The Just Judge
The Just Judge
As we come to the second half of Genesis 18 we see God taking Abraham for a walk. If you remember, in the first half of the chapter, God had come to Abraham and Sarah to reiterate his promise of a son. Now, after the men are finished with the royal feast Abraham and Sarah had prepared for them, they go on their way. And yet they don’t go off in any old direction. There’s purpose here. Abraham, still the good host, gets up to travel a short distance with his guests—seeing them off—and as they walk God leads him to a strategic spot. We see this in verse 16:
Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way.
Abraham has been living at Hebron; it’s up in the mountains to the west of the Dead Sea. This might be the spot from which he and Lot had looked out over the land. On the far shore of the Dead Sea was a narrow fertile plain between the Sea and the mountains of Moab. When things got crowded, it was that fertile plain that Lot had chosen, leaving Uncle Abraham in the hill country. With Abraham in tow, God now looks out over that valley himself. And as God looks out over the fertile plain and its five cities he speaks. He may be speaking to the two angels who came with him—deliberating with two members of his heavenly council as he did before the flood and at Babel or it may be that these are his thoughts that the narrator of the story reveals prophetically. Whatever the case, God deliberates:
The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:17-19)
At first glance this might not seem all that important to us. The fact is that it’s very important. It tells us something about Abraham’s mission. Abraham is a prophet. Today we often think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future, but in biblical terms a prophet is someone who proclaims the Word of the Lord, who warns the people of their sins and of God’s judgement, and who calls them to repentance. Think of John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, and his message: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” God lets his prophets in on his divine plans so that they can give warning of his impending judgement. Amos wrote:
For the Lord God does nothing
without revealing his secret
to his servants the prophets. (Amos 3:7)
And through Jeremiah, God chastised the false prophets of those days, saying:
But if they had stood in my council,
then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
and from the evil of their deeds. (Jeremiah 23:22)
Brothers and sisters, consider what this means for us. In the Old Testament God worked through a handful of men—men like Noah and Abraham, Amos and Jeremiah—to call the people to repentance and faith. But in the New Testament, through the Gospel, God calls us all to be prophets. All of us are given the task of calling men and women to repentance and faith. God has spoken to us all and warned that his judgement is coming. But he has also given each of us the task of proclaiming his Good News that through faith in Jesus, his death and resurrection, we need not fear the judgement of God. Consider what Jesus says in John 15:15:
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
God wants his people to know what he is doing so that we can live accordingly and so that we can take the message of repentance and faith to the world.
This is what God’s getting at with Abraham. He has called Abraham to be a great nation, but a great nation needs to understand the nature of justice. They will be called to be a light to the gentiles, and a blessing to the nations, but how can they be a light and how can they be a blessing without keeping what the text calls “the way of the Lord”? And we should ask: What does it mean to “keep the way of the Lord”? Eugene H. Merrill writes that, “The way is…the whole course of life lived in conformity to covenant obligations.” And Bruce Waltke writes that the way of the Lord refers to “right behavior that leads to a right destiny due to one’s relationship with the Lord.” And we see here that there are two sides to living this out: righteousness and justice. They’re two different things, but they’re completely inseparable. To cite Waltke again: “Righteousness portrays a way of living in community that promotes the life of all its members, a life promoting social order in recognition of God’s rule. A righteous person rightly orders community, and a just one restores broken community, especially by punishing the oppressor and delivering the oppressed.” Righteousness means living in a way that creates and maintains right relationships between human beings and between human beings and God; justice means living in a way that brings healing and restoration when right relationships are broken. In a national context, which will be important for Abraham’s children, justice means punishing those who oppress and making things right for those who have been oppressed.
Think about what this means for us. How often do we limit righteousness and justice to simply living out the Ten Commandments in our personal lives. It’s true that the kingdom of God is no longer about a physical and earthly nation governed by the Old Testament law. God’s kingdom is now present in his Church. But think of the ways we can be light to the world as the Church by building godly community through righteous living and by restoring broken communities and relationships by living justly. This is what it means when Jesus calls us to be salt and light. It’s not just about individual righteousness, but going beyond that to include the whole Church, the whole body of Christ, bringing a message of life and reconciliation to the world.
