“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
25 “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. 26 If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, 27 for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. (Exodus 22:21-27)
Sojourners, Widows, and the Fatherless (v. 21-24)
In verse 21-24 we have commands from God concerning the proper treatment of sojourners, widows, and the fatherless. These laws do not concern specific ways in which sojourners, widows, and the fatherless are mistreated, they are simply general commands not to mistreat or oppress them. Since they are not specific cases, we do not have any specific civil sanctions for mistreatment of these. However, mistreatment of such in general is accompanied by divine sanctions. God Himself threatens divine judgment and wrath, which ought to be all the more terrifying in comparison to the wrath of the human magistrate. Sadly, because many men do not fear God, they do not properly fear His promises of divine sanction for such wicked behavior, and thus feel a foolish license to oppress the sojourner, widow, or orphan. And it is likely that the reason no civil sanctions are given here is because this is spoken to the civil magistrates themselves. They are held accountable by threat of divine sanction. But when magistrates do not fear God, such oppression and mistreatment happens.
In order to have a just and godly society, it is vital that the governing authorities, and all those who have authority and power, have a sense of the fear of God and accountability to Him. Just laws are impotent if those with authority to enforce them and keep them do not fear the God from whom justice flows. Thus it is a personal sense of God’s wrath toward sinners which is at the foundation of an ordered society. Without that, you will have a disordered society.
So behind God’s laws is God Himself. God promises Israel that if they do not keep these laws He is giving to them, that He Himself will bring sanctions upon them. Such is the desperate need of the hour today, not only for our governing authorities, but for us as individuals as well. How well we would treat one another should it be ever present in our minds that we will answer to God and He will bring justice upon us for all our wrongs. How often do we forget this in our everyday lives and interactions with others? This is not something to be forgotten, but it is that which should be essential to the foundation of how we live and act toward our neighbor. The immanence of God should be ever impressed upon us.
The first thing to note in these laws is that God’s law provides protections for sojourners. Sojourners are foreigners who are presently living in a land or society that is not theirs. This is a legitimate reality of history, and God says not to wrong them or oppress them simply because they are sojourners. This is echoed more fully in Deuteronomy 10:17-19 which says, “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
So here it is explained that God does not want the sojourner wronged because God loves the sojourner. Indeed, God chose the Hebrew people of old to make His covenant people and bring about His Christ, and to give the law, prophets, and promises, not because they were special, but because God loved them and chose them, but this is not to be construed to mean that God did not also love the nations or the sojourner among the people of Israel. Indeed God chose Israel to be used for His purposes of bringing about Christ for the nations, and of bringing about justice for the nations. So God’s love and care for the sojourner in Old Covenant Israel was a small taste and foreshadow of the salvation and righteousness that was to come to the nations through Israel. They were all being taught that it is here, through Israel, that God’s love goes to the nations. The people of God were called to treat the sojourner in such a way that that reality and promise would be accurately reflected.
So now, today, it is through the True Israel, Jesus Christ, that the nations find salvation, protection, and righteousness, as we ourselves are recipients of this love of God for all peoples.
In verse 21 God does not simply give the command to not wrong or oppress the sojourner, but He also gives Israel a reason why. He says do not do this “FOR you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” In this, God calls Israel to ever remember their own redemption and how God heard their cries and delivered them from the oppression and wrong done to them in Egypt. Thus, remembering their own condition, they are to be merciful and compassionate to those who are in a similar condition.
The principle here is this: love as you have been loved. Be merciful as you have received mercy. Be compassionate as you have received compassion. There are few things more disgusting as someone who has received great mercy who then refuses to give it. There are few things that reek of such great ingratitude as this. This is the parable of the unforgiving servant that Jesus tells in Matthew 18. The servant was forgiven of a great debt he could never repay, but then proceeds to strangle his neighbor over a much smaller debt owed to him. Thus God’s wrath came in judgment upon this unforgiving servant.
This is a principle echoed throughout the Bible that we are to live by as Christians. As it says in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” How do you treat your brother, or your sister? Your parents, or your children? Your neighbor, or your enemy? Whatever it is they have done to you, do you remember and recall to mind all the great and many things that you have offended God with in your life, and that you have received free forgiveness for in Christ Jesus? If you have been forgiven of your sins by God in Christ, how could you withhold forgiveness and kindness to others? It ought not be withheld, for the forgiven are not in a position to withhold forgiveness.
