The concept of Justice and Righteousness can be a confusing issue among both Christians and non-Christians alike. For starters, among the various translations, the two terms "justice" and "righteousness" are often interchangeable. So, at times God's justice is His righteousness, as in the ESV version of Psalm 106:3, which says, "Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!". The structure of the sentence seems to indicate that the two clauses are similar in meaning. Yet the King James translation of that same verse indicates two separate and independent clauses: "Blessed are they that keep judgment, and he that doeth righteousness at all times."
Again, we see a confusion of terms in Deuteronomy 32:4, which says, "The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he." Yet that same verse, in the King James version reads, "He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he." Is God's justice to be understood as His righteousness, or is it His judgment? No wonder we, in the 21st Century, have a hard time understanding the true nature and character of our God!
But, because we know that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New, and that one of His characteristics is that He never changes (James 1:17), nor can Scripture be undone, annulled, or broken (John 10:35); we can confidently declare that His justice is both righteousness and judgment, as He determines.
One of the hardest accusations against God to answer is why would He command the complete destruction of Canaanite peoples down to every last man, woman, and child? We are asked, "If your God is such a loving God, where is the justice and compassion in that?" What we need to be able to explain is that Israel had a unique calling as God's chosen covenant people. Their assignment was to prepare the way for a pure and just Messiah. That's why God was so careful in establishing purity laws; they pointed the way to the holiness demanded by God to bring the Messiah into the world.
Jesus Christ must be born through an uncorrupted and pure bloodline. The inhabitants of the Canaanite nations that the Israelites were commanded to destroy were the descendants of fallen angels mating with human women; obviously an unholy bloodline. There could be no intermingling of DNA. God intended for His chosen people to remain pure so Jesus could be born into humanity; while Satan was determined to pollute the gene pool so that our Lord's birth would be denied.
Furthermore, our just and righteous God instituted sacrificial laws to point the way to the Atonement that Jesus would bring. And the total destruction of the Canaanite societies was both a physical and spiritual war that pointed to God's just judgment against sins such as child sacrifice and cult prostitution. Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman summarizes these points of God's justice and righteousness like this: We must point out that the Bible does not understand the destruction of
the men, women, and children of these cities as a slaughter of
innocents. Not even the children are considered innocent. They are all
part of an inherently wicked culture that, if allowed to live, would
morally and theologically pollute the people of Israel. I would add, spiritually and physically to that list, as well.
That's a pretty simple example of God's justice and righteousness in the Old Testament. But how are we to look at it in the New Testament, and from a modern perspective? At the Cross, Jesus exemplified and experienced the full measure of God's wrath against sin. And because of His sacrifice, we can be forgiven of our sin, and stand in God's favor by faith alone.
But the war is not over! God's enemies will not be completely defeated until Jesus returns to establish everlasting justice on the earth. Until then, we are still called to do battle for God; only now it is a spiritual battle against "the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." We are not called to fight and destroy flesh and blood humans today, but to tear down and destroy strongholds and principalities in the spiritual realms!
But have we stripped our God of His nature of Justice, which includes His administration of a heavenly government on the earth? Do we now interpret everything in the human sphere through Grace or Hyper-Grace instead of a righteous and just governmental lens? I'm not sure that the majority of Christians believe in Justice today. Could it be that we have reduced God to the characteristics that make us feel comfortable; creating a God that fits our image of what He should be -- loving, kind, gentle, merciful, gracious, compassionate, warm, sensitive ... and oh, yes, let's not forget tolerant.
Have we forgotten that at the beginning of His ministry, He proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven had arrived? Have we ignored the fact that a kingdom is under the legal jurisdiction of its King? Have we read the back of The Book which tells us that He comes to rule and reign; and to divide and conquer; that He is Lord, King and Judge? All that speaks of justice in terms that we don't like to apply to Him ... vengeance is His, and He will repay.
It is important to acknowledge that YHWH has not changed. He is the same God in 2019 that He was at the creation of this world. Even in the midst of his righteous judgment, He can be seen as merciful and loving. Through the destruction of the Canaanites, God mercifully protected the Israelites from idolatry and maintained His plan for Jesus to be born pure and holy. God was merciful and righteous in His justice to provide a way for a Canaanite woman (the prostitute Rahab) to repent and join the geneology of Jesus. A righteous and holy God would not be true to Himself if He tolerated sin. He must uphold His holiness. But we can be assured that wrath is not His heart. Because He will not tolerate sin, it shows His righteous mercy for those He loves. David Matthews, Executive Director of desiringGod.org writes, "Severity in God always serves His heart of mercy — to make known the
riches of His glory to His people, who are the vessels of His mercy."
So, let us endeavor to remember that Jesus reclaimed the earth for the Kingdom of God. Nothing has changed with that profound reality. We need both His justice in the form of His righteousness and love; but when necessary, we need His judgment, too. It all serves to mold us into the very image of Him, and to see the completion of the restoration of His kingdom on earth.
Proverbs 28:5 Evil men do not understand justice, but they who long for and seek the Lord understand it fully.