Essay 7

The Scandal of God's Justice
Part 2

Robert D. Brinsmead


        Justice In Israel

        Justice in Israel's King

        The Hope of the Messiah

        Justice in Jesus of Nazareth

        Notes and References


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 Israel, in Israel's king and, finally, in Israel's Messiah. Having acquainted ourselves with this Old Testament background, the stage will be set to re-examine in later issues the Christian doctrine of the atonement.

Justice in Israel

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 Israel in his mighty acts of deliverance and salvation in order that Israel might respond in complete dependence on God.

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. 3:31), 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 perspective of Israel's relationship to God,justice is faith in God. He who has faith in God is just in the sight of God (Hab. 2:4).

From the perspective of Israel's relationship to fellow-man, justice means deeds and attitudes which correspond to God's acts of justice. Israel must not mistreat or oppress an alien, because they too were aliens in Egypt (Exod. 22:21; 23:9). God's people must not take advantage of the weak and poor such as widows and orphans, because God, as helper of all the oppressed, would surely fight against the oppressor (Exod. 22:22-24). The Hebrews must not mistreat slaves, because the Exodus proves that God is on the side of the oppressed (Deut. 23:15,16). "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt" (Deut. 10:18, 19). The psalmist declares that God rises in judgment to save all those who are oppressed (Ps. 76:8,9; see also Ps.103:6). And Jeremiah writes that the Lord delights to exercise kindness and justice in all the earth (Jer.9:24).

That is the way Israel must behave in her relationship with others if justice is to live in her community.  This helps us understand why the Hebrew word sadaq (justice) often means deeds of mercy, especially kindness and compassion (Ps. 112:9; Isa.58:1-8; Dan. 4:24-27). For this reason the Septuagint   translates sadaq as "giving alms" fourteen times. Following this example, the King James Version translates dikaiosune (justice) as almsgiving in Matthew 6:1.

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 2:19).

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 Israel was devoted to observing legal regulations, she was devoid of that living faith in God which would produce a just society. The prophets were champions of social justice. The great sins of Israel were social sins -- sins against humaneness and the rights of the disadvantaged. It is significant that the prophets generally did not base their case against Israel on specific regulations of the law but on the story in the law (e.g., Isa. 5:1-7; Ezek. 16; Hosea 11:1-4; Amos 3:1, 2; Micah 6:3-5). They argued that Israel had forgotten the story of God's gracious acts toward Israel and therefore she did not act in the spirit of that story toward others. Everywhere there was selfishness and greed. Justice was not done to the poor, the widows, the father-less, the disadvantaged. The courts of justice were corrupt. The elect community did not reflect the character of her God, who executes justice on behalf of all who are oppressed.

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.


Justice in Israel's King

The chief function of Israel's king was that of judge.  To rule was to judge (Exod. 2:14:1 Sam. 8:5 margin, 20). The Hebrew word shaphat has the double meaning of "to rule" or "to judge. Mishpat (judge or judgment) is also closely associated with sadaq (justice). In fact, the words often appear in tandem as if they were interchangeable (see Ps. 33:5; 35:24; 97:2: 103:6). Sometimes our English Versions translate mishpat as "justice" and sadaq as "righteousness."

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 3:12; Hab. 1:12; Hab. 1:12; Mal. 3:5). We could even say that the two aspects of judgment are sadaq (justice) and wrath.

While mishpat (ruling, judging and executing decisions) was the chief function of Israel's king,sadaq (justice) was the chief function of mishpat. That is to say, the king was to administer justice in Israel, especially by coming to the aid of the suppressed, repressed and oppressed. In this way he would mirror God's justice.

Generally, however, the kings of Israel did not act justly. Jeremiah sent this message to the evil king of Judah:

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 people of Israel. He stood before God as Israel--Israel was "in David" (2 Sam. 20:1). This meant that the prosperity of Israel was bound up with their king. If he administered justice and acted like God's faithful son, the people would also be considered good and blessed. If he did wrong, the entire nation was liable to punitive judgment (see 2 Sam. 24). If God rejected the king, Israel was also rejected (see Ps.89).


