2. God and Justice
This paper is concerned about the justice of God, as viewed by the Bible. The Bible talks about the justice and righteousness of God in many places. One example is in Isaiah.
Isasah 45:18.: For thus says the LORD, Who created the heavens, Who is God, Who formed the earth and made it, Who has established it, Who did not create it in vain, Who formed it to be inhabited: "I am the LORD, and there is no other. 19. ... I, the LORD, speak righteousness, I declare things that are right. 21. ... there is no other God besides Me, A just God and a Savior; There is none besides Me. NKJV
This passage makes a number of claims relating to God. The first is that it was God who created the heavens and the earth. This places a claim of ownership of the earth and that he has a supreme power over it. Of course anyone can make this claim about themself, so it's validity has to be determined by the reliability of the Bible. This aspect is not to be considered here, and the assumption is made the the Bible is a reliable source.
Not only did the God form the earth, but it was also created with a particular purpose. In Isaiah it was said that he “formed it to be inhabited”. It is against this background that humans were created on Earth. We were part of a creation which took place to fulfill the purpose of God.
In verse 19, there is the claim that God speaks righteousness, and declares things that are right. He is then further described as a “just God”. It takes some thought to see the full significance of these statements. In some ways it is speaking the obvious, but in others it asks fundamental questions about what it really means to be just or righteous.
In the original context of this statement, people commonly believed in multiple Gods. In that case, some Gods were considered to be better and more just than others. This passage was claiming that the true God was the only God, and as well as that, was a just God. At this point it may be worth posing the question of what defines a just and righteous God. This is not really clear, because it means judging the standards of the creator against the standards of the creature. To some extent, this is the fundamental conundrum when considering the justice of God.
God vs Humans in Zephaniah
The prophet Zephaniah in the Bible is just one of many who set up a contrast between the righteousness of God and of man. The contrast is constructed between a rebellious people and a righteous God.
Zephaniah 3:1.: Woe to her who is rebellious and polluted, To the oppressing city! 2. She has not obeyed His voice, She has not received correction; She has not trusted in the LORD, She has not drawn near to her God. ... 5. The LORD is righteous in her midst, He will do no unrighteousness. Every morning He brings His justice to light; He never fails, But the unjust knows no shame. NKJV
This passage explicitly speaks of the justice of God. It claims that “Every morning He brings His justice to light”, which shows Him as an active God, continually applying His justice to His creation. It further says that “He never fails”, which is not surprising given that it is talking about the power of the creator in action.
The following section goes on to describe one form of the justice that was administered. The context of the Bible shows that the justice can be administered in a variety of ways, but the example in Zephaniah is one of the more severe.
Zepaniah 3:6.: "I have cut off nations, Their fortresses are devastated; I have made their streets desolate, With none passing by. Their cities are destroyed; There is no one, no inhabitant. 7. I said, 'Surely you will fear Me, You will receive instruction' -- So that her dwelling would not be cut off, Despite everything for which I punished her. But they rose early and corrupted all their deeds. NKJV
In this case, the unrighteous are destroyed in war. The concept of execution of justice through destruction is a theme that spans the Bible but is concentrated in the Old Testament prophets. The logic in verse 7 shows that the expectation is that this show of force in punishment should be sufficient for people to turn to the instruction and commandments of God. In this case, however, it was not to be the end of the matter. The subsequent verses outline a theme that is also common in the Bible. This is of a time when the whole world would be subject to the execution of justice.
Zephaniah 3:8.: " Therefore wait for Me," says the LORD, "Until the day I rise up for plunder; My determination is to gather the nations To My assembly of kingdoms, To pour on them My indignation, All my fierce anger; All the earth shall be devoured With the fire of My jealousy. 9. "For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, That they all may call on the name of the LORD, To serve Him with one accord. NKJV
This passage has a sense of finality about it. It speaks of a destruction so great that God's values and sense of justice would prevail. The people would then be pure and willing to serve God. The concepts shown here are similar to those displayed in the natural justice that is implemented by humans.
In human justice, there is a model that is basically the same through all societies. Firstly, a there is a recognised code of conduct. The specific form of this code will vary from culture to culture. Typically it will involve a set of rules that have the basic support of the people concerned, or their rulers. In the case of a government, this will take the form of a formal law or constitution. In a teenage gang, however, it may be an unwritten principle of conduct.
There is a law of God in the Bible, which is not necessarily the same thing as the law of Moses. Even Jesus, who was accused of breaking the law of God, claimed that the law should be kept.
Matthey 5:17.: " Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. NKJV
Once this law is established, in whatever form it exists, people are expected to follow it. If they fail to, measures are taken to punish the offenders. This punishment may involve physical pain, imprisonment, or some attack on the offenders' wellbeing, such as a monetary fine. In western society, the most common punishments are fines and imprisonment.
The Bible contains many examples of punishment for law-breaking. One dramatic example is in Hebrews.
Hebrews 10:30.: For we know Him who said, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. And again, "The LORD will judge His people." 31. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. NKJV
Prevention of crime
Many people have argued about the role of punishment in the justice system. Once a crime is committed, it generally doesn't help the victim, or indeed anyone, to have the offender punished. Imprisonment helps guard against re-offence, but there is a greater role that than. One of the main reasons is as a deterrent to both that person and others, to prevent people from breaking the law. When people see that punishment is a likely outcome, they are less inclined to break the law.
When Egypt set themselves up against God, God returned with the prophecy that they would be destroyed.
Ezekiel 29:9.: "And the land of Egypt shall become desolate and waste; then they will know that I am the LORD, because he said, 'The River is mine, and I have made it.' NKJV
The emphasis here is that they would then know and have learnt the true place of God.
avoid punishing the innocent
It is a focus of most human justice systems that the innocent should not be punished. It is for this reason that there is a big and expensive legal system which is used to determine guilt or innocence. Many countries constitutionally assume innocence of a crime unless guilt can be proven. Although this means that offenders may more easily escape without punishment, the innocent are less likely to suffer from the crimes of the guilty.
The examples in the Bible show that God not only avoids punishing the innocent, but is patient to the extent of delaying punishment and judgement so that people have a chance of forgiveness.
2 Peter 3:8.: But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. NKJV
Running a society
The whole aim of the justice system is to keep a society running in a desired fashion. People generally agree on a set of laws that help the society run in the desired way, instead of what may eventuate from anarchy. This ultimately means placing a set of restrictions on the people for a greater good. Thus laws and punishments may have an undesirable aspect to them, but yet still be necessary for the overall good of the society.
In terms of the Bible, despite the restrictions of the Mosaic Law, King David claimed,
Psalms 119:97.: Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day NKJV
One particular application of justice is in the management and education of children. It is in this case that the aspect of love on the part of the dispensor of justice is most evident. The term discipline is used here to refer to a form of punishment that is intended to educate a person for their own good.
The concept of discipline also occurs in the Bible with respect to God's punishments. In Deuterononmy the discipline of God is linked to the discipline of a man over his child.
Deut 8:5.: Thus you are to know in your heart that the LORD your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son. 6. Therefore, you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him. NASB
This shows that the discipline is an aid in following the ways of God.