We find in the Old Testament that the terms for judge, justice, and (civil) laws all derive from the same root. In other words, justice is closely related to and administered as an ideal legal standard.
Yet the concept of justice in the Bible covers more than punishing wrongdoing. It includes treating all people not only with fairness but also with protection and care. God calls all people to seek justice for those most vulnerable to suffering injustice. The Bible regularly pairs justice with acting righteously and behaving with mercy, love, kindness, and compassion.
The God of Justice
Justice is rooted in God’s character and creation:
• “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
• “The Lord is righteous, he loves justice” (Psalms 11:7).
• “The Maker of heaven and earth … upholds the cause of the oppressed and … loves the righteous” (Psalms 146:6–8).
• “The Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice” (Isaiah 5:16).
• God’s character includes a zeal for justice that leads him to love tenderly those who are socially powerless (Psalms 10:14 – 18).
The Call of God’s People to Act Justly
As God’s representatives, judges are called to acquit the innocent, condemn the guilty, and expose false accusations and bribery (2 Chronicles 19:5 – 7). They are not to distort justice by favoring either the poor or the rich (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15). God also charges kings to act justly and instructs them to look after the weak and defenseless. The psalmist prays, “Endow the king with your justice, O God . . . May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice” (Psalms 72:1 – 2).
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are exhorted to “learn to do right [and] seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17). When Job confronts his accusers, he insists, “I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger” (Job 29:14 – 16).
Similarly, the prophets rail against injustice and insist that the right worship of God cannot exist without loving justice. Amos threatens judgment on “those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts” (Amos 5:12). Zechariah exhorts God’s people to “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor” (Zechariah 7:9 – 10). And Micah rhetorically asks, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Jesus echoes the Old Testament prophets when he calls out the Pharisees for concentrating on religious observance while neglecting “justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). Justice holds a central place throughout his teaching and ministry. For Jesus, a lack of concern for the poor is not a minor oversight but reveals that a person is at odds with God. This is illustrated in the Parable of the sheep and goats where the true sheep are those who have a heart for the hungry, the stranger, the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:35 – 36).
Justice and God’s Goodness
The theme of justice however raises two formidable problems. The first is the need to defend God’s justice and goodness in the light of injustice. How can a just God tolerate evil? The Bible addresses this concern pointedly in Habakkuk.
Habakkuk complains to God that his people are ignoring his demand for justice, and he wonders why God allows the unjust to continue in their wickedness: “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails” (Habakkuk 1:3 – 4). Habakkuk asks how God’s justice can reconcile with his experience of the world. God’s answer is that he has appointed “the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people” (Habakkuk 1:6), to punish his rebellious children by taking them into exile.
Not surprisingly, this raises another moral dilemma for the prophet: Babylon is even more wicked than Judah (Habakkuk 1:13)! How could God use such a vile tool, those who are “a law to themselves” (Habakkuk 1:7)? God assures Habakkuk that he will eventually judge the Babylonians. In the meantime, the just must wait patiently, remain loyal to God, and trust God to show himself as just. In the words of Habakkuk 2:4, a verse the New Testament quotes three times (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38), “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.”
Justice and the Day of Judgment
Habakkuk voices the Bible’s concern to defend God’s justice and goodness, but a second problem is more personal: if God is just, how can you and I stand before him on the day of judgment? Both the Old Testament and New Testament agree: “no one living is righteous before [God]” (Psalms 143:2) and “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).
The only exception to this sweeping verdict is Jesus Christ. In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, the centurion at the cross concludes, “Surely this was a righteous [just] man” (Luke 23:47). Acts repeats this conclusion. Peter accuses the Jewish crowds, saying, “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer [i.e., Barabbas] be released to you” (Acts 3:14; cf. Acts 7:52). Ananias states that God chose Paul on the road to Damascus “to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth” (Acts 22:14). Jesus’ just and righteous character connects him with Isaiah’s suffering servant, who brings salvation: “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5).
The gospel offers us a right standing before God on the basis of Jesus’ dying in our place: “For Christ . . . suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Romans 3:25 – 26 explains, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith . . . He did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” The only means of our justification is confessing our failure to live justly and trusting in the death and resurrection of Christ.
The Bible reveals the God of justice, who demands justice from his creatures. It also gives full voice to human cries against injustice and proclaims that God determines to restore justice to the whole earth.
Edited from an article by Brian S. Rosner in the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible.
Marvel at the big story and savor each detail. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible allows you to ponder the individual stories and themes of Scripture while observing how they all fit together in God’s grand biblical narrative. Includes 20,000 verse-by-verse notes and hundreds of study features. (Previously released as the NIV Zondervan Study Bible.)