"God's Love in the Old Testament" - Chapter 20



Chapter 20: "Thinking about Justice and God"




Chapter 20– Thinking about Justice and God


I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice.”   (Psa 9:16)



This is the second chapter working towards the subject of God, Israel & Canaan. In the previous chapter we briefly laid out our stall and went on to consider what the Bible teaches about God and justice.


Our primary concern is to see if the teaching about God being a God of justice matches His activities with Israel in cleansing the land of Canaan of its inhabitants. That we will go on to consider in detail in the next chapter. For now we will simply think about the whole subject of justice.



Content of Chapter 20

20.1 The Concept of Justice in Old Testament Usage

20.2 Justice in common usage today

20.3 Recap: The God of Justice

20.4 God as Lawmaker: His initial role

20.5 God as Law Upholder: His subsequent role

20.6 God as Bringer of Justice?

20.7 Review of the Chapter



We need to move on and consider just what justice is. We have seen it referred to many times in the Bible, but what exactly is justice and can all of God's activities be considered just?


You may be tempted to skip the chapter and move directly on to exactly what happened in respect of the inhabitants of Canaan, but I would urge you to persevere with this chapter because it helps clarify our thinking when we come to that last chapter.

20.1 The Concept of Justice in Old Testament Usage

Let us first of all consider the words for justice and what they mean, that we find in the Old Testament, and then afterwards we will consider more generally what society or the law thinks about justice.
What does justice mean?


The words used for justice are, in older versions of the Bible, rendered ‘right judgment' and the sense is always of a fair judicial decision.


In Old Testament teaching there is often the use of parallelism, where a word or phrase is repeated or explained using different words so, we've see in the previous chapter:


Absence of justice is described in Ex 23:2,3 as showing favouritism

  • In Ex 23:6,7 it was seen as bringing false charges and bringing wrong judgments.
  • In Lev 19:15 it is seen as showing partiality or bias.
  • In Deut 16:19,20 it included accepting bribes and twisting words and the truth.


But justice seems intricately connected with the word ‘righteousness' and so justice takes on a sense of rightness, correctness, straightness, faultless, completeness, wholeness.


The negative side of justice, we might say, is correcting a fault or holding someone accountable for a fault or failure or sin.

The positive side is declaring rightness or bringing about rightness and balance.

Perhaps we'll understand this more when we see in a moment, the cries for justice. Justice is about what we deserve or what transgressors deserve. In a day when ethics is in confusion we need to return to basics here.

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20.2 Justice in common usage today


A dictionary includes the following:

Justice – just conduct, fairness, reward of virtue and punishment of vice.


Justice is at the core of our being. We believe that wrongs need righting, that wrongs deserve punishment. 

Modern relativistic thought undermines justice and waters it down so that nothing is right and nothing is wrong – it depends on the time and circumstances. But none of us believe that deep down!
None of us actually believe things are neither right nor wrong


If my car is stolen, I want it back. No, it is not right that what belongs to me has been taken.

If my wife is raped, no, it is not right and the rapist cannot be excused by psychological backchat.

If my children were bullied, in whatever way, I would never say it is all right – and neither would you.


In modern life we get very frustrated and upset at the apparent inability of the police to protect people – vulnerable families from hooligans on ‘sink estates'. We become very upset when, in the first decade of the twenty first century politicians appeared corrupt and bankers appeared utterly selfish and foolish so that we had a ‘credit crunch' and everyone suffered. We feel deep down that ‘it is not fair' and someone should pay!


It is the same cry that we hear from a small child: “Mummy, he's taken my sweets” or “It's not fair, you've given him more sweets than me!” These are the cries for justice, for a wrong to be put right. Oh yes, even from the cradle we believed in justice.


When we hear of nations, capitalist or communist or simply junta, where those in power make capital and oppress the poor, something rises within us that cries for justice.


A common criticism of God is that he appears powerless to stop the injustices of the world (we'll deal with that elsewhere), but when He does, the same voices are raised in opposition.


It is always a common cry in the modern media, whether it is a family grieving for the loss of their child run down or gunned down, or the call of religious or political leaders it is the same thing.

