- Airing of Grievances
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Devotion provided by Miles Van Pelt
Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. – Malachi 3:5
Perhaps you are one of those people, like me, who grew up thinking about the Old Testament as a book filled with wrath and judgment, doom and gloom, atrocity and injustice. To make matters worse, the New Testament appeared to be the product of the hippie movement of the 1970s, promoting peace, mercy, and brotherly love. Such a dichotomy, however, could not be further from the truth. The Old and New Testaments are united in their affirmation that the God of the Bible is a merciful and compassionate God. In fact, it would not be inappropriate to characterize the entire Bible as a book that journals God’s mercy and compassion. In the Old Testament, mercy, or its English synonym, compassion, constitutes a fundamental attribute of the divine character.
Mercy and compassion are rooted in the very character of God. His law commands it. Wisdom teaches it. The prophets enjoin it and the Psalms applaud it.
God is merciful to the poor. Not only does God’s mercy restrain wrath toward the sinner, it also moves Him in compassion toward the poor. The significance of God’s concern for the poor is expressed in many of Israel’s covenantal laws. When making loans, the poor may not be charged interest (Ex. 22:25). When rendering judgment, no distinction is to be made between the rich and the poor (Ex. 23:3; L ev. 19:5). When it comes to making a sacrifice, the poor can offer in proportion to their means (Lev. 14:21). The text of Deuteronomy 15:7–11 provides an apt summary of how God desires the poor to be treated. It concludes, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’” (v. 11).
The book of Proverbs teaches that caring for the poor is wise (Prov. 14:21; 17:15; 22:9, 16; 28:27). The prophets condemn those who had neglected or oppressed the poor (Isa. 3:14–15; 10:2; Jer. 5:28; E zek. 22:29; A mos 5:12). The book of Psalms adulates the L ord’s care for the poor (Pss. 68:10; 72:13; 112:9; 113:7; 140:12). There is not a section of the Old Testament that does not account, in some way, for God’s care of the poor, needy, hungry, or oppressed.
In addition to God’s general concern for the poor, specific attention is given to widows, orphans, and sojourners. Of course, the widow is a woman who has lost a husband to death and has not remarried. In the Old Testament, the orphan is a child who has lost a father. The equation of an orphan with a fatherless child is frequently expressed by English Bible translators as “fatherless” (for example, the ESV), though some translations have used the more generic designation “orphan” (NASB). The sojourner is a stranger or resident alien in a foreign land, someone who has fled his own country for political or economic reasons. Abraham was a sojourner in Hebron (Gen. 23:4) and Moses was a sojourner in Midian. In fact, Moses named the son born to him in Midian “Gershom,” which translates from Hebrew into English as “a sojourner there” (Ex 2:22). Even Israel was considered a sojourner in the Land of Promise (Lev. 25:23).
What, then, unites the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner as the special focus of God’s merciful attention? The answer to this question is vulnerability. These people groups shared political, social, and economic vulnerability. They were frequently poor and commonly oppressed, abused, or disadvantaged. Because of this, God advocated for their care when other people or systems of social protection failed. It is written that God “executes justice for the fatherless and widow” and that he “loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18). For this reason, the covenant law of God prohibited their mistreatment (Ex. 22:22; Deut. 24:17), created opportunities for food (Deut. 24:19, 21; 26:12), provided for their participation in the annual feasts (Deut. 16:11, 14), and protected their rights in civil administration (Deut. 24:17). Conversely, those who withheld justice from the widow, orphan, or sojourner were considered to be cursed (Deut. 27:19). The seriousness of this offense was equated with lying, sorcery, and adultery by Malachi the prophet (Mal. 3:5).
It is no wonder, then, that the psalmist praises God as the “Father of the fatherless and the protector of widows” (Ps. 68:5). But the God of mercy and compassion also calls His people to exemplify these attributes in their own lives. As God has been merciful to us, we bear forth the image of this mercy to the world. We are called to “give justice to the weak and the fatherless; [to] maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; [and to] deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3–4).
Mercy and compassion are rooted in the very character of God. His law commands it. Wisdom teaches it. The prophets enjoin it and the Psalms applaud it. Of course, the fullest expression of the mercy of God is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the compassion of God incarnate. But the New Testament does not represent a departure from the Old Testament at this point, but rather the arrival of its fullest expectation.