As Israel was to treat sojourners with their own previous condition in mind, so as Christians we are called to remember our own previous condition in treating unbelievers today. “Once were some of you…” “But for the grace of God there go I…” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Is there a situation or a relationship in your life where you have treated others without regard for their condition, and without remembrance of your own previous condition – separated from God without Christ in the world? Have you lacked patience and kindness with someone because they are not where you are at? Have you been harsh or sinfully frustrated with those who just don’t get it, like you get it? Lost friends and neighbors? Unbelieving family or immature family? Difficult children? Impatient parents? Our brethren amongst us that are all being sanctified at different degrees? Oh that we would remember and be grateful that Christ has not been so unloving with us. And should we remember, we may be given grace to love, as Christ has loved us. Christ’s love for us, that He gave to us when we were yet sinners, lost and without hope in the world, in our darkest moments of sin and despair, is a love so compelling that we may in turn treat others with the same love of Christ we have been given, and we may become a conduit, as it were of Christ’s love for the weak, the lost, the vulnerable, and the least. What greater calling and privilege is there than to be a vessel and conduit of the love of Christ to others? Hardly any.
Back in our text we see that God not only cares for the sojourner, but also for the widow and the fatherless in Israel. They also are not to be mistreated in any way. God’s laws protect those who cannot protect themselves. God’s justice protects the vulnerable individual from the mob, or the powerful, or any who would mistreat them. You can extrapolate here the idea of Biblical individual rights. God’s law does not allow for a humanistic “greater good” that would discard or disregard the weak and helpless of a society, for every person – sojourner or citizen, slave or free, man or woman, widow or orphan – are all created in the image of God, and are thus to be protected on an individual level.
If a widow or orphan is mistreated, they have a system of appeal which they always have access to even if no man will hear their appeal. They may always appeal directly to God in prayer and cry out to Him, as verse 23 states. This may seem like a spiritualized impotent answer to injustices done to these individuals, but that is not so, for God promises that He will hear such a cry and His wrath will burn and He will kill the wicked people with the sword. Specifically for Israel, this is not a threat of final judgment when history concludes and all men stand before the judgment seat of God – although that reality is true as well. Rather, this threat of the Sword, and the threat of leaving their children fatherless, and turning their wives into widows, was a real historical sanction that God would bring upon Israel, should they mistreat the widow and the fatherless. And God did so.
This should’ve reminded the Israelites of how God heard their cries when they were in Egypt and cried out for deliverance from the mistreatment they experienced. Because when God heard the cries of the Hebrew people in Egypt, God did not wait for the final judgment at the end of history to judge Pharaoh. Rather, God responded and brought judgment in history upon them for what they had done.
Likewise, we ought not think that all of God’s judgment waits until judgment day. God still judges men in time and brings wrath upon men in history, as well as in eternity. The cries of those oppressed and mistreated, still call out to God for historical judgment today, as James indicates in James 5:4, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” The cries of those wronged still reach the ears of Christ today. He has not lost His hearing. So those who would mistreat others should be warned.
Historically, Israel failed to uphold these laws, and so God brought judgment upon them in the Old Testament, which teaches us that God does and will act on behalf of those who cry to Him. Isaiah and Ezekiel both brought covenant lawsuits against Israel for these specific wrongs, and God judged them in time.
Isaiah 1:23, “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.”
Ezekiel 22:6-7, “Behold, the princes of Israel in you, every one according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood. Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you.” When the princes and magistrates fail to be a fatherly protector for the widow and orphan, God rises in their defense, as the Father to the fatherless. And as the Church, God’s people on earth, ambassadors for Christ, it is our role to care for such ones, as James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” God has given His Church to be those in time and history who love those who are left unloved. This is a display of Christ the Redeemer.
What is it that widows and the fatherless have in common? They do not have their representative head in the home – their husband or father – their protector and provider. So they are left vulnerable. Thus, God’s protections for such ones in His law is a foretaste of Christ who comes to be our representative head before God – who protects and provides for the weak and helpless, such as us. He comes to redeem and covenantally represent sinners, whose first father, Adam, has died, and left us vulnerable to death because of sin. For those in Christ, Jesus is our representative head who will not die. In Christ we will not be left as widows and orphans, and through Him widows and orphans may have a Father – the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Adam left us vulnerable and helpless, but Christ the True Husband came to redeem us and keep us. Is that you? Lost and helpless? Left and alone? Then come and welcome to Jesus Christ.
Loans (v. 25-27)
Finally, let us consider verse 25-27, dealing with how the people of Israel were to treat the poor working Israelite man. It is not only sojourners, widows, and orphans who are vulnerable to mistreatment from others; but the poor man is also in a position where he may be easily manipulated and mistreated by those who are greater in society than him. God is showing His people that He cares also for the poor man, and thus, so should we.
