Impartial or a “Face Looker”? (Part 1)
The explicit term “respecter of persons” is found in the KJV and ASV translations. Most people, reading that for the first time, would not know what that term means. Even people who have read it numerous times do not know what it means. Many years ago, I remember hearing a lesson that included points on personal hygiene and saying “Yes, sir” and “No Ma’am” when addressing older people. The preacher obviously took the term “respecter of persons” to mean that we should show respect to self and others! His points were true, but the passage he used did not teach them. Needless to say, that preacher lost some respect among those who knew better. Let us consider this term in the Bible to see what it really means and then make some applications to ourselves.
“Respect of Persons” in the OT
The term “respect persons” (KJV) is found in Deuteronomy 1:17, where Moses told the children of Israel the instruction he gave their judges. These judges were to hear each case and “judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. Ye shall not respect persons [show partiality, NKJ] in judgment; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man [man’s presence, NKJ]; for the judgment is God’s” (Deut. 1:16-17). The clause, “ye shall not be afraid of the face of man,” is key to understanding the term “respect of persons.” The Hebrew phrase from which “respect persons” is translated literally meant to “lift up the face,” which referred to “the graciously accepting act of raising up the face of one who had prostrated himself” (cf. Gen. 40:13, 20), mostly done as a form of greeting (Opperwall 672). In the Old Testament period, the typical Jewish greeting would involve one person humbly turning his face to the ground. “If the person greeted thus raises the face of the man, this is a sign of recognition and esteem … Men … honor one another by humble greeting and lifting of the face [cf. Gen. 32:20] … But [the greeting] may be partial when regard is hard for the person and there is unjust preference” (Lohse 779). In other words, among Jewish brethren, there could hardly be a reason other than prejudice or animosity for the one greeted not to respond back by lifting up, or acknowledging, the face of the greeter. While those naturally related would normally greet one another without question (cf. Mat. 5:47), God’s people were to go beyond just greeting their friends. They were to acknowledge all people without “respect of persons.”
Although this greeting imagery was behind its meaning, the term “respect of persons” reached far beyond greetings. God’s people were to never “lift up and see the face” of someone before deciding to respond. The injunction to not be a respecter of persons, or not to show partiality, was especially relevant to judges in Israel, for they were “continually tempted to pervert justice by showing partiality” (Opperwall 672). God instructed Moses to tell the Israelites, “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour” (Lev. 19:15). The judgments spoken of here were not personal opinions but were legal rulings in courts of law. Moses defined what he meant by “unrighteousness in judgment” by forbidding them from committing two, closely related sins: (1) they were not to “respect the person of the poor,” which meant to show favoritism because he was poor (cf. Deut. 27:19; Ps. 82:2); and (2) they were not to favor the “mighty” person, which primarily referred to someone with high social status (cf. Deut. 10:17; 16:19; 2 Chr. 19:7).
Moses instructed the second generation Israelites, “Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee … they shall judge the people with just judgment. Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous” (Deu. 16:18-19). Again, the importance of righteous judges was emphasized. Here, Moses said these judges were given by “the Lord thy God,” and thus their judgments were to reflect God’s judgments. “God does not allow himself to be influenced by appearances or respect of persons (Deut. 10:17) … Equally the earthly judge must refrain from all partiality” (cf. Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17; 16:19) (Tiedtke 587).
The only explicit occurrence of the term “respect of persons” in the Old Testament’s books of history is found in First Chronicles 19:7. In this context, Jehoshaphat appointed judges and told them, “Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the Lord, who is with you in the judgment. Wherefore now let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take heed and do it: for there is no iniquity with the Lord our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts” (2 Chr. 19:6-7). Jehoshaphat revealed a very important truth to this study: “there is no iniquity with the Lord our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts” (2 Chr. 19:7). The “judges” spoken of here, as in the Pentateuch, were not rulers, as were the judges in the Book of Judges, but were leading men who rendered verdicts in cases brought before them. They were authorized by God to keep peace among God’s people when conflict arose. Since there was no trial by jury (as today), most people represented themselves, relying heavily on witnesses. Also, “at times a group of elders may have been involved in judging a case. When only one individual judge was involved, the danger of favoring the powerful or the wealthy was very real” (Walton, et al. 440).
Although the explicit term “respecter of persons” is only found a few times in the Old Testament, this characteristic in God is part of His nature. If God’s people were to be holy like Him (Lev. 11:44; 19:2; 20:7), then they needed to judge righteously and be completely impartial, thus showing no “respect of persons.”
