The Bible has a lot to say about justice. In this brief study, we’ll provide an overview of the biblical understanding of justice along with resources for further study.
- What is Justice
- Justice and the Character of God
- Justice & Injustice in the Bible
- How Can We Practice Justice?
- What is Social Justice?
- The Theme of Justice
- Study Resources
What is Justice?
The Hebrew word that is usually translated as justice is mishpat (מִשְׁפָּ֥ט).
This word appears over 200 times in the Hebrew scripture and frequently relates to a person’s relationship to the marginalized, specifically the widow, the immigrant, the orphan, and the poor. A collection sometimes referred to as the ‘quartet of the vulnerable’.
The word mishpat is often coupled with the word righteousness, which in Hebrew is tsâdaqah (צְדָקָ֖ה). This word-pair of justice and righteousness is common throughout the Hebrew scriptures and may be translated in the modern context as ‘social justice.’
English Pastor Richard Baxter argued that the biblical view of justice involves treating all people who lived under a particular government with equity and giving each person their due.”
The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary states that justice is “the standard by which the benefits and penalties of living in society are distributed” and notes that Justice is “a chief attribute of God.”
Justice and the Character of God
True justice is not based on natural law or man-made legal codes and political theories, it is founded in God’s character (Ps 97:2).
The scriptures teach that God has established his justice within the fabric of the cosmos (Ps 9:7-8), has intentionally revealed his justice to Israel (Ex 23:2), presently judges the nations with equity (Ps 96:9) and will once again reveal a fuller application of his justice in the future when he will judge the earth (Ps 96:13).
The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary states:
“God is the sure defender of the poor and the oppressed (Jer. 9:23–24; Ps. 10:17–18). This care of God is universal (Pss. 76:8–9; 103:6). The Psalms ground justice in God’s role as the sovereign creator of the universe (99:1–4). Since the justice of God is characterized by special regard for the poor and the weak, a corresponding quality is demanded of God’s people (Deut. 10:18–19). When they properly carry out justice, they are agents of the divine will (Isa. 59:15–16). In the New Testament, Paul presents God’s justice as grace flowing into and through the believers to the needy (2 Cor. 9:8–10). The demand of God for justice is so central that other responses to God are empty or diminished if justice is lacking (Amos 5:21–24; Mic. 6:6–8; Matt. 23:23). Justice is demanded of all people, but particularly of political authorities (Jer. 21:11–12; Isa. 1:10, 17). Furthermore, because God is sovereign over all, the demands of God’s justice extend beyond the nation of Israel (Ps. 9:7–9; cf. Dan. 4:27). (source)
Justice and Injustice in the Bible
The unfolding narrative of scripture elevates the virtue of justice, commands its readers to live it out in their personal lives, as well as within their community.
Beginning in Genesis, we find that the purpose of God to form Abraham’s family into a nation to bless the nations of the world is founded on them doing righteousness and justice (Gen 18:19).
Though they often failed, God persistently called Abraham’s descendants, Israel, to live lives marked by justice. He also condemned their failures to correct oppression, and frequently sent prophets to call people to repent and live justly (Zech 7:9-10, Eze 18:5-9, Jer 7:2-8, Mic 6:8).
When King David engaged in the unjust acts of power rape and murder, God sent the prophet Nathan to confront him. In calling out the injustice, he was not questioning the Lord’s anointing on David, rather, he was calling him to repentance and restitution (2 Sam 12:1-14).
When Israel failed to live up to its values and correct the oppression in their communities, God sent the prophet Isaiah who accused them of living unjustly (Isa 1:10-17).
Many of the prophets called for Israel to engage in communal repentance and to pursue justice. Obery Hendricks observes that “The primary purpose of biblical prophecy is to effect social and political change in a society. Prophets never uncritically support the status quo… there has never been a conservative prophet. (source)”
In speaking of false prophets, he notes that they are notable in their silence “about issues of social justice and function as uncritical supporters of rulers and politicians, rather than as their moral conscience and dedicated arbiters of biblical justice…false prophets either align themselves with (earthly regimes) or say nothing at all. (source)”
How Can We Practice Justice?
God calls his people to do justice and righteousness .
Biblical justice is the “divinely ordained way of relating to one another in human society” (source).
The scriptures expect justice to be “carried out by means of social legislation, initiated by the kings and the ruling circles” (source)
This includes “cancellation of debts of the state and of individuals, liberation of slaves, restoration of land to its owners and rectification of other economic injustices, such as over-pricing, falsification of weights and measures, etc.” (source)
The sheer volume of commands to pursue justice is so overwhelming that, as scripture unfolds, the later biblical authors assume it is a foundational matter, and shift the majority of their focus on putting it into practice. Wolterstorff notices
“The prophets and the psalmist do not argue the case that alleviating the plight of the lowly is required by justice. They assume it. When they speak of God’s justice, they enjoin their hearers to practice justice, when the complain to God about the absence of justice, they take for granted that justice requires alleviating the plight of the lowly. They save their breath for urging their readers to actually practice justice for the quartet of the vulnerable low ones.”
