Proverbs 21:3

To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.


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Here is one of the greatest proverbs. Give God glory! It teaches a godly rule for Christian ethics to help guide your life. Take the time to learn this priority of wisdom, and humble yourself to its righteousness, so you can please God and find great peace for dilemmas.

Do you crave wisdom? Learn this proverb, and do not forget it. The lesson is harder than many and requires explanations, illustrations, and applications, but you will have easy answers for situations that others think are impossibly difficult. You will find mercy and liberty for your own soul and the souls of others. Thank you, blessed God, for wisdom.

Pharisees cannot grasp this principle, so Jesus used it to close their mouths more than once (Matt 9:13; 12:7). Though the Jews had read it, memorized it, counted its letters, strapped it to their foreheads, and kissed its ink marks on scrolls (Matt 23:5; John 5:39; Rom 2:17), they never came close to learning the spirit of this rule from the heart of God.

“Justice and judgment” is doing what is morally right. Toward God, it is a pure heart obeying His words (I Sam 15:22-23; Ps 51:16-17). Toward men, it is being fair, right, and kind as defined by God (Ex 18:21-22; Deut 1:16-17; 16:18-19; II Sam 8:15; 15:4; Ps 82:1-4; Eccl 5:8; Is 59:4,14; Jer 22:15-16; Ezek 45:9; Jn 7:24). It is keeping the two great commandments, which are greater than any sacrifice or external worship (Mk 12:33).

“Sacrifice” is keeping God’s precepts, ordinances, and services of outward religion, which are ceremonial, official, ritualistic, or external in nature. It is also obeying the letter of God’s commandments or worship while neglecting or violating the spirit or the intent of those laws or of personal mercy. Even if Jehovah Himself commanded them and their details, there is a right and wrong time and way to keep them and to enforce them.

The perfect man does both, but he knows moral religion of the heart is more important than ceremonial religion of public worship or checkbook (Matt 23:23; I Sam 15:22-23; Micah 6:6-8). David thirsted after God like no other, but he also came up with the idea and funding for a fabulous temple. Like his father, Solomon craved internal wisdom to please God, but he also outdid every king in public worship. A perfect man does both.

Isaiah declared Israel to be like Sodom and Gomorrah for keeping God’s ceremonial religion but neglecting kindness and mercy in personal dealings (Is 1:10-20). Isaiah again condemned Israel’s outward appearance of righteousness by formal service to God while privately violating the rights and needs of those around them, even family (Is 58:1-10). Grasp and love the difference between ceremonial religion and true godliness of lifestyle.

Isaiah further explained that God is so great He does not need your public offerings, and any sin in your heart or personal life corrupts worship you do outwardly, no matter how correct it may be (Is 66:1-4). Here is wisdom: your internal and personal righteousness sanctifies and beautifies your outward and public worship, but outward and public worship cannot and will not cover for a sinful heart or life (Pr 15:8; 28:9; Hag 2:10-14).

It does not matter that God gave the commandments. It does not matter if you keep the details of them perfectly. God values fair, right, and merciful treatment of men more important than ceremonial accuracy. He cares very much for the details of His religious service, but not when they conflict with the legitimate needs of men. This distinction is divine – can you grasp it? Hearty love trumps accurate worship, when they conflict.

True justice values fairness and mercy above strict observance of the letter of God’s laws. True judgment values man’s welfare more than God’s ceremonies or laws designed for man’s welfare. For example, godly justice and judgment knows when it is acceptable to lie, even though God strictly condemns lying (Ex 1:15-21; Judges 4:18-21; I Sam 16:1-2; 21:1-2,10-15; II Sam 15:31-37; 17:15-22; I Kgs 3:16-28; II Kgs 10:18-21; etc., etc.).

For another example, Moses’ Law required rest on Sabbath days. Those without wisdom and exalting “sacrifice” would demand Sabbath obedience to man’s harm, even though the Sabbath was given to rest and help man (Ex 23:12). Such black-and-white, keeping-the-details religion is always easier than doing “justice and judgment,” which requires an honest and pure heart, a premium on mercy, and perceptive wisdom to rightly divide.

Here is the precious wisdom and the inspired lesson: loving God from the heart and doing what is right, good, and merciful to others and yourself pleases God more than perfectly keeping His ceremonial ordinances. A pure heart with sincere love and service to others is more important than details of formal worship. Reject the heresy that attending Mass faithfully will cover your soul regardless of your life. Grasp the knowledge that even detailed specific commandments may be broken to righteously manage a situation.

