But He is Also Just: The Simplicity & Complexity of Biblical Justice
The Bible talks about justice a lot.
In the abstract, Biblical justice is really straightforward. But the manner in which Biblical justice plays out is complicated.
That’s because justice — that is, “equitable recompense for behavior” — is not just about “following rules,” as if rules are the basis of all moral decisionmaking.
Rather, things like rules and deals and deserts (what is “deserved”) are strategies under a purpose-driven plan.
That is to say, these things are very useful, which is why we see them used. But they’re not “home runs” every time.
Imagine that your child misbehaves. There are many different ways you could respond in equity to that infraction.
- You could pull them aside and give them a time out.
- You could take away a privilege for a while.
- You could threaten to take away access to some future event.
- (And more.)
Each of these might be, individually, equitable to the infraction. They’re not so excessive that they feel arbitrary and give your child anxiety issues. But they’re not so light that they affect no change of behavior. Not too hot; not too cold; just right.
Notice that equity is defined according to purpose on both ends.
So, which method should you apply?
Let’s look at more purposes to help answer that question.
Earlier, you told your children that if they misbehaved this morning, they would lose access to video games. You “laid down a law.”
It makes a ton of sense to go by that law, even though you have several equitable responses before you.
- First, it feels less arbitrary because it seems “objective” (even though you came up with the law yourself). This is great, because objective references feel both stable (less anxiety) and immovable (less “b-b-but!” push-back).
- Second, it’s an effective display of your seriousness; it teaches your children that you make good on your warnings.
Boom! Two more purpose-driven considerations.
But there may be even more purpose-driven considerations, depending on the circumstance.
- Was your earlier law tailored as a general broadcast to all of your children, but may not be best-suited to the child who ended up disobeying?
Ouch. That one’s not so easy.
- Is the disobedient child now showing genuine remorse and proof of regret? Should you reduce the punishment? To what degree (remember, the other kids are watching)?
- Let’s say they’re not showing regret; is positive punishment even helpful in this particular instance? Would positive punishment only incite resentment, due to the child (as she currently is) and the circumstance (as it is)? If you took a self-sacrificial approach — bearing the burden of the infraction in a different but compelling way — would you powerfully evoke empathy? Would that prove to be better in terms of purpose?
Notice that with each of these questions, you’re considering something other than equitable recompense — in the familiar sense — for the infraction. (You’re considering violating a previous law in the first, you’re considering mercy and forgiveness in the second, and, in the third, you’re volunteering for injustice to provoke a needed change of heart from a hardened person.)
And why are we considering these things?
Purpose is — in the moral hierarchy — supreme.
That is, justice (“equitable recompense for behavior”) is
- tailored to purposes when many responses would qualify as equitable, and
- can even bow-the-knee entirely to purposes, when purposes demand.
Sedeq & Mispat
As we see above, what starts out looking relatively simple — “equitable recompense” — is very soon complicated by the supremacy of purposes, leading to all sorts of twists, turns, and surprises.
This is what makes the topic complicated in Scripture, even though Biblical justice has a clear definition in the abstract.
First, we have the concept of Heb. sedeq — what is correct and true, especially according to expectations between people, and between people and God.
“You shall have sedeq balances, sedeq weights, your ‘ephah’ (a unit of dry measure) shall be sedeq, and your ‘hin’ (a unit of liquid measure) shall be sedeq.”
(There are numerous verses along the same lines.)
Second, we have the concept of Heb. mispat — which is an administered judgment with overtones of sedeq (and especially when it’s God’s judgment).
Job 34:10-12 (Elihu, speaking on God’s behalf)
“Therefore, listen to me, you men of understanding. Far be it from God to do wickedness, and from the Almighty to do wrong. For He pays a man according to his work, and makes him find it according to his way. Surely, God will not act wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert mispat.”
Scripture explodes with vivid articulations of mispat, and how mispat is perverted: Through equity (sedeq) failures.
(The concepts are not synonymous, but so interrelated that they are paired together dozens and dozens of times.)
Sometimes these failures are due to favoritism, like preferring one person over another with no warrant.
“You shall do no iniquity in mispat; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor with sedeq.”
Other failures can be through excess or recklessness.
For example, Abraham appealed to God not to destroy Sodom because of collateral damage against some hypothetical number of good people — and how this would violate mispat.
“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do mispat?”
God’s mispat Judgment, of course, will be sedeq — that is, it will not be a show of favoritism, and will not be excessive.
“Let all creation rejoice before the Lord! For He comes, He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in sedeq, and the people with His faithfulness.”
Third, we have Heb. aph — furious anger, fuming through the nostrils, often described as “kindled” and “burning.” (There are other “flavors of wrath” as well, but we’ll focus on aph here.)
And here’s where it gets complicated.
We know that aph and mispat/sedeq can be expressed simultaneously — God’s “just wrath.”
