commandments/torah of God is self-evident.

In Ezekiel 20:10-15 it states, “Therefore, I led them out of Egypt and brought them into the desert.  I gave them my decrees (Mishphat) and made known to them my laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them.  Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I, the Lord, made them holy.  Yet the people of Israel rebelled against me in the desert. They did not follow my decrees (Mishphat) but rejected my laws-although the man who obeys them will live by them-and they utterly desecrated my Sabbaths.”  When we properly understand the meaning of mishphat we get a different sense of the verse than what appears in the English translation.  God was giving Israel something much deeper than just some written “decrees.” (as the NIV translates it)  God gave Israel His Order, His Government, and the “way that things ought to be.”  This is the mishphat that He established.  This mishphat would give them the ability to “shaphat” or to judge between what was sin and what was not, what was clean and what was unclean.  The order established by God at Sinai is what Israel rejected and what Ezekiel calls to mind in chapter 20.  This is the first understanding of “judgment” from the Old Testament.

In Ezekiel 22:2-3 we read, “Son of man, will you judge (Shaphat in Hebrew and Krinos in the Septuagint) her?  Will you judge this city of bloodshed?  Then confront her with all her detestable practices.”  God is calling the prophet to make a decision and to judge between what is right and what is wrong.  God is telling Ezekiel to us what He knows about the law, what he knows about the spiritual realm, and what he knows from his prophetic insight and make a judgment about what is clean and unclean and what is right and what is wrong.  The answer to God’s question is never answered in the text but it is implied that Ezekiel answered in the affirmative as God then tells Ezekiel “what to do” after he agrees to decide between what is right and what is wrong.  This is the function of krinos and shaphat in both Greek and Hebrew.  This is further evident later in the text of Ezekiel.

In Ezekiel 22:2 it states, “He priest do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.”  It is obvious that the function of the priest was very similar to the function of the prophet.  That both, through their experience with God, their knowledge of the scripture, and their relationships with the people of God were called by Him to render judgment on what is right and what is wrong.  What is acceptable and what is not acceptable in a holy community.  The current condition of the church may not be far from where Israel was in Ezekiel’s day.  Many will have us believe that there is not difference between the unclean and the clean and that the Sabbaths of God have been relegated to the past.  However, like the priests and the prophets, we are also called by God to use our knowledge of the spiritual realm, our relationship with Him, and our understanding of the scriptures to make a decision and judge what is clean and what is unclean, what is righteous and what is not, and what is holy and what is common.

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