2.2.4 Just government: (2) The role of Israel’s king
Back to 2.2.3
For this screen you might find it useful to have access again to the outline of biblical history. To open it in a different window, click 2.2.2.
What we are focusing on here is the Hebrew Scriptures’ vision of an ideal ruler.
The historical outline shows that, after the conquest of Canaan1, the Israelites lived for several hundred years as a politically independent people in the Promised Land. In the kingdom of Judah, centred on Jerusalem, this was for about 600 years (from c.1200 to c.600). In the northern kingdom of Israel it was for about 500 years, until 720.
During the first part of this long period, about 150 years, the people were ruled by judges. During the remaining 450 years, until Judah’s exile to Babylon, the people were ruled by kings. In other words, the period of the judges was followed by a much longer period of monarchy.
The transition from the judges to the monarchy is portrayed in an extremely interesting way, in 1 Samuel, and we shall look at this later (in 2.2.9). But in relation to our current question, of what government should do, there is one really important continuity between these two periods. This is that the practice of judgment in court was a fundamental responsibility of those who ruled – whether they were ‘judges’ or ‘kings’. We have already seen, on the last screen, the Torah’s emphasis on the importance of due process.
It is in Old Testament texts to do with the king’s role that it is especially evident that practising judgment in court was basic in what a ruler should do. To see this we shall look first at one particular text. This is Psalm 72, which presents a picture of an ideal Israelite king.
Psalm 72:1-17, focusing on the first four verses
The link takes you to the New American Bible (NAB) version. This has an especially accurate – and therefore helpful – translation of verses 1-4.
It is time to learn three more Hebrew words (you have already learned torah). Doing this will help us to understand both Ps. 72 and other passages we shall look at in a moment.
Here are verses Ps. 72:1-2, showing two of the Hebrew words, those translated in the NAB as ‘judgment’ and ‘justice’.2
O God, give your mishpat to the king;
your tzedakah to the king’s son;
That he may govern your people with tzedakah,
your oppressed with mishpat.
There are two things that are especially worth noting here.
First, the Hebrew word translated as ‘judgment’ in the NAB is mishpat. As you can see, it is used twice. It refers to the concrete act of giving judgment in court, rather than to a more abstract idea of justice.
In fact, the original Hebrew here has the plural of mishpat (mishpatim). The writer of the Psalm is praying that God will give the king his ‘judgments’, in other words, that again and again the king will exercise ‘right judgment’ (v. 2).
The Hebrew word, tzedakah, means justice or righteousness in a more general sense than the specific act of judgment that mishpat refers to.3
In light of this, we can say that the use of mishpat in Ps. 72 makes clear that a major role of the king was to give judgment in court. The king’s practice of judgment was necessary in order to govern with tzedakah.
Second, the judgment that the ideal king exercises is for the sake of those who are oppressed, poor or needy, or victims of violence (vv. 1-4, 12-14). He will “defend the oppressed among the people, save the children of the poor”; the king’s judgment should “crush the oppressor” (v. 4).
One commentator on Ps. 72 says this:
In fact, the only stated responsibility of the king in vv. 2-7 or vv. 12-14 is to establish justice for the oppressed, to ‘save’ the needy (v. 4; see v. 13). Such salvation was what God did in the exodus… and this function is the measure of royalty, whether human or divine.4
Ps. 72:2-3 shows also that, through judgment (mishpat) in favour of the oppressed and poor, there will be not only justice (tzedakah) but also wellbeing, shalom.
This is the fourth Hebrew word to learn. In the NAB here, shalom is translated as ‘bounty’; the NRSV has ‘prosperity’. Sometimes it is translated as ‘peace’. In fact shalom means more than any one English term can convey: shared welfare or wellbeing, peace with justice, true prosperity. Shalom has similar depth and breadth of meaning as ‘the common good’ does in CST, but it is even richer than that.
It is through the king exercising just judgment for the sake of the oppressed and poor that shalom becomes possible. This is parallel to the relationship there is in CST between justice and the common good (which we noted in Unit 1; 1.3.2). Justice is a prerequisite of the common good, and the common good is more than justice.
What are the four Hebrew words you have learned on this and the last screen?
Psalm 72 is a good place to start to look at what the Hebrew Scriptures present as the role of the king because the fundamental elements we find here appear in numerous other texts too.
With that background knowledge, now read some biblical texts directly. Then do the Exercise that follows, which basically asks you to identify what these texts say about the role of the king.
The links take you to the NAB translation.
From the Psalms:
The first reading is Psalm 101. Scholars generally agree that this Psalm is a king’s pledge to govern with integrity. As the note to v.8 in the NAB online indicates, the phrase ‘morning by morning’ is likely to refer to the time when, each day, the king gave judgment in the court.
Psalm 101 (1p)
From the historical books:
We look at three texts in 1 Kings. They are all to do with Solomon and are passages in a single narrative. The first of them includes one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament. Located where it is in the text, it is a symbol of how fundamental the practice of judgment is for the wise king.
From the wisdom literature:
Like most of Proverbs, chapter 16 comprises many short sayings that are often on completely different topics from those immediately before and after them. However, verses 10-15 include a few about the king’s role. Chapter 31 is more thematic.
