In our first five posts, we attempted to unfold a biblical definition of “justice” by starting where the Lord Jesus starts—the Law. The Pentateuch provided the legal, moral and ethical framework for God’s people. As such, we might think of Torah as codifying the practical demands of justice. God’s people were to do the right thing for the right people to the right extent at the right time and in the right way.
But did they? How effective were the old covenant people of God at living in accord with God’s call to justice?
We don’t have to guess; the prophets tell us quite a lot about the genuine social injustice of ancient Israel. Where the Law codified the justice requirements of God, the prophets prophesied against the people for not fulfilling those requirements. What the Law defined, the prophets applied. Through the prophets we gain a glimpse into the heart of God’s people and come to understand what injustice looks like among the religious.
To put it simply: God’s people in the days of the prophets were not a just people. They were corrupt. We get a glimpse of their spiritual state in Jeremiah 9:3-9:
3 They bend their tongue like a bow;
falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land;
for they proceed from evil to evil,
and they do not know me, declares the Lord.
4 Let everyone beware of his neighbor,
and put no trust in any brother,
for every brother is a deceiver,
and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer.
5 Everyone deceives his neighbor,
and no one speaks the truth;
they have taught their tongue to speak lies;
they weary themselves committing iniquity.
6 Heaping oppression upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit,
they refuse to know me, declares the Lord.
7 Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts:
“Behold, I will refine them and test them,
for what else can I do, because of my people?
8 Their tongue is a deadly arrow;
it speaks deceitfully;
with his mouth each speaks peace to his neighbor,
but in his heart he plans an ambush for him.
9 Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the Lord,
and shall I not avenge myself
on a nation such as this?
Things were rough in Israel during Jeremiah’s day! But the situation in Jeremiah’s day teaches us a lot about the nature of injustice:
- Nearly all injustice involves crooked speech (vv. 3, 5). Be careful with the tongue. It will often be the main weapon in oppression and unrighteousness.
- Nearly all injustice destroys neighbor love (vv. 4, 8). Since love for God and neighbor summarize the Law (Matt. 22:36-40), neighbor love tends to fulfill the requirements of biblical justice.
- Nearly all injustice leads to other injustices (v. 6). They were “heaping oppression upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit…” (v. 6).
- No one who practices injustice truly knows the Lord (vv. 3b, 6b). “They do not know me…” (3b). “They refuse to know me…” (6b). We can be sure that the person who practices injustice is not saved (1 John 3:4-10).
- Those who practice injustice will be punished by God (v. 9). “Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the Lord, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?”
Injustice is not just a problem in this life. If a person does not turn away from the sin of injustice, then it will be a problem in the life to come. In this way, the failure to live a life of equity, fairness and righteousness is indeed a gospel issue—sin always is.
We need to note that Jeremiah’s words describe God’s people—not the world. So, the elect of God cannot and should not take righteousness for granted.
Read the Old Testament As Christian Scripture
The examples we find in God’s old covenant people are written down as warnings and instruction for God’s new covenant people (1 Cor. 10:1-12; Hebrews 3). Any lackadaisical or presumptive attitude toward injustice endangers the Church. If a Christian leader waves their hand or shrugs their shoulder at the thought that the Church could be guilty and complicit in injustice, and should they proclaim “that’s Old Testament Israel, not the Church,” they simply prove they have not taken depravity seriously enough and are not using the Old Testament as Christian scripture.
If we read the account of Israel as Christian scripture, then what abhors us about Israel should abhor us all the more if we find it in the Church. We are those who live with the full revelation of God’s word, with the completed work of Christ in view, and with the Holy Spirit. We have every advantage compared to the ancient Israelite and we have hope to be different, better, holier. But if Israel’s corruptions are found in the Church, the problems ought shame and horrify us a hundredfold.
It’s not enough to say, “This isn’t true of any church I know.” Not when the historical record is replete with the Church’s blind spots, sins, failures and injustices. For example, for three and a half long centuries the American Church heaped oppression upon oppression in its dealings with African Americans. From the theological creation of “race,” to theological justification for white supremacy, to “biblical” defenses of slavery and segregation, to racial exclusion from the Supper and church membership, to the failure to teach and apply the second commandment—in a million instances played out at both the macro- and micro-level—American Christians practiced oppression upon oppression and deceit upon deceit. Christian tongues have been “deadly arrows” and hearts have “planned ambushes.”
After three and a half full centuries of this injustice, why do we suppose it all “just ended” about 50 years ago? Why do people who insist they “have the gospel” and insist that “the gospel is the only solution” not ask themselves if the gospel they preach today is in any significant way different than the gospel preached just one or two generations ago—much less one or two centuries ago? For if the gospel didn’t produce better results for segregationist churches in the 1950s than it did in the revivalist churches of the 1750s, and we haven’t done anything differently in our generation, why do we expect our forebears’ problems have absolutely no place in us? Why would we think we are significantly different if there has been no major gospel revival and reformation in the American Church since the 1750s or 1950s? It’s a curious conclusion for people who say “the gospel is the answer” but can’t identify any gospel work that’s made the difference. Social injustice snuggles comfortably under the blanket of such conceits.
We will need to read the Old Testament as Christian scripture if we hope to hear prophetic voices examining our churches for corruption to which we may be blind. We must hear the prophets speak today if we hope to be just as God demands. It’s the prophets who apply the Law to the hearts of God’s people. It’s the heart that is deceptive and wickedness enough to hide our injustice.