Can someone point me to a resource that helps clearly define “justice” in the bibical sense? I’m finding alot of ambiguity in how many apply this term, even within the church. Some refer to it as getting what we deserve and others use it to describe what should happen or pursuing a world as it should be.
The Bible itself talks a lot in the subject of “justice.” We believe in that God is just or God is a God of justice. There are two kinds of justice in the Scripture:
1.) Retributive Justice
2.) Restorative Justice
Restributive Justice is the common understanding we have for the word justice. It is the idea of getting what we deserve or the consequences of our actions. In the Bible, God executes this kind of justice in the Biblical narrative. However, we always forget the second kind of Justice, Restorative Justice, which is portrayed by Jesus. It is where mercy and justice meet halfway.
To further understand the second kind of Justice. I recommend you to watch these resources:
Thank you so much.
I hope these help!
Joe, thanks for asking this question. Many of our conversations about justice break down because we aren’t defining the word the same way, so I appreciate your wisdom in starting with the definition.
The videos @domingoosabel shared are a great overview of how justice is used in much of the literature I’ve read recently. They’re a wonderful starting point for this conversation.
As I’ve studied justice in the Bible, I haven’t come to the same conclusion as the Bible Project video. I’d love input on whether I’m understanding the video and the Bible correctly.
I focused my studies on the Hebrew word mishpat because that is the word translated justice in most modern translations. According to the Bible Project video linked above,
The Hebrew word mishpat can refer to retributive justice, like if I steal something I pay the consequences; yet most often in the Bible, mishpat refers to restorative justice. It means going a step further, actually seeking out vulnerable people who are being taken advantage of and helping them. Some people call this charity, but mishpat involves way more. It means taking steps to advocate for the vulnerable and changing social structures to prevent injustice.
I’m curious where the Bible Project got this definition. I checked the definition of mishpat using the Outline of Biblical Usage at blueletterbible.org, and it has a strong connotation of correct judicial decisions. (This Outline of Biblical Usage comes from Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon.)
The link above also lists all the verses in the Bible that use mishpat. The verses and definition include specific circumstances of helping the poor when wrongs need to be righted. For example, mishpat includes paying back what was stolen. But I don’t see support for a broad idea of helping the vulnerable, such as feeding the hungry.
Also, I can’t think of verses where the Bible speaks of doing justice by changing social structures. God gave the Israelites His law in Exodus, so their official social structures were good. Most often the prophets called the people to repent because they were not obeying the good laws they had. When did the prophets tell the people that they needed to change their social structures?
If we live in a country with a representative government, we should be aware of our social structures and work to improve them, although I’m always interested in which social structures we’re discussing. The phrase social structures can be just as ambiguous as the word justice.
I also want to make sure we’re rooting our definition of justice in the Bible rather than reading our contemporary understanding of justice back into the Old Testament. If you know of verses that support the Bible Project’s definition of justice, please share them with me. This is an ongoing study project for me, and I welcome feedback.
My understanding from the verses I’ve read is that the Bible uses “justice” in the sense of correct rulings according to the law. Justice is not showing partiality. One verse I find particularly significant is Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.” Exodus 23:1-9 goes into greater detail and also states that you should not divert justice from the poor or be partial to him.
Current culture implies that justice is showing extra favor to the poor, but it is just as much injustice to discriminate against the rich.
Love and kindness cause us to do good the poor. The Bible teaches us to take care of the poor. But the context of the verses about justice focus on something else – honest judgments under the law. Compassion and generosity are vitally important. God just uses other passages to teach those qualities.
One of the lecturers at RZIM is Michael Ramsden. It does awesome job of talking about Gods Justice. He gives a great speech on God of Love, God of judgement and he covers justice in that. You can watch this on YouTube.
