Investigative judgment

Investigative judgment: a scriptural concept

Investigative judgment does not threaten a believer's assurance, but enhances it.

Eric Livingston is a pastor-evangelist in Emerald, Queensland, Australia.

The Adventist doctrine of a last-day investigative judgment raises a twofold objection from critics. One aspect concerns God's knowledge; the other the believer's assurance. Says Hoekema, a foremost critic of the Adventist position: "The investigative judgment doctrine impugns the sovereignty of God, since it implies that neither God the Father nor Christ knows who are truly God's people until after this examination has been concluded. This distinction between the forgiveness of sins and the blotting out of sins which Seventh-day Adventists make jeopardizes the security of the child of God, and makes it impossible for anyone to know, even in the hour of his death, whether he is saved or not." 1

This article seeks to show that the idea of an inquiry stage in God's judgments is explicit from the first sin, and that believers' apprehension of this fact is a basis for present reassurance. It will be shown that this attests the equity of Deity, that it does not deny divine omniscience, and that it has pastoral relevance for the faithful.2

Genesis—the foundation of a historical pattern

From God's handling of the first sin a pattern of (and for) judicial procedure emerges. First comes the inquiry, or investigation: "Where are you?" "Who told you?" "Have you eaten of the tree?" "What is this that you have done?" (Gen. 3:9-13). It is only after this investigation 3 that decisions are announced (verses 14- 19) and executed (verse 22ff).

The whole episode portrays, among other things, fair and considered dealing in each case. We find no arbitrariness, as each successive question (naturally) fol lows the previous question. A willingness to dialogue, probe, and reflect is evident. Investigation suggests deliberation, openness, and equity.

This encounter with sin in Genesis is God's first reaction to an alien principle invading His ordered system of relationships. It sets a pattern, in principle, for future reactions by God to man's sin. As sin multiplied, God's judgments were not portrayed as personal and immediate. Hence the importance to note the principles in their clarity at the outset.

The equitable value of a deliberative, investigative phase of judgment was reinforced in the Cain-Abel-Yahweh episode. "Where is Abel your brother?" "What have you done?" (Gen. 4:9, 10). The same sequence is repeated: sin, investigation, and then the verdict of the Judge.

From the audio evaluation (God asking questions) in Genesis 3 and 4, the Scriptures move to visual evaluations in Genesis 6 (the Flood), 10 (the Tower of Babel), and 18 (Sodom and Gomorrah).

Some legal and semilegal language, suggesting judicial inquiry, is used in these accounts,4 but the general pictures themselves portray God's thorough investigation prior to judicial action. We see this in Genesis 11:5-6: " And Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of mankind built.

"And Yahweh said, 'Behold, the people are one, and they all have one language, and this they are beginning to do . . .' " Yahweh chooses to picture Himself as one who investigates firsthand, reflects, and then decides.5

The divine judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah was an "example," or "pat tern" (2 Peter 2:6; Jude 7; cf. Deut. 29:23; Isa. 1:10). The way God depicts His handling of this pattern judgment is significant. Most of Genesis 18 and 19 describes God's deliberations prior to His punitive act. Abraham has loved ones in Sodom and surrounding cities (Gen. 13; 14). The patriarch might misunderstand this severe judgment, so Yahweh reveals His intentions beforehand (Gen. 18:16- 19).

Abraham was the founding father of a unique nation designed to "keep the way of Yahweh to do righteousness and justice" (Gen. 18:19). Thus he needed to be inducted into God's open,6 deliberative inquiry phase of divine judgment.7 Later covenantal legislation reflected this: "The judges shall carefully inquire" (Deut. 19:18); "Then you shall inquire, and make search, and ask diligently" (Deut. 13:14); "and inquired diligently" (Deut. 17:4).

Accordingly, Yahweh gives an anthropomorphic representation of a personal investigation to make His judicial procedure very clear: "And Yahweh said, 'The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah (be cause it is much) and their sin (because it is great) I will go down now, and I will see if they have done completely according to its outcry coming to Me, and if not I will know' " (Gen. 18:20, 21).

As with the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:5), the all-knowing Yahweh has no personal need to "go down" in order to "know," but He thoughtfully accommodates Himself to the needs of His limited creatures. A "public" investigation reassures onlookers. "God chooses this mode of procedure to make apparent the fact that He, as Just Judge of all the earth, does nothing without first being in full possession of all facts." 8

In sum, it seems quite significant that from the beginning, and in the clearest manner, God would portray Himself as conducting diligent investigation into a case prior to taking decisive action. This would reassure all onlookers of God's objectivity and impartiality in judgment by making "public" the facts upon which weighty decisions are made. The design is not to deny God's omniscience, but to share it.

Lawsuit and court trial imagery in the prophets

Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and other prophets make frequent use of language and imagery taken from the law court. Israel and the nations are arrayed before God's judgment bar, facts are stated, inquires are made, and reasoning is invited (e.g., Isa. 1; 43:8-13, 22-28).