Wisdom Shows No Favoritism
The wise man wrote, “These things also belong to the wise. It is not good to have respect of persons in judgment” (Pr. 24:23). “These … belong” shows that those who would be wise need to attain and cultivate all the characteristics listed, starting with to “not … have respect of persons.” Again, “respect of persons” comes from a Hebrew idiom (literally, “to have regard for faces”) that means to be partial. This injunction, as others (Pr. 18:5; 28:21), is especially applicable for judges in Israel. For these judges, having respect of persons would be to “give a decision or to act on the basis of who a person is rather than on the basis of his or her guilt or innocence” (Reyburn and Fry 531). In both ancient and modern cultures, people in positions of authority have been tempted to base their judgments on a person’s skin color, ethnicity, place of birth or upbringing, family status, or even his handsomeness or her outward beauty. Lots of information has come to light in recent years exposing false judgments given by prejudiced judges who wrongly convicted people of African descent for crimes worthy of death, for which there was no sufficient evidence. Today, there are even false judgments given by prejudiced judges who wrongly convict political opponents of unsubstantiated crimes to sway public opinion. Both of these would be a violation of the Proverbs 24:23 principles.
The wise man went on to illustrate the consequences of respect of persons in the next verses, “He that saith unto the wicked, Thou art righteous; him shall the people curse, nations shall abhor him: But to them that rebuke him shall be delight, and a good blessing shall come upon them” (Pr. 24:24-25). Even before the internet and social media, people could tell when a judge, or anyone else, was showing partiality (i.e., respect of persons). Proverbs 24:24 deals with the judge who had respect of persons and what the people thought of it, while Proverbs 24:25 considers the one who did not have respect of persons and how people responded to his impartial judgments. Concerning the former, respect of persons would have to be the only way a judge could declare the wicked righteous. Isaiah pronounced, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isa. 5:20). However, Isaiah was speaking of people who had been so immersed in false doctrine and idolatry that to make these false, destructive judgements was second nature (cf. Eph. 2:1-3). Legitimate God-appointed judges, on the other hand, should weigh each case upon the available evidence. Eyewitness testimony was usually the strongest and most often used form of evidence in the biblical world, which is one reason why there is so much in the Old Testament forbidding false witnesses (cf. Ex. 20:16; 23:1; Deut. 19:16; Pr. 6:19; 12:17; 19:9; 24:28; 25:18).
Because “miscarriages of justice make citizens feel insecure” (Smith, 639), there will be an adverse reaction to judges who show respect of persons. The wise man gave two reactions from the lesser to the greater. First, this prejudiced judge “shall the people curse” (Pr. 24:24). The term “curse” comes from a root that means “to puncture … to perforate, with more or less violence” (Strong). Figuratively, it means to use words that tear down and puncture the character of the one to whom they are directed (Job 3:8; Pr. 11:26). Second, “nations shall abhor” the judge who shows respect of persons. The word translated “abhorred” is similar in meaning to “curse,” and means to “express indignation” or to “denounce” (Reyburn and Fry 532). Of course, no matter the negative human reaction, God has warned in each section of the Old Testament that showing respect of persons is sinful and will receive a just recompense. From the Law: “Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not: for I will not justify the wicked” (Ex. 23:7). From the Psalms: “How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah. Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked” (Psa. 82:2-4). From the Prophets: “Woe unto them that … justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!” (Isa. 5:22-23). It is no wonder, then, that wisdom says, “It is not good to accept the person of the wicked, to overthrow the righteous in judgment” (Pr. 18:5)!
Concerning the judges who were impartial, or showed no respect of persons, and who thus rebuked the wicked, “delight, and a good blessing shall come upon them” (Pr. 24:25). In contrast to the prejudice judges who receive cursing and abhorrence from people and nations, those upright judges who render verdicts based on evidence, not “face looking” (i.e., respect of persons), receive blessings and prosperity. Some regard “blessing” as referring to what people say to the impartial judge (which gives him a good reputation), while others take “blessing” in reference to the impartial judge being blessed with material prosperity from God (Reyburn and Fry 532). Either way, there was a blessing upon those who were impartial, which is in stark contrast to the judge who showed respect of persons!
It is the very nature of God to be impartial. God is not a “face looker” when it comes to dealing with people (Rom. 2:11). Peter affirmed, “God is no respecter of persons [shows no partiality, NKJ]: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35). Since God’s people are to be like Him, we must not show “respect of persons” (Jas. 2:1).
- Lohse, Eduard. “Προσωπολημψία.” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 6. Eds. G. Kittel and G. Friedrich. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968. 779-780.
- Opperwall, Nola J. “Partiality; Show Partiality; Be Partial.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. Ed. G. W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986.
- Reyburn, William David and Euan McGregor Fry. A Handbook on Proverbs. UBS Handbook Series. New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 2000.
- Strong, James. “Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary.” The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. 1890. Iowa Falls, IA: Riverside Book and Bible House, n.d. Power Bible CD.
- Tiedtke, Erich. “Face [πρόσωπον].” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol. 1. Ed. Colin Brown. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986. 585-587.
- Walton, John H., Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.