Doing Justice & Mercy: Episode Four | A Biblical Definition of Justice Jonny Atkinson (communications director for the Immanuel Network) and Ryan Fullerton (lead pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church) sit down to discuss the biblical word mishpat and how it informs a biblical definition of justice.

Meaning of Mishpat

1 “Rule”

It can mean simply, a (1a) custom, practice or regulation (e.g. the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18); but more specifically, it can mean a rule or (1b) law within God’s covenant (e.g. Ex 21:1, 24:3, Deut 4:1). 

No Distinction Applying the Standard/Rule/Custom

You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” Lev 24:22

“One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you.” Num 15:16

Distinction in Particular Rules/Customs/Standards

In the details, there are particular vulnerable groups of people, namely the poor, the sojourner, the widow, and the orphan, who are treated differently. For example, these laws allow for example, for the poor to glean. But if one saw the rich gleaning, this would be an injustice! One is not allowed to take a widow’s garment in a pledge (Deut 24:17), but this implies that I can take a garment from a non-widow. In other words, these laws do discriminate (technically just means “differentiate”) based on certain groups of people. It is just to do so, and again, I think we all instinctively know this. Other groups we could identify today with this principle would include the disabled for example. 

It is worth pointing out that the fact there are vulnerable people within a society, those at risk of oppression and exploitation, it does not follow—and yet it does not exclude—that the system is unjust. For example, the institution of a two-parent, mother and father, family is one of the greatest, and safest institutions on earth. Widows and orphans are vulnerable precisely because the societal system works and supports the institution of the family. Those in families will flourish and do better, within the societal system. However, the solution is not to tear down the system and rebuild another in which families are either destroyed. The solution is to uphold the good institutions that promote flourishing within the system, such as the family, while caring for those less fortunate to not be within a such an institution, like the family.

2 A (Just) Decision:

A second major meaning is the giving of a decision during a trial. Because it refers to the giving of a decision during a trial, it can mean either, or both, vindication for the wronged and punishment/judgement for the wrongdoer seen most clearly in:

“If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty” Deuteronomy 25:1

Mishpat when used in the sense of a “decision” is usually without an adjective (although upright [yasar], true [emet] and just [sedek] do occur with it), and the positive idea is almost always intended, namely a decision that renders true justice. However, a just decision is perverted through bribes (Deut 16:19, Prv 17:23), lies (Prv 19:28), and partiality (Prv 18:5). 

Vulnerable groups are highlighted to ensure that they get justice in their trials and lawsuits. Because they are vulnerable in society, they are more likely to be taken advantage of. However, while the just person is to ensure the vulnerable are get a fair trial (e.g. Ex 23:6, Deut 27:19), once in trial there is to be no partiality/double standard in justice/decision making shown toward the vulnerable (Lev 19:15, Deut 1:17).

“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Leviticus 19:5

You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s.” Deuteronomy 1:17

3 Justice and Righteousness:

When paired with the word “righteousness” the phrase Justice and Righteousness function as a comprehensive way to speak of what is elsewhere called “the way of the Lord” (Gen 18:19), in other words, all the stipulations contained within God’s laws. [As an aside, God’s law is summed up in the New Testament as loving God and loving neighbor, and in the Old Testament as Justice and Righteousness. So the essence of “justice and righteousness” as a package term is to love God and love neighbor, as exemplified in the Old Testament laws. 

When we read Micah 6:8 in which Micah calls the people to “do justice,” he is echoing Deut 10:12-13 with the language of “what does your God require of you?” Deuteronomy answers this question with loving God, keeping his commandments, and walking in his ways. I’ve already pointed out that “the ways of God” can be summarized as “justice and righteousness” (see Gen 18:19) which is another way of simply speaking of all of “God’s laws.” 

So when the Bible speaks of “doing justice” it is not some concept that we imagine justice to be, but it is that which is loving to God, and others, in other words the commandments of God. 

To not do justice and righteousness, therefore, is called religious hypocrisy (Prv 21:3, Isa 58:2), and results in oppression/social injustice within the community (Amos 5:7, Isa 5:7). 

Alternatively, to do justice and righteousness leads to life (Ezk 18:5 etc., cf also the function of the Law, Roms 7), but just like the Law, we all stand condemned as those who have not done justice and righteousness. 

3.1 Critique of Keller’s Definition in Generous Justice

In Keller’s book Generous Justice he makes the point 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, of mishpat.” (5) In other words Keller is making the argument that caring for the needy is a matter of justice, not mercy.

Keller says “over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor” (4) and he then concludes “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, of mishpat.” (5)

Keller writes: “Many readers may be asking at this point why we are calling private giving to the poor “justice.” Some Christians believe that justice is strictly mishpat—the punishment of wrongdoing, period. This does not mean that they think that believers should be indifferent to the plight of the poor, but they would insist that helping the needy through generous giving should be called mercy, compassion, or charity, not justice. In English, however, the word “charity” conveys a good but optional activity. Charity cannot be a requirement, for then it would not be charity. But this view does not fit in with the strength of balance of the Biblical teaching.” (15)

One of his major concerns in writing appears to be that if we only understand caring for the needy in terms of mercy or charity, it can be interpreted as optional. Or to put things another way, if Keller’s point is right, that caring for the poor is a matter of justice, then to not care for the poor and needy is to be unjust, and so caring for the poor and needy has the force of a requirement for all Christians. 