“We have a voice, whether we work in aspects of the legal profession, diplomatic service, the church or wherever we are. In what we do and how we do it, in what we say and how we say it, we have the opportunity to describe an inspiring vision which will call this society forward from the depression of recession to a compassionate society. The way to achieve that was to begin with hearing the cries of the oppressed, hungry, homeless, poor and anyone bound by injustice and hopelessness”
                                   Rev Trevor Williams, Bishop of Limerick and Kildare


Cries for justice are heard:

  • for a parent to love, care, and step in for their child being abused by the other partner,
  • for action to be taken to care for the oppressed poor,
  • for release from prison of those incarcerated because they disagree with the politicians in power,
  • for the stop of genocide between tribal groupings,
  • for the stop of persecution again minority religious groups in Communist countries,
  • for an end to corruption among politicians.


Yes, in all of these cases we hear cries to right wrongs, cries for justice.

But there is another aspect to all this; where there is ongoing injustice, whether it be the injustice of a stronger person abusing or oppressing a weaker person, or it be a strong group or tribe oppressing a weaker opponent group or tribe, it is important to take note of what we think about the oppressor.
We don't believe in Oppressors


For instance where a young couple molest, injure and generally abuse their young child (as has been reported more than once by the media in the West in the early years of the twenty-first century), the last thing on earth we would say is that they are being loving.


In fact, part of our upset is that they are not being loving – and we expect them to be so! We might say, “If they loved that child they wouldn't do that!” and when it comes to negligent watchers of abuse, those who stand by and do nothing when abuse occurs, we might say, “If they were loving, they would step in and stop it happening.”

That is a component of anticipated justice: we expect, in a civilised nation, someone to step in and intervene to stop the injustice that is occurring, whether that be parents, social services or the police.

We expect someone to stop injustices


But taking that a little further, if someone makes a claim to be a loving, caring person, then we expect them to step in and stop things that are wrong under their own roof.


Discussions about justice often include talk about:

  • retribution – punishment that is deserved,
  • restoration – action taken to restore the victim and maybe rehabilitate the offender,
  • deterrent – punishment imposed in order to put off further offences.


What each of these things do is demand ACTION. Nowhere is there the attitude that “justice means we do nothing”. No, justice demands something is done.


The basic justice of the Old Testament, in a primitive society, was “an eye for an eye” which shows us the ‘balancing out' of offence by a retaliatory act. This was in fact a limiting law – ONLY an eye, and nothing more, in order to stop an ever increasing spiral of vengeance coming about.


Justice, perhaps somewhat obviously, is all about the law. The law lays down how life shall be lived in a community. Someone disregards the law and breaks it. Society calls for justice – some form of action to be taken against the offender.


Mostly in our societies in the West, in the early part of the twenty-first century, justice is applied using the police (to apprehend the law-breaker), and the courts (to ascertain the truth about the alleged offence). Thereafter there may be a variety of other institutions to then carry out the penalty decided by the court.


In most cases, where there is a guilty decision in a criminal case, the guilty part will suffer either:

  • a fine, or
  • community service, or
  • imprisonment.


We have deemed the death penalty inappropriate mostly, I suspect, because of fears of injustice through miscarriages of justice. Thus we have more and more prisons and more and more prisoners. The one thing prison seems not to do is act as a deterrent.


It is interesting to note that in Israel in Old Testament times, prison was not an option laid down by the Law. The Law laid down a whole range of corrective actions, which enabled the community to continue without the need for prisons. The death penalty was the ultimate penalty for the taking of a life or causing the breakdown of the godly society, and it was carried out by those closest to the incident or the individual. Thus it became a rarity because once you had been involved in a stoning, thereafter you would do everything in your power to ensure the need for it never occurred again.


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20.3 Recap: The God of Justice


Now before we move on much further, we need to reiterate some of the things we have noted so far.


i) Old Testament teaching and example

  • God's law required justice in everyday life of Israel.
  • Justice was something very significant in God's design for Israel.


ii) Everyday thoughts about justice

  • justice is about righting wrongs,
  • justice involves putting people or society back on the right tracks,
  • justice follows on from stated laws that have been broken,
  • we all expect loving, responsible people to step in bring justice and restore order.


