Today I return to my series on social justice. As we look at the third of the seven passages we’ll see once again the Bible says more and less about social justice than we think. More, because God definitely and clearly commands his people to do justice. But less, because what the Bible means by doing justice is not always equivalent to contemporary notions of social justice.
The basic command for this unit is given in verse 3: “Do justice and righteousness.” So there it is: God’s people (technically the kings in this verse) are commanded to do justice. We cannot obey God and ignore the divine call to justice.
In fact, the Lord tells the kings of Judah that judging the cause of the poor and needy (rightly) is to know him (15-16). It didn’t matter their titles, their wealth, or their religious observance, if the kings oppressed the poor instead of treating them fairly and mercifully, they proved their own ignorance of God. And if they continued in such flagrant disobedience, the kings and their kingdom would be wiped away (24-30).
So doing justice is hugely important. But what does it mean? Thankfully Jeremiah 22 gives us some answers.
Luxury by Tyranny
Jeremiah 21-22 were not addressed to anyone and everyone (though the chapters apply in various ways to all). These were words directly for the kings of Judah (21:3; 22:1, 11, 18). Ancient kings had tremendous power to do good or evil. To put it anachronistically, they wielded, all by themselves, executive, legislative, and judicial authority. They tried cases, made decrees, and enforced laws, just or unjust.
Tragically, in the waning years of Judah’s sovereignty, the kings acted unjustly on all three accounts. Their one overarching vice, what Phil Ryken calls “luxury by tyranny,” took many forms.
• The kings did not defend the oppressed against their oppressors (3a).
• They wronged the weak, even to the point of murder, shedding innocent blood for dishonest gain (3b, 17).
• They built their lavish houses by unrighteousness. This was not an instance of the rich getting richer as the poor also get richer. These kings, in an effort to live like the opulent kings of the other nations, conscripted forced labor and cheated the workers of their wages (13-16). They lived in luxury on the backs of the poor. The rich got richer because they made the poor poorer.
Doing justice, against this backdrop of crimes, was not terribly complicated. It meant the kings would do the following: judge the poor fairly instead of exploiting them, stop cheating the poor and lining their own pockets through oppression, and quit snuffing out the weak in order to get their land or the stuff. No king, or any Israelite for that matter, guilty of these sins could possibly know, in a covenantal sense, the God of Israel. To know God was to obey him.
So here’s my unsexy, but hopefully exegetically faithful conclusion to this passage and others like it: Christians who do not cheat, swindle, rob, murder, accept bribes, defraud, and hold back agreed upon wages are probably doing justice. Christians guilty of these things are probably not Christians at all.