Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Protecting the Innocent
Thus says the LORD: “Execute judgment and righteousness, and deliver the plundered out of the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong and do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3NKJV
Today, we complete our study of Question 135 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?” The final part of the answer states, “The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by … comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.” Last time, we examined the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts and saw how true obedience must be sincere. Today, we consider how we are especially required to give aid to those most in need of it.
What an amazing document the Larger Catechism is! How skillfully the Westminster divines apply God’s Word to the inner man so that it truly does reveal “the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Their exposition of the sixth commandment, here in Question 135, presented first our duty to resist evil thoughts and passions and avoid situations or occasions that might excite them. Next, they set forth our responsibility for godly self-defense in order to protect life, all the while trusting in God’s sovereignty and wisely maintaining good mental and physical health. Then, with sound exegesis they established the positive aspect of our obedience, proving from Scripture that true compliance to “Thou shalt not murder,” obligates us to form and maintain such godly thoughts, intentions, words, and practices that would promote and safeguard human life. Finally, in the last section of the Answer given above, we see our duty to more urgently help those who more desperately need it.
The Scripture passage at the head of this article expresses a theme that is found consistently throughout the entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments. The primary duty of the king of Israel was to establish and execute justice throughout the land of Israel. God would have His kingdom on earth be as it is in heaven: where there is no partiality, there is no giving and receiving of bribes. The strong do not prey on the weak. The strangers and foreigners are not discriminated against by the natives. The poor are not exploited by the rich. Thus, passages on this subject always speak of delivering the poor and needy from the hands of the rich and powerful, of rescuing the oppressed from those who oppress them, of establishing justice for the alien and stranger, and to the widows and orphans. Because men are sinners, they will take what they have not rightly earned if they think they can get away with it. Those who find for themselves the capacity and opportunity will prey upon those without the means to resist them. Thus, the continual duty of God’s kings was to prevent them from doing it.
Where sinners will not restrain themselves by a love of the good, they shall be restrained by force. All systems of justice assume this principle; it is the reason we have prisons. In the Old Testament, Israel’s king was entrusted with this task. It was a difficult work, for it pitted the king against the most powerful of the land. To ally with the strong in crushing the weak and the poor brings no threat to the king, but to resist the proud, the popular, the influential in order to side with the lowliest of the low beckons great danger. Thus, in this passage from Jeremiah, God promised to establish the throne of the king who would establish justice equally to all (22:4), who would, in the words of today’s question, comfort and succor the distressed and protect and defend the innocent.
You and I are not kings. God does not require us to establish justice in the land. However, it is our duty, wherever we are and with whatever power and influence we have, to help those in need and to protect the innocent. We should wisely make sure we are not being played or scammed. It is always wrong to give charity to those who will use it to do evil, but when someone really does need help, and when it is in our power to help them, then love to God in obedience to this commandment requires that we do give. When we do, we show ourselves to be like God, who is abounding in mercy to the poorest of sinners!