Consider Eliphaz’s ranting, false claim that Job’s children must have sinned to cause their deaths:
“Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of His aph they come to an end.”
Eliphaz’s buddy Bildad backs him up:
“Does God pervert what is mispat? Does the Almighty pervert sedeq? When your children sinned against Him, He sent them away for their sin.”
(When Job stands his ground, insisting that these misfortunes were not sedeq, Bildad retreats to a catch-all — ‘all people are terrible’ (Job 26:4-6), so whatever suffering befalls them is legit. Job correctly responds that this is less-than-useless; “catch-all depravity theodicy” would make God’s mispat meaningless.)
But when Elihu — speaking on behalf of God — comes on the scene, he throws a curveball, and interrupts the bickering with a fresh, revelatory picture of God’s ways. (More about Elihu.)
Elihu agrees that God’s aph brings punishment to the wicked (Job 35:15), but rightly insists that God’s loftiness makes our sins less injurious against God, not more (Job 35:6, 8).
God may express aph, but:
“God is mighty but despises no one; he is mighty, and firm in purpose.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
And this isn’t the only place we see this. In Scripture, mispat/sedeq are frequently portrayed as something “less intense” than aph, even subduing or metering aph in service of purpose and productivity.
“Lord, do not rebuke me in your aph or discipline me in your hot displeasure. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.”
“Discipline me, Lord, but only in mispat — not in your aph, or you will reduce me to nothing.”
Notice that? Mispat for a set of infractions is explicitly juxtaposed against an excessive (beyond mispat) reaction of “ceasing to be.” You can say it’s aph to obliterate somebody for any amount of sin, but you cannot say it is mispat.
Mispat and aph don’t seem like unconditional pals anymore, do they?
“‘I am with you and will save you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only in mispat; I will not let you go entirely unpunished.'”
“‘Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant, for I am with you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only in mispat; I will not let you go entirely unpunished.'”
Here again we see that a mispat reaction — a “Biblical justice” reaction — is tailored to specific infractions.
Boolean extremes need not apply at the court of mispat.
But how can this be? Is this a contradiction? How can mispat/sedeq and aph play nicely together one moment, but mispat/sedeq be defined against aph the next?
Scripture supplies the answer: His aph lasts only for a moment (Psalm 30:5).
(We ought to have suspected something like this, since “time & circumstances” can break such apparent contradictions.)
In Scripture, God’s looming wrath is conveyed through all sorts of vivid, and often frightening, and sometimes humorous, illustrations:
- Broken bones
- Total obliteration (no corpse; all memory wiped out)
- Slaughter (corpse; memory remains, in shame)
- Weapons disarmed
- Exposed loins
But his purposes remain supreme. Any aph “only for a moment” shall not override God’s expressed “as surely as I live” interests.
Implications for Eschatology
In discussions about the nature of God’s Judgment and the Second Death, it’s really common to see folks come to the table with assumptions that act as “filters” on Scriptural imagery.
Indeed, which “road” you take at the multi-pronged eschatological “fork” is largely about buying into one set of stipulations and/or heuristics over another. Anybody who’s spent time and self-critical honesty in the nitty-gritty knows that there’s no proposal that fits “cleanly”; each proposal, if it is coherent, must relax some things and treat other things at full, face-value force.
Scripture ain’t simple on this topic. Period. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves (or trying to sell you their book).
But formal logic can serve as referee.
As long as we keep our philosophy “quiet” — doggedly resisting the temptations of utile ambiguity — we can derive powerful corollaries from bold Scriptural assertions like:
- God is abounding in love and mercy.
- God doesn’t ultimately despise anyone, but is firm in purpose (as such there may be ancillary disfavor, e.g., Rom. chs. 9-11).
- Mispat and sedeq are often “less than aph.”
- God’s aph lasts only for a moment.
- Even mispat and sedeq are subordinate to God’s purposes; the King can see fit to forgive debts, reinstate debts, and tailor the forms of equitable recompense to suit his plans (Matthew 18:21-35).
- God makes the sinner listen to correction.
- God’s arm is never too short.
- God’s practice of mispat and sedeq is upon and from a throne established in love.
And these bold assertions, and their direct corollaries, point to a particular set of eschatological stipulations/heuristics — one of the “big three” early Christian teachings on Judgment — as a forthright and powerful compass.
You’ve heard this hand-waving chestnut before: “God is loving, sure. But, he is also just.”
When do folks typically say this?
They typically say this when they want to rationalize a proposal that is otherwise plainly suboptimal in terms of God’s stated “as surely as I live” interests.
This only “flies” if Biblical justice is an ambiguous logical wildcard that rationalizes any old punishment at all.
The real complexity of Biblical justice — when the straightforward definition collides with purpose-driven nitty-gritty — often makes people think they can get away with this.
But mispat tells a different story.