Posted by Clark Bates
December 23, 2018
For most readers, regardless of culture, the image of a courtroom is familiar. Certainly, the design and specificities of the legal procedures may differ, but the overall concept remains the same. There is typically a room with locations for the person on trial to sit or stand, in most cases with a legal defense. There is another place nearby, in the same room, for the representative of the state or the wronged party arguing against the person on trial. And then there’s the place at the head of the room for the judge. In some cases there are jurors, but not all, so we’ll leave that out.
If you’ve read thus far, you’ve likely already pictured the courtroom in your mind. It might surprise some readers to know that the Old Testament often depicts the realm of God as a divine court room. It could be argued that this is the case in Job 1:6-12 wherein Satan comes before the Lord and accuses Job. God acts as the judge while Satan serves as the accusing party. Perhaps the clearest image of this courtroom is found in the vision of Zecharaiah 3:1-16 where the prophet witnesses the high priest Joshua standing before the LORD and Satan, again acting as accuser, pointing out all of his sins. This imagery has been written about in the academic world for many years, often acknowledge g the familiar motif of divine courtrooms in other religions, particularly those of the Greco-Roman world.
The Divine Courtroom
In most, if not all, cases the gods argue for or against the events that should transpire on earth. Mankind is typically on trial, with the gods choosing sides and the chief god (Zeus in this case) acts as judge. While it may be a reach too far to suggest that the depictions in the Old Testament rely on these other religious views, but it would equally be disingenuous to ignore them altogether. The purpose for such imagery is to reinforce the belief that God holds dominion over creation. All must come before Him and plead their case. What sets Christianity apart in this imagery from the other religions of the world is the recognition that no deeds of man can ever satisfy the guilt they bear. By example, in Zechariah 3, the high priest, the holiest of the people, stands before the LORD in filthy garments, illustrating his sin. He has no righteousness of his own to use as a defense, and it is only by the direction of the LORD that he is covered in pure robes and declared innocent.
Judge and Defense?
What does this have to do with the Trinity? In several Old Testament passages, we read a particular phrase. This can change based on the translation used but, it ultimately says something to the effect of, “The LORD will plead my case…” The word in Hebrew for “plead” is רִיב (rîyb). In some cases it can mean to strive with or contend with (Deut. 33:7), but a secondary definition of the word is forensic, meaning “to plead” as in arguing a case before a court. Where we find this form often is in the Psalms and the prophets, but also once even in the narrative of 1 Samuel.
In 1 Samuel 25:39, King David declares,
“Blessed be the Lord, who has pleaded the cause of my reproach from the hand of Nabal and has kept back His servant from evil. The Lord has also returned the evildoing of Nabal on his own head.” (NASB)
and while more functional translations like the ESV have chosen to render the statement as the “The LORD has avenged the insult…” the formal translation of the Hebrew is what is found in the NASB. IN this case, Nabal treated the king unfairly and subsequently died. The ESV has sought to translate this as David praising the vengeance of the Lord upon is enemy, and this is perfectly accurate, but it does so by avoiding the legal language. It is inescapable that the praise of David is that God has pled the king’s case and won justice.
In Micah 7:9 we also read,
I will bear the indignation of the Lord
because I have sinned against him,
until he pleads my cause
and executes judgment for me.
He will bring me out to the light;
I shall look upon his vindication. (ESV)
wherein even the ESV renders the text formally as “he pleads my cause”. In both instances, as in several others, the imagery reverts to the divine courtroom, with the King as the defendant, in the case of 1 Samuel, or the prophet, in the case of Micah. In the prophecies of Isaiah, it is the entire nation of Israel that stands on trial. What makes passages like this worth a second look is the idea that it is God pleading the case.
In typical divine courtroom, the supreme god is the judge, not the defense attorney, yet in both instances above, it is the supreme God who is acting as the defense for the people. The accusing attorney is already identified, as in Zechariah and Job, as Satan. We might safely assert that this is always the case, as the very name Satan, means “accuser”. But here is the question,
“If God is the defense attorney, who is the judge?”
There can be no answer for this unless God acts as both defense and judge, but if God were strictly one in person as well as essence, this could not be. In Hebrews 7:25, the preacher states of Christ that,
“Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (ESV)
This word, “intercession” has also been used in classical Greek to mean a legal pleading or petition before a king or court. We read in Hebrews that, in his function as the Great High Priest, Jesus now intercedes with the Father on behalf of the elect. We read also in the letter to the Romans that the Holy Spirit acts in a similar way,
“And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (8:27 ESV)
While I’m not trying to say that the imagery of the divine courtroom in the Old Testament is an explicit declaration of the Triune nature of God, it does portray God as both judge and as the defense. In the New testament we also see God the Father as judge (James 4:12; 5:9) and the Son as defense (Heb. 7:25). In other instances, we are told that he Son will act as judge (Jn. 5:22) and the Spirit acts as defense (Rom. 8:27). In either instance, what the Old Testament conceals with God, the New Testament reveals, and the divine courtroom begins to look far more trinitarian than it had before.