This rule does not neglect formal worship, as Solomon himself was a great example of expensive sacrifice (I Kgs 3:4; 8:64-66; II Chr 7:5). True worshippers will do both (Matt 23:23). But when you face a conflict between kindly helping a person and a strict worship duty, make mercy and compassion more important. You should not exalt ceremony or letter over mercy and spirit. You do not judge by presumption or whim, but only when facing a contradiction or dilemma between formal commandments and helping a person.

The proverb is not the only voice for this rule in the Old Testament. It is found in other places as well (Micah 6:6-8). The one quoted by Jesus Christ is from Hosea 6:6,

For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

The Bible illustrates the rule with examples. Jesus blasted the Jews for thinking more highly of circumcision and the Sabbath than healing a man (John 7:21-24; 5:1-16). It is true “justice and judgment” to heal a man, even if it broke the important Sabbath law. To leave a man lame, even for one more day, in order to keep the Sabbath, was wicked “sacrifice.” These unmerciful devils would cut a man (circumcision) on the Sabbath, but they forbad Jesus to heal a man on the Sabbath after lying impotent on a bed for 38 years.

If you think such wicked and hateful men are gone, you are wrong. They still exist. They have little minds and even smaller hearts. You would rather meet a bear robbed of her whelps than one of these self-righteous, arrogant Pharisees. Their ugly hearts are revealed when repentant sinners are celebrated or mercy is sought for anyone against tradition. You should rejoice in the way the Lord despised, ridiculed, ignored, and defeated them.

When David was hungry, he ate the shewbread out of the tabernacle that was lawful only for priests to eat (I Sam 21:1-6). Even the Levites could not eat the shewbread. David broke God’s clear commandment (Ex 29:32; Lev 24:9). And Jesus totally exonerated him for doing so (Matt 12:3-4). Why did the man after God’s own heart do such a thing? How did David have the confidence to eat the priests’ sacred bread? What gave him liberty?

He knew God had rejected Cain and his worship for not doing it correctly (Gen 4:3-5), and he knew God had severely punished Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-2), Moses (Num 20:7-13), and Saul (I Sam 13:8-14) for altering God’s commandments. How did David know God would accept his breaking of God’s law for minor hunger, when he could have obtained food another way? By the justice, judgment, and mercy of this proverb! Amen!

Does David’s wisdom excite you? No wonder he was a man after God’s own heart: he thought like God thinks. He knew mercy was more important than shewbread. King Saul on the other hand profanely thought a sacrifice of Amalekite spoils would justify ignoring God’s command to utterly annihilate them (I Sam 15:1-29). Such Pharisees will sound very holy as they talk about zealously keeping God’s worship, while they ignore righteous principles God counts more important. Reader, be a David, not a Saul!

When the apostles picked corn and ate it on the Sabbath, the Pharisees condemned them for breaking the law (Matt 12:1-2). But Jesus reminded these religious legalists about David’s case and the priests’ Sabbath work (Matt 12:3-5). Then He wisely applied the related principle of mercy to defend the apostles, and He rebuked the Pharisees for being ignorant of their own Scripture (Matt 12:3,5,7). Are you more like Jesus or the Pharisees?

Pharisees conveniently exalted Corban – their faith-promise gift of assets to the temple – in order to avoid taking care of their aged parents in need (Matt 15:3-6; Mark 7:9-13). They made a future “sacrifice” to temple maintenance more important than doing “justice and judgment” to their own parents. This heartless attitude of using commandments to cover a lack of love and mercy is exactly what the proverb condemns. Jesus exalted justice and judgment, even if it meant breaking a law of God about outward worship.

For example, Jesus healed a woman on the Sabbath, who had been bowed together by an evil spirit of infirmity for 18 years. The ruler of the synagogue rebuked Him before the people and said healing should take place on the other days of the week. Listen to this wicked man defend the letter of God’s law. Should we appreciate his stand for strictness? Never! This is not the only such event in the gospel accounts of the Lord; there are many.

Jesus called him a hypocrite, because he was one; and He told those present that each of the Pharisees would help his ox get a drink of water on the Sabbath, and then He justified breaking the Sabbath for the woman’s sake (Luke 13:10-17). The result? His enemies were ashamed, and the people rejoiced at His works of kindness and mercy. What did this wise application of divine judgment usually get Him? Their murderous hatred!

Pharisees pretend they love God’s word, but they only love black and white rules that are convenient. They reject the concept of wisdom. (There is no wisdom keeping black and white rules, for that is merely rote compliance.) Wisdom correctly applies God’s principles that may override laws and learns God’s priorities in His commandments. Pharisees are righteous over much, as Solomon warned (Eccl 7:16). Jesus ridiculed their meticulous tithing of herbs while missing more important things like mercy (Matt 23:23).

