This is a supporting page for the Character of God and the Gospel Glossary entry for justice.
To help understand the meaning of justice in the Bible, let’s start by looking at the stoning of King David for his adultery with Bathsheba – the stoning that never happened.
You remember the story:
“And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.
And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite? And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness: and she returned unto her house. And the woman conceived, and sent and told David, and said, I am with child.” (2 Sam 11:2-5)
David followed the crime of adultery with a plan to cover his guilt and finally ended up arranging the death of Uriah – 2 Sam 11:6-25.
The sentence for committing adultery, given in the time of Moses, was death:
“And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” (Lev 20:10)
“If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.” (Deut 22:22)
Some would say that he was not stoned because there were not two witnesses to his sin. They are going by:
“At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.” (Deut 17:6)
“One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.” (Deut 19:15)
“Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.” (Num 35:30)
The claim and the reasoning, of course, is exactly right. But let’s dig just a little deeper into this. What was the reason for requiring two witnesses? There must be a better reason than just God said so. He doesn’t do things or make laws without good reason; His laws are not arbitrary; indeed scripture tells us that they were given for our good.
“And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day.” (Deut 6:24)
In this case, the law requiring a minimum of two witnesses was to protect the innocent. Think of it, if a person wanted to destroy an enemy they could just level a false charge against them. So the requirement for two witnesses was to establish, beyond reasonable doubt, the guilt of the accused. In Deut 19:15 the reason is mentioned: the witnesses were to testify that “the matter be established” that is, established with certainty or beyond doubt.
If everyone was always honest one witness would have worked fine. But if everyone was always honest there probably wouldn’t be such situations to deal with in the first place.
So, in David’s case, since there were not two witnesses, he got off the hook. Or so it would seem.
From a human perspective, what was really lacking was not two witnesses but, more importantly, undeniable evidence to condemn him – which was the reason for two witnesses.
There was not even one person to accuse him until one day about nine or more months later, in walked Nathan the prophet before the king. We should think about this for a moment. To walk in before a king and accuse him of a serious crime could be a very risky thing to do. Wisely, under God’s direction, Nathan told a story that resulted in David condemning himself (2 Sam 12:1-12). David admitted his guilt:
“And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.” (2 Sam 12:13)
Now what there was in terms of evidence was, humanly speaking, only one accuser (Nathan) who was not even an actual eye-witness. The crucial difference was that the one exposing David was a prophet who was acting on inside information from God Himself.
I suppose a person could still argue that, according to the strictest letter of the law, there had to be two witnesses before the stones could fly. But adulterers were punished because it was a serious crime (to be removed from Israel) not because they weren’t careful enough to avoid being seen by two witnesses. There could be no doubt in this case that David was guilty. So the requirement for two witnesses was overridden in this case as God Himself confirmed David’s guilt.
From a strictly legal viewpoint David should have been executed. So why wasn’t he?
The answer lies in the correct understanding of Biblical justice and God’s purposes in His justice.
Return to the Glossary entry for Justice.