Since starting a university master’s program two years ago, I’ve participated in several diversity trainings and class assignments that prompted us to evaluate our core values. One thing I realized is that while a buzz-word like “equity” just makes me feel tired since I’ve heard it so much, the idea of “justice” stirs a deep desire for things in the world to be right. I think many of us (perhaps even most of us) want fairness and justice. We feel there’s a way things should be, and we’re irritated when that isn’t the case. We hate injustice, especially if it’s directed at us but often if we see it happening to others as well.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis proposes that our sense of right and wrong is a clue pointing to God’s existence and revealing His nature. Even in our modern age of moral relativism, people still have some idea of how the world “should” be (though different groups often dramatically disagree about what that looks like). Many of us still have in mind “some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it” (Lewis) that hints at a larger ideal to strive toward. Lewis expands on this recognition of a need for justice when he talks about his time as an atheist.
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? …
Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too— for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of senseC.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Chapter 1
Lewis maintains that knowledge of justice points to the existence of a God who embodies justice, and the Bible supports that. Scripture reveals that God is deeply concerned with justice and that it’s one of His driving motivations. This shows up clearly in Isaiah 40-66, the passage of scripture we’ve been studying over the past couple months. These last 27 chapters of Isaiah record a message from God where He speaks candidly about His desires, motivations, and plans. If you go back and read the very first post, you’ll see I made a list of key themes from this section of scripture to study more extensively. One of those themes was that “God is motivated by justice.”
Justice, Righteousness, and Judgement
“Justice” is a complex word when we’re working with Hebrew to English translations. In the King James Version, “justice” appears 5 times in this section of Isaiah and it’s translated from tsedeq (H6664 and H6664); a word that WEB translates “righteousness.” In the WEB translation, “justice” is used 14 times and it’s translated from mishpat (H4941), which the KJV translates as “judgment.” So we have two Hebrew words here, and three different English translations. That’s not really surprising if you’ve compared Old Testament translations or studied Hebrew even a little bit. Hebrew has a smaller pool of available words than English, and relies on context and word pictures to paint pictures that we might use half a dozen English words to express.
When I’m trying to understand the nuances of a Hebrew word, I like to look it up in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT). This resource says the root word for tsedeq “basically connotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard” (entry 1879). It has to do with justice and “rightness,” and it’s connected to righteously living in accordance with God’s law. It’s also closely connected with God. He is righteous and just, and so His commands are as well. The TWOT says there’s a “forensic” and legal aspect to tsedeq. When people break His commands, God is righteous to punish them for it. He is also righteous when He provides “salvation as vindication,” acting to clear our names in a legal sense.
Mishpat and its root shapat (TWOT entry 2443) are concerned with “the process of government.” While shapat is often translated “judge,” it really includes all the functions of a proper government–not just what we think of as the “judicial branch.” It’s also closely connected with a ruler; the law and the one giving the law aren’t separated the way we do today. God’s role as ruler, judge, and lawgiver are all connected. When we see mishpat translated “justice,” that’s the best word available in English to represent a concept with “at least thirteen related, but distinct, aspects of the central idea” related to judicial government, authority, and legislation (TWOT entry 2443c). In connection with God, justice involves “the just claims of God. God, who is Lord, can demand and He does demand” (Koehler, qtd. in TWOT). God wants things to be right in the world, and He’s the one who tells us what right, just, and correct looks like.
The Justice-Bringing Messiah
That was a long introduction, but it gives us a lot to think about in regards to justice. While justice does involve our ideas of fairness and what’s right, it’s also more than that. In the Bible, real justice is connected to God’s character, authority, and laws. It’s also a central concept in this section if Isaiah, and it underlies all the other topics we’ve discussed so far. “God is Incomparable and Irreplaceable,” and His justice is a key part of His character. There is “Joy in the Sabbath Covenant With God” in part because His sense of rightness involves rewards for acting justly and walking with Him. When we are “Looking Toward the Messiah,” we see that a big part of Jesus’s role in both His comings involves satisfying God’s justice. God’s activity in “Doing A New Thing” involves bringing justice to all the nations in the future. Finally, “The Contrast Between Righteousness and Wickedness” that God describes involves how each group does or does not align with His justice.
