Grasping God's Purpose: "God's Civil Service" – Exodus 23

Thomas Jefferson said: “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.” To what information was he referring? I suggest that it was not merely a knowledge of the world news of the day… it was a knowledge of right and wrong – a moral knowledge.

 Many powerful interest groups in our world attempt to manipulate public opinion, and they have become proficient at doing so. Our society – the one God gave us to be responsible as a steward of – depends on its citizens forming morally positive judgments, and putting pressure on our governing representatives to act accordingly. If citizens are rendered unable to accomplish this, or simply cease desiring to do so – the nation they live in quickly suffers. The world their children and grandchildren inherit suffers. Such citizens yields children with crippled with misshapen morals and a mal-adjusted world view, as their future leaders, accelerating decline. We must consider that even the most excellent leadership, without discriminating citizens, will not work well. If Washington or Lincoln tried the very same speeches that won the hearts of their countrymen and built their citizens in days gone by, they would be repudiated by the modern thinkers and pundits. Their morality would be attacked by those who think themselves “enlightened” in spite of the fact that those attacking “enlightened individuals” never produced something equal to those earlier men. I don’t make this point because these former leaders were made perfect in understanding, nor did we come to study American leaders as God’s patterns.

My observation is only this: our “world view” produces something. Changing it is in the best interest of immoral people, and they have been on the march to do it. From universities to nightly comedy sitcoms, from Disney to dance halls – a new morality has been engineered – and it continues to show itself. We as believers have been infected with it, and we need to open the Word of God to hit a reset button and return ourselves to a former place that many of our forefathers knew. We do not do it for them, but we acknowledge that their doing it gave us great freedom and a great country. The departure from it has pulled off the ropes of our mooring from the docks of moral thinking, and is in danger of leaving us utterly rudderless – tossed in an immoral ocean.

The Bible is the place to reset our vision… but… what does it say is a responsible citizen? What is required to produce an informed and peaceful society that will honor God and build a positive future? As we finish this study in Civil Code from Exodus and move on with Moses and the people in the desert, we will see a truth emerge from our study. It may surprise you…because God is not dull in mind, nor negative in Spirit. He has a positive message for the way forward – but it begins with re-calibrating our view of right and wrong.

Key Principle: God shaped the foundations of a positive community by making clear that VALUES drive decisions, and those decisions create positive conditions for life together.

Knowing the values of God is not difficult – it involves reading His Words and setting the eternal truths into our world, our lives and our society.

A Positive society is based on a Justice system that seeks TRUTH (23:1-3, 6-8)

There have always been classes of people. In every society there are “haves” and “have nots” – and justice often has been skewed to the “haves”. God’s plan for a justice system in civil society was clear – it must be based on truth – that is, the facts of what happened in an event as shared by parties who have firsthand knowledge of these events. The temptation for people to testify to these events in a way that was not altogether truthful had to be resisted– for truth is the foundation of God’s moral code – as He is the truth.

Exodus 23:1 “You shall not bear a false report; do not join your hand with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. 2 “You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice; 3 nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute… 6 “You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute. 7 “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent or the righteous, for I will not acquit the guilty. 8 “You shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of the just.

God offered in this passage four specific cases to be avoided in the justice system, so that the truth would prevail:

  • False Testimony: In every court room, a witness must be speaking the facts of what took place, with no view of manipulating these facts to gain for himself or others (23:1 and 2b, 23:7). His or her testimony must not be swayed by wicked men who use them to gain power while doing evil (23:1). The principle is this: testimony must be received from those who will offer the facts, unfettered to any party in the proceeding. Justice for the weak insures justice for the strong, and vice versa.
  • Vigilante Action: Truth cannot be found in mob justice – for it will not yield truth (23:2a). The principle is this: Justice must be a deliberated process – not a hasty judgment made on flared tempers in crowded squares. Crowd justice is utterly unreliable. Truth can be easily drowned out in the loud voices of evil men. We must not be deceived – truth is neither based on polls nor oratory skill. The stuttering voice of the shaken first hand witness should be more weighty than the lofty words of the populist persuader.

We need to be particularly careful in our time not to believe that protest is always a good thing. Public morality is not best decided by whoever doesn’t have enough to do today that they can gather for hours in protest. It is not a good thing to join in large numbers and hurl insults at people in power – even if they are wrong. We have a right to assemble, and on occasion we are wise to use it. At the same time, it would be good if we could figure out what we truly want before the protest starts, or anarchy tends to takeover. Remember that vigilante justice and public protest policy are not the best ways to move forward – and usually produce terrible results.

