What is justice?

What is justice? December 22, 2020

“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy” (Prov 31:8-9)

Exhortations like this abound throughout the Old Testament. One may even say that the proliferation of the cry to do justice in the OT leads to the conviction that doing righteousness and justice are defining characteristics of the people of God.

But, what is biblical justice? One of the problems with much of the talk about justice in Christian circles is that justice is never defined.

What, then, does it mean to “do justice”? And what does biblical justice look like?

Righteousness and justice in the OT

When looking through the OT it becomes evident that righteousness and justice are central to the stipulations of the Deuteronomic covenant (i.e., the commands of Deuteronomy that the people of God were to follow as they entered the Promised Land).

Righteousness

The Hebrew word sedaqa (often translated as “righteous[ness]” or “just”) refers primarily to something that is fixed and fully what it should be. Simply put, sedaqa refers to things as they ought to be.

Sedeqa has a wide range of applications. It was used with regard to safe paths for sheep. The famed Psalm 23 states: “He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness (sedaqa); for His name’s sake (Ps 23:3).

The OT applies sedaqa to economic and business transactions. A just (sedaqa) person uses accurate weights and measures: “You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin” (Lev 19:36).

Leviticus 19 is important because it connects Israel’s practicing of sedaqa with their enslavement in Egypt. Thus, Lev 19:36 concludes: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:36). The Lord is, in effect, telling them, “you need to act justly because you used to be slaves”: that is, you (Israel) know what it was like to be treated unjustly.

Justice

The Hebrew word mispat/sapat (“justice”) is closely connected with sedaqa (righteousness or just). Basically, mispat (justice) refers to what needs to be done in a given situation in order that the people or circumstances might be restored to sedaqa (righteousness).

Mispat (justice) is only needed when there is no sedaqa (righteousness or just).

This means that there would be no need for mispat if sedaqa abounded. That is, if things are the way they ought to be, there would be no need for justice.

 Throughout the OT sedaqa and mispat are practical terms that refer to the right ordering of things within society.

In summary, mispat (justice) is the action required and sedaqa (righteousness or just) is the resultant state of affairs.

How then are we to define the righteous person? Bruce Waltke, in his two-volume commentary on Proverbs, concludes, “The righteous (ṣaddîq) are willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community; the wicked are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.”[1]

This sounds a lot like Jesus! After all, the cross is the epitome of disadvantaging oneself in order to advantage the community!

Righteousness and justice in the OT

Below, is a sample of verses demonstrating the abundance of righteousness and justice in the OT. Note that the terms appear throughout the OT—beginning in Genesis! The reader is encouraged to spend some time reflecting on the following passages. As you read, keep Waltke’s definition in mind.

Genesis 18:19 “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

Exodus 23:6 “You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute.”

Deuteronomy 10:18 He executes justice for the orphan and the widow and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.

Deuteronomy 16:19 “You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.”

Deuteronomy 16:20 “Justiceand only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you.”

Deuteronomy 27:19 “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.”

1 Kings 10:9 “Blessed be the Lord your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the Lord loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.”

Psalm 33:5 “He loves righteousness and justice.

Psalm 37:28 “For the Lord loves justice.

Psalm 37:30 “The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice.”

Psalm 82:3 “Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute.”

Psalm 89:14 “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; lovingkindness and truth go before You.”

Psalm 97:2 “Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.”

Psalm 99:4 “The strength of the King loves justice; you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.”

Psalm 106:3 “How blessed are those who keep justice, who practice righteousness at all times!”

Psalm 111:7 “The works of His hands are truth and justice.

Psalm 140:12 “I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted and justice for the poor.”

Psalm 146:7 “Who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free.”

Proverbs 1:3 “To receive instruction in wise behavior, Righteousnessjustice and equity.”

Proverbs 2:6 “Guarding the paths of justice, And He preserves the way of His godly ones.”

Provers 2:9 “Then you will discern righteousness and justice and equity and every good course.”

Proverbs 8:15 “By me kings reign, and rulers decree justice.

Proverbs 8:20 “I walk in the way of righteousness, In the midst of the paths of justice.

Proverbs 17:23 “A wicked man receives a bribe from the bosom to pervert the ways of justice.

Proverbs 19:28 “A rascally witness makes a mockery of justice, and the mouth of the wicked spreads iniquity.”

Proverbs 20:8 “A king who sits on the throne of justice; disperses all evil with his eyes.”

Proverbs 21:3 “To do righteousness and justice is desired by the Lord more than sacrifice.”

Proverbs 21:7 “The violence of the wicked will drag them away, because they refuse to act with justice.”

Proverbs 21:15 “The exercise of justice is joy for the righteous, but is terror to the workers of iniquity.”

Proverbs 28:5 “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand all things.”

Proverbs 29:4 “The king gives stability to the land by justice, but a man who takes bribes overthrows it.”

Proverbs 29:26 “Many seek the ruler’s favor, but justice for man comes from the Lord.”

Isaiah 1:17 “Learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Isaiah 1:21 “How the faithful city has become a harlot, she who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, but now murderers.”

Isaiah 1:27 “Zion will be redeemed with justice and her repentant ones with righteousness.

Isaiah 5:7 “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah His delightful plant. Thus, He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.”

Isaiah 9:7 “There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.”

Isaiah 28:17 ““I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the level.”

Isaiah 30:18 “For the Lord is a God of justice.

Isaiah 32:16 “Then justice will dwell in the wilderness and righteousness will abide in the fertile field.”

Isaiah 33:5 “The Lord is exalted, for He dwells on high; He has filled Zion with justice and righteousness.”

Isaiah 42:1 “Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.”

Isaiah 42:3-4 “A bruised reed He will not break and a dimly burning wick. He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not be disheartened or crushed until He has established justice in the earth.”

Isaiah 49:4 “Yet surely the justice due to Me is with the Lord, and My reward with My God.”

Isaiah 56:1 “Thus says the Lord, “Preserve justice and do righteousness, for My salvation is about to come and My righteousness to be revealed.”

Isaiah 59:14-15 “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away . . . . Now the Lord saw, and it was displeasing in His sight that there was no justice.”

Isaiah 61:8 “For I, the Lord, love justice.

Jeremiah 7:5-7 “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.”

Jeremiah 9:24 “but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord.”

Jeremiah 21:12 “O house of David, thus says the Lord: “Administer justice every morning; And deliver the person who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor, that My wrath may not go forth like fire and burn with none to extinguish it, because of the evil of their deeds.”

Jeremiah 22:3 “Thus says the Lord, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”

Jeremiah 22:13 “Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness and his upper rooms without justice, who uses his neighbor’s services without pay and does not give him his wages.”

Jeremiah 33:5 “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth.”

Ezekiel 18:5-9 “But if a man is righteous and practices justice and righteousness, and does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period—if a man does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, does not commit robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with clothing, if he does not lend money on interest or take increase, if he keeps his hand from iniquity and executes true justice between man and man, if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully—he is righteous and will surely live,” declares the Lord God.”

Hosea 12:6 “Therefore, return to your God, observe kindness and justice, And wait for your God continually.”

Amos 5:15 “Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate! Perhaps the Lord God of hosts may be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.”

Micah 3:1 “Hear now, heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel. Is it not for you to know justice?

Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Zephaniah 3:5 “The Lord is righteous within her; He will do no injustice. Every morning He brings His justice to light; He does not fail. But the unjust knows no shame.”

Zechariah 7:9 “Thus has the Lord of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother.”

What about the NT? Why is the call to do righteousness and justice seemingly absent from the NT? We will look at this in our next few posts!

[1] Waltke, Bruce K. The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1-15 (p. 97). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.


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