Hi, @Jennifer_Wilkinson. I love what you and the others have contributed to this conversation. I agree with you in much of what you said. At the same time, I think we do need to expand our understanding a bit past the word “mishpat” so that we are not just looking for the specific words to guide us in attempting to get an accurate picture of the biblical concept of justice. Just because the words (or words like them) “change your social structures” are not specifically in the Scriptures does not necessarily mean that is not part of what is being communicated as part of the concept of justice. For example, those who reject the idea of the Trinity use the argument that the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. But just because the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible does not mean it isn’t there. In this case, many of the laws God gave did, in fact, deal with social structure for justice’s sake, so we can’t say changing social structure is not a part of justice. How social structure is designed has everything to do with whether or not justice is able to be carried out, which is why God’s laws encompassed so many social aspects. That is why God speaks through the prophets about the leaders oppressing the people. Oppression happens because of dysfunctional soical structures that are not in line with God’s precepts. However, I do see that many people misconstrue this, thinking it means that we should do things like taking fromt the rich to give to the needy to more equally distribute things. That is just as distorted and just as much of an injustice as the oppression of the poor and needy is.
This reminds me of a comment made in a conversation I was having in which the person said that certain people value order more than justice. He got it wrong. People value order, because it is only through order that justice is able to be carried out at all. Without order, there is no justice. But…without proper order (social structure lining up with God’s precepts), the justice carried out will be distorted. So, in a broader sense, how our social structures are set up and how we pursue changes in them to make sure justice is properly carried out is a part of justice. However, if we want to define things in a narrower sense (I think it depends on perspective and preference), justice is as you defined it from your studies in the Bible, and social structures is the ordering of community and society in a way that allows, disallows, or distorts the carrying out of justice. Either way, social structures are related to justice and, in my opinion, are an important part of its broader definition and application.
@psalm151ls , I agree that we should look for concepts in Scripture and not just exact words. I’m having trouble finding the concept of changing social structures in the Bible. Do you have specific passages in mind?
Can there be oppression when social structures are good but people’s hearts are wicked? Wasn’t this the problem in the Old Testament? God gave the people His good laws, and they violated the laws (Jeremiah 17:9; Amos 2:4).
I hesitate to say much more about social structures because it’s hard to discuss these things in general terms. I looked up information about proposed changes to social structures, and I think some of these changes will have unintended consequences, making things worse for the vulnerable in society. Also, our sinful nature could cause just as much oppression with new social structures.
I would enjoy a thoughtful discussion about specific changes and their potential consequences, but I know we can’t do that here since we’re not supposed to discuss politics. I guess we all get to do our own research, seeking ways for our love to abound in knowledge and discernment (Philippians 1:9).
@jobobear, I fear I derailed our conversation into a discussion about social structures rather than focusing on your specific question, “Does the word justice in the Bible refer to getting what we deserve or pursuing a world as it should be?”
I read through all the Bible verses that mention justice (see Justice Verses), and a great proportion refer to rulers judging correctly. For example, they were told to show no partiality and take no bribes (Deuteronomy 16:19).
This fits well with your first definition of getting what we deserve. When judges follow the law and hand down the required penalty, we all get what we deserve.
This isn’t the way our contemporary culture generally uses the word justice. I wonder if that’s because our society has rejected God’s law, and people do whatever is right in their own eyes. We use justice to speak of equality and fairness, but we don’t agree on what’s equal or fair. By rejecting God’s law, we lost justice in a sea of confusion.
I haven’t found a passage where the Bible uses the word justice to speak of pursuing a world as it should be, beyond the basic idea of correcting oppression that violates the law. Let me know if you find a verse that speaks of this.
I’m still studying justice in the Bible to refine my definition. It’s hard to summarize the Bible’s 138 references to justice in a short post. As I refine my definition, I want to use justice in my everyday language in the same way that it’s used in the Bible. I can use other words for doing good in society.
I find it interesting that the parable of the Good Samaritan mentions mercy, not justice (Luke 10:36-37). As I notice the exact words used in Scripture and ask why God used each word, I get a more detailed picture of His heart. I pray I can reflect that heart to the world.
I can see where you are coming from and that in getting too specific things could get political, but we don’t have to get politically specific in order to talk about the concept of changing social structures, in a broader sense, as a part of justice and how it is or isn’t biblical. Maybe I can do that because I don’t really have any specifics on my mind at the moment, ha. I respect, however, that you do not want to talk about them. However, because I see them as a part of the definition of justice as the world puts it, and our questioner put it very well, I think: “pursuing a world as it should be” I think it is important enough for them to be in my own responses, because I do see it as needing to be a part of the discussion. (I don’t think you derailed at all ), but I understand if you do not wish to respond.
