The Law is Good (4)
“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which the LORD your God gives you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. You shall follow what is altogether just, that you may live and inherit the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” Deuteronomy 16.18-20
God’s harmony on earth
The harmony of God, which is an aspect of His goodness, consists in the effective, cooperative, and fruitful working together of the three Persons of the Trinity, each according to His unique office, and all together in a spiritual symphony of unity, order, creativity, holiness, and love. There is no discord or dissonance in the divine Godhead, only a perfect and harmonious song of love.
The Law of God encodes the harmony of God like a musical score encodes the mind of its composer. As a musical composition plays out, we delight in the many and varied harmonies combining and blending musical lines, instruments, rhythms, and motifs into one transcendent experience of goodness.
When the harmony of the Godhead plays out through the Law of God, it takes the form of justice. All the Law of God is just (“righteous,” Rom. 7.12), and it provides justice for all members of a community and all aspects of that community’s life. Justice is the harmonious good will of God coming to expression in relationships, roles, and responsibilities. A society is just when harmony exists as God intends, and the community in which justice flourishes abounds in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Lord.
No wonder justice has such a high priority in the mind of God. The harmony of justice encoded in God’s Law can be seen in the five facets of justice outlined in the Law.
The first and most basic facet of justice is obligatory justice. In the exercise of obligatory justice, we give to others the dignity, respect, and love they deserve by virtue of their being human beings and image-bearers of God.
Paul paraphrased this aspect of a Biblical view of justice by writing that we should owe no man anything except to love him (Rom. 12.8). Biblical justice begins in our obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to respect them as fellow beings made in the image of God. Obligatory justice is thus foundational to all other forms of justice.
The second facet of the jewel of justice in the Law of God is preventive justice. God instructed His people to take precautions in certain of their activities so that they did not jeopardize the property or wellbeing of their neighbors. They were expected to prevent injustice by thinking ahead and taking actions appropriate to ensure that neighbor love would not be interrupted or compromised.
For example, one must guard against his flocks or cattle grazing in a neighbor’s fields (Deut. 22.1-4). Open pits should be covered (Ex. 21.33, 34). Homes must be built to guard against injury to people (Deut. 22.8). Dangerous animals must be kept in (Ex. 21.35, 36). Inheritances are to be protected (Num. 27.8-11), and so forth. Even animals and the creation itself are protected by this facet of the Law from being treated unjustly by human beings (cf. Deut. 22.6, 7; 25.4).
How does a just society relate to those in its midst who are not flourishing, but rather, are barely able to contribute to the wellbeing of the community because of their being poor? What does justice for the poor entail, according to the Law of God?
This facet of the Biblical teaching on justice is what we may call distributive justice. It is the responsibility of a local community to distribute freely of its goods to those who are in need among them (cf. Acts 4.32-37). Whether such people have become poor through some unforeseeable exigency, or whether they are immigrants or disabled, justice requires that they be provided for, according to their need, by the community in which they live.
The fourth facet of the Biblical teaching on justice we may refer to as restorative justice. When injustice has occurred, whoever is responsible for it must be held responsible for setting things right again. In restorative justice, actions are taken, under the direction of proper officials, to restore the balance of justice occasioned by some failure of neighbor-love.
There is goodness in the restorative practice of justice. Whenever someone was injured by the neglect or indifference of a neighbor, restoration was required in order to right the balance of love in the community. Once restoration was made the injured party was satisfied and the guilty party was exonerated. Neighbors could quickly get on with being neighbors without grudges building up against one another. No prison time was involved, and no revenge was needed. Justice and harmony were restored, and that is what mattered above all.
When the peace of justice is intentionally or maliciously violated, the final facet of justice – retributive justice – was invoked. Under the practice of retributive justice those who deliberately disturbed the peace and brought injury or damage to their neighbors, in addition to being required to restore the balance of justice, were punished in ways appropriate to the offense. The pain of punishment was directed toward the heart of the offender, not just his body or wealth, to discourage any future such acts.
The forms of justice prescribed in God’s Law provide a social harmony that brings the goodness of God to light in human society. The better we understand and abide in God’s Law, the more His goodness will be evident among us in the various forms of justice.
1. How is the harmony of justice in a society like the harmony of a musical composition?
2. Can you give an example of each of the five facets of Biblical justice as they exist in our own society?
3. What are the alternatives to defining justice according to fixed and unchanging divine revelation, as in His Law? Why are these unacceptable?
Next steps – Conversation: Should churches teach more about justice? Talk with some Christian friends. As you do, share what you have learned in this article.
T. M. Moore
Why is the Law so important? How can we understand it? What use does it have in our daily lives? These questions and more are addressed in our brief book, The Ground for Christian Ethics. This could be the most important book you’ll read this year. Order your copy by clicking here. Order several copies, and read and discuss it with some friends.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.