When Naaman returned to Syria after being cleansed of leprosy, his duties included escorting the king to pagan worship. The custom required him to bow with his master before the pagan idol Rimmon. What advice did Elisha give to this conscientious believer in Jehovah, who would have to engage in pagan idolatry as part of his job (II Kgs 5:18-19)? Go in peace! Do not worry about it! Pharisees would have turned blue and choked to death on such merciful wisdom, because they never learned the proverb before your eyes.

Divorce and remarriage is often one of the hardest issues facing pastors. If Scripture allows only fornication and desertion as grounds for divorce and remarriage (Matt 5:32; 19:9; I Cor 7:12-16,27-28), there may be opportunities for them to practice this proverb. There will be cases short of adultery or desertion, but similar or worse in nature or effect, where divorce is justified by this rule and its New Testament counterpart (Matt 12:7). A wise pastor will weigh such principles highly. Is there any like David to joyfully apply it?

Most conservative pastors would be fearful to use this rule, for they have been trained to be sticklers for the letter of the law, ignoring the spirit. They do not understand this proverb or its New Testament counterparts. They must hold the tradition of the Pharisees or be considered a libertine by those who hate mercy. May God raise up men to reject the bondage of Pharisaism and promote the liberty of Jesus Christ, yet without compromising God’s laws for mere whim or convenience. Lord, let there be more pastors like David.

If you are weak in faith and need extra courage, the Lord gave further support to such applications of mercy, for He also defended his apostles’ picking corn on the Sabbath by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:23-28). What did He mean? He meant that the Sabbath had a purpose and intent that supersedes the commandment itself. If you could keep the purpose and intent of the Sabbath, even while breaking the strict letter of the Sabbath law, you were justified and encouraged to do so.

You may as easily conclude marriage was made for man, not man for marriage. Why force a marriage to stay together, if the purpose for marriage has been irreparably destroyed? The only reason would be to exalt “sacrifice” over “justice and judgment,” which violates the proverb and shows the Pharisee mentality in a heart. The rule of intent is for your wisdom; this is the purpose of Proverbs; this is the purpose of Proverbs 21:3.

Wisdom discerns the intent of a command in order to keep the spirit of it while breaking its letter. Yet, this liberty is only for those keeping marriages together with all their might, for man should not lightly put asunder what God joined together. Is this talking out of both sides of a mouth? Is this being hypocritical by endorsing opposing positions? No, it is rightly dividing the word of truth and finding God’s balance of wisdom. Amen!

This is high wisdom, that of David and Jesus, but it is available to you, if you will trust God’s word, as in this proverb. Jesus condemned those who judged situations by their appearance rather than their facts and effects (Jn 7:24). He knew there was a different way to view situations, and it was by righteously assessing all angles – one of justice and judgment. Do you judge by the simplistic and surface appearance of a situation, or can you righteously evaluate a situation at a deeper level to arrive at the truly wise response?

There is a great need for wise and righteous judgment in many situations. Sometimes there are contradictions, or apparent conflict, between God’s statutes and precepts. Jehoshaphat ordained judges that would be able to judge beyond the appearance of controversies in order to determine the righteous solution, one based on justice and judgment. His charge to these men about their duties is very instructive (II Chr 19:8-11).

Consider another example. If a man’s business, health, or vacation calls him away from church assemblies, you may accept the priority of mercy by this proverb, even though you may emphasize attendance more than most (Heb 10:23-25). You do not condemn him for being less of a Christian; you encourage him for being a merciful wise man. And you do not object or avoid applying this principle to your own self (Pr 11:17).

This proverb cannot be used to foolishly neglect or break God’s commandments. You should know what happened to the man who presumptuously picked up sticks on the Sabbath (Num 15:30-36) and to David when he moved the Ark of the Covenant incorrectly (II Sam 6:1-11). Only when there is a conflict between commandments or a need for mercy is there cause to consider principles of wisdom like this proverb.

You should esteem all God’s precepts to be right (Ps 119:128), and you should know what Jesus taught about those breaking the least commandments (Matt 5:19). But you cannot be fearful or timid to override ceremonial ordinances to show love and mercy in difficult or painful situations. The mercy of the LORD endureth forever!

Jesus taught mercy as never before seen in Israel. He taught not returning evil (Matt 5:38-42), love of enemies (Matt 5:43-48), joy over repenting sinners (Luke 15:1-32), and the superabundant blessing of mercy to those who show it (Luke 6:37-38). But the rule had been given in the proverb here. Will you take advantage of God’s gift and learn this precious wisdom from the God of heaven through the pen of Solomon? Will you be able to find God’s balance and priority and put justice, mercy, and humility first (Mic 6:6-8)?