Prophetic vision of justice

David McIlroy, September 2004

One of the joys and frustrations of the English language is the size of its vocabulary. This enables us to make distinctions and to highlight nuances which might be lost elsewhere but sometimes it leads to compartmentalization. In particular, this has happened with the concept of ‘tsedeq‘, a hebrew word which has connotations of both ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’.

In contemporary English, ‘righteousness’ has become a technical, religious word, never used in ordinary conversation. As a consequence, we have lost a sense of its social dimensions. Imagine the surprise of reading the Bible in French where the word ‘justice’ is used to cover both ideas.

God’s gracious covenant with the nation of Israel led him to give Israel the Law of Moses to guide social life. That law sets out principles of fairness, equity and social justice which reflect Israel ‘s understanding of herself as a people redeemed from slavery. The Torah embodied a vision of social righteousness.

When God acceded to Israel ‘s demand for a king, the powers of the king were circumscribed and the king was accountable to God for upholding the covenant. The administration of justice was central to his role, and was seen in covenantal terms; for a king to be righteous was to be just in his relations with his subjects.

But the sad reality was that the kings were not often righteous in their dealings with their subjects. Bribery, oppression and favouritism were more characteristic of their reigns than generosity, justice and even-handedness.

Into such a context, God sent his prophets. Amos is the quintessential prophet of social justice but although others had a different focus to their message, social injustice is repeatedly part of the reason why God will bring judgement on the kingdoms of Israel and Judah . ‘The prophets simply would not allow Israel to get away with claiming the blessing and protection of the covenant relationship for their society while trampling on the socio-economic demands of that relationship.’ [1] The prophets are insistent that right rituals, righteous worship, are abhorrent in God’s sight without righteous actions towards the disadvantaged in society (Hosea 3:4; 8:11 –13; Micah 6:6–8).


The whole of the book of Amos is about justice. Although he spoke at a time in which Jeroboam II had extended the borders of Israel and when Israel was outwardly as well-off and powerful as it had ever been, underneath the prosperous surface lay deep social divisions (Amos 3:9). In contravention of the principles underlying the Mosaic law, the distribution of wealth was becoming ever more unequal.

Although Amos’s main target is Israel, he begins his prophecies by condemning the surrounding nations (Amos 1:1–2:5). Amos uses this approach to make two important theological points.

The first is that Israel’s God is sovereign over all the nations, and they are all accountable to him. The second is that God’s own people will be subject to his judgement like all the other nations if the way in which they live is no different.

Israel is judged for its lack of social justice. The poor and needy are oppressed, denied justice in the courts (Amos 5:7, 10, 12, 15) and forced into slavery (Amos 2:6–7; 8:6). The goods of the poor are confiscated (Amos 5:11), and their garments taken in pledge, in direct violation of Exodus 22:25–7 (Amos 2:8). Trade is dishonest, with prices inflated and crooked weights and measures used (Amos 8:5).

Although they are never explicitly quoted, Amos was clearly calling Israel back to God’s covenant standards of righteousness. They are the criteria against which Israel’s conduct is judged to have fallen short.

God’s fury against Israel is all the greater because of what he has done for them: rescuing them from Egypt (Amos 2:10), destroying the Amorites (Amos 2:9), giving them prophets and Nazirites to remind them of the need for holiness (Amos 2:11), and choosing them as his people (Amos 3:2). Amos’s uncomfortable message is that ‘Israel’s election did not give her a monopoly on divine favour, but called her to special moral responsibility; she was called to be “a holy people unto Yahweh…”’ [2] This meant reflecting God’s character, a character which was, in Amos’s understanding, defined by God’s justice.

Justice in the other prophets

Although they each have their distinct emphases, the other eighth-century prophets Hosea (Hosea 5:10; 8:11–13; 12:6–7), Micah (Micah 3:8–12), and Isaiah (Isaiah 1:10–17) all affirm the same truth: judgement is coming, because of ‘the injustice and inhumanity of the great and the powerful towards the weak, poor and helpless.’ [3]

Later, Jeremiah prophesied when Judah was about to be invaded and Jerusalem was about to fall. What was God’s message to their rulers? ‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done…’ (Jeremiah 21:12).