Now, when it comes to God’s justice, notice that it’s not arbitrary. Look at verses 20 and 21:
Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
God has heard the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah. In Hebrew there’s a play on words here. God first speaks of Abraham’s righteousness (?ed?qâ) and now he speaks of the great outcry (ze‘?qâ) against these sinful cities; Abraham’s righteousness brings the unrighteousness of Sodom into sharp relief. And we see that God does not sit idly by in heaven, giving free reign to sin on earth. He has heard the outcry against these cities. It may be the outcry of the people who have been wronged and oppressed that God has heard, or it may simply be that the sin itself is its own outcry; just as the blood of Abel cried out to God from the ground, so the gross immorality of these cities has cried out to God from the earth. Whichever it is, the outcry demands justice and so God comes to bring judgement.
But notice that God doesn’t simply swoop down from heaven with fire and brimstone to rain destruction down on sinners. He wouldn’t cease to be just if he did so, but remember that God wants his creatures to know him, to know who he is, to know what he’s like, and ultimately to be drawn back into fellowship with him. God wants his people to know that he is just so that we will trust him. He’s not like the frivolous and capricious gods of the pagans. And so he says to Abraham that he will go down to the cities to investigate and to verify their sins for himself. It’s not that he doesn’t know already; it’s that he wants his people to know that he knows.
Think back to Adam and Eve. When they sinned God came in judgement, but first—as a just judge—he made an inquiry. He didn’t come in a whirlwind and cast Adam and Eve from the garden without explanation. He spoke with them, he made clear their sin, he made clear their punishment, and he made it clear that he was not abandoning them. Think, too, of Cain. God did the same with him. Before the flood, God made it clear that he understood the gross sin of humanity and at Babel we see God going down to investigate—again, not because he didn’t know, but to demonstrate to his people that he is just. As we’ll see, God’s two companions go down to investigate the city. We’ll read more about them later, but notice that two of them go. That’s important. When God gave the law through Moses he stipulated that any conviction in a capital case—conviction of any crime requiring the death penalty—required two witnesses. Even though that law hasn’t been given yet, God follows his own instructions, sending two witnesses to confirm the outcry he has heard.
While the two angels head to Sodom, God remains with Abraham.
So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. (Genesis 18:22)
“Abraham still stood before the Lord.” It wasn’t just a matter of God letting Abraham in on his plan. No, God stays behind because he actually wants to involve Abraham in the plan. What’s interesting here is that the scribes who preserved the Hebrew text actually made a change to it. They note in the margin that the original text passed down to them read, “the Lord remained standing before Abraham.” To them the idea that God would lower himself to stand before Abraham was utterly blasphemous, so they assumed that the text must have been corrupted at some point. In fact, if the original text was correct, it gives us a dramatic picture of God challenging Abraham, as the father of the nation and the father of the faithful, to take on the role of a just and righteous judge. He gives Abraham an opportunity to demonstrate whether or not he understands what it means to walk before the Lord in righteousness and justice. I’m reminded of St. Paul’s question to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Corinthians 6:2). God now gives Abraham a foretaste of that judgement. And notice what Abraham does:
Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:23-25)
Abraham obviously knows what it means when God says that the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah has reached his ears. Abraham has seen for himself the sinfulness of these cities. He knows what they deserve. But he also knows that God is righteous and just. Abraham questions whether the entire population of the cities is guilty. He knows that at least his nephew Lot, a righteous man, is living in Sodom. There must be others, he’s thinking. And so Abraham protests: “Will a just judge destroy the righteous on account of the wicked?” We can see Abraham’s line of thinking.
First, how can a just God destroy righteous men and women on account of the sins of the unrighteous? But, second, he intercedes on behalf of the wicked, asking God to spare them for the sake of the righteous. Instead of gloating over the destruction of the evil king who had slighted him, Abraham prays that he and his people might be spared.
