Biblical Justice

A Brief Biblical Introduction to “Justice”

Every human being desires “justice.” The term can refer to several things: the moral standards for “justice,” the laws that reflect those norms, the rewards and punishments that these demand, or the formal legal system and judicial activities that guarantee the exercise of these norms. The on-going challenge for any society is to agree on the moral framework for its concept of justice. In the United States it appears that this is increasingly being reduced to a vague sense of fairness and tolerance, while an earlier shared set of convictions grounded in Judeo-Christian values continues to lose ground and be questioned. In such a situation it is important for Christians to have a clear sense of the biblical understanding of justice-its basis, the expectations regarding justice for the people of God and the world, and the hope for its full manifestation.

Discussion of justice in the Bible must begin with the acknowledgment that ultimately it is rooted in the very character of God. Justice is not simply a philosophical ideal or some sort of benchmark established by popular consensus; it is part of the nature of God, and therefore is woven into the creation itself and his sovereign rule in history (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 33:4-5; 97:1-6; 99:4; Isa. 5:16; Jer. 9:24).1 Accordingly, to violate justice is to defy the person of God and to contradict the moral fabric of the universe.

The Bible does not describe the justice of God as something that is coldly impartial or detached. It is inseparable from his love and compassion and is an expression of the covenant commitment to his people and to all of humanity as their Creator (Exod. 34:6-7; Jon. 4:2). Neither is divine justice is neutral. It is especially concerned for those who are vulnerable to neglect or mistreatment: the poor, the widow and orphan, and the sojourner (Deut. 10:17-18; Ps. 146:5-9; Provo 14:31).

The justice of God, then, sets the standard for human justice. From the earliest narratives in Genesis the people of God recognized that doing right is fundamental to his essence (Gen. 18:25; Job 29:12-17). In ancient Israel this justice was to be made concrete in the nation’s laws and the life of the nation in its culture (dealings with sojourners), the work place (fair wages, honest scales, humane treatment of laborers), courts (equitable rulings without bribery, with an eye to protect the weak), and its politics. God even refused to accept the worship of his people, if they did not exhibit justice (Isa. 1:10-20; 58:1-14; [er. 7:1-11; Am. 5:21-24). The defense and enactment of justice was expected of every Israelite (Gen. 18:18-19; [er, 9:23-24; Ezek. 18:5-9; Mic. 6:8), especially of the leadership (Deut. 16:18-20) – in particular the king. The king was to model God’s standards and was the key person to ensure that the country fulfill the moral obligation to provide justice to all, especially to those who could be taken advantage of (Ps. 72; [er. 22:1-3, 13-17). The lists in these passages of what to do and the actions to avoid all help define what justice is and is not within a community.

But the Bible is also very realistic about human shortcomings. Humans exploit one another and all countries experience corruption and injustice in many areas. That is why the Old Testament predicts a different kind of world in the future. On the one hand, the prophets foretold the coming of a king, the Messiah, who would rule with justice (Isa. 9:7; 11:1-5; 42:1-4). On the other hand, God one day would judge the nations of the world in his righteousness and punish the wicked (Ps. 96:10-13; 98:8-9). In other words, the justice that he expects is not limited to only his own people.

With Jesus, the Messiah has come. He exhibits the same concern toward the weak and outcasts: women and children, the sick, sinners of all kinds, and the Samaritans. Jesus will describe his kingdom in the Old Testament language of that hope of a just and merciful world (Matt. 11:1-6; Lk. 4:16-20), and the early Church captured this vision of helping one another (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35). Too often, Christians believe that the righteousness of which the New Testament speaks has to do only with spiritual standing before God rooted in confession of faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus. While this belief is a fundamental tenet of Christianity, as in the Old Testament, right relationship with God is inseparable from the proper treatment of others. That is, righteousness before God requires – and makes no sense without-justice and mercy toward others, especially the vulnerable. This is the fruit of righteousness given to believers (Phil. 1:9-11; 1Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Js. 1-3; 1 Pet. 2:24). Christians continue to long for the day of Christ’s return and the establishment of definitive justice of which the Old Testament spoke and Jesus’ first coming has only given us a glimpse (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 19:11).

1 The limited number of passages that are cited are indicative of many more. Vulnerable to neglect or mistreatment: the poor, the widow and orphan, and the sojourner (Deut. 10:17-18; Ps. 146:5-9; Prov. 14:31).