  • Deference to Wealth: Justice must be blind to the prosperity. The wealthy must not be able to buy a different justice system standard than the poor can receive – for the truth is at the center of the proceedings – regardless of the status of the victim or the alleged perpetrator (23:3,6). The principle is simple: Any attempt to make just decisions must be fire-walled from economics. Justice and money aren’t good neighbors. It isn’t the money that is bad – but the incessant hunger to compromise in order to gain it that is corrupting.
  • Bribery: This is an abomination to justice (23:8). Money cannot buy truth. What happened is done – and the job of the justice system is to figure out what happened, with minimal hindrance and caveat, and bring stability back to the community with justice to the harmed. The principle is the same as the one above: keep justice secure. Don’t allow money to be a corrupting influence. Guard truth and justice by all necessary means – it is the source of hope to the hurting, and the deterrent to the erring.

In every society, the principles of truth must prevail for the justice system to reflect real justice.

A Positive Society is based on a neighborhood that shows KINDNESS (Exodus 23:4-5)

In addition to TRUTH, civil society must nurture, reward and value KINDNESS. We must train people to serve others that have not earned the right to expect it, simply because it is kind to do so. Two examples are offered:

23: 4 “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. 5 “If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him.

  • Roadside Returns: First, God ordered that we must look out for one another’s property. This would help keep the camp orderly, and also stem off disputes of theft born out of mistrust and suspicion. What would happen if the neighbor saw his ox on your property? Would he think you STOLE it? What if you saw your neighbor sneaking on to your property (though he was actually there to retrieve his ox). Would you strike him because you thought you were protecting your property? Kindness can diffuse situations that otherwise would tear harmony from the neighborhood.  The principle is this: Being kind means to show practical care for someone regardless of what your past disputes have been with that individual. Our past does not determine kindness – our commitment to God does.
  • Roadside Assistance: A second example of kindness was offered in the passage. In the event that your neighbor’s loaded donkey had toppled, you must stop and help him – set him aright and help him regain his load to continue his journey. The assumption one can make is that a loaded donkey was left never unattended, so the neighbor that “hates you” in the passage is also in the scene. The principle is this: Don’t let THEIR FEELING about you stop you in being kind to them.

A Positive Society is based on an Economy that shows Restraint (Exodus 23:10-12)

A third value that builds a positive society, atop TRUTH and KINDNESS is that of ECONOMIC RESTRAINT (23:10-12). Even if you have been squarely with me up to this point, my American students will struggle with the next principle. Read the words carefully:

23:10 “You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, 11 but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. 12 “Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves

Note the passage does not make the argument of rest for any religious reason – but on behalf of the worker’s well-being, and the land’s ability to recoup in the natural processes put in place by the Creator. God ordered the land to have rest for the LAND’S SAKE, and the worker to have rest for the WORKER’S SAKE. He ALSO ordered the land to be fallow for the NEEDY’S SAKE. Now look for the principles more carefully:

  • Needy people are to go and collect from the field (in labor) what you have provided for them in your planting and sowing of previous years. They are not to sit at home and have you drop off the bundles of food, but nor are their physical needs to be ignored.
  • Workers and animals will need rest and refreshment, and that need is to be more important than the constant need to get more out of the field and labor. Working non-stop will kill us, and expecting our workers to work without breaks is morally wrong.

Greed cannot be the only thing that drives a capital market. Businessmen must give something back to the community that gave them a stage to become successful. They need to see beyond the balance sheet and into the eyes of people in the community. Some people cannot work a regular job – they have mental or physical limitations that prevent that. What should we do for them? As a society, we cannot and must not give open hand outs. We must understand that more comes from a job than a paycheck – self-respect, accomplishment, vision and a sense of purpose are also wrapped up in work. We were designed to work, as Adam’s tending of the garden was commanded before SIN came. To God, work helps us, and it is not a penalty for being less clever at prying money out of someone else’s pocket. Work is good, and we need to view it as a privilege that God has bestowed for our good.

I want to be clear: the old “Protestant work ethic” was tied to a Biblical idea that God intended people to work hard, be productive, and try to pull their own weight. We are in danger of fostering a generation that believes the more you can get WITHOUT working, the smarter you are. It isn’t true. You will get money in the short term, but destroy your neighborhood in the process. When a work ethic dies in us, it is quickly replaced by a “get rich quick scheme” ethos – and poverty and disappointment nips at the heels of a whole community.

I am concerned that many feel we no longer need to link the value of goods and services to any fixed real value to be morally correct. I am concerned that I may become ill and a tissue may cost me $25 in a hospital, if someone can find a clever way to CODE it on my bill, so I cannot see through the indecency of it. They seem to feel justified if I don’t catch them. It is NOT RIGHT because you devise a system to hide wildly marked up services – it is destructive in the long run, and disheartening in the short run.

Professional people can roll out bills without conscience that charge ten or twenty  times what a normal working man can make in an hour and justify it against their knowledge and education – but not against any particular service. IT professionals now want me to pay an additional amount per year to get “priority service”, as if the $125 per hour doesn’t entitle me to a prompt return on my phone call already.  If I buy a $300 TV set and it doesn’t work, I can quickly take it back. Yet it seems increasingly if I pay thousands for a tax service, a medical or legal consultation – that professional feels no compulsion if their service to me is literally a waste of my time and money. They do not seem to connect how what they are doing is destroying the society their children will live in.

