Scandal of God's Justice
Robert D. Brinsmead
In our previous essay (The Scandal
of God's Justice-Part 1) we found that biblical justice must not be confused
with the Western idea of justice. Biblical justice is not a mere conformity to
a legal norm but faithfulness to a relationship. God's justice is his
merciful fidelity to his covenantal promise, despite his people's sins. In this
present issue we look at the meaning of justice in
The fundamental meaning of
justice is loyalty or faithfulness to the relationships of the created order.
The just man or the just community is rightly related to God and rightly
related to the neighbor. God revealed himself to
The just are those who wait for him:-
(Isa. 33:2; Mic. 7:7-9), who hope in him (Ps. 69:6: 71:5, 14: 146:5), who seek after him (Ps.69:6, 32), who trust in him (Ps. 71:5;143:8): cf. Ps. 33. They are those who know Yahweh(Ps.36:10), who fear him (Ps. 103:11, 13, 17), who love his name (Ps. 69:36). He is their fortress. In a world in which they are oppressed and needy, the Lord is their sole refuge (Ps.5:7-12: 14:6; 31; 36:7;52:6-7; 71:1-3; 94:22: 118:8-9: 143:9). Thus, as opposed to those who trample them underfoot, as over against those who trust in riches (Ps. 52:7), they trust in Yahweh, crying to him in their distress (Ps. 35;88; 116; 140), bowing before his judgments(Ps. 94:12; 118:18), acknowledging their sin (Ps.32:51), offering to him a broken spirit and a contrite heart (Ps. 51:17).
Yahweh is their only hope
and sure salvation. They turn to him in faith. When Paul argues that justice by
faith is not contrary to the law (Rom. ),
he proves his point by recalling what the law says concerning Abraham--he
believed God and that was considered justice (Gen. 15:~; Rom. 4:3). From the
From the perspective of
That is the way
The just or righteous man of the Old Testament is a man of compassion and benevolence, especially toward the poor, the needy and the oppressed(see Job 29:7-17; 31:16-22). God's act of justice in the Exodus informs him that God's justice is biased toward the disadvantaged. The just man also acts in the same spirit toward the oppressed (see Exod.22:21, 22; 23:9; Deut. 23:15, 16). Thus, sadaqis is often correlated with mercy, care for the poor and the widows, defending their cause in the law-courts, etc. (Job 29:16; 31:21; Prov. 31:9; Hosea ).
The righteous in the covenant will demonstrate their righteousness by a willing self-dedication in service to bring deliverance and restoration to the needy and afflicted who are unable to help themselves.
Old Testament justice goes beyond legal correctness. "The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern" (Prov 29:7).
Thus, on the one hand justice consists in nothing but hope and trust in God, and on the other hand it consists in deeds of compassion and assistance toward the disadvantaged and oppressed. Faith fulfills the demands of the vertical relationship, while deeds of mercy fulfill the demands of the horizontal relationship. This may help us appreciate the different perspectives on justice in Paul and James. In Romans faith alone is reckoned as justice before God. In James justice is faith in action on behalf of the destitute.
The Old Testament prophets
found that while
It is astonishing how little the prophets commended individual asceticism or private righteousness. For the prophets, righteousness not worked out in the arena of concrete human relationships and human needs is not righteousness at all. That is why they speak of social justice rather than of a private, other-worldly righteousness. For this reason we suggest that the "earthy" word justice more adequately conveys the meaning of the Hebrew word sudaq than does our "churchy" word righteousness.
The chief function of
Like its companion word sadaq (justice), mishpat (judge or judgment) often has the meaning of help, deliverance and salvation (Gen. 30:6; Deut. 32:36; 1 Kings 8:49; Ps. 35:23, 24; 43:1; 72:2,4; 76:9; Isa. 1:27). But unlike sudaq, mishpat is also used to refer to punishment and wrath (Ezek. 34:16; Joel ; Hab. ; Hab. ; Mal. 3:5). We could even say that the two aspects of judgment are sadaq (justice) and wrath.
(ruling, judging and executing decisions) was the chief function of
Generally, however, the
O house of David, this is what the Lord says 'Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done burn with no one to quench it.' -Jer.21:12.
"'This is what the Lord says: Do what is lust and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.'" Jer. 22:3.
"Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy,and so all went well. -Jer. 22:15, 16.
The king was not only God's
representative; he was also the people's representative. God's covenant with
David to establish his royal line forever meant much to the people over whom he
ruled. They had a stake in this eternal guarantee. The king embodied the entire
To each king who ascended
Because the king enjoyed
such an intimate relationship with the Lord, he also shared God's power,and God gave to him
universal rule over all nations.He was girded and
strengthened for war by Yahweh himself, and through the help of Yahweh, he was
able to conquer all of his enemies (Ps. 18; 20: 21; 45; 110; cf. Num. 23:24;
24:8, 17-19). But again this meant that
To be sure, none of these
ascriptions of perfection, which we have in the Psalms and which were probably composed by court prophets, ever fitted the
actual historical occupants of
If there is one word which
most aptly expresses the character of
He will judge your people in righteousness (justice], your afflicted ones with justice. He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy;he will crush the oppressor. ...
For he will deliver the needy who cry out,the afflicted who have no one to help. ...
He will rescue them from oppression and violence,for precious is their blood in his sight. -Ps. 72:2, 4, 12, 14.
But with righteousness [justice] he will judge the needy,with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness [justice] will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. Isa. 11:4, 5.
See, a king will reign in righteousness [justice]. -Isa. 32:1.
"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight:1 will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out,or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break,and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope." This is what God the Lord says--he who created the heavens and stretched them out,who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it,who gives breath to its people,and life to those who walk on it: "1, the Lord, have called you in righteousness [justice];I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,to open eyes that are blind,to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness." --Isa. 42:1-7.