In what follows, we will see God as law-maker and as law-upholder and also as the one who administers justice.


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20.4 God as Lawmaker


  • The Bible affirms again and again that God is the Creator-Designer of all of ‘Creation'.
  • The design/Creation that we observe is rational and orderly (where it goes wrong it is caused by the outworking of sin through mankind).
  • It should almost go without saying that God therefore knows best how the world that He has brought into being should work – including human beings.
  • The Law of Moses, given by God showed Israel how their society would best work.
  • It also included laws on how to deal with those who broke the law and the main emphasis was on them being restored to a right relationship with God and within their society.
  • A question might arise in our minds about those people who were not part of Israel and who therefore had not been given or heard of God's design guidelines (the Law).
  • In the New Testament the apostle Paul, when writing to the church in Rome dealt with this difficulty.
  • A summary of his teaching in chapter 2 is as follows:


God "will give to each person according to what he has done." To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.” (Rom 2:6-11)

i.e. God deals with every person according to the light which they have. The Jews, he went on to explain, had the Law and would be judged according to how they kept it. Those from other nations who did not have that Law would be judged on the basis of the inner light which they had. He implies that deep down we all know the truth.


He contrasts two positions or two sets of behaviour:

  • doing good, seeking glory, honor and immortality
  • self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil


Let's expand those:

  • those who do what they naturally know is good and right, who look to win at least self-acceptance and self-praise in so doing, and possibly public acclaim for it, and who look for the eternal existence that they sense is there,
  • those who are utterly self-centred and God-rejecting, contrary to the very obvious truth that we live in a ‘designed world' made by a master-designer with clear ways of doing what is right according to His design for us, rejecting these and doing the opposite, living a harmful life that is described as evil (opposite to ‘good' which is the God's design way)
Now this isn't rocket science; it is pretty obvious stuff once you stand still and think about it. Think about the sort of world you would like to live in.
What sort of world would you like?


Here are some suggestions:

  • all human beings exhibiting the characteristics of being loving, caring, compassionate, accepting of one another, and being there for one other,
  • there is no stealing, no abuse, no violence, no rapes, no murders,
  • when we cause an accident we take responsibility for our actions and seek to remedy and put right any hurt or harm caused,
  • where we have been hurt or harmed we forgive,
  • parents care for their children and are there for them,
  • employees are honest and respectful of their employers,
  • employers are caring and respectful of their employees,
  • etc. etc. etc.


Most of us would subscribe to this sort of society if it were possible. This is the sort of society that is envisaged in the Law of Moses. This is the sort of society that the apostle Paul implies in his writing in Romans, chapter 2. In such a society we are enabled to develop into the fullness of the people God has designed us to be and to joy in a sense of self-worth and self-fulfilment. Strangely, in such a society, when we don't put ‘self' first, we find that eventually, in ourselves, we are more fulfilled and we thus feel better about ourselves. It is the way God has designed us.


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20.5 God as Law Upholder


The Bible is quite clear that God does NOT do two things:

•  He does not sit back and let us wallow in our failures.

•  He does not bring instant judgement on our failures.

What He does do is intervene in our activities in order to bring us to our senses and to help us come back (or come to) a place where we are living according to His design-rules, i.e. He seeks to bring correction
God's activity is always corrective


The book of Job is all about suffering and right and wrong. Listen to what Job had learnt:


Job 33:14 For God does speak--now one way, now another-- though man may not perceive it.

  • i.e. God doesn't just let us get on with it; He speaks to us through a variety of means, even though we may not hear it because our ears are shut to Him – nevertheless He speaks so we'll never be able to say He didn't warn us.


Job 33:17,18 “to turn man from wrongdoing and keep him from pride, to preserve his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword”

  • God speaks through a variety of means, including sickness and suffering, so that we will come to our senses and be saved from destroying ourselves, both now today and in eternity.


Job 33:29,30 "God does all these things to a man-- twice, even three times-- to turn back his soul from the pit, that the light of life may shine on him.”

  • God comes again and again to try to bring us to our senses.


We may worry and not understand about this matter of God using suffering as a corrective means, but the apostle Paul, again in his letter to the church at Rome, explains in outline how God does this. He first of all explains that the truth is there to be seen by anyone who has eyes to see, but when we refuse to ‘see' the truth' God acts:


Rom 1:24,26-31 Therefore (1) God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another…..Because of this, (2) God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, (3) he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

  • Because people refuse to take notice of the truth, God ‘gives them over' to foolish destructive behaviour (see it 3 times above).
  • This simply means that He withdraws His hand of restraint that is usually there, and lets us get on without any hindrance. There is thus a downward moral spiral, for the effect of ‘sin' in us means we tend to go down, rather than reach up for greatness.
  • We see so many of these things in modern Western society and we think they are the signs of a free, modern progressive society, but God says they are potentially destructive, disciplinary things.
  • I have inserted numbers in the verses above to clarify what I am referring to.
  • The first two are a releasing of desire and emotions which results in unrestrained sexual behaviour. In our society we see that these things bring with them a harvest of STDs.
  • The third one is a releasing of thinking with no restraint, so we think what we like and behaviour soon follows. As we said above, it is a downward spiral. The list there is increasingly obvious in Western societies.


For the purpose or reasoning behind this we have to go elsewhere in the apostle Paul's writing. In the church in Corinth, he heard of sexual immorality occurring within the church, being blatantly practiced by one man in the church there, and so he counsels the church, “hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor 5:5)


i.e. put this man out of the church (see v.13), out of the protection of the church so that he will be vulnerable to the enemy, until the enemy's work pulls him down and he comes to repentance. It is the language of restoration. That this clearly worked is obvious by what he writes in his second letter to them (see 2 Cor 2:6-8) when he counsels them to now restore this same man.


Thus we find in both Old and New Testaments, this divine strategy being revealed. It is always clear that God is seeking to restore to Him whoever will respond. Separation from God is our primary problem.
God is always aiming for restoration


When the early church questioned the apostle Peter about the Lord's apparent slowness in dealing with sinners, he replied, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9). That doesn't mean everyone will repent but that God wants them to, and therefore gives them space to.


Likewise in the Old Testament we find the prophet, Ezekiel declaring, as from God, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) and if we didn't take that in, he repeats it again a few verses later: “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel ? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:31,32)


No, contrary to public belief, God does NOT relish bringing death! So why then does He apparently bring it sometimes? We need to see it in action to understand it.

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20.6 God as Bringer of Justice?


There is no doubt about it, and the Bible is quite clear about it, God DOES sometimes bring death. Now in the light of all that we have seen we need to ponder that carefully.


Remember, so far in this book, we have considered the Bible's claim that:

    • God is loving and kind,
    • God is good,
    • God seeks justice,
    • God seeks to draw people back into a right way of living.


So how does it fit that God instructed Israel to wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan? To think this through carefully we need to take time and effort, so we will make that the specific subject of the next chapter.

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20.7 Review of the Chapter


There was quite a lot in this chapter that we need to hold on to as we move into the next chapter focusing on just what happened in respect of Canaan , and so a review would be useful:


20.1 The Concept of Justice in Old Testament Usage

  • We saw that justice is all about ‘right judgment' and is closely linked with righteousness. Negatively it is about correcting faults or wrong behaviour; positively it is about bringing rightness and balance.

20.2 Justice in common usage today

  • Justice, we saw, is about bringing fairness into human affairs, and is inextricably linked with love and care.

20.3 Recap: The God of Justice

  • We reviewed the biblical teaching and our demands for justice as we set the scene to review God's activities.

20.4 God as Lawmaker

  • Here we saw God's right, as Creator-Designer of this world, to decree what is right, how things work best, including in respect of human behaviour.

20.5 God as Law Upholder

  • Here we went on to see that God, in His love and as a means of upholding or restoring the law into the lives of mankind, constantly seeks to restore people to Himself and to His design pattern.

20.6 God as Bringer of Justice?

  • This brought us to face the big questions about God as a bringer of justice and bringer of love, as we look at the specific instance involving Canaan.



Very well, if we have absorbed these things, we are now ready to proceed to consider in detail exactly what happened in respect of God, Israel and Canaan.



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