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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Judge Me?

Judge me, O Lord, for I walk in my innocence (Psalm 25:1)

     In this Psalm, David is asking God to judge him because he believes in his own innocence.  Wow!  That’s a pretty bold statement.  Who among us is so brave that they are asking to stand before God so that they can be judged?  Certainly not me.  However, if we examine the Hebrew and the Greek of this passage, we will begin to understand that this is not what David is asking for at all. 

     Both the Hebrew of the Masoretic text and the Greek of the Septuagint use similar words for “judge.”  The issue comes into play because neither of them translate very well into English.  The Hebrew word is “fpv” which is transliterated, “shaphat.”  It’s primary meaning is to exercise the process of government.  Basically, to establish a governmental process that protects the innocence.  The Greek word “krinos” carries much the same meaning but adds the idea of separation.  Meaning, to separate the evil from the good.  This is really what a theocratic process of government does.  It separates good from evil and destroys the evil.  This is what David is praying for when he cries out, “Judge Me!”  He is saying that his desire is to be separated from the assembly of evildoers to remain in the assembly of the righteous.

     Innocence.  Is David really claiming that he is innocent before God.  This is the man that had Uriah killed because he got his wife pregnant.  Is David really ready to stand before God for judgment and make a case for his own innocence?  I think not.  The Hebrew word for innocence used here is the word, “hMf” which is transliterated “temah.”  It is a derivative of the word for completion.  It is the word that is used to describe the sacrifices that the law required to be “temah” and perfect.  The Greek equivalent “akakon” is used of Christ in Hebrews 7:26 describing Him as perfect, innocence, and the righteous sacrifice and high priest.  Things still aren’t looking to good for David so far.  However, Job was also described “temah.”  Job was described as blameless not sinless.  This tells us that inside the establishment of God’s order and government, there has been provided a system by which sin can be atoned.  In the OT it was the blood of “temah” bulls and goats, in the NT it is the blood of the “temah” Lamb of God.  What I mean here is that inside the government of God, sin does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked.  The distinction is made between the heart that desires to follow God’s law and order and the lawless and wicked who desire to follow the devices of their heart.  Theirs is a theology built upon selfishness.  The government of God is a theology built upon the human hearts response to the established order of God.  The psalms use the same word to describe both groups of people.  It is the word assembly, congregation, or church.  There are only two types of assemblies.  Those of the wicked and those of the righteous.  The assembly of the wicked takes delight on doing evil and encourages it.  The assembly of the righteous takes delight in the presence of God, living according to His law and order, and loving one another.  The basis for the assembly of the wicked is selfishness.  The basis for the assembly of the righteous in the covenantal love (Hebrew Hesed of verse 3 in this Psalm) that has established the order and us within it.

     Let’s regroup.  This is what David is really saying.  “Make a distinction, LORD, between me and the assembly of the wicked because I have arranged my life according to your established order which is built upon your love and in this order, my sins are atoned for so I  can have boldness to stand before your throne.”  Indeed, Judge us, Oh God!”