The order God seeks to reestablish in His creation where all people receive the benefits of life with Him. As love is for the New Testament, so justice is the central ethical idea of the Old Testament. The frequency of justice is sometimes missed by the reader due to a failure to realize that the wide range of the Hebrew word mishpat, particularly in passages that deal with the material and social necessities of life.
Nature of justice Justice has two major aspects. First, it is the standard by which penalties are assigned for breaking the obligations of the society. Second, justice is the standard by which the advantages of social life are handed out, including material goods, rights of participation, opportunities, and liberties. It is the standard for both punishment and benefits and thus can be spoken of as a plumb line. “I shall use justice as a plumb-line, and righteousness as a plummet” (Isaiah 28:17, REB).
Often people think of justice in the Bible only in the first sense as God's wrath on evil. This aspect of justice indeed is present, such as the judgment mentioned in
John 3:19. Often more vivid words like “wrath” are used to describe punitive justice (Romans 1:18).
Justice in the Bible very frequently also deals with benefits. Cultures differ widely in determining the basis by which the benefits are to be justly distributed. For some it is by birth and nobility. For others the basis is might or ability or merit. Or it might simply be whatever is the law or whatever has been established by contracts. The Bible takes another possibility. Benefits are distributed according to need. Justice then is very close to love and grace. God “executes justice for the orphan and the widow, andů loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18, NRSV; compare
Various needy groups are the recipients of justice. These groups include widows, orphans, resident aliens (also called “sojourners” or “strangers”), wage earners, the poor, and prisoners, slaves, and the sick (Job 29:12-17;
Malachi 3:5). Each of these groups has specific needs which keep its members from being able to participate in aspects of the life of their community. Even life itself might be threatened. Justice involves meeting those needs. The forces which deprive people of what is basic for community life are condemned as oppression (Micah 2:2;
Ecclesiastes 4:1). To oppress is to use power for one's own advantage in depriving others of their basic rights in the community (see
Mark 12:40). To do justice is to correct that abuse and to meet those needs (Isaiah 1:17). Injustice is depriving others of their basic needs or failing to correct matters when those rights are not met (Jeremiah 5:28;
Job 29:12-17). Injustice is either a sin of commission or of omission.
The content of justice, the benefits which are to be distributed as basic rights in the community, can be identified by observing what is at stake in the passages in which “justice,” “righteousness,” and “judgment” occur. The needs which are met include land (Ezekiel 45:6-9; compare
Micah 4:4) and the means to produce from the land, such as draft animals and millstones (Deuteronomy 22:1-4;
Deuteronomy 24:6). These productive concerns are basic to securing other essential needs and thus avoiding dependency; thus the millstone is called the “life” of the person (Deuteronomy 24:6). Other needs are those essential for mere physical existence and well being: food (Deuteronomy 10:18;
Psalms 146:7), clothing (Deuteronomy 24:13), and shelter (Psalms 68:6;
Job 22:5-9,Job 22:23;
Job 24:1-12 decries the injustice of depriving people of each one of these needs, which are material and economic. The equal protection of each person in civil and judicial procedures is represented in the demand for due process (Deuteronomy 16:18-20). Freedom from bondage is comparable to not being “in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything” (Deuteronomy 28:48 NRSV).
Justice presupposes God's intention for people to be in community. When people had become poor and weak with respect to the rest of the community, they were to be strengthened so that they could continue to be effective members of the community—living with them and beside them (Leviticus 25:35-36). Thus biblical justice restores people to community. By justice those who lacked the power and resources to participate in significant aspects of the community were to be strengthened so that they could. This concern in
Leviticus 25:1 is illustrated by the provision of the year of Jubilee, in which at the end of the fifty year period land is restored to those who had lost it through sale or foreclosure of debts (Leviticus 25:28). Thus they regained economic power and were brought back into the economic community. Similarly, interest on loans was prohibited (Leviticus 25:36) as a process which pulled people down, endangering their position in the community.
These legal provisions express a further characteristic of justice. Justice delivers; it does not merely relieve the immediate needs of those in dire straits (Psalms 76:9;
Isaiah 62:1-2). Helping the needy means setting them back on their feet, giving a home, leading to prosperity, restoration, ending the oppression (Psalms 68:5-10;
Psalms 10:15-16; compare 107;
Psalms 113:7-9). Such thorough justice can be socially disruptive. In the Jubilee year as some receive back lands, others lose recently-acquired additional land. The advantage to some is a disadvantage to others. In some cases the two aspects of justice come together. In the act of restoration, those who were victims of justice receive benefits while their exploiters are punished (1 Samuel 2:7-10; compare
The source of justice As the sovereign Creator of the universe, God is just (Psalms 99:1-4;
Jeremiah 9:24), particularly as the defender of all the oppressed of the earth (Psalms 76:9;
Jeremiah 49:11). Justice thus is universal (Psalms 9:7-9) and applies to each covenant or dispensation. Jesus affirmed for His day the centrality of the Old Testament demand for justice (Matthew 23:23). Justice is the work of the New Testament people of God (James 1:27).
God's justice is not a distant external standard. It is the source of all human justice (Proverbs 29:26;
2 Chronicles 19:6,2 Chronicles 19:9). Justice is grace received and grace shared (2 Corinthians 9:8-10).
The most prominent human agent of justice is the ruler. The king receives God's justice and is a channel for it (Psalms 72:1; compare
Romans 13:1-2,Romans 13:4). There is not a distinction between a personal, voluntary justice and a legal, public justice. The same caring for the needy groups of the society is demanded of the ruler (Psalms 72:4;
Jeremiah 22:15-16). Such justice was also required of pagan rulers (Daniel 4:27;
Justice is also a central demand on all people who bear the name of God. Its claim is so basic that without it other central demands and provisions of God are not acceptable to God. Justice is required to be present with the sacrificial system (Amos 5:21-24;
Matthew 5:23-24), fasting (Isaiah 58:1-10), tithing (Matthew 23:23), obedience to the other commandments (Matthew 19:16-21), or the presence of the Temple of God (Jeremiah 7:1-7).
Justice in salvation Apart from describing God's condemnation of sin, Paul used the language and meaning of justice to speak of personal salvation. “The righteousness of God” represents God in grace bringing into the community of God through faith in Christ those who had been outside of the people of God (particularly in Romans but compare also
Ephesians 2:12-13). See Law; Government; Poverty; Righteousness; Welfare.
Stephen Charles Mott