Isaiah Study: The Lord’s Desire for Justice

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 sense

C.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.”

Image of an oasis in a desert overlaid with text from Isaiah 40:27-29, WEB: "“Why do you say, Jacob, and speak, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from Yahweh, and the justice due me is disregarded by my God?’ Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard? The everlasting God, Yahweh, the Creator of the ends of the earth, doesn’t faint. He isn’t weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak. He increases the strength of him who has no might.”
Image by HarveyMade from Lightstock

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.

Image of a woman with her arms raised in worship overlaid with text from Psalm 987:1-2, WEB translation: "Yahweh reigns! Let the earth rejoice! Let the multitude of islands be glad! Clouds and darkness are around him. Righteousness (tsedeq) and justice (mishpat) are the foundation of his throne."
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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,
    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.”

Isaiah 42:1-4 WEB

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).

Image of a woman studying her Bible overlaid with text from Matt. 12:17-18, 20, NET translation: This fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I take great delight. I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. ...
He will not break a bruised reed or 
extinguish a smoldering wick,
until he brings justice to victory.”
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

God’s Love for Justice

We see further evidence of God’s love for justice in another prophecy that’s sandwiched between the Servant Songs in Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13– 53:12

“Listen to me, you who follow after righteousness,
    you who seek Yahweh. …

“Listen to me, my people;
    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.”

Isaiah 51:1, 4-6, WEB
Image of a woman's hand turning pages in a Bible with the blog's title text and the words "God’s desire for justice drives Him on to  accomplish 
salvation and share His righteousness with the world. "
Image by Delanie from Lightstock

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,
    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.

Isaiah 59: 1-2, 8-9, 15-17, WEB

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

What Happens When God Takes Justice to the Next Level?

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus talks about commands given to ancient Israel and then gives new guidelines for how to obey God from a heart level. He wants us to shine as lights in the world so that all “can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16, NET).

As preface to taking the commands to a spiritual level, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17, NET). In other words, He has come “to cause God’s will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God’s promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfillment” (Thayer’s dictionary entry on G4137, pleroo). And lest anyone think that the new covenant Jesus brings will make obedience any less of a priority, he adds, “unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Matt. 5:20, NET).

We must have a righteousness that “goes beyond” the letter of the law. It’s no longer enough to not murder; Jesus expects us not to despise or condemn others as well (Matt. 5:21-22). Not cheating on our spouses isn’t enough; we’re not even to lust after someone who doesn’t belong to us (Matt. 5:27-28). God has always cared more about the state of the human heart than what we do, and now that desire for heart and spirit-level obedience is made even more explicit. We might even say that what Jesus reveals demands a higher degree of commitment to God than what He expected under the Old Covenant.

A Life for a Life

One of the commands Jesus talks about is, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Matt 5:38, WEB). This alludes to three passages in the Torah (according to the reference list in MySword Bible app): Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21.

The rest of the people will hear and become afraid to keep doing such evil among you. You must not show pity; the principle will be a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot.

Deuteronomy 19:2-21, NET

The NET footnote on this verse says, “This kind of justice is commonly called lex talionis or ‘measure for measure’… It is likely that it is the principle that is important and not always a strict application. That is, the punishment should fit the crime and it may do so by the payment of fines or other suitable and equitable compensation.” This interpretation may well be true, and perhaps Jesus had this in mind when He mentioned this law in His sermon. Maybe people had begun applying it too strictly and missed the heart of God for fairness and justice.

Jesus does not, however, tell people they need to keep applying this law but in a slightly different way. For the other “you have heard … but I say to you” passages, Jesus reinforces keeping the law and makes it more broadly applicable while taking it to a heart level. For example, “Do not break an oath” becomes “do not take oaths at all” (Matt. 5:33-37). This time, though, the exact connection to a broader spiritual application isn’t so direct.

What Happens When God Takes Justice to the Next Level? | LikeAnAnchor.com
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Mercy over Judgement

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your coat also. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-42, NET, quoting Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20.

In the past, God’s law let you exact equal retribution for a crime. Someone knocks your tooth out, they lose their tooth. God is a God of justice and judgement, and every time there is sin someone has to pay for it. One thing implied by that rule of justice is that when you transgress the law you will also be punished. That’s where we start to realize how much we need God to also be a God of mercy, and indeed He is.

For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a violator of the law. Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2:10-13, NET , quoting Exodus 20:13-14

God wants to show us mercy. He delights in seeing it triumph over judgement. But if we want God to show us mercy, we must also show mercy when we have that opportunity. When someone hits you you don’t hit them back; you turn the other cheek, turn vengeance over to God, and live at peace with everyone you can (Rom. 12:17-21).

Mimicking Jesus’s Mercy

What Happens When God Takes Justice to the Next Level? | LikeAnAnchor.com
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It is worth noting that when Jesus says, “resist not an evil doer,” the Greek word is anthistemi (G436). The only positive case of it being used between people is when Paul stood up to Peter’s hypocrisy in shunning Gentile believers (Gal. 2:11-17). It is also used when we’re told to “resist the devil” (James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8-9) and to “withstand in the evil day” wearing God’s armor (Eph. 6:13). The command in the Sermon on the Mount does not mean we can’t correct someone in the spirit of love when they’ve made an error or that we do not resist the power behind all evil. We are, however, to commit ourselves to showing mercy and letting go of the option to revenge ourselves on someone else.