The Hope of the Messiah

Israel's hopes for its future, therefore, came to be centered in large measure around the person of its anointed king, of its 'Messiah." which is simply a translation of the Hebrew word for "anointed." The people felt that if they had a perfect king, then all the blessings of God would be bestowed upon them in full measure. As we can see clearly in Ps. 72, these blessings would include not only the intangible gifts of peace and security within the community of Israel, but also material gifts-abundance of crops, and prosperous citizens, and fertile fields and homes. Furthermore, Israel place among the world of nations would be made secure. The reign of the ideal sovereign would bring what the Old Testament calls shalom to Israel, i.e., all good, all peace, all blessing,all prosperity, life in its fullness. Israel,in short,looked forward to a return of the original goodness of creation, and the instrument for bringing this condition of blessedness to Israel would be God's anointed king. When the perfect Messiah ascended the throne, he would,in Isaiah's words, be "the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land" (Isa. 32:2 E. C.Clephane translation). Jeremiah concurred: "In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell secure]y' (Jer. 23:6).

To each king who ascended the throne, Israel hopefully ascribed perfection. Above all, the king's intimate relationship with Yahweh was stressed. The king was Yahweh's adopted son (Ps. 2:7: cf. 89:26), enjoying a unique relationship with him. He sat at the right hand of Yahweh (Ps. 110:1) and was in constant communion with him (Ps. 2:8; 20:1-4; 21:1-7). Sometimes he sat on the throne of Yahweh himself and acted as Yahweh's mandator (Ps. 110:5). All this was meant to express the fact that the king was in perfect communion with God and that therefore he could be a channel of God's blessing to his people Israel.

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 Israel would share in such victory. Indeed, there would be no evil which could be brought upon Israel (Num. 23:8, 20-23), and the military triumph and perfection of his king would bring in for him an era of golden peace and blessedness (Num.23:9-10; 24:5-7).

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 Israel's throne. As we see from the phrasing in Ps. 72, such ascriptions were wishes, stereotypes, hopes attached to the royal office. All were dependent on the king's actually reigning among his people in justice and righteousness and acceptability before God. Only as the king stood perfectly in relationship with the Lord would these glowing hopes attached to him become reality. With each new king, Israel hoped anew. He hoped that this one would be God's perfect Messiah, the one who would bring in the golden age. Of each of its kings, Israel asked, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" From the time of David onward, Israel expected a ruler who would save his people, a ruler who would restore to them all of the goodness of the creation.'

If there is one word which most aptly expresses the character of Israel's ideal king, it is the word justice. He would perfectly embody God's reign of justice. So the prophets declare:

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 Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness [justice]. Jer. 23:5, 6.

Rejoice greatly. O Daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you,righteous [just]and having salvation,gentle and riding on a donkey,on a colt, the feat of a donkey. -Zech. 9:9.


Justice in Jesus of Nazareth

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 kingdom of God. In the Old Testament the coming reign of God was so characterized by the administration of divine justice that the kingdom of God and the justice of God were virtually synonymous. So it was in the message of Jesus (i.e.. "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness [justice]"--(Matt. 6:33).

In his teaching,"The kingdom of God is like this ...." Jesus should also be understood as saying, 'The justice of God is like this ... " How surprising and even scandalous God's justice appeared to be in the message of Jesus! It is a justice which delights to have God fellowship in the great festival of the kingdom with those whom pious society has condemned, while good "church" people find themselves outside, wailing and gnashing their teeth. It is a justice which fills the hungry and sends the satisfied away empty.

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 Jerusalem) and all the Gentile dogs. Because all such were outside the law, they were counted as outside the holy community. Jesus went outside the camp (Heb. 13:12, 13) and gave these outcasts of society a special welcome to his new Messianic community. He proclaimed to them the good news that they were the special objects of God's justice, that those who were deprived of the dignity of human rights were to be given the highest status in this dawning kingdom of God. In all this, Jesus fulfilled those prophecies which spoke of the Messiah's bringing justice to the poor and the oppressed. Jesus so fully identified himself with the suppressed, the depressed and the oppressed that he bore their curse and experienced their rejection. He also knew what it meant to be deprived of justice, as it is written: "In his humiliation he was deprived of justice" (Acts 8:33; see also Isa. 53:8). In all this, Jesus revealed what God always was and ever shall be. He is on the side of all who are deprived and oppressed--so fully on their side that he became such himself.

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.

Notes and References

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. eds. Israel's Prophetic Tradition: Essays in Honour of Peter R Ackroyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 220-24.

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 10:34

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.

7. Paul J and Elizabeth Achtemeier. The Old Testament Roots of Our Faith (Philadelphia. Fortress Press. 1979), pp. 100-101.

8. This is a former concept of the authors - revised in recent writings.

Copyright 1983-2008 Robert D. Brinsmead