In Isaiah 45:19ff the nations "are to present their arguments and state their case in a public examination of the issues involved." 9 Earlier, Yahweh summons Judah: "Cause Me to remember, let us judge together; you relate [your case], that you may be justified" (Isa. 43:26). 10

The great Judge is willing to be informed or reminded, meaning "you shall have a fair hearing; no evidence shall be suppressed." 11

Knowing His innocence, and feeling secure in God as justifier of His people in judgment, the Servant in Isaiah turns the picture around. He challenges any adversary to file a lawsuit (cf. Zech. 3:1), because "near is my Vindicator, who will contend with me? Let us stand together. Who is the master of my judgment? Let him come near to me" (Isa. 50:8).

It is apparent that the "investigative judgment" concept has a variety of presentations. In the patriarchal period the inquiry notion is acted out by Yahweh; in the prophets it is communicated through vivid literary pictures of legal summons and court trials. In the pre-Israelite period God addresses His judicial investigations informally to individuals (Gen. 3; 4) or reports similarly about certain groups of people (Gen. 6; 11; 18). In the prophets, and hence after establishment of the formal Yahweh-Israel covenant (Ex. 24:3-8), a more formal judicial approach is given through court scenes, with a sharp distinction made between Israel and other nations (cf. Isa. 43:8-13 with 22-28).

The important point to note, though, is that throughout the historical variety we see a consistent portrayal of the inquiry phase in God's judicial procedure. This continues through New Testament times, 12 and accordingly should constitute part of the biblical prerepresentation of the great final judgment.

The fact that the New Testament projects the Sodom and Gomorrah judgment of eternal fire as a "pattern" 13 judgment encourages us to view God's handling of the whole event. It is well to remember that the biblical retelling is dominated by Yahweh's prior investigation with its "justice" dialogue (Gen. 18:19).

Now, because there is a consistent portrayal of the inquiry phase in God's judicial process, believers caught in critical situations reacted in a definite way, like the Servant of Isaiah 50 (though not so calmly). This is more frequently seen in the Writings.

The Writings—man's response

It is in the Writings that humanity's response to God is particularly found. The book of Psalms is the heart of this response.

In the Psalms the believer resoundingly and positively echoes the idea of God's judicial investigations. Four times the psalmist cries out, "Judge me" (Ps. 7:8; 26:1; 35:24; 43:1). The contexts indicate that a judicial examination with its consequent verdict of justification (for the faithful) is in view: 14 "Judge me, Yahweh; for, in my integrity, I have walked, and in Yahweh I have trusted; I shall not slide. Examine me, Yahweh, and test me; try my reins and my heart. For Your covenant loyalty is before my eyes, and I have walked in Your truth" (Ps. 26:1-4).

Many times the psalmist was falsely accused from within the covenant community, 15 leading to relational crises. Even friends the psalmist had helped became defamers (Ps. 35:11-17).

When human justice failed, the psalmist found refuge in God, who fairly and thoroughly investigates cries for judgment that come before Him. The disclosure of such an inquiry would vindicate the loyal covenant member. Such was David's thought in his perplexing experiences fleeing before Saul: 16

"And David said to Saul, Why do you listen to men's words, saying, Behold, David is seeking to do you evil? Yahweh will be judge, and will judge between me and you. And He will see, and plead my cause (lawsuit), and judicially deliver me from your hand" (1 Sam. 24:9-15). This hope probably formed the back ground to more than one psalm of David (cf. superscripts of Psalms 57 and 142). Some commentators see a sacral lawsuit actually acted out at the sanctuary. 17 Consider the following: "If any man trespass against his neighbor, and an oath be laid upon him to cause him to swear, and the oath come before Your altar in this house: then hear Thou in heaven and do, and judge Your servants, condemning the wicked, to bring his way upon his head; and justifying the righteous, to give him according to his righteousness" (1 Kings 8:31, 32).

The suppliant would bring his case to Yahweh and possibly wait until the morning for a priest to pronounce an oracle of vindication (cf. Ps. 17).

Whether an immediate answer was forthcoming, or whether believers were metaphorically anticipating an ultimate eschatological reality18 in inviting God's scrutiny, one fact is apparent a divine investigative judgment was the psalm ist's desire in times of false accusation. It was perceived and appropriated as an opportunity for a vindication, both public and authoritative an arena necessarily beyond that bounded by one's own private conscience and the local community.19


The idea and practice of an investigative phase in God's judgments have appeared consistently through history. It is seen in narrative, legislative, prophetic, and poetic literature of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. God acts out His investigative judgment to Abraham and has it legislated for judicial dealings within Israel. The prophets use it when pro claiming Yahweh's messages. God's people appeal to it to restore harmony to fragmented community life.