I see your point, and of course there will always be some kind of oppression because any system or social structure we set up will have flaws due to both human sinfulness and human error/ignorance. But that doesn’t mean we should not try or do the best we can to fix social structures or change them when they are not working. Over time, social structures have varied and changed, and some changes have been good and some changes have been bad. I think that is why knowing history really well is important (and not just the history of whichever nation in which we happen to live). And notice, God still gave the laws, even though he knew people would break the laws. In Christ we have grace for when we mess up, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do away with obedience and justice altogether or not attempt to improve what we can.
@jobobear, you brought up the fact that some use the term “justice” to refer to “what should happen or pursuing a world as it should be,” and I think when people describe justice in this way, they are including the idea of changing social structures as needed in their definition of justice. I think that some people simply define justice in a more narrow sense, and some define it in a broader sense to encompass the systems and actions that facilitate justice. Jennifer brought up a good definition of justice in the narrower sense. But in the Bible we have to consider that, despite people’s inability to follow it perfectly, God’s law (which cannot be relationally or conceptually separated from God’s justice) had a huge social aspect to it and shaped the way the social structure of the Israelite community/society should take. The fact that God saw fit to include that in His given law makes it clear that God sees justice as encompassing more than peoplel just getting what they deserve or consequences. Even Jesus’ summing up of the prophets and the law was social: “Love your neighbor as yourselves.” Jesus’ statement that this was the summation of the whole law and the prophets is pretty weighty and significant for our conversation here. Not only was God’s law in the Old Testament largely inclusive of social relations and structure, but so was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.
I think, though, in conversations with others about justice–and I hope this helps–it helps to get a good understanding of what they mean by justice and talk about it from their point of reference. Even if we think of justice in narrower terms, if we can understand where they are coming from and the concepts they care about, then we are able to productively proceed in talking with them about it rather than insisting on conversing from our own definitions. Or, depending on the context of the conversation and the relationship with the other person, it might be helpful to ask questions about why s/he thinks about justice the way they do. Knowing a biblical definition is helpful, but is also helpful to understand and appreciate others’ views of the definition of the term so that the other person feels appreciated and heard. With the help of God’s grace, we can appreciate others’ responses and views even if and when we do not agree with them. I’m just throwing these thoughts out there in case you are asking because you’ve had conversations with others about justice lately
Thank you so much for your thoughtful question
@Jennifer_Wilkinson, yes, I will try to get together some passages. I also think that it’s important to talk about what it means that the social aspects are a part of God’s law and how God’s law relates to God’s justice. I will make sure to define what I do and do not mean by “social structures” and changes/improvements made to them so that perhaps it is easier to keep the concept separate from how those are shaped or being shaped in different contexts today. Give me a few days to do this, as I have some other projects, too
While I am working on pulling together passages from the Bible to look at how justice goes beyond just a legal view of someone getting due consequences for their actions, I want to point out that in biblical studies, those who we would consider experts would start by listing words they think are either synonymous with justice or related to justice that are found in the Bible. (After this, it is valuable to look at those terms in the Hebrew language, which tends to communicate broader concepts as opposed to pinpoint, narrower ideas.). I need to explore this, too, so what words do you think we read in the Bible that relate to or are perhaps closer to being synonymous with justice and how so? I will work on composing a list, too, but I thought I would try to get this moving since this is a heavily important issue in today’s world. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this!
@psalm151ls, you’re right that synonyms would greatly expand our understanding of these topics. Tzedakah (the Hebrew word often translated righteousness) is regularly included in discussions of justice, and I’m considering using it to broaden my definition of justice. The extent to which we want to use synonyms depends on the question we’re answering. (@jobobear, please tell us if we’ve missed the heart of your question.)
A few different questions are surfacing in our discussion.
What does the Bible say about society’s view of justice?
Our culture’s concept of justice focuses on fairness and equality and includes activities like serving the poor. We need to include many synonyms to discover what the Bible says about these topics.
What does the Bible mean when it uses the word justice?
When the Bible says God loves justice (Psalm 33:5), what does it mean? When Micah 6:8 says “Do justice,” what actions is God requiring of me? Almost all of the references to justice in the English Standard Version are translations of the Hebrew word mishpat. Since the translators carefully used different English words for mishpat and tzedakah, I want to maintain that clarity as I read the Old Testament and apply the definition of mishpat when I read about justice.