Jeremiah made plain just how highly God rates justice. He compared the sons of Josiah with their father and declared that the survival of the royal dynasty was dependent on the justice of the king’s reign. Maintaining justice was a key part of the king’s covenant obligations, and failing to uphold justice was a sin on a par with idolatry (Jeremiah 22:2–5, 9).

Whereas Josiah’s sons constructed their palaces using forced labour, their father was commended, not for his religious, reforming zeal but because ‘He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well.’ (Jeremiah 22:15–16). Instead of following their father, his sons set their hearts ‘only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion’. (Jeremiah 22:17).

Ezekiel, writing at around the same time, offers a similar bleak assessment of the actions of the ruling class in Judah as a whole (Ezekiel 22:1–16), listing a catalogue of abuses with regard to the family, social justice, the temple cult, pagan worship, sexual matters, the legal system and economic justice. In all these areas, which cover the whole of social, economic and religious life, the people had violated the covenant and had forgotten the Lord (Ezekiel 22:12; cf. Deuteronomy 8:11, 19).

Looking back from beyond the exile, the prophet Zechariah sought to remind the generation returning to Israel why it had occurred: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.” …But they refused to pay attention…. So the Lord Almighty was very angry. …[and] scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations…’ (Zechariah 7:8–14).

The force of the prophets’ message about justice is inescapable. Injustice has consequences, and the ultimate consequence is the collapse of the civilization. Like a creeping parasite such as ivy, in the end it will strangle its host to death.

Justice in the New Testament

In the New Testament, Jesus reaffirmed the importance of the call to justice. He saved his harshest words for the Pharisees who claimed great knowledge of God but neglected ‘the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.’ (Matthew 23:23). He condemned them because their meticulous religious observances were not matched by a concern about the things which actually matter most to God: ‘Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practised the latter without leaving the former undone.’ (Luke 11:42).

Elsewhere, the concerns of Amos are reflected in the book of James. James knew that under the New Covenant, justice remained as important to God as it had been under the Old Covenant. He wrote: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.’ (James 1:27).

James is suspicious of riches (James 1:9–11; 2:1–7) and scornful of the possibility of a faith which does not express itself in practical compassion (James 2:14–18; 3:13). But he saves his most forceful attack for those who have made profit for themselves by fraud and oppression, through failing to pay their workers on time (James 5:4) and through violence against those who stood in their way (James 5:6).


The prophets are agreed that God hates oppression. He is angered by the powerful throwing their weight around, abusing their power and influence. God is angry when the rights of the powerless are not protected, when there is no-one to plead their case or to help them enforce their entitlements. Abuse of power and unequal access to justice anger him. He is furious when money, when economics, is given priority over people, when things matter more than individuals, when oppression takes the place of compassion.

God is passionate about these things. ‘For I, the Lord, love justice ; I hate robbery and iniquity.’ (Isaiah 61:8) . ‘“[L]et him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 9:24).

The prophets grasped these truths and looked forward to the day when God would come and establish his justice on the earth. However, the prophets also saw that the God who will one day act definitively, at the end of history, in order to bring justice to his people is also the God who acts in history to bring justice for his people. When Jesus, the instrument of God’s deliverance, came to earth he responded to human sickness with healing, to human hunger with food, and to human fears with protection. He calls his followers to do likewise.

David McIlroy is a practising barrister and a guest contributor to Cambridge Papers . The theme of this article is explored in his first book, A Biblical View of Law and Justice, published by Paternoster Press.

[1] Christopher Wright, Living as the People of God, IVP, p.62.

[2] Freeman, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets, Faith Ministries, p.186.

[3] Ellison, The Message of the Old Testament, Paternoster, p.55-6.

Tags: Covenant, God, Justice, Law, Oppression, Prophet, Righteousness, Social justice
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