Jehovah—The Source of True Justice and Righteousness
“The Rock, perfect is his activity, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness, with whom there is no injustice.”—DEUTERONOMY 32:4.
1. Why do we have an inherent need for justice?
JUST as everyone has an inborn need for love, so we all yearn to be treated with justice. As American statesman Thomas Jefferson wrote, “[justice] is instinct and innate, . . . as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing.” This is not surprising, since Jehovah created us in his own image. (Genesis 1:26) Indeed, he bestowed upon us qualities that reflect his own personality, one of which is justice. That is why we have an inherent need for justice and why we long to live in a world of true justice and righteousness.
2. How important is justice to Jehovah, and why do we need to grasp the meaning of divine justice?
2 Regarding Jehovah, the Bible assures us: “All his ways are justice.” (Deuteronomy 32:4) But in a world plagued with injustice, it is not easy to grasp the meaning of divine justice. Through the pages of God’s Word, however, we can discern how God administers justice, and we can come to appreciate God’s wonderful ways even more. (Romans 11:33) Understanding justice in the Biblical sense is important because our idea of justice may well be influenced by human concepts. From a human standpoint, justice may be considered to be nothing more than a fair application of the rule of law. Or as philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, “justice consists in giving every man what he deserves.” Jehovah’s justice, however, involves much more.
Jehovah’s Justice Is Heartwarming
3. What can be learned by considering the original-language words used in the Bible for justice and righteousness?
3 The breadth of God’s justice can better be understood by considering how the original-language words are used in the Bible.* Interestingly, in the Scriptures there is no significant difference between justice and righteousness. In fact, the Hebrew words are sometimes used in parallel, as we see at Amos 5:24, where Jehovah exhorts his people: “Let justice roll forth just like waters, and righteousness like a constantly flowing torrent.” Moreover, several times the terms “justice and righteousness” appear together for the sake of emphasis.—Psalm 33:5; Isaiah 33:5; Jeremiah 33:15; Ezekiel 18:21; 45:9.
4. What does it mean to exercise justice, and what is the ultimate standard of justice?
4 What sense is conveyed by these Hebrew and Greek words? To exercise justice in the Scriptural sense means to do what is right and fair. Since Jehovah is the one who establishes moral laws and principles, or what is right and fair, the way Jehovah does things is the ultimate standard of justice. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament explains that the Hebrew word rendered righteousness (tseʹdheq) “refers to an ethical, moral standard and of course in the O[ld] T[estament] that standard is the nature and will of God.” Thus, the way God applies his principles, and especially the way he deals with imperfect men, reveals the face of true justice and righteousness.
5. What qualities are bound up with God’s justice?
5 The Scriptures clearly show that godly justice is heartwarming rather than harsh and unyielding. David sang: “Jehovah is a lover of justice, and he will not leave his loyal ones.” (Psalm 37:28) God’s justice moves him to show faithfulness and compassion toward his servants. Divine justice is sensitive to our needs and makes allowances for our imperfections. (Psalm 103:14) That does not mean that God condones wickedness, for doing so would encourage injustice. (1 Samuel 3:12, 13; Ecclesiastes 8:11) Jehovah explained to Moses that He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth.” While willing to pardon error and transgression, God will not exempt from punishment those who deserve it.—Exodus 34:6, 7.
6. How does Jehovah deal with his earthly children?
6 When we meditate on how Jehovah exercises justice, we should not think of him as a stern judge, concerned only with passing sentence on wrongdoers. On the contrary, we should think of him as a loving but firm father who always deals with his children in the best possible way. “O Jehovah, you are our Father,” said the prophet Isaiah. (Isaiah 64:8) As a just and righteous Father, Jehovah balances firmness for what is right with tender compassion toward his earthly children, who need help or forgiveness as a result of difficult circumstances or fleshly weaknesses.—Psalm 103:6, 10, 13.
Making Clear What Justice Is
7. (a) What do we learn about divine justice from Isaiah’s prophecy? (b) What role did Jesus have in teaching the nations about justice?
7 The compassionate nature of Jehovah’s justice was highlighted with the coming of the Messiah. Jesus taught divine justice and lived in harmony with it, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah. Clearly, God’s justice includes treating with tenderness people who are beaten down. Thus, they are not broken beyond recovery. Jesus, Jehovah’s “servant,” came to the earth to “make clear to the nations” this aspect of God’s justice. He did so, above all, by giving us a living example of what divine justice means. As the “righteous sprout” of King David, Jesus was eager to ‘seek justice and be prompt in righteousness.’—Isaiah 16:5; 42:1-4; Matthew 12:18-21; Jeremiah 33:14, 15.
