Biblical Justice and Social Justice in Modern Times

The concept of justice is a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament and is rooted in God’s Covenantal relationship with Israel. The original Hebrew meaning of the term justice pertains to all of the actions that contribute to maintaining the Covenant, “the true relation between man and man, and between God and man” (Heschel, 1961, p. 268). People of the Covenant are called to compassion, justice, and selfless love for others, mainly because they were once slaves in Egypt. We can find provisions for the original Covenant handed down to Moses throughout the Pentateuch. For example, Exodus 20:1-17 outlines the requirements for righteous living. Deuteronomy 6:5-6 demands that the people love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and might. Leviticus 19 specifies other ritual and moral codes that include instructions to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The people repeatedly disregarded the Covenant and engaged in social, political, and religious injustice and oppression. Even so, God provided ample opportunities for Israel to see the error of her ways and repent (Heschel, 1962, p. 43).

God sent prophets to admonish kings, prophets, priests, and others. Their primary activity was to run interference, often “meddling in affairs” that “were seemingly neither their concern nor their responsibility.” They consistently called out “the leaders, the kings, the princes, the false prophets, and the priests as the ones responsible for the sins of the community” (Heschel, 1962, p. 261). This is true for both the major and minor prophets. In Isaiah 1:17, for example, the prophet admonished Judah: “learn to do good; seek justice; rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” Isaiah further described God’s displeasure with false worship (Isaiah 58:1-6) and warned against continued injustice and oppression (Isaiah 59:1-16). Jeremiah delivered a message to the sons of Josiah regarding the nature of a just king (Jeremiah 22:13-17). Additionally, Ezekiel described the characteristics of a righteous man (Ezekiel 18:5-9). In addition, several minor prophets, including Amos and Micah, delivered oracles to 8th and 6th-century leaders, exposing their unjust practices and warning of harsh penalties, including the destruction of the offenders and their nations. At the same time, the prophets tempered their condemnations with messages of God’s mercy for those who repented. Many scholars identify Amos as the “social justice” prophet. By examining his sermons, we can apply their wisdom to the present day.


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