When God takes justice and fairness to the next level, it turns into mercy, long-suffering, peace, and love. The principle of “a life for a life” finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ dying to free us from all the things we’ve done that deserve death. He gave His life to redirect the “compensation due sin,” which “is death” (Rom. 6:23, LEB), to Himself even though He did not deserve to suffer and die.

Our human nature might rise up against this “turn the other cheek” passage and say that it isn’t fair to let others get away with these sorts of things. But it also was not “fair” that Jesus died instead of us to pay the penalty for our sin. His mercy triumphed over judgement, and if we follow Him in spirit and in truth our mercy should also triumph over judgement.

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Justice Belongs To God

One of the things we discussed in last week’s post about a Christian’s role in seeing justice done was that there are very few situations where God says it’s okay for us to judge other people. There’s an important reason for that which we only just touched on last week. It’s that justice and the application of judgement belong to God. We are to become like Him, yes, but there are certain roles that He does not share with us, at least not yet.

Paul says that one day the saints will judge the world and even angels. We’re not there yet, though there are certain situations where we can practice such as settling disputes in the church or discerning when there’s a sin being committed (1 Cor. 5:1-5, 11-13; 6:1-3). We’re not entrusted with final judgement, though, nor with the execution of justice or vengeance. In fact, we’re instructed to step aside and let God handle it whenever we’re tempted to take any vengeful action.

Judged by the Word of God

Back in Deuteronomy, Moses told Israel not to show partiality in judgement or be afraid of judging fairly (no matter what other people think) “for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17 all scriptures from the WEB translation). Judgement belongs to God, and He cares a great deal about seeing justice done properly. That’s one of the main reasons “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality. You shall not take a bribe” (Deut. 16:19). Of course, these instructions were given to handle legal disputes in a nation where God’s law was the standard of government. We now live in nations with secular law systems and most of us aren’t involved in that. But the principles still apply. God cares about justice done rightly, and His definition of “rightly” might not always match with our human impulses. Read more

What Is a Christian’s Role in Seeing Justice Done?

Last week, we talked about Jesus’ heart for reconciliation. We studied how He’s strongly motivated to save sinners; to seek out the worst sort of people (us included) and make them clean. This presupposes that we are unclean without Him. That we’ve done something to separate us from God and need to be reconciled in order to have a relationship with Him.

Reconciliation is related to the concept of godly justice. If God were not a just God who will judge every human being for their actions, there would be no need for reconciliation and forgiveness. It is because we do things worthy of judgement that we need to be set right with God. There is such a thing as wrong and right in this world, and we attest to this fact every time our blood boils at seeing an innocent person hurt or our concepts of fairness violated.

Part of being set right with God involves a transformation in how we think. We’re to be like Him, motivated to reconcile with others and also to see justice done. We humans often see judgement and mercy as an either/or dichotomy, but God sees them both as important things which must be exercised in careful balance. Justice and mercy are both among the weightiest matters of His law and they must not be “left undone” (Matt. 23:23). Moreover, once we become part of His people God requires us to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with” Him (Mic. 6:8). But how do we do that? What is our role in seeing justice done?

Be Careful How and Who You Judge

In modern English, we tend to see justice as a good thing — fair and equitable upholding of what is right — and judgement as a bad thing — passing a sentence on someone for something done wrong. They’re much more closely connected in scripture, though. For one thing, they’re both translated from the same words — mishpat in Hebrew and krino or krisis in Greek (note: in addition to this, Greek also has separate words for concepts like condemn, katadikazo, and righteous/just, dikaios). Both these words have to do with forming a personal opinion, making distinctions, and/or deciding the outcome of a court case. Justice involves administering God’s law properly to make a judgement, which can be favorable or unfavorable.

We are very strictly warned to be careful how we form opinions, make judgements, and separate people into groups such as “good” and “bad.” Jesus flat-out says, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.” He goes on to say that however we choose to judge is the way that we will be judged. He also points out that when we cannot see ourselves clearly, it would be hypocritical to try and pass judgements on others (Matt. 7:1-5). This goes along with something Paul said in one of his letters.

Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each man will get his praise from God. (1 Cor. 4:5, all quotes from WEB translation)

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Understanding How the God Who Exercises Loving Kindness, Justice, and Righteousness Brings Us Salvation

“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.

Shapat, justice

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.

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Make Pleasing God Your Lifestyle By Desiring What He Requires

Last Sabbath, I was at a young adult weekend centered on the theme “Desire What The Lord Requires.” All the seminars focused on Michah 6:8, which reads:

He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (WEB)

One speaker mentioned something that really stuck in my mind. In this passage, God doesn’t tell His people to be just, merciful, and humble. He uses specific verbs instructing us to act, love, and walk in certain ways. This passage is focused on actions that come from developing God’s character. It goes beyond being like God to actively walking with Him. And though it doesn’t say so here, this should be something that we want to do rather than something we do just because it’s a requirement. God has always been concerned with the state of our hearts and the motives behind why we follow Him. We please Him when we do what He requires willingly and desire the same things He does.Make Pleasing God Your Lifestyle By Desiring What He Requires | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Act Justly

Matthew Henry’s and Adam Clarke’s commentaries says that to do or act justly means “to give to all their due.” Giving everyone what they are “due” from us includes giving God all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, treating our neighbors as we would like to be treated, and also treating ourselves the way God intends.

Basically, acting justly is summed up in the two greatest commands (Matt. 22:36-40). That’s because the concept of justice is tied to God’s law, and the entire law hangs on the commands Jesus shared about how to love God and our neighbors. Read more