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Justice And Mercy

By Rich Carmicheal

    In a time when sin abounds and God’s judgment looms over nations, it is good to set our minds and hearts on that which is most important to the Lord. The prophet Micah has a significant message for us in this regard because the culture of his day was in many ways similar to ours. Consider how the conditions described in the Book of Micah compare with today: sin and idolatry are rampant (1:5-9); people are exploiting one another (2:1-2, 8-9); they are covetous (2:2); they are full of pride (2:3); they are lovers of pleasure (2:11); they have lost the fear of God’s judgment for sin (2:6; 3:11); political and religious leaders lack character and integrity and are primarily interested in money and people-pleasing (3:1-5, 9-11); prophets are without a message from the Lord (3:6-7); dishonesty is commonplace (6:10-12); godliness is scarce (7:2); violence is rampant (7:2-4); trust is broken (7:5) and personal and family relationships are disintegrating (7:5-6).

    One of Micah’s major purposes is to announce the judgment and doom that is about to come upon Samaria and Jerusalem because of sin. In the midst of this message of impending judgment, however, the Lord issues a call for His people to return to Him and to the heart of their covenant with Him. Through the prophet Micah, the Lord reminds us of the kind of people He wants us to be. Consider the message in Micah 6:1-8:

    "Listen to what the Lord says: ‘Stand up, plead your case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say. Hear, O mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel. My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me. I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam. My people, remember what Balak king of Moab counseled and what Balaam son of Beor answered.  Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.’ With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

    As the Lord makes His case against His people, He calls the mountains and the foundations of the earth to serve as the jury (vv. 1-2). He asks why His people have turned from His ways (v. 3), especially in light of all that He has done for them—He has delivered them, redeemed them, provided for them, protected them and guided them (vv. 4-5).

    The people then ask if sacrifices are the appropriate response to the Lord (vv. 6-7). Notice how the sacrifices increase in intensity and value: from calves, to thousands of rams, to ten thousand rivers of oil, even to the point of offering "my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul" (v. 7).

    But it is not sacrifice that the Lord desires. Instead, He requires His people to "act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (v. 8). In this article, I ask you to look more closely at the first two of these three requirements, "to act justly" and "to love mercy." Lord willing, I plan to devote next month’s article to the third requirement, "…to walk humbly with your God."

"...to act justly"

    The Lord’s definition of justice is broader in scope than the definition we might ordinarily use. In the Old Testament, the aim of justice was not only to punish the guilty, but also to protect the rights of the innocent and needy and to give assistance to them. A good illustration of this is found in Job 29:11-17. In this passage, Job recounts his earlier days:

    "Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him. The man who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth."

    Notice the actions that Job associates with justice: rescuing the poor and the fatherless; caring for the dying and for the widow; helping the blind, the lame and the needy; intervening for the stranger and the victim. Consider also the Lord’s words through the prophet Isaiah: "Stop bringing meaningless offerings!…Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow" (Isa. 1:13-17). Once again, justice is related to doing what is right, encouraging the oppressed, defending the cause of the fatherless and the widow.

    A significant aspect of the call to "act justly," therefore, is to uphold and care for the needy. The Lord is simply asking us to reflect His character and His justice toward others, for He Himself "…defends the cause of the fatherless and widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing" (Deut. 10:18).

"…to love mercy"

    The second requirement is "to love mercy." The Hebrew word translated as "mercy" is elsewhere translated with such terms as "kindness," "lovingkindness," "unfailing kindness," "love" and "unfailing love." It is a very rich term that is deeply rooted in covenant relationships. It carries the idea of loyalty and devotion that manifests itself in active concern and helpful action toward others.

    A good illustration of what the term means is found in Matthew 9:9-13. In this passage, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice..."–a passage which closely parallels Micah 6:6-8. Matthew 9:9-13 states: "As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and "sinners"?’ On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’" Jesus quotes the reference to mercy from Hosea in order to defend His interaction with tax collectors and sinners. He states that He came to care for the sick, not the healthy. He shows by His example that God calls His people to extend His love and kindness toward the needy.

    So the heart of "to act justly and to love mercy" is to express care and concern for others and to meet their needs in practical ways. This ministry toward others is part of the proper response that the Lord seeks in light of all that He has done for us. As He has acted justly and mercifully toward us in delivering, redeeming, protecting and providing for us (Micah 6:4-5), He calls us to do the same for others. In other words, our appreciation for Him and His care should overflow into expressions of concern and care for those around us.

    Our treatment of others is, therefore, a very important issue to the Lord. On the one hand, if we neglect others or treat them unjustly, the Lord sends judgment. On the other hand, when we express love for others, the Lord is pleased. These truths are depicted powerfully in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats as recorded in Matthew 25:31-46. Those who do not care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned will face the Lord’s judgment. Those who reach out to these needy people will be rewarded by the Lord. He takes these deeds of kindness personally, stating that it is as though they are done unto Him (Matt. 25:40).

    Add to this the promise made in Hebrews 6:10: "God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them." The Lord is very aware of all that you do for others. He knows about the hospitality you show, the financial gifts you share, the physical and spiritual care you provide, the prayer support you offer, the forgiveness you extend, the burdens you help carry, the compassion you express, the encouragement you give, as well as your other acts of justice and mercy toward others.

    These are critical days in the world. In the midst of the sin and ungodliness that abounds, there is a desperate need for God’s people to demonstrate to others the justice and mercy of God. Though this requires time, effort and self-sacrifice, the results are of eternal value—for it is through such expressions of justice and mercy that others are drawn to the Lord.

    "You are the light of the world…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:14-16).