His conclusion is right. It is not optional for Christians to care for the poor or needy, to be merciful But it is not necessary to frame caring for the poor in terms of justice. It is unnecessarily confusing and potentially theologically problematic. To make charitable acts not optional, Keller reframes and redefines mercy as meaning almost the same as justice. But if we collapse the difference between mercy and justice, and say that to be merciful is to be just and to be unmerciful is to be unjust, then would God have been unjust if he didn’t mercifully save us from our sins? Was God obligated by justice  to save us?

In the prologue to his book, Generous Justice, he writes: “…there is a direct relationship between a person’s grasp and experience of God’s grace, and his or her heart for justice and the poor” (xxiii). I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. But it does not follow that mercy = justice, or grace = justice. I would actually go further and state that one’s grasp of God’s grace leads one to do justice and generous mercy toward the poor. The best example of this is Boaz.

Boaz had a firm grasp of God’s grace towards him. He blessed his workers in the name of the Lord. And when a sojourning, poor, self-orphaned, widow by the name of Ruth showed up at his field to glean, he didn’t just give her justice. He didn’t simply obey God’s laws which included merciful laws which allowed the disadvantaged to glean. He went above and beyond God’s law to lavishly let her glean, eat at his lunch table sending her home with the leftovers, and then even going so far as to redeem her when it wasn’t even his obligation but the nearer kinsman was overlooking his obligation. Boaz was not obligated by justice (fairness) to do this, he wasn’t even obligated by God’s laws (customs/mishpat) to do what he did. What he did was gracious and merciful, as one who had received mercy he acted mercifully.

3.2 “Redemptive Justice”

An important subset of this second meaning, “to make a decision,” relates to God’s judgement, and it also relates to eternal salvation (vindication) and judgement (punishment). God is the judge of all the earth and he will do what is right (Gen 18:25). But Psalm 143:2 states that if the Lord truly entered “into trial” [our second meaning mentioned earlier] with anyone they would not be able to stand. 

We are all guilty of breaking God’s law, and thus, to varying degrees, we have all been wronged by others and have wronged other people. We have all acted unjustly and been treated unjustly, we have all been the oppressor and the oppressed.

Interestingly, in the story of the Bible, the people of God, particularly in exile, cry out to God for vindication. So Solomon when he builds the Temple:

46 “If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, 47 yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ 48 if they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, 49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause (do justice) 50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, 1 Kings 8:46–50

The phrase, “maintain their cause” literally means to make a decision, to render a judgement, but Solomon expects the judgement to be one of forgiveness based upon the people’s repentance. 

Isaiah pairs justice with salvation:

We all growl like bears; we moan and moan like doves; we hope for justice, but there is none, for salvation, but it is far from us. Isa 59:11

Micah has a similar cry in which God’s giving of justice/decision will result in vindication:

But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication. Micah 7:7–9

Micah mentions he is waiting for the salvation of God, but he also will bear the indignation of the Lord for a period. But when the Lord executes judgement, it will lead to vindication. These passages should shock us! How on earth would our coming into the Lord’s judgement, into trial with God, lead to our salvation or vindication?

The book of Isaiah begins with the confusing claim that: Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness (Isa 1:27).

How will Zion be redeemed by Justice? Peter Gentry divides the book of Isaiah into seven sections. The word pair, “justice and righteousness” occurs throughout every section of the book except the 6th section, chapters 40–55. These chapters include the servant songs, most famously Isaiah 53, which explain the substitutionary work of the suffering servant, the one who will bring justice to the nations and upon the earth (Isa 40:1–4). Immediately beginning the seventh section, the word pair recurs again in the phrase:

Thus says the Lord:  “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed. Isaiah 56:1

Gentry argues that the cryptic phrase at the beginning of Isaiah 1:27 is not to be explained by lexical or grammatical studies on that verse, but by understanding the entire structure of the book and how the terms Justice and Righteousness are used within. The cryptic phrase is a prelude that encapsulates both truths that sinners will be redeemed by the righteous & just work of the servant, and also that those who are saved will, as a result, be able to do justice and righteousness. 

Our only hope is the Lord to save. And when he does, justice and righteousness will flourish in the new world and among the new community because of the Spirit (Isa 32:15-16). Ultimately the Spirit is needed for one to obey the law [do justice and righteousness] and live (Ezk 36:27), in other words, being one who can do mishpat is the fruit of having the Holy Spirit

It seems that the doctrines reclaimed at the reformation regarding justification (a legal declaration) by grace alone through faith alone, as most exhaustively taught in the letters of Paul, were really uncovering once again Paul’s grasp of what was taught in the Old Testament: We are all unjust because we have broken God’s laws, God enters into trial with us to make a decision leading to vindication/salvation or punishment/condemnation.