I write a column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on the phrase ‘Word of God’, on the theme of ‘Mission’, on the meaning of ‘Apocalypse‘, on the ministry of ‘Healing’, and on the question of ‘Welcome’. This one, which I have not previously posted, explores the idea of justice.
‘It’s not fair!’ The wounded cry of a child who feels cheated testifies to our universal concern for justice. There is nothing so humiliating, dehumanising and disempowering than being denied fair and just treatment.
Justice is a major theme throughout Scripture, and it turns out to be rooted both in the character of God, and the way he created humanity.
Justice flows from God’s heart and character. As true and good, God seeks to make the object of his holy love whole. This is what motivates God throughout the Old and New Testaments in his judgments on sin and injustice. (Paul Louis Metzger)
In contrast to other accounts of creation, the narratives in Genesis claim that God made all people—male and female, king and commoner, slave and free—in his ‘image and likeness’. There is considerable debate about exactly what ‘the image of God’ signifies, but it is striking that all humanity bears it. This then means that God treats all humanity the same; he ‘causes the sun to shine on the evil and the good’ (Matt 5.45). God judges impartially (1 Peter 1.17) and does not show favouritism (Acts 10.34, Rom 2.11, Eph 6.9)—literally, he does not ‘lift the head’. The idea here of a king who, seeing his subjects prostrate before him, lifts up the head of his favourites to set them apart. God does not exercise his kingship in this way, but blesses all with his favour. This means that his chosen people Israel cannot claim any superiority to the nations around them; they are ‘chosen’ not because they are better than others, but because they have been given a particular responsibility to show God’s grace to the world (Deut 7.7).
Although justice is not mentioned often in the Torah, it is a consistent note underpinning the exercise of law in the community. This calls for personal courage in commitment to justice (Ex 23.2), but also demands fairness in the normal transactions of life (Lev 19.36). And this means that the community must have a particular concern for the vulnerable, the ones most likely to miss out on justice:
“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!” (Deut 27.19)
In the Writings and the prophetic literature, justice is developed in two directions. First, justice is very often paired with righteousness, and is closely allied with God’s love and faithfulness.
Righteousness (tzedek) and justice (mishpat) are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. (Ps 89.14)
‘Righteousness’ has a strong ethical sense to it, but particularly applies to relationships, which should be fair and equal.
Secondly, justice is closely related to God’s rendering of judgement; the noun mishpat derives from the verb shafat meaning ‘to judge’ or ‘to govern’. God’s judgements are just, including his judgement on his own people, which has led them into exile—because they have neglected to practice justice themselves. This is the repeated refrain of the prophets’ warning cries: ‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5.24); ‘Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause’ (Is 1.17); ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6.8).
The hope for justice
The longing for God’s anointed leader, who would restore the kingdom of Israel, therefore included a longing for the One who would ‘bring forth justice’, not just to Israel, but ‘to the nations’ (Is 42.1–4). The gospels depict Jesus as this One, but with a surprising twist. Instead of bringing judgement on Israel’s enemies, Jesus bore the judgement of sin, and not only for Israel but for all humanity. Thus God now invites both Jew and Gentile, without partiality, to receive the gift of forgiveness, restoration, and fullness of life.
An important part of that new life in Christ is to express the justice of God in treating others with impartial grace and love. Since God makes the sun to shine on the evil and good, we too should love not just our friends but our enemies as well (Matt 5.44). The distinction between slave and master is a merely human one; both are made in the image of God, and both have a Master in heaven, so masters should treat slaves with ‘equality’ (Col 4.1). And those who have experienced the gracious justice of God will continue to seek justice for the vulnerable: ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction’ (James 1.27)
Not all will accept this free offer of grace and life, and the close of the biblical narrative in the Book of Revelation insists that they will face the judgement of God. But it also insists that God’s judgements will be just (Rev 16.5–7)—and that the offer of grace remains open to the end (Rev 22.17).