what is biblical justice (and why does it even matter)?

for most of my life when I heard the word “justice” i thought of people getting what they deserved…and by that I mean punishment. and what did justice have to do with social justice? at best my understanding was fuzy and at worst they were on completely different planes. i suspect i’m not the only one. in so much of popular media and movies when a protagonist metes out “justice” it usually means some shady villainous character is in for some pummeling.

but is that the flavor of the word in God’s mouth? is that what the bible has to say about justice? and why does it matter?

let’s ACTUALLY take a look at what the bible has to say about justice.

FIRST, let’s see how much the word actually comes up and presumably how important the subject is to God:

in the old testament* (*i refer to the hebrew bible or the protestant old testament, as other groups add texts that are not in the canon of either traditions)

  • in hebrew (the original language of the old testament) the word that is translated in English as justice is the word: “mishpat
  • the word mishpat is used 426 times (according to the hebrew concordance of the nasb translation) in 403 verses.
  • the word for love (as in the word used concerning how abraham loved his son Isaac, how Isaac loved rebekah, how we are commanded to love the Lord your God from deut 6:5) used in hebrew is “ahab
  • the word ahab is used 220 times in 202 verses

the word “justice” is used about twice as much as the word love.

in the new testament

  • in greek (the original language of the new testament) the word that is translated in English as justice is the world: “krisis” (we know this is the equivalent word for the hebrew word mishpat as krisis is used in the greek when matthew quotes from the old testament book of isaiah 42:3)
  • the word krisis is used 47 times in 46 verses
  • the word for cross (you know, what Jesus was hung on to die slowly of suffocation) used in greek is “stauros
  • the word stauros is used 27 times in 27 verses

the word justice is used nearly twice as much as the word for the cross (what christians use as a symbol to identify their faith).

needless to say, even from a cursory reading of bible, it is fair to say that justice is a big deal to God.

in fact, the prophet micah sums up a God honoring life in this oft quoted verse:

“he has told you, o man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

– micah 6:8

how then do we “do justice”?  what is justice in the eyes of God?

NOW THEN, let’s look again to the scripture to see how the word justice is used:

in the old testament

often times the word “mishpat” is translated in english as other words such as “judgment”, “manner”, “right”, “cause”, or “ordinance.”   if we look at just the words that are translated as the english word “justice”, what was most shocking to me was how it was actually used and to whom it was most often applied. the word is not used, mainly, toward sinister abusive people…it is used more for the most needy and vulnerable in society (just for starters see exodus 23:6, deuteronomy 10:18, psalm 82:3, ecclesiastes 5:8, isaiah 1:17. there are so many more…if you don’t believe me do a word search on justice in any bible app/website and actually read the verses in context)

wait…so we’re supposed to punish the needy, the poor, the immigrant, the orphan, the widow (which it seems is the tact that too many are actually taking in america)?

NO! it is the definition of justice as mainly having to do with punishment that is not reliable. let’s take a closer look at a passage that talks about what God means by justice in more depth.

27 “‘Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit;
therefore they have become great and rich;
28 they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no bounds in deeds of evil;
they judge not with justice
the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper,
and they do not defend the rights of the needy.

29 Shall I not punish them for these things?’ declares the Lord,
‘and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?’”

– jeremiah 5:27-29

in verse 28 justice is equated with making the cause of the fatherless prosper and defending the rights of the needy.

yes, those who do not do that, especially those who maintain power by neglecting those in need, will be punished. But justice is not just punishment of evil (which, in context, is neglecting those in need) but it is the doing of good (acting on the interest of those in need). we tend to focus on the former and neglect the latter.

in fact, whenever the word justice is used in the old testament, more often in the same breath it is linked to caring for and acting on the interest of those in need.

in the new testament

speaking of former and latter things, we see this same vein of the usage of the word justice carry into the new testament as even Jesus weighs in on the issue of justice in case it wasn’t clear.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”

– matthew 23:23

in this passage Jesus underscores the importance of justice. he even ties justice together with mercy and faithfulness (and in the parallel passage of luke 11:42, to the love of God). the luke 11 passage calls to mind the greatest commandment which are to love God and to love others. justice, then, is paralleled with loving of others.

the reason why the term “social justice” is not used in the bible is because, to God, justice and social justice are inextricably linked.

 

IN SUMMARY then, what is biblical justice and why does it matter?

Q: what is biblical justice?

A: biblical justice ≠ mere punishment

biblical justice = social justice = taking action to uplift those in need

Q: why does biblical justice matter?

A: it is the weight of the heart of God, so heavy that it encompasses love and takes Him to death on a cross

or to put it differently

The exercise of justice is joy for the righteous, but is terror to the workers of iniquity.

– proverbs 21:15

So are we living justly?

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