God's omniscience is not threatened by His public or semipublic inquiries into human affairs. Rather, such investigations provide a forum for God to share facts with finite minds, helping them understand His consequent actions. Prejudgment investigation evinces deliberation and equity and an absence of arbitrariness and partiality, speaking eloquently of the ways of God.

Appreciating this does not threaten a believer's assurance, but enhances it. The psalmists found this so. When their personal peace and community harmony were jeopardized, they appealed to God for a judicial examination, believing that a public revelation of the facts would vindicate their cause and restore peace in Israel. The Servant of Isaiah 50 was secure in his Vindicator being near at time of trial.

The same contributions of an "investigative judgment" are for "Israel" today, and for the universe as events lead to the great assize and universal restoration of harmony.

1. Anthony H. Hoekema, The Four Major Cults (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1963), p. 122, as quoted in Arnold V. Wallenkampf and W. Richard Lesher, eds., The Sanctuary and the Atonement (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1981), p. 595. Similarly W. Martin, The Truth About Seventh-day Adventism (London, Edinburgh: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1960), pp. 179, 182.

2. The Scriptures have been selected to cover a range of literature and time. Concentration on some has meant omission of others (including the fruitful field of Job), but the prevalence of the "investigative judgment" theme will be clearly seen. Scriptural passages in this article are from the King James Version or are the writer's own translation.

3. Variously referred to as "the trial," "a legal process," "the inquest," "the trial proceedings." See John C. L. Gibson, Genesis, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: St. Andrews Press, 1981), p. 133; Gerhard von Rad, Genesis (London: SCM Press, 1972), p. 91; C. Westermann, Genesis 1-11 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), p. 253; John Skinner, Genesis (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1930), p. 76.

4. For example, s'q, "cry out" over injustice (Gen. 4:10; 18:21; cf. Ex. 22:23,27; Judges4:3; Ps. 107:6,28; Job 19:7);mspt(Gen. 18:19);sdqh(18:19). Also, r'h "see" is often used in Genesis to convey the idea of understanding and perception through reflection, evaluation, and inquiry (6:5, 11; 11:5; 18:21; 26:28; 27:27; 30:1, 9; 31:50; 37:14; 39:14; 41:33,41).

5. "Jehovah's 'coming down'... is an anthropomorphic description of God's interposition in the actions of men, primarily a 'judicial cognizance of the actual fact,' and then, verse 7, a judicial infliction of punishment." C. F. Keil, Commentary on the OT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 1:173. "This shows the patience and long-suffering of God, that He did not immediately proceed against them, and His wisdom and justice in taking cognizance of the affair, and inquiring into it; examining the truth and reality of things before He passed judgment and took measures to hinder them in the execution of their design; all of which must be understood agreeably to the Divine Majesty, and as accommodated to the capacities of men, and as an instruction to them in judging matters they have a concern in." John Gill, Gill's Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980 reprint), vol. 1, p. 70.

6. That is, "open" to key personnel.

7. See Skinner and Keil, on Gen. 18:17-19.

8. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1942), vol. 1, p. 547.

9. _____, Exposition of Isaiah (London: Evangelical Press, 1968), vol. 2, p. 130.

10. The verb sdq is used three times in law-court imagery in Isaiah: 43:9, 26; 45:25. Each time it appears in the same category or aspect of the Hebrew verb (the simple) as it does in Daniel 8:14, where the context also calls for the restorative work of judgment.

11. Leupold, Isaiah, vol. 2, p. 94.

12. For example, in Christ's parable relating to the examination of the wedding guests prior to the marriage (Matt. 22:11-14); Rev. 11:1; 14:7 (notice the pre-Advent setting of this verse).

13. (Hupo)deigma, 1 Peter 2:6; Jude 7. Cf. usage elsewhere (e.g. Heb. 8:5).

14. Psalms 42 and 43 are to be linked together.

15. Psalms 7; 26; 28; 31; 42; 43.

16. Happily, it is again becoming acceptable to see the life experiences of David as a background to many psalms. Quite a number of the individual laments well reflect the changing fortunes of David.

17. There have been various modifications of the precise process since Hans Schmidt's popularization of the idea earlier in this century.

18. This was not unique thinking in the ancient Near East. The Egyptians posited an eschatological examination, by a heavenly tribunal, of candidates hoping to enjoy the bliss of an afterlife. However, the Israelite anticipation was completely different because of the gracious terms of the covenant. The faithful Israelite had good reason to be confident because "He who justifies me is near" (Isa. 50:8).

19. The bold psalmodic statements of self-righteousness and imprecation are often to be understood against this background. While those falsely accused keenly sought personal vindication (hence claims to righteousness or covenant conformity), the thought of treachery to Yahweh and the prized covenant ideal of truth, peace, and justice may have called forth hyperbolic utterances against the enemy (the imprecations). Compare Psalm 139 (especially verses 17-24).

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Eric Livingston is a pastor-evangelist in Emerald, Queensland, Australia.

April 1992

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