"The days are coming."
declares the Lord,"when I will raise up to David
a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right
in the land. In his days
Rejoice greatly. O Daughter
The Old Testament hopes for an ideal king who would reign in justice were realized in Jesus of Nazareth. God always fulfills his word in a way which takes even his own people by surprise. Yet in view of what the Old Testament repeatedly says about justice, the Jews should have had some intimation of the true character of the Messiah. But Messiah Jesus was nothing like the king of popular Jewish imagination. The message and the deeds of Jesus not only surprised the Jews, but offended their principles of justice.
What Jesus had to say about
justice was embodied in his gospel about the
In his teaching,"The
Jesus' teaching about the kingdom overturns human ideas of justice. Unless we can identify with those devout Jews whose sense of justice was affronted by Jesus' teaching, it is doubtful that we have understood the scandal of God's justice. In the parable of the prodigal son, for example, we generally lampoon the elder brother as a self-righteous stick-in-the-mud who is so muddle-headed that he cannot think straight. We fail to see that he represents human justice at its best and appears to have good reason to be offended. Was it not the father who was muddle-headed? The younger brother had disgraced the family name,had shirked all responsibility and had abandoned his decent elder brother. When he Rot what he deserved, he could not take it like a man but came crawling home with what appeared to be very questionable motives. Did not the older brother have good reason to say, "It is all right to be humanitarian. I would be willing to help this derelict rehabilitate himself. But it is absolutely outrageous to act as if he were some kind of hero. He has already received and wasted his share of the inheritance, but now the indulgent old man is going to give him another share of the estate. Apparently my unwavering loyalty and years of faithful service are not worth the flick of an eyelid to him. He is making so much fuss over the wastrel that his sense of justice is obviously biased. In fact, he is so intoxicated with love for his Benjamin that he has abandoned all sense of justice." What decent, self-respecting person would not question the father's wisdom and sense of justice? Unless we can identify with the older brother and feel outraged by the father's sense of justice, we have not understood Jesus' message.
Jesus inaugurated a reign of justice which is contrary to human justice. It is not a distributive justice which gives people what they deserve. It is a justice in which God's determination and commitment to come to the aid of all who are oppressed is realized. It is a justice which fulfills God's purpose of grace--a justice biased in favor of those who are wretched, deprived, poor and needy. In short. God's justice is love in action. Therefore it is no justice in tension with mercy, but justice expressed in mercy. It is not justice which is punitive, but justice which brings salvation to those who sit on the dunghill of human misery. It is not justice which augurs doom and gloom, but justice which calls for celebration with singing, feasting and dancing. It is "good" people who cannot tolerate such justice. They therefore find themselves out-side the eschatological party, looking enviously on the good fortune of so many reprobate. Thus, God's justice makes the first last, and the last first. It fills the hungry and sends the satisfied away empty. In the kingdom where God's justice reigns supreme there is no hierarchy of religious "big shots." Here the greatest are everybody's lackeys, and everyone works without thought of reward because in the King's welcome and approval they have already reached the pinnacle of human success.
Jesus' actions outraged
good society's sense of justice more than did his teaching. His social
preferences appeared biased toward the wrong kind of people. For a public
religious figure this was not acceptable. For a Messiah it was unthinkable.
Jesus went out of his way to befriend the poor, the ignorant, the sick and
those who lived on the margin of society. The latter were those who lived
outside the law and were called "sinners". They included shepherds
(whose occupation made it impossible to abide by the Sabbath regulations),
ignorant Galileans (who had no adequate instruction in the law), tax-
collectors (who were renegade Jews in the service of the enemy power), women of
ill- repute, Samaritans (who did not worship at
Jesus mirrors the great surprise of the final judgment. Those who were so confident of having the truth and being God's favorites found themselves passed by, while those who could not lift up their heads for their sense of unworthiness were gladly welcomed by Messiah Jesus. Surely this ought to warn us not to be too confident of our rightness. There is something about religious orthodoxy which makes us insufferably arrogant about our rightness. We are to be pitied if we are so right that we cannot even eat at the Lord's table with those who are not so right. Luther once cried, "May God in his mercy save me from a church in which there are none but saints." This prayer now needs to be revised to fit the real situation, because the orthodox have ]earned that to be right one must loudly confess he is an unworthy sinner. So we need to pray, "May God in his mercy save us from a church in which people are so confident of being theologically correct."
The doctrine of assurance too easily becomes confidence and complacency about being God's special favorites. When this delusion overtakes us, we become more interested in preserving our special religious status than in identifying with Christ's mission to bring God's justice to all that are oppressed. Oh, we may offer people the dignity of the justified on condition that they join our holy clubs--which in reality is the "gospel" of circumcision. But the justice of God revealed in his Messiah gives us cause to be afraid of all our religious cocksureness and, rather, makes us pray that we be mercifully numbered among the truly poor in spirit.
Unless otherwise indicated. Scripture quotations are from the New international Version.
1. Sep Anthony Phillips."prophecy and Law," in Richard Coggins.
Anthony Phillips and Michael Knibb.
2. E. R. Achtemeier, art. "Righteousness in the OT." The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1962). 4:84
3. The story of Abraham is part of what the Hebrews called the Torah.
4. The Psalms can also be considered part of the Torah (see John
5. Lester J. Kuyper, "Righteousness and Salvation," Scottish journal of Theology 30. no.3: 241.
6. See Stephen Charter Mott. Biblical Ethics and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press. 1982). p. 63 See especially n. 6.
Paul J and Elizabeth Achtemeier. The
Old Testament Roots of Our Faith (
8. This is a former concept of the authors - revised in recent writings.
Copyright © 1983-2008 Robert D. Brinsmead