How should we speak about justice in our everyday conversations?
If my friends talk about justice, I might ask questions to understand what they mean and engage with them about that cause, but I won’t tell them, “That’s not justice.” In conversations it doesn’t matter whether I think feeding the hungry is part of doing justice. I care about the hungry, and I can connect with my friends on that level.
My personal studies started with question #2, so I’ve focused on a narrow definition of justice in order to best understand Scripture. I also want to start with the central idea of justice in the Bible before I explore broader implications.
The English Standard Version sometimes uses the word just to translate the adjective form of tzedakah. For example, Leviticus 19:36 says, “You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin…” Merchants were supposed to use accurate scales when measuring things for their customers. The adjective just implies meeting a set standard. A person can be called just if they measure up to God’s law, and the laws of our nation can be deemed just or unjust when compared to the law of God.
But that leads me to ask, “What is the law of God?” 1 Peter 1:16 says, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” In John 13:34 Jesus told His disciples to love one another as He loved them. Anything that falls short of God’s perfect holiness and love violates His revealed will in the Bible. Does that make every sin an act of injustice?
I think the word justice in the Bible has a more specific meaning than this. Specific words have power. Since we already have the word sin to refer to anything that’s wrong, I want to think carefully about the specific ideas God is conveying through the word justice.
I probably won’t say anything else on this topic because this is as far as I’ve gotten in my studies. Discussing this with all of you has helped me clarify my thoughts and questions, but I’ll step back now and do more personal study. This topic requires a lifetime of study—God’s justice is that deep.
Great thoughts have been laid here. I don’t have any specific resource to recommend. Just sharing my two cents on this subject…
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.
The above verses talk about justice in two different senses. The first refers to social justice, the latter to eternal justice.
Social justice governs how humans relate with each other. Eternal justice is how God relates to all. Both have a punitive aspect of either retribution or restoration for deviations from what is just and fair.
Among human society, justice is ordained by God to be executed under His sovereign authority. It is those in authority who determine whether restorative, retributive, or both penalties are to be served to do justice commensurate to the violation. Individuals follow suit as to what they have learned to be the social norm. Personal justice should not violate other’s rights and privileges. Violators of the norm are then brought to authority for judgment. Thus, debts are naturally paid voluntarily. If not, one is brought to authorities for mediation (Matt.5:23-26).
(Prov.8:15 By me kings reign, and princes decree justice.
Rom.13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
Luke 6:31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.)
In Heaven and for eternity, God will settle any and all injustices ever done. All grievances will be justly served, even that of Satan’s. Satan, and his cohorts and followers could not hold God unjust for their eternal damnation, though they will ever be gnashing their teeth against God in the lake of fire. Restoration and retribution will be satisfied to the fullest.
God is just. He is the “right-maker” - He makes things right.
He has shown you, O mortal, what s good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
- To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins (i.e. that what we have done was/is a sin) He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us for all unrighteousness.
God’s restorative justice is the standard.
We have often read “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, “I will repay.” as if it means He will punish the wrong doer. Perhaps instead, He means “I will vindicate - make things right / repay - the victim of the crime.” He will make it up to the one who has suffered injustice. In Sigve Tonstad’s book on Revelation he makes the case that the Slanderer/Destroyer/etc/Satan and his cohorts are punished not directly by God, but by their own implosion. The Deceiver is cast into the lake of fire by those he deceived - not be God himself directly. God, in Jesus Christ, has absorbed the suffering - as “the Lamb who appears as if he was killed by violence” and what is left to do is to vindicate/make right and heal the evil done to all those who were killed on earth. So He practises restorative justice throughout.
Gregory Boyd, in “Crucifixion of the Warrior God” pg 77) argues that Jesus repudiated the lex talionus (eye for and eye etc justice of Leviticus) when he instructed his followers to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies and bless those that curse you - that you may be children of your Father in Heaven. (Matt 5:44-45) This implies that He saw this kind of “justice” as a precondition to being a child of God!
(Boyd tackles the difficult conundrum of reconciling the OT images of a violent warrior God, with Jesus (the God who refused to fight) who submitted to a totally unjust death as a criminal on a Roman crucifix, rather than call 10000 angels to his defence. The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus is the exact and full portrayal of God. I am reading Boyd’s book just now - I recommend it so far.)