“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” (Deuteronomy 16:18)

Good government isn’t a given. Not in the state. And not in the church. When God gave His Law to Israel, He included a program for governing the people that was designed to ensure they would gain maximum benefit from His rules, statutes, and precepts. The people of Israel had spent over 400 years in slavery, with someone telling them every day of their lives when to eat, how much work to do, where to live, and how to behave. They had no experience in self-government and would have been doomed to fail as a nation had not God graciously provided a framework of just and loving order for their cities and tribes.

God did not give the Law to Israel so that, keeping it, they might be saved. He had already delivered them out of Egypt as an outworking of His gracious promises and covenant (Exodus 2:23). Israel’s salvation was all of grace; her prosperity as a nation, however, was to be by the Law of God. Yet even this depended on the grace of God, who gave His Law and established the framework of governance within which the nation could realize the benefits of what God had commanded, and who ultimately would have to give His Spirit to make obedience possible (Ezekiel 36:26, 27).

Meeting in the Gates

Each town in Israel was to establish judges, and the judges were expected to “judge the people with righteous judgment.” Thus, they would have to be men experienced in the Law of God, well-versed in its contents, and skilled in applying its teaching to the lives of the people. Typically, the judges, or elders, met in the gates of the city. This served two purposes. First, conducting their business in the gates of the city had a practical benefit. The people could see that their judges were meeting, and they could listen in on the proceedings.

Thus citizens young and old would be instructed in the right use of the Law of God as the judges discussed and deliberated this or that matter and proclaimed their judgment. Everything was done in the open, and this undoubtedly had the very positive effect of making people think twice about what they might bring before the judges. Anything that was merely frivolous or self-serving, or even deceitful, ran the risk of being exposed before all one’s neighbors, and the shame which could ensue would most likely not have been worth trying to manipulate the courts to one’s advantage.

Second, the meeting of judges in the gates of the city had a symbolic effect. It signaled to residents and visitors alike that the well-being of this community was guarded by the Law of God and its faithful judges. When God instructed Israel to write His Law on the gates of their cities (Deuteronomy 6:9), He was surely referring to this practice of having the judges meet in the city gates to deliberate and teach the commandments, rules, precepts, and statutes of God.

Boaz v. Kinsman Redeemer

The clearest example we have of this practice at work is from the Ruth 1. In the case of Boaz v. Kinsman Redeemer, we see how the practice of judging righteous judgment allowed truth to surface and love to flourish according to the rules of life and government encoded in the Law of God.

Boaz was a wealthy and well-respected elder in the community of Bethlehem. Given his status, it is not unlikely that he was himself one of the judges of this little town. He sought to take an action which would certainly have benefited him, both personally and materially. He wanted to marry Ruth, a Moabite woman, and to lay claim to the portion of land that belonged to the family of her deceased husband, who had been a member of that community.