The word of the day is “speechless.” Can those who have no voice get justice? If they cannot speak, they cannot be heard. Therefore, if their cause is to be considered, then someone must speak for them. In keeping with this thought, in our reading of Proverbs 31:8-31, the sage writes, “Open your mouth for the speechless… open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (NKJV vs. 31:8). Today we learn that the Almighty expects us to defend those whose cause would otherwise be unnoticed or even purposely overlooked.
The sage of Proverbs writes, “The righteous considers the cause of the poor, but the wicked does not understand such knowledge” (NKJV Proverbs 29:7). The Septuagint (LXX) gives a further explanation. It translates the same verse, “A righteous man understands how to judge on behalf of the poor, but the ungodly man will not consider such knowledge, for he lacks an understanding heart for a poor man” (OSB Proverbs 29:7).
Justice for the Poor Requires Understanding
The sage points out that justice for the poor requires an understanding heart. Those who are ungodly do not understand the plight of the impoverished because they do not care about them. Thus, the unrighteous treat the poor and needy as invisible and voiceless. Yet the Psalmists promises, “Blessed is he who understands the poor and needy, the Lord will deliver him in an evil day” (OSB Psalm 41:1). In this unpredictable world, those who give to the needy one day may find themselves in need the next. If so, the Lord promises to “deliver,” that is, to rescue and help them in the time of trouble (Strong’s Hebrew #4422, 160).
Despite this promise of blessing for caring for the needy, one of the major sins of the Chosen People was that they neglected the unfortunate. Thus, the Prophet Jeremiah complained about the people of his time, “They do not judge with justice, the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy” (NRSV Jeremiah 5:28). Because of such callous neglect, God declared through the prophet that he would take vengeance on the nation (OAB 5:29). Likewise, the Book of Exodus warned that if the widow and orphan are oppressed and if they would cry to the Lord, the Almighty would hear their plea. In anger, He would kill the oppressors, and so their wives would be widows and their children orphans like those they oppressed (OSB Exodus 22: 21-23).
The Merciful God Expects His People To Have Mercy for the Poor
The concern for the poor and oppressed goes back to the very foundations of Israel. As the story of the people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt begins, the Almighty reveals Himself as the God of mercy. From the Burning Bush, the Almighty tells Moses that He has seen the sufferings of His people and has heard their cry (OSB Exodus 3:7 and 9). Thus, from the beginning, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob manifested Himself as a God of compassion for those in need. Therefore, in the Law of Moses, we find frequent warnings that the People of God should not “pervert justice due the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow” (OSB Deuteronomy 24:17). The reason is often stated: as the Lord had mercy on His people and delivered them from slavery in Egypt, they should now have compassion for the needy and oppressed (OSB Deuteronomy 24:18).
Justice Shows Neither Favoritism nor Discrimination
In keeping with this concern for the needy, the Mosaic Code of Law taught that the courts should show consideration to the needy. Exodus 23 says, “You shall not pervert the judgment of the poor in his dispute” (OSB Exodus 23:6). The Hebrew word for “pervert” comes from the sense of “to stretch out” (Strong’s #5186, 186). The meaning here is that the law is “stretched” or “shaped” against the cause of the poor. The same idea occurs in English when we talk about “bending the rules.”
The Code forbids partiality against the poor. Likewise, it prohibits favoritism toward the poor (OSB Exodus 23:3). The court must be strictly impartial, though it might have sentiments of either preferential treatment of the poor or discrimination against them.
This thought takes us back to our initial question. The rich often have the advantage in court because they can afford to hire the legal assistance they need to make their case. The poor often cannot afford bail, a vigorous defense, or the use of the mechanisms of the legal system.
So how can they secure justice? Our proverb says, “Open your mouth to the speechless” (NKJV 31: 8). The word “speechless” refers to the “mute,” that is, those who cannot speak (Strong’s Hebrew #483, 19). The Septuagint translates the thought as the “poor and helpless” (OSB Proverbs 31:8). Thus, the sage is speaking about those who have no voice.
The Ministry of Advocacy
What then is to be done if the poor have no way to be heard? Those who have a voice in the society must speak for those who otherwise cannot be heard. Those who have power in society must stand beside, stand in, and stand up for those who are powerless. With such advocacy, the court can proceed to render impartial judgment based on the application of the law to the evidence. Without such advocacy, there can be no justice, for there is no one who can make a case for the poor.
However, another solution to the problem of justice for the poor goes one step further. That remedy is that the powerful give the poor and disadvantaged the tools and resources to develop their own voice. Until that happens, the merciful God calls those of us who have the means to advocate for the poor and underprivileged. They should speak up for the disadvantaged as long as they are speechless and need justice.