SOME time ago, criminal courts in a Western land accepted faulty evidence against two men accused of murder and sentenced them to death. Once the error came to light, lawyers worked hard and gained freedom for one of the convicted. But the best attorneys could do nothing for the other—he had already been executed.
Since such travesties can arise in any legal system, the Bible urges: “Justice—justice you should pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) Where judges follow that injunction, citizens benefit. God’s Law gave ancient Israel a legal system based on impartiality and fairness. Let us look at that Law to see whether “all [God’s] ways are justice.”—Deuteronomy 32:4.
JUDGES “WISE, DISCREET, AND EXPERIENCED”
People’s interests are served when jurists are competent, fair, and above corruption. God’s Law to Israel placed a high value on judges of that caliber. Early in the wilderness trek, Moses was told to look for “capable men fearing God, trustworthy men hating dishonest profit,” to serve as judges. (Exodus 18:21, 22) Forty years later, he reemphasized the need for “wise, discreet, and experienced men” to judge the people.—Deuteronomy 1:13-17.
Centuries later, King Jehoshaphat* of Judah commanded the judges: “Pay attention to what you are doing, for you do not judge for man but for Jehovah, and he is with you when you pass judgment. Now let the fear of Jehovah be upon you. Be careful about what you do, for with Jehovah our God there is no injustice, no partiality, no bribe-taking.” (2 Chronicles 19:6, 7) The king thus reminded the judges that if prejudice or greed affected their decisions, God would hold them responsible for any resulting harm.
When Israel’s judges lived up to those high standards, the nation felt protected and secure. But God’s Law also provided a set of principles that helped judges to reach fair decisions, even in the most difficult cases. What are some of those principles?
PRINCIPLES THAT LED TO FAIR DECISIONS
Though the judges selected were to be wise and capable men, they were not left to make judgments by relying on their own abilities or ingenuity. Jehovah God gave them principles or guidelines by which they could reach correct decisions. Here are some directions that were given to the Israelite judges.
Make a complete investigation. Through Moses, God instructed Israelite judges: “When you hear a case between your brothers, you are to judge with righteousness.” (Deuteronomy 1:16) Judges can render a fair verdict only if they have all the facts of a case. For that reason God instructed those handling judicial matters: “You should look into the matter, making a thorough investigation and inquiry.” Judges in court had to make sure that the charge in a criminal case was “confirmed to be true” before proceeding.—Deuteronomy 13:14; 17:4.
Hear the testimony of witnesses. The statements of witnesses were vital to an investigation. God’s Law stipulated: “No single witness may convict another for any error or any sin that he may commit. On the testimony of two witnesses or on the testimony of three witnesses the matter should be established.” (Deuteronomy 19:15) To the witnesses, God’s Law commanded: “You must not spread a report that is not true. Do not cooperate with a wicked one by becoming a malicious witness.”—Exodus 23:1.
Require honesty in court proceedings. The penalty for lying in court gave pause to all involved: “The judges will thoroughly investigate, and if the man who testified is a false witness and has brought a false charge against his brother, you should do to him just as he had schemed to do to his brother, and you must remove what is bad from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 19:18, 19) So if a man lied in court to take another’s inheritance, he stood to lose an equal amount. If he lied to have someone that he knew was innocent put to death, he would forfeit his own life. This guideline was a strong motivation to speak the truth.
Judge impartially. Once they had all the available evidence, the judges deliberated to reach a verdict. At this point, an outstanding detail of God’s Law became especially important: “You must not show partiality to the poor or show preference to the rich. With justice you should judge your fellow man.” (Leviticus 19:15) In all cases, judges were to decide a matter on its true merits, not on the outward appearance or social position of those involved.
These principles, plainly stated centuries ago in God’s Law to Israel, can still be useful in courtrooms today. When they are followed, mistrials and miscarriages of justice can be avoided.
THE PEOPLE WHO BENEFITED FROM TRUE JUSTICE
To the Israelites, Moses posed this question: “What great nation has righteous regulations and judicial decisions like this entire Law that I am putting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:8) Indeed, no other nation enjoyed those benefits. Under the reign of King Solomon, who in his youth sought to carry out Jehovah’s laws, the people “lived in security” and enjoyed peace and prosperity, “eating and drinking and rejoicing.”—1 Kings 4:20, 25.
Regrettably, the Israelites eventually turned their backs on their God. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God declared: “Look! They have rejected the word of Jehovah, and what wisdom do they have?” (Jeremiah 8:9) The result was that Jerusalem became “the bloodguilty city” full of “detestable things.” Finally it was brought to ruin and lay desolate for 70 years.—Ezekiel 22:2; Jeremiah 25:11.
The prophet Isaiah lived through troublesome times in Israel’s history. Looking back, he was moved to declare a great truth about Jehovah God and His Law: “When there are judgments from you for the earth, the inhabitants of the land learn about righteousness.”—Isaiah 26:9.
To his delight, Isaiah was inspired to prophesy about the rule of the Messianic King, Jesus Christ, saying: “He will not judge by what appears to his eyes, nor reprove simply according to what his ears hear. He will judge the lowly with fairness, and with uprightness he will give reproof in behalf of the meek ones of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:3, 4) What wonderful prospects for all who become subjects of the Messianic King under God’s Kingdom!—Matthew 6:10.
The name Jehoshaphat means “Jehovah Is Judge.”