We can see how integral this idea of justice is from the very beginning of the message in Isaiah 40-66. This section of scripture opens with God saying that He has punished sins and now He will pardon them. It says God is a ruler brining reward and recompense to His kingdom. No one can compare to Him; other so-called rulers are nothing (Is. 40:1, 10-26). Even in the verses where mishpat and tsedeq aren’t used directly, we can clearly see themes of authority, law, righteousness, and justice. With those aspects of God’s character in mind, how can people possibly say, “My way is hidden from Yahweh, and the justice due me is disregarded by my God?” (Is. 40:27, WEB).
In reality, the “justice due” to us isn’t something we should want because “all have sinned” and “the compensation due sin is death.” However, “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 3:23; 6:23, LEB). When we looked at the Servant Song prophecies a few weeks ago, we only briefly touched on the role of the Messiah in bringing justice but it’s an important part of Jesus’s mission. Just look at how many times justice is mentioned in this first Servant Song.
“Behold, my servant, whom I uphold,Isaiah 42:1-4 WEB
my chosen, in whom my soul delights:
I have put my Spirit on him.
He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout,
nor raise his voice,
nor cause it to be heard in the street.
He won’t break a bruised reed.
He won’t quench a dimly burning wick.
He will faithfully bring justice.
He will not fail nor be discouraged,
until he has set justice in the earth,
and the islands wait for his law.”
This is one of the Servant Songs quoted in the New Testament; Matthew references it when showing his readers how Jesus’s actions on earth link back to prophecies from the Old Testament (Matt. 12:15-21). Jesus’s actions in healing and helping people demonstrated His commitment to justice. He also highlights justice as one of ” the weightier matters of the law” when talking with the Pharisees (Matt. 23:23).
God’s Love for Justice
“Listen to me, you who follow after righteousness,
you who seek Yahweh. …
“Listen to me, my people;Isaiah 51:1, 4-6, WEB
and hear me, my nation,
for a law will go out from me,
and I will establish my justice for a light to the peoples.
My righteousness is near.
My salvation has gone out,
and my arms will judge the peoples. …
my salvation will be forever,
and my righteousness will not be abolished.”
Notice how close the connection is between justice, righteousness, salvation, and God’s law. God loves justice, as He says very clearly near the end of Isaiah: “For I, Yahweh, love justice” (Is. 61:8, WEB). When we love the God of Justice, we’ll also want to practice justice. Without justice, we don’t have a relationship with God.
Behold, Yahweh’s hand is not shortened, that it can’t save;
nor his ear dull, that it can’t hear.
But your iniquities have separated you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear. …
They don’t know the way of peace;
and there is no justice in their ways.
They have made crooked paths for themselves;
whoever goes in them doesn’t know peace.
Therefore justice is far from us,
and righteousness doesn’t overtake us.
We look for light, but see darkness;
for brightness, but we walk in obscurity. …
Yahweh saw it,Isaiah 59: 1-2, 8-9, 15-17, WEB
and it displeased him that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no man,
and wondered that there was no intercessor.
Therefore his own arm brought salvation to him;
and his righteousness sustained him.
He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
and a helmet of salvation on his head.
You might want to take some time and read all of Isiah 53 here; it’s got a lot to say about how upset God is when there’s no justice and how motivated He is to fix that problem. He wants the people He’s in a relationship with to “Maintain justice and do what is right” (Is. 56:1-2). He also wants His people to receive justice–to have Him as their good and righteous ruler acting with authority to make justice happen. His desire for justice drives Him on to accomplish salvation and share His righteousness with the world. We benefit every day from God’s desire for justice and His love of righteousness.
Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “Let Justice Roll” by Dustin Smith