From the prophets:
The first prophetic passage we look at, in Isaiah, presents a vision of an ideal ruler, a descendent of King David (Jesse, v.1, was David’s father.). It can be compared with Psalm 72. If you are a churchgoer, you will probably recognize this passage because it is read in many churches in Advent.
Isaiah 11:1-9 (1p)
Jeremiah was the prophet who, during the years before the exile of Judah to Babylon, constantly prophesied that Jerusalem would fall and the people would be taken away. (He does this in the part of chapter 21 before the reading begins.) He was not popular!
Jeremiah 21:11 – 22.19 (2pp)
Isaiah and Jeremiah are among the ‘major prophets’ because the biblical books named after them are long. We now turn to Amos, one of the ‘minor prophets’, whose book is much shorter. Amos chapter 5 is one of the most challenging and powerful passages in all of Scripture. With equal force, the prophet Amos critiques the failure to give judgment for the oppressed and the offensiveness of worship of God when people do nothing about injustice. To understand this chapter, you need to know that the courts met at the city gate (see vv. 10, 12, 15). The prophet is calling for the courts to be open, so that aggrieved and exploited people, who have cases they desperately need to bring, can come to the courts, get a fair hearing and have a just judgment handed down.
Against this background, v.24, which is very well-known, is especially interesting. It uses mishpat and tzedakah, just like Ps. 72:1-2: “[L]et mishpat surge like waters, tzedakah like an unfailing stream.” Surprisingly (given what we saw when studying Psalm 72), the NAB translates these here, not as ‘judgment’ and ‘justice’, but as ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’. This less literal translation diverts us from what is most likely the primary meaning of v.24. Amos is appealing for the courts to work as they ought to, and judgment to be done (5:12). His call is: “For the sake of the righteous who are oppressed and the needy who are turned aside [5.12], open up the courts! Let just judgments flow from them like a great stream! Then there will be justice!”5
Amos 5:1-24 (2pp)
Micah is another ‘minor prophet’. In chapter 3, Micah denounces the rulers and, along with them, false prophets and priests for gross injustices that have followed abandonment of God’s ways. The imagery in which he does this is not for the faint-hearted. The start of chapter 4 gives a contrasting vision of the life of the people when restored to God. This is one of the most famous texts in the prophetic books, with its promise of swords beaten into ploughshares.
Micah 3:1 – 4:4 (2pp)
How would you summarize what these texts say about what the role of the Israelite king should be? Make brief notes on each passage to answer this question.
On the last screen and this one, we have been doing some fairly intensive study of the Hebrew Scriptures, focusing first on the Torah and then on the role of the Israelite king.
In looking at these two, there is striking similarity. The Torah requires rule that, in structured ways, benefits the poor and oppressed, and an impartial system of judgment in court. In the vision of an ideal king that emerges from Psalms, Proverbs and the prophets, the king will ensure that the courts work well so that people suffering injustice can get their cases heard and just judgments are handed down.
What we find in the Hebrew Scriptures, then, is an ideal of political rule that the king was supposed to make real. But there was also persistent and often gross failure to keep to the ideal. The devastating prophetic critiques show this. Rather than ruling justly, many of the kings became responsible for terrible injustice. Most scholars agree that the historical books of 1 and 2 Kings present the monarchy as basically a failure – of which Solomon’s failure to fulfil his early promise can be seen as a symbol. The just rulers were the exceptions.
Yet these texts do give an answer to the question, ‘What should government do?’
In brief, the answer is: Israel’s rulers were to act for the afflicted and poor, to do so structurally or systematically, and to ensure that their use of the main means available to them, namely judgment in court, was truthful and effective.
In our day, governments have a much wider range of means of acting than they did then – for example, preventing destitution by state welfare provision. The kings whom the prophets criticised had to rely largely on making sure the court system was working well in order to bring justice (tzedakah) and the common good (shalom). That has always remained vitally important, but now rulers can use both this and other means to these ends.
We’ll be looking at what this means in practice in later units in this module (especially Unit 3 and Unit 5).
End of 2.2.4
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The biblical narratives of the conquest of Canaan (in the Book of Joshua) present very challenging questions because some portray indiscriminate killing of an enemy people. We shall look at issues this raises in Unit 7 on peace and war. ↩
The Hebrew words are given in transliteration and in their basic forms, for accessibility. ↩
The NAB is helpful here in translating mishpat as ‘judgment’ and tzedakah as ‘justice’ because it thereby avoids the misleading impression given in most contemporary translations, which make the first ‘justice’ and the second ‘righteousness’. As Donahue says, this “causes major problems”. ‘Justice’ doesn’t capture well that mishpat is not an abstract quality but is to do with concrete action, particularly judgment in court. In relation to tzedakah, “in most people’s minds righteousness evokes primarily personal rectitude or personal virtue, and the social dimension of the original Hebrew is lost” (Donohue, ‘The Bible and CST’ [cited on 2.2.3]), 14. ↩
J. Clinton McCann, Jr., ‘The Book of Psalms’, in L. Keck et al., eds, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. IV (Abingdon, 1996), p. 963. ↩
Commenting on Amos 5:24, Barbara Johnson says, “Here tzedakah is understood as the normative principle and mishpat as the principle of conduct which must conform to tzedakah,” quoted in Donahue, ‘The Bible and CST’ [cited on 2.2.3], 15. ↩