8. Why had true justice and righteousness become obscure in the first century?
8 Such a clarification of the nature of Jehovah’s justice was particularly necessary in the first century C.E. The Jewish elders and religious leaders—the scribes, the Pharisees, and others—proclaimed and exemplified a distorted view of justice and righteousness. As a result, the common people, who found it impossible to live up to the demands set by the scribes and Pharisees, likely imagined that God’s righteousness was far out of reach. (Matthew 23:4; Luke 11:46) Jesus showed that this was not the case. He chose his disciples from among these common people, and he taught them God’s righteous standards.—Matthew 9:36; 11:28-30.
9, 10. (a) How did the scribes and Pharisees seek to demonstrate their righteousness? (b) How and why did Jesus reveal that the practices of the scribes and Pharisees were futile?
9 The Pharisees, on the other hand, sought opportunities to display their “righteousness” by praying or making contributions in public. (Matthew 6:1-6) They also tried to demonstrate their righteousness by adhering to countless laws and precepts—many of which were of their own making. Such efforts led them to “pass by the justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42) Outwardly, they may have appeared to be righteous, but inside they were ‘full of lawlessness,’ or unrighteousness. (Matthew 23:28) Simply put, they really knew little about God’s righteousness.
10 For that reason, Jesus warned his followers: “If your righteousness does not abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens.” (Matthew 5:20) The sharp contrast between the divine justice exemplified by Jesus and the narrow-minded self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was the cause of frequent contentions among them.
Divine Justice Versus Distorted Justice
11. (a) Why did the Pharisees question Jesus about curing on the Sabbath? (b) What did Jesus’ answer reveal?
11 During his Galilean ministry in the spring of the year 31 C.E., Jesus spotted a man with a withered hand in a synagogue. Since it was a Sabbath, the Pharisees asked Jesus: “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” Rather than feel genuine concern for this poor man’s suffering, they had a desire to find a pretext for condemning Jesus, as their question revealed. No wonder Jesus was grieved at their insensitive hearts! He then pointedly threw a similar question back at the Pharisees: “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do a good deed?” When they kept silent, Jesus answered his own question by asking them if they would not rescue a sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath.* “Of how much more worth is a man than a sheep!” Jesus reasoned, with irrefutable logic. “So it is lawful [or, right] to do a fine thing on the sabbath,” he concluded. God’s justice should never be shackled by human tradition. Having made that point clear, Jesus went ahead and healed the man’s hand.—Matthew 12:9-13; Mark 3:1-5.
12, 13. (a) In contrast with the scribes and Pharisees, how did Jesus show his interest in helping sinners? (b) What is the difference between divine justice and self-righteousness?
12 If the Pharisees cared little for those with physical disabilities, they cared even less for those who were impoverished spiritually. Their distorted view of righteousness led them to ignore and despise tax collectors and sinners. (John 7:49) Nevertheless, many such ones responded to Jesus’ teaching, doubtless sensing his desire to help rather than to pass judgment. (Matthew 21:31; Luke 15:1) The Pharisees, however, denigrated Jesus’ efforts to heal the spiritually sick. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they muttered reproachfully. (Luke 15:2) In reply to their accusation, Jesus again used a pastoral illustration. Just as a shepherd rejoices when he finds a lost sheep, so the angels in heaven rejoice when a sinner repents. (Luke 15:3-7) Jesus himself rejoiced when he was able to help Zacchaeus repent from his former sinful course. “The Son of man came to seek and to save what was lost,” he said.—Luke 19:8-10.
13 These confrontations clearly reveal the distinction between divine justice, which seeks to heal and to save, and self-righteousness, which seeks to exalt the few and condemn the many. Empty ritual and man-made tradition had led the scribes and Pharisees to arrogance and self-importance, but Jesus aptly pointed out that they had “disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23) May we imitate Jesus in exercising true justice in all that we do and also watch out for the pitfall of self-righteousness.
14. How does one of Jesus’ miracles illustrate that divine justice takes into account a person’s circumstances?
14 While Jesus ignored the arbitrary rules of the Pharisees, he