Contrary to the social justice twisters of God’s Word who want government handouts and checks written to the poor and unemployed, God’s plan for protecting and helping the poor does not include stealing from the poor man’s neighbor. Rather, in particular to Old Covenant Israel, and in principle today, God’s plan for protecting the poor prohibits excessive interest which is unpayable by the poor and which would essentially make them perpetual slaves, as the borrower is slave to the lender. God has just freed the people of Israel, that they might learn how to live free under Him, not that they would return to slavery.
So in God’s plan for the poor Israelite, let us note that a loan is not a handout, and thus loans to the poor are legitimate. And what is a loan? It is the lending of money or resources, which is expected and owed to be paid back to the lender. Giving gifts, freely without expectation of payment is of course a kind and acceptable thing to do. But not everyone is in a position to do that, or to do that for all of his neighbors, and certainly no one is civilly required to.
Furthermore, interest on loans is not inherently evil. That is not what is implied here. We see elsewhere where requiring interest is legitimate. Interest is a legitimate aspect of business and profit, which are good things. We see this in the parable of the talents where the master expected interest and profit to be made on the talents that the servants were entrusted with. The man who did not turn a profit, but buried his talent, was chastised for it.
However, in Israel, God required that loans to the poor man be provided without the exaction of interest. Interest required from loans to the poor in the covenant community were not to be allowed. This does not mean Israelites couldn’t require interest in any case with their fellow covenant members. This was specifically for the poor covenant member. Business endeavors always entail the aspect of interest. Dealings with non-poor members could require interest. But not to the poor among them. So in giving a loan to a poor Isarelite, though a loan is not a gift – it is not charity – this type of interest free loan is what we could consider a charitable loan. The lender would gain no profit and they would be out the capital until the loan is repaid. So it is a form of charity. So the principle is let charity be charity.
It seems there is also an element of subjectivity involved. Specifics are not given – what is considered poor? There are also no civil penalties given for this.
This should be considered when we consider the question of how or if this should be applied in principle to Christians today? Certainly we shouldn’t conclude Chrisitans should not require interest from other Christians in business endeavors. But should Christians, when giving loan-like things to fellow poor Chrisitans, require interest? I think our inflationary system should be taken into consideration, and thus interest to compensate for the inflation of our money would certainly be legitimate. At the least, I believe the principle to be applied is that when helping poor Christians, or loaning them things, excessive and high interest rates should be avoided. If the interest charged hurts more than the benefit of acquiring the loan, it is not a charitable loan. Determining who is poor, and navigating loans among Christians can be a tricky issue.
As much as possible, the principle taught directly to the New Testament church should be followed, that it is more blessed to give than to receive. “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” Romans 12:13. Or 1 John 3:17, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” Or Ephesians 4:28, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Or James 2:14-17, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” And let us remember that giving to the poor is a good business move, so to speak, for it is lending to God who is bountiful in paying back as Proverbs 19:17 says, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” Exacting excessive interest on the poor is more costly than just giving it away to the poor.
Finally in verse 26-27, God instructs that if a poor man gives his cloak as a pledge for a loan, that it is to be returned to him every night when the sun goes down, for it is his covering and warmth in the night. The pledge would just be the collateral put up to secure the loan, to back up the loan, which is a legitimate element of taking out a loan. It is not wrong to take the cloak as a pledge, but it would be wrong to keep it from him at night if that is his covering in the night. Like today, you can put up your property or assets as collateral for a loan, but you still have use of them.
But if you were not to return the man’s cloak at sundown, he could cry out to God, and God would hear his cry, for God is compassionate. God who gave Israel these great laws of justice and righteousness is a God of great compassion. These things are not opposed to one another. Indeed, God’s perfect just laws demonstrate His compassion, for they are backed by His pledge of compassion on His people. The social justicians today who claim compassion, seek to implement it with man’s laws which do not reflect the compassion of God, and only result in tyranny and slavery.
All such laws God gave to Israel were pointing toward His great compassion towards fallen and sinful men to whom He gave His only Son, Jesus Christ. It was Jesus, God in flesh, who looked upon the crowds of poor Israel, and had compassion on them. He looked upon you and me, in our sorry state of slavery to sin, and had compassion upon us. And so Jesus gave us Himself. He gave Himself to be the pledge and the covering for His people. We have a sin debt against God for which we cannot repay. But God has compassion on sinners. And instead of exacting interest and pledge from us which we could not pay, He gave Himself as pledge and covering for us. Christ for us is the pledge that God will not hold our sins against us. Christ for us is our covering before God, our robe of righteousness. He has not left us poor sinners to fend for ourselves. So let our only pledge and plea be Jesus Christ and His blood – Jesus Christ and His righteousness. Without Him we are left cold and exposed before God and under His judgment. But Christ our pledge is sufficient to cover and provide for us that which we could not provide for ourselves. Praise be to God.