“Come now, let us reason together; though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow.” That’s a favorite verse for many Christians, myself included. What recently caught my attention was the context in Isaiah 1: “Stop doing evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, obtain justice for the orphan, plead for the widow’s case. Come now, let us reason together; though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow.”
What is “justice,” anyway?
I’ve been thinking about “justice” a lot lately, and I have concluded that I grew up focused on its secular meaning, not its Biblical meaning. As a result I have been reading my Americanized understanding of the word into quite a few Bible verses.
Most of the dictionary definitions I find concern legal issues such as “the maintenance or administration of what is just, especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments” or “the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity” or “conformity to truth, fact, or reason” (Merriam-Webster) or “the administering of deserved punishment or reward” (Dictionary.com) or “the system of laws in a country that judges and punishes people” (Cambridge Dictionary).
Those definitions are all about rules and laws and facts and punishment. And those are certainly the definitions that were foremost in my mind.
But such definitions are fundamentally tied to the nature of our American legal system, known as an “adversarial legal system,” where the goal is to determine who wins, who gets to keep things, or who goes to jail.
Lately I’ve been discovering that the Biblical principles of justice are quite different from what I had in mind.
In the Old Testament, rather than focusing on who wins, “justice” is more than anything else associated with protecting the oppressed, the poor, the widows, and the aliens. When rulers are accused of injustice, it’s often that they did not defend the weak. For example, Isaiah 10 says “Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of My people of their rights, so that widows may be their spoil and that they may plunder the orphans.” As in Isaiah 1, the Lord repeatedly stressed to His people that the foundation of righteous justice was how they treated the oppressed – and even the foreigners among them.
The thrust of Isaiah 1 was God (through Isaiah) challenging the people of Israel, telling them that He hated their religious activity because it didn’t align with His own definition of justice and righteousness. He intended to shortly purge His people of their unrighteousness, and was inviting them (“Come let us reason together”) into a much-needed dialog about His ways.
In the New Testament, Jesus taught that “the whole Law and the Prophets” “hang on” loving God and neighbor. In Matthew 18, He focused on the goal of winning over the other party in a dispute. And in Matthew 25, Jesus explicitly tied the final judgement of righteousness to how we treat “the least of these” – the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the sick – and even the guilty imprisoned for their crimes.
From a high-level view, I find that the word “justice” in the Bible is very frequently paired as “righteousness and justice” or “justice and mercy.” There’s an inherent duality there. God’s standards demand justice coupled with love.
And in fact the Lord’s character is no different than He requires of His people. When the Lord revealed Himself to Moses, so richly and fully that Moses came down the mountain literally glowing, He said this about Himself: “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in faithfulness and truth; who keeps faithfulness for thousands, who forgives wrongdoing, violation of His Law, and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, inflicting the punishment of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” His FIRST position was love and mercy and forgiveness.
So I find a need to adjust my understanding of justice, and in particular to rethink my position on “social justice.” Certainly there is evil in some manifestations of social justice, but that is true of every corruption of a Biblical principle. What I now see in the Bible convicts me that I need to pay more attention to those appealing for better treatment of all the oppressed. That is true even if that cry for mercy and justice uses a term that I previously criticized as calling for socialism or Marxism. I find that there is so much more to those cries than I understood, and I cannot allow myself to be triggered by terminology to miss the heart of the matter.