This is Gospel thinking. Jesus warns us to “judge not”. God is the judge and he has already judged sin. Rather than self-righteously condemning what is already otherwise bound for eternal damnation, we should be taking the Good News of the Cross to the world, sharing our message of grace in the hopes that those men and women will put their faith in Jesus and be saved from condemnation. Abraham’s showing this kind of thinking: “God spare the wicked on account of the righteous.” This is what Jesus has done for us. We, the wicked, have been spared on his righteous account and as we have been spared he has taught us repentance and turned us to righteousness.
So Abraham starts with a plea that God spare the city if there be fifty righteous there. The number is probably symbolic of half the city: “If half the people are righteous, would you spare it on their account?” he asks.
And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” (Genesis 18:26)
But Abraham keeps pushing. He keeps interceding for these people. He probably already knows that there aren’t fifty righteous in Sodom. He knew the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah, but he also trusts that his God is just.
Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” (Genesis 18:27-32)
As Abraham intercedes the number of righteous in the city gets smaller and smaller and as those numbers get smaller and smaller, God’s replies to his intercessions become more and more ominous. The more Abraham intercedes the more we realise that the doom of Sodom and Gomorrah is already sealed. There aren’t fifty righteous in the cities; not even forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, or even ten. Abraham gets the picture and stops at ten. We know that even if there were one righteous man, God would not destroy the cities, but the fact is that there isn’t one righteous man there. As we’ll see when the angels visit Sodom in Chapter 19, every single one of the men there convicts himself by his actions. God’s punishment is justified. Having made his point, God ends the prayer and departs:
And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place. (Genesis 18:33)
The image of Abraham we see here is the image of a prophet. The prophets not only preached a message of repentance and judgement, but they also interceded for the people. Think of Moses, of Samuel, of Amos, and of Jeremiah all pleading with God on behalf of rebellious and sinful Israel. Maybe it was the prophets who interceded so mightily because they were the ones who had been given the knowledge of God’s coming judgement and knew what a fearful thing it is to be a sinner in the hands of a just and righteous God. But Abraham goes beyond this image of the prophet interceding for their own people. He intercedes not for his own people, not even for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. He intercedes for sinners.
Does this remind you of anyone? Think of Jesus as he was hanging on the Cross and yet interceding for his own executioners and the people taunting him: “Father, forgiven them, for they know not what they do.” In both Abraham and Jesus we have examples that point to our own mission. We’re reminded that God hasn’t saved us and immediately beamed us up to heaven. He has allowed us to remain in a deeply sinful world. Obviously part of his reasoning is for us to grow in our faith, but he’s also left us here to be his witnesses. He’s left us here to be salt and light. He’s left us here to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, to a world that stands condemned just as Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned. God’s judgement is coming, but for the sake of the righteous, God has delayed his judgement that men and women might come to know him.
As he gave Abraham the opportunity to intercede for Sodom, so he gives us the opportunity to intercede for our world. And yet our mission goes even further. We not only pray for the fallen world around us, we take the message of the Gospel to it. And yet how many of us, were we in Abraham’s shoes on that day, would have stood looking over Sodom and cheered on the coming destruction: “Way to go, God! Pour the fire and brimstone on. Don’t hold back! Those people are some serious sinners down there.” How often do we rejoice to see a sinner receive his comeuppance? How often do we look forward to the day when our enemies, unrepentant in their sins, will be sent into eternal torment? Don’t get me wrong; even in condemning sinners to eternal damnation God is glorified. But when we gloat over the judgement of sin or when we judge others for their sins we’re doing the opposite of what God has called us to do. When we do those things we’re being self-righteous. God, instead, calls us to recognise our own sinfulness, to live in grateful appreciation of the salvation we have in Christ—a salvation we have not earned, but have been given only by grace through faith—and as we recognise God’s grace at work in our lives, as we see his love for his people, and as we recall his desire that all men and women should repent, like Abraham, we ought to be interceding on behalf of sinners and sharing with them the Good News that has been our salvation.
Let us pray: Gracious Father, give us the grace and humility to intercede for sinners rather than judge them and gloat at their punishment. Remind us that we too are sinners, saved only on account of the righteousness of Christ. And as we walk in his righteousness, let us never forget that righteousness and justice go hand in hand. We are to walk in holiness, but we are also called to bring the Gospel hope of restoration to those who walk in darkness. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.