“The Rock! His work is perfect,
For all His ways are just;
A God of faithfulness and without injustice,
Righteous and upright is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4; all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise indicated).
I intended this post to begin a new series on God’s justice. However, as I studied, I realized we might benefit by using two English terms interchangeably: justice and righteousness. They are almost synonyms in the Bible.
“Mishpat” is the Hebrew word that is most frequently translated as “justice,” providing the root for the word “just” in the above verse; Scripture often uses it in legal settings or when God executes His judgment on people, sins, or nations. Another word, “tsaddiq,” is translated “righteous” above and is usually translated that way in the New American Standard Bible. It is also translated as “righteous person,” “righteously,” “right,” “one who is in the right,” “just,” “blameless,” and “innocent.”
The equivalent New Testament word is the Greek “dikaios” and various terms related to it. It is translated as “righteous,” “just,” “justice,” “right,” or “innocent.”
Nelson’s Three-in-One Bible Reference Companion defines justice as “administration of what is right.” Righteousness is an attribute of one’s character; justice is that righteousness in action. Since the terms are so closely related in Scripture, throughout this series I will use them interchangeably. While there are slight differences in emphasis, the meanings of the words are similar enough to justify this usage.
Now, let us consider a few difficult questions: What do righteousness and justice look like? How do we know an action, behavior, or decision is righteous or just?
While we often think of justice in legal terms, we cannot always trust man’s laws to be just or righteous. Before 1865, slavery was legal in much of the United States. It was banned after the Civil War, but legalized racial segregation remained on the books in southern states for about 100 years after that. It might have been legal, but it was not righteous or just. The Nazi holocaust that killed six million Jews was legal—the government authorized it—but it was not righteous or just.
People and societies lose their way when they have no objective standard for justice. Humans can agree that we want justice in our culture, but we may disagree about how to bring it about or which activities are righteous or just. In recent years, a branch of America’s Democrat Party (including far-left liberals like New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) has referred to itself as “justice Democrats.” They claim to promote justice with their emphasis on environmentalism, racial equality, women’s rights, etc. However, they often do so at the expense of biblical truth and the traditional Judaeo-Christian values that provide the basis for our nation’s legal system.
I will add that many Republicans err as well. They may support values that are more consistent with Scripture in some regards (e.g., opposition to abortion, support for traditional marriage). However, some of them might ignore Scripture’s teachings about defending the poor and showing no partiality to the rich and powerful. Political party platforms are not a valid objective basis for defining justice.
True justice is an attribute of God. The prophet Jeremiah referred to Him as “Yahweh tsidkenu”—The Lord our righteousness. Any concept of righteousness or justice that ignores or contradicts God’s nature or Word is not true justice. Equitable enforcement of godless legislation is not justice. God’s Word is the foundation of all justice. Psalm 119, the Bible’s epic hymn of praise to God’s law, says:
“Righteous are You, O Lord,
And upright are Your judgments…
Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness,
And Your law is truth” (Psalms 119:137, 142).
Elsewhere, God’s Word says:
“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them Your servant is warned;
In keeping them there is great reward” (Psalms 19:7-11).
We should continue to fight for justice. Christians should be on the front lines of the battle against injustice, corruption, and oppression in society. However, we must not follow a political platform or cultural norms. Instead, we must continue to live by and declare God’s Word. When our favorite politician deviates from Scripture, we must remain steadfast in our obedience to the Lord. God has called us to be His ambassadors.
How do you see justice and righteousness? How would you like to see it manifested today? Share your thoughts by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.
Copyright © 2020 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.