A series exploring the theme of justice in the biblical narrative and its implications for the church.
What we’ve covered so far: In Part 1, many of the attacks against the Old Testament have overlooked the fact that the Old Testament is the most beautiful expression of justice in all of antiquity. According to Jesus, a responsible reading of the Old Testament would produce people who are sensitive to the hurts and needs of others and are committed to making society a better place. In Part 2, God is a God of justice, it’s a reflection of His character. Darwinism does not provide the necessary grounds for equal rights and justice, we need Genesis for that. To disregard the Old Testament teaching of humanity while maintaining a belief in equal human rights is a contradiction. In Part 3, the Hebrews are the first people in recorded history to provide a vision for the purpose and value of humanity. That vision had massive implications for social justice. That vision with its implications continues to challenge modern believers with a high calling.
The “Old” Church
When most people think of the word “church,” they usually think of Christians, the teachings of Jesus, and the New Testament. But it’s interesting that the idea of “church” is actually an Old Testament concept. The word ‘church’ comes from the Greek ecclesia, meaning “called out ones.” Abraham was “called out” by God and told that his descendants would be a blessing to the world (Genesis 12:1-3).
Those descendants are the Jews. They were the original “church” of the Old Testament. In the book of Acts, Stephen refers to them as “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). The New Testament church is simply a continuation of the Old Testament church. So in order to understand the essence of what the church of today is supposed to be like, it’s helpful to consider the original church of the Old Testament.
The record of their experiences have been preserved as “examples” and “warnings for us” (1Corinthians 10:11, NIV). We’re to learn from their triumphs and failures. Consider an aspect of their experience that deserves our special attention. It deals with the subject of social justice. It’s interesting to see the role that justice played in their purpose and identity, and in the expectations God had of them.
What the System Was All About
In Part 3 of this series, we covered the connection between the call of Abraham and God’s passion for justice. Several generations after the time of Abraham, the biblical narrative comes to the wilderness episode. Shortly after their deliverance from Egypt, the children of Israel began to contemplate their eventual settlement in Canaan. In this new phase of their history, they needed to set the tone for the future Israelite community and to be clear on their identity and vision.
In this formative time, the concept of justice plays an important role. You can hear the urgency in Moses’ voice as he addresses the leaders and officials in Israel: “justice, and only justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20). The importance of maintaining an awareness for justice and social ethics is repeatedly emphasized: “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).
As we pointed out in Part 1, the familiar words, “love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself” originate from the Mosaic literature (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). That was the sum and substance of the whole Jewish system, and the New Testament confirms this (Matthew 7:12; Galatians 5:14). This was the point of all those policies, sacrifices and rituals from the Old Testament. Sadly, many of us find these things strange, archaic and irrelevant. Yet they were designed to establish “righteousness and justice” in ancient Israel; to teach them how to have healthy relationships with God, others, and themselves.
Due to the distant cultural, geographical, and social setting, coupled with our Western, twenty-first-century perspective, many of us get caught up with all the rituals and their details, and miss the whole point.
Again, it’s about righteousness and justice; the restoration of our relationships—with God, others, and ourselves.
Keep Your Sacrifices, Give Me Justice
In The Israel of God in Prophecy, Hans LaRondelle highlights the essential reason for God choosing Israel as a prototype in the ancient world. “In short, Israel was chosen to represent the attractive character and saving will of Yahweh to the Gentiles.”1
“The purpose of the election is service, and when the service is withheld the election loses its meaning, and therefore fails… If she (Israel) ceased to acknowledge Yahweh to be her God, then she declared that she no longer wished to be His people… Her high calling to be the Chosen People was not the mark of the Divine indulgence or favouritism, but a summons to a task exacting and unceasing, and election and task were so closely bound together that she could not have the one without the other.”2
Whenever Israel loses a sense of her purpose, the whistleblowers (that is, the prophets) emerge with messages of warning to call her out of the two dangers that consistently haunt her: 1) apostasy from God, and 2) social injustice. Not surprisingly, these dangers are related, the latter being the result of the former. Apathy toward others is an unavoidable indicator that we’ve strayed from the heart of God.
This truth runs like a thread through the prophets of Israel’s messages, from the time of Moses, through the time of monarchy, and even after the Babylonian captivity. All the prophets were singing the same song.
Listen to Isaiah’s plea:
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16,17).
Listen to Jeremiah’s declaration:
“Thus says the LORD: ‘Execute judgment and righteousness, and deliver the plundered out of the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong and do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place'” (Jeremiah 22:3).
Listen to Ezekiel’s rebuke:
“The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them.” “In your midst they have oppressed the stranger; in you they have mistreated the fatherless and the widow” (Ezekiel 34:4; 22:7).
Listen to Micah’s summary:
“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the LORD really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God.” (Micah 6:8, NET).
Those are passionate appeals! Rebuke the oppressors, defend the fatherless, plead for the widows, deliver the plundered, heal the sick, bind up the broken. Sounds like social activism to me. Yes, social justice is so central to Old Testament revelation that God identifies Israel’s failure on these very grounds:
“For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant.
He looked for justice, but behold, oppression;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help” (Isaiah 5:7).
The church can seek to worship God all she wants, but according to the Old Testament prophets, worshipping God without a commitment to social justice is essentially meaningless to Him. In the absence of justice, religious performances actually nauseate God.3
Amos vividly records God’s intense sentiments along these lines, and his words have lost none of their original sting:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
“Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
“Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
“Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
“But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:21-24, NIV)!
The prophets of Israel turn popular conceptions of the Old Testament upside down. If people would just actually read them. It’s not all about sacrifices and offerings and weird rituals and archaic ceremonies.
It’s about righteousness and justice—the restoration of our relationship with God, others, and ourselves.
And social justice plays an integral part in the story of the rise and fall of Israel—the Old Testament church.
Let that sink in. It has massive and inescapable implications for the church today.
- Hans LaRondelle, Israel of God in Prophecy, p. 92
- ibid, quoting H.H. Rowley on Jeremiah 7:23
- Little Book of Biblical Justice, p. 30