Scripture provides numerous examples of how justice was applied within the biblical contexts. However, application of justice to our modern context requires more than a ‘copy and paste’ approach. Every culture has unique social constructs, circumstances and understandings of justice and injustice. This ambiguity can often lead to frustration, confusion, and disagreement, much like what we are experiencing today in America today. Christians in every social location should consider afresh the proper ways to apply God’s justice in their specific context.
While the exact applications of justice in a particular setting can sometimes be confusing, we know that biblical justice involves a proactive care for the quartet of the vulnerable and others who suffer injustices within a given community. Failing to do so results in disobedience of God’s direct commands.
Tim Keller argues that “Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice. (source)”
What is Social Justice?
For over a century, theologians, authors, and scholars have used the phrase “Social Justice” to refer to a specific expression and/or application of justice within society. When applied to studying the Bible, the term ‘social justice’ usually comes up when discussing justice for marginalized people groups such as the poor, widow, orphan or immigrant. If ‘justice’ is treating each person with equity and giving every person their due, social justice is treating people groups with equity and giving each people group their due.
“The term “social justice” simply distinguishes between the virtue of justice possessed by an individual (some people are fair, others aren’t), and a just society or community.”
– Karen Swallow-Prior
The Theme of Justice
For an overview of the biblical concept of justice, check out this video from the good folks at The Bible Project.
Justice Bible Study by The Bible Project
Generous Justice, Tim Keller
Justice, Nicholas Wolterstorff
Samples of justice in the Bible
The scripture is full of calls for justice, and even states that justice is central to God’s character. Take a look:
Exodus 23:2 “You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice.
Exodus 23:6 “You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute.
Deuteronomy 10:18 “He (God) executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.
Deuteronomy 16:19 “You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.
Deuteronomy 24:17 “You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge.
Deuteronomy27:19 ‘Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’
1 Kings 3:28 When all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had handed down, they feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice.
Job 8:3 “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert what is right?
Job 34:12 “Surely, God will not act wickedly, And the Almighty will not pervert justice.
Job 34:17 “Shall one who hates justice rule? And will you condemn the righteous mighty One,
Psalm 25:9 He leads the humble in justice, And He teaches the humble His way.
Psalm 33:5 He loves righteousness and justice; The earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord.
Psalm37:28 For the Lord loves justice And does not forsake His godly ones; They are preserved forever, But the descendants of the wicked will be cut off.
Psalm 37:30 The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, And his tongue speaks justice.
Psalm 82:3V indicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
Psalm 89:14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; Lovingkindness and truth go before You.
Psalm 97:2 Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.
Psalm 106:3 How blessed are those who keep justice, Who practice righteousness at all times!
Psalm140:12 I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted And justice for the poor.
Psalm 146:7 Who executes justice for the oppressed; Who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free.
Proverbs 1:3 To receive instruction in wise behavior, Righteousness, justice and equity;
Proverbs 2:8 Guarding the paths of justice, And He preserves the way of His godly ones.
Proverbs 2:9 Then you will discern righteousness and justice And equity and every good course.
Proverbs 19:28 A rascally witness makes a mockery of justice, And the mouth of the wicked spreads iniquity.
Proverbs 20:8 A king who sits on the throne of justice Disperses all evil with his eyes.
Proverbs 21:3 To do righteousness and justice Is desired by the Lord more than sacrifice.
Proverbs 21:7 The violence of the wicked will drag them away, Because they refuse to act with justice.
Proverbs 21:15 The exercise of justice is joy for the righteous, But is terror to the workers of iniquity.
Proverbs 28:5 Evil men do not understand justice, But those who seek the Lord understand all things.
Proverbs 29:4 The king gives stability to the land by justice, But a man who takes bribes overthrows it.
Isaiah 1:17 Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.
Isaiah 42:3 “A bruised reed He will not break And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice.
Isaiah 42:4 “He will not be disheartened or crushed Until He has established justice in the earth; And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.”
Isaiah 56:1 Thus says the Lord, “Preserve justice and do righteousness, For My salvation is about to come And My righteousness to be revealed.
Isaiah 61:8 For I, the Lord, love justice, I hate robbery in the burnt offering; And I will faithfully give them their recompense And make an everlasting covenant with them.
Jeremiah 4:2 And you will swear, ‘As the Lord lives,’ In truth, in justice and in righteousness; Then the nations will bless themselves in Him, And in Him they will glory.”
Jeremiah 7:5 “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor,
Jeremiah 9:24 but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord.
Jeremiah 21:12 O house of David, thus says the Lord: “Administer justice every morning; And deliver the person who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor, That My wrath may not go forth like fire And burn with none to extinguish it, Because of the evil of their deeds.
Jeremiah 22:3 ‘Thus says the Lord, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
Hosea 12:6 Therefore, return to your God, Observe kindness and justice, And wait for your God continually.
Amos 5:15 Hate evil, love good, And establish justice in the gate! Perhaps the Lord God of hosts May be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Amos 5:24 “But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?
Zepheniah 3:5 The Lord is righteous within her; He will do no injustice. Every morning He brings His justice to light; He does not fail. But the unjust knows no shame.
Malachi 2:17 You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied Him?” In that you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them,” or, “Where is the God of justice?”
Matthew 12:18 “Behold, My Servant whom I have chosen; My Beloved in whom My soul is well-pleased; I will put My Spirit upon Him, And He shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles.