“I am Yahweh who exercises loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for I delight in these things,” says Yahweh.
I quoted this scripture from Jeremiah 9:24 in last week’s post and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. God defines Himself by using these three concepts and says He delights in them. If they’re that important to Him, then they should be important to us.
I feel like we talk fairly often about the fact that God balances justice/judgement and mercy/loving kindness. But sometime we’re puzzled about how exactly that works. Back in Medieval times, theologians wondered how a God of judgement and justice could also be one of mercy. Now we ask how a God of love and mercy could also be one of judgement. I think taking God’s characteristic righteousness into account — as well as studying the Hebrew word meanings — can help answer those questions.
We in the Christian churches today often start with the New Testament when trying to understand a concept. It can be useful, though, to start with the Old Testament because that’s the foundation the New Testament writers built on. In Hebrew, words for justice, judgement, government, and ordinances are all interconnected in the root word shapat (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 2443).
We tend to think of judgement/justice as a judicial concept. In Hebrew thought, though, the functions of government were’t divided as we so often do today. The primary meaning “of shapat is to exercise the process of government” in any realm or any form.
When the Bible speaks of God’s judgement or justice it’s also referencing all aspects of His government, not simply judicial laws. To quote TWOT again, “although the ancients knew full well what law … was, they did not think of themselves as ruled by laws rather than by men … The centering of the law, rulership, government in a man was deeply ingrained.” Apply that concept to God, and the notion of justice has to do with Him as the center of true law, rulership, and government. He is the source of real authority and has the absolute right to rule as He chooses.
This is the word we focused on in the last week’s post. The “root basically connotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard” (TWOT, entry 1879). In a religious/spiritual sense, it involves obedience to God’s laws (hearkening back to Him as the center of rulership) and conformity to His nature.
Righteousness on the part of man does involve conforming to God’s standards, but it’s also clear we can’t be righteous on our own. If we were to be judged by God as the governing law-giver there is no way any human could be labeled righteous (Ps. 143:2). And yet, the Bible does speak of people who God called righteous such as Abraham. “He believed in Yahweh, who credited it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6, WEB). We need God to lead and revive us in His righteousness (Ps. 5:8; 119:40).
Clearly, there’s something going on with God’s righteousness that allows for justification outside a strict judicial system of enforced laws. Ultimately, God’s solution to the problem of justification is the Messiah. We see this in the Isaiah 53 servant song — “my righteous servant will justify many.” In the concept of righteousness, we see that God’s characteristics are the ultimate standard for human conduct and that this aspect of His character motivates Him to create a way for humans to become righteous as He is.
Chesed, loving kindness
This brings us to the concept of mercy. The Hebrew word chesed is best translated loving kindness, which is what many translations now use. Some scholars teach this word involves loyalty to covenant obligations (i.e. God is obligated to be kind to those in covenant with Him), but it seems more scripturally accurate to say chesed backs-up covenants. The covenant relationship God establishes with His people is an expression of his innate love, mercy, and kindness (TWOT, entry 698).
One word translated “saints” in the Old Testament is chasiyd. People who are characterized by and objects of God’s chesed are the ones who’ve made a covenant with God (Ps. 50:5). They’re set apart for Him (Ps. 4:3) and follow His example in exercising judgement — mishpat (Ps. 149:6-9). The people holy to God are those who know Him as the One who exercises shapat, tsedeq, and chesed.
Justice, Grace, and Faith
With this foundation, let’s head over to one of my favorite books of the Bible. Romans is often misunderstood and misinterpreted because you need so much context to frame Paul’s nuanced arguments. I once heard Jacob Prasch say, “Romans is proactive theology explaining the role of the law today.” In order to understand that role, though, you need to consider the entire letter in-context, which includes understanding that Paul was a Jewish rabbi writing within a Hebrew mindset.
In Romans 3:19-31, Paul talks about the fact that all the world is brought under the judgement of God and that no one can be justified when held up to the standard of God’s laws. In this, I believe he’s referencing the concept of shapat. There is not a problem with the law that God gave us in His role as ruler and judge — “the law indeed is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good” (Rom. 7:12). But the law doesn’t save us. It gives us knowledge of sin and shows us how God defines good and evil (Rom. 3:20).
Law isn’t what get’s the final word over us. God does, and “now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all those who believe” (Rom. 3:21-22, WEB). The Righteous One steps in and makes a way for us to become righteous outside of obedience to the law. Because we have all sinned, we could not be legally justified based on our own deeds. Thankfully, God’s righteousness isn’t about legal justification based on us already being perfect — it’s about bringing us into a right state with Him and empowering us to follow His example of righteous doing.
There is still “doing” involved. This is something people often miss when they quote Paul’s words “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” out of context (Rom. 3:28). We are justified by the righteous God interceding on our behalf and making us righteous us in a way that couldn’t be done if we were judged based on our own works. This action is motivated by His loving kindness, which also welcomes us into covenant with Him. Once we’re in covenant we are expected to live by the words of that covenant as we continue to walk in His righteousness. To quote Paul again, “Do we then nullify the law through faith? May it never be! No, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31; see also Rom. 6:13-21 and 1 John 3:7).
God doesn’t have a problem balancing justice, righteousness, and loving kindness. They’re all integral parts of His character and because He has made a way for us to enter relationship with Him they can become parts of our character as well.
Yahweh says, “Don’t let the wise man glory in his wisdom. Don’t let the mighty man glory in his might. Don’t let the rich man glory in his riches. But let him who glories glory in this, that he has understanding, and knows me, that I am Yahweh who exercises loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for I delight in these things,” says Yahweh. (Jer. 9:23-24, WEB)
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