I am not grousing – I am concerned that civil society is giving way to the same people who figured out how to charge 100 different prices for the same flight I took last week – and not feel that the service should in any way be linked to the value. It is immoral to do so, and it will pull the system apart. “A good day’s work for a good day’s pay” cannot and must not be replaced for “See how much you can get out of them, because we think they can afford it.” We need to bring economic policies back into line with Biblical thinking – a reset button needs to be pushed here!

A Positive Society is based on a public life that is unafraid to show allegiance to God and His Word (23:14-19)

This isn’t a complicated part of the chapter, and it isn’t new – so we will just  touch this truth lightly and move on. God told the people to show up three times a year:

23:14“Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. 15 “You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. 16 “Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. 17 “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.  18 “You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; nor is the fat of My feast to remain overnight until morning. 19 “You shall bring the choice first fruits of your soil into the house of the LORD your God. “You are not to boil a young goat in the milk of its mother.

Note that God said CELEBRATE (23:14), do it for the amount of time instructed and at the time instructed (don’t cut corners – 23:15), and don’t show up with NOTHING IN YOUR HANDS (23:15b)! Offer without bread that is raised and eat all in that day without leftovers (23:18). Bring me your BEST, but don’t bring me what is NOT READY (23:19).

God’s blessing for the nation was tagged to specific points of obedience as it regarded public ceremony. They could not be timid to be His people, and should not seek His blessing if they would not be public about their allegiance. In my lifetime, we have moved from a Judeo-Christian ethic, to a multi-ethnic, pluralistic society. That is fine with, because it put the world in my backyard – and I think that makes the world more colorful and the tapestry of my neighborhood richer. I am happy when I see people pour into our nation because of what God has given us – I truly am. At the same time, America was founded on Biblical statements and Biblical values – and I simply refuse to allow people to re-write history because it removes God and the Bible from the story. They can shout, but I can keep steady, gentle and positive reminders that will not back down. Some things are worth saying often, and some truths bear repeating in the faces of those who think we will be intimidated. The examples are many – but we will not spend time here in this study.

A Positive Society is based on God’s people walking in obedience to God’s Word (Exodus 23:20-23)

Again we find a truth that is both familiar and simple. God promised to send to the people an angel to lead them into the land and fight before them. The problem with God’s angel is that he could give instruction, but not force the people to obey it – that had to be their choice.

23:20 “Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. 21 “Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him. 22 “But if you truly obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. 23 “For My angel will go before you and bring you in to the land of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites; and I will completely destroy them.

Let’s be honest. The problem with believers isn’t that God hasn’t led us. The problem isn’t that He hasn’t offered us direction in His Word, example through His saints of yesteryear, a pattern in our church celebrations, empowering by the working of His Spirit and even comfort in the body of Christ’s service gifts. The problem is, we just don’t want to listen to His instructions and actually DO THEM. Failure to follow even the clearest commands will lead to defeat in this world, and shame when we stand before Him in the next. It is time to listen up if we want our society to see our God. When we follow HIS instruction, we INVITE His blessing.

A Positive Society is based on the resistance of God’s people to conform (Exodus 23:13,24-33)

We have had issues – but much of our history is deep and rich, and will move people toward God!

23:13 “Now concerning everything which I have said to you, be on your guard; and do not mention the name of other gods, nor let them be heard from your mouth… 23:24 “You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their deeds; but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their sacred pillars in pieces. 25 “But you shall serve the LORD your God, and He will bless your bread and your water; and I will remove sickness from your midst. … 32 “You shall make no covenant with them or with their gods. …”

God repeatedly warned the people about becoming like the world. What did that include? Did it include the way they DRESSED? Yes, in fact it did. Did it include the way they CUT THEIR HAIR? Well, yes, in fact it did! Did it include their LANGUAGE? Yes, again it did. Did it include their ENTERTAINMENTS? Again, yes it did! This isn’t so complicated.

I have no interest in doing FOR YOU what the Spirit will do IN YOU. At the same time, we cannot be deceived into thinking that God is fine with each emulation the lost world entices into the life of the modern believer. There are things that are wrong – and we need to grow in our sensitivity to what they are, and then choose not to be like them. Jesus said that if your right eye offends you, pluck it out. Let me say it another way: “If your television causes you to sin – it is better to throw it out than to let it trash your mind, and slowly seep into your heart – and ruin your testimony.” We need to grow up and face that we cannot be what the world is- because what they are is LOST and DOOMED apart from Christ. WE are not. We belong to Him – and we should live openly and happily as though we do. You see, God shaped the foundations of a positive community by making clear that VALUES drive decisions, and those decisions create positive conditions for life together.