Justice & Righteousness (Jesus & Justice Part 9)

Israel wanted a human king, like all the other nations. And she got what she wanted.

Her first king, Saul, was succeeded by his son-in-law David. David’s reign is summarized in 2 Samuel 8:15…

“David reigned over all Israel, doing what was just and right for all his people.”

After his death, David’s son Solomon became king of Israel. His wealth and wisdom drew visitors from all over the known world. The Queen of Sheba, for instance, honored Solomon, saying…

“Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.

1 Kings 10:9 and 2 Chronicles 9:8

Hendiadys

“Justice” and “righteousness” were often paired together in the ancient Near East. Hundreds of years before David and Solomon reigned over Israel, Phoenecian, Babylonian, Akkadian, and Amorite rulers were honored as “just and right” and vowed to rule with “justice and righteousness.”

“Justice and righteousness” is what’s known as a hendiadys – a single idea expressed by joining two words with “and.” “Safe and sound” is a common hendiadys we use today. “Safe” isn’t describing “sound” like “safely sound” would. And saying we arrived home “safe” just feels incomplete, doesn’t it?

Both words together convey something more and different than they would by themselves. The same goes for the hendiadys “justice and righteousness.”

What Is Righteousness?

We’ve talked a lot in this series on biblical justice about what “justice” (mishpat) means. But what is “righteousness” and what does the hendiadys “justice and righteousness” mean?

The Hebrew word translated “righteousness” in our English Old Testaments is tsedeqah (or tzedakah). Jews today would define tsedeqah as charity or generosity – giving time or money to those in need.

But in the ancient world, tsedeqah was a verb – to make a relationship right – and it was a noun – the state of being in right relationship. The root of mishpat is a word that means “clean” or “pure.” To be in tsedeqah with someone is to be without fault, blameless in the relationship.

When mishpat is joined to tsedeqah to make “justice and righteousness” it means something like…people having what they need and having nothing against one another or…everyone in right relationship giving one another what God says they’re due or…just relationships or…social justice.

Biblical Social Justice

Imagine a recently widowed woman in antiquity whose land was stolen by a relative. She stands at the city gates pleading her case before the elders. They consult the law of Moses and give her what God says she’s due (mishpat, justice). Her thieving relative returns her land and gives her cattle as restitution. The woman’s loss is now gain, her relative is no longer guilty of breaking God’s law. Both are made right with each other and God (tsedeqah, righteousness).

Biblical justice is always social justice because it establishes and maintains right relationships.

The King’s Task Is Justice & Righteousness

Did Israel’s kings reign with righteousness and justice. Did they rule on behalf of the Living God, ordering their kingdom God’s good way by giving every citizen what God said they were due (mishpat) so that everyone would be in right relationship with each other and with God (tsedeqah)?

No, they didn’t. Most of Israel’s kings worshiped other gods. They ordered their kingdom in ways those gods said were good. As a result, the poorest and most vulnerable didn’t get what they were due, what they needed, but were exploited and plunged into scarcity. Relationships were broken. The nation split in two and the people of God were exiled to Babylon and Assyria.

It’s in exile that prophets like Micah, Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah raised their voices to accuse Israel of failing to do justice and righteousness and promised them a future King who would. We look at that wonderful promise next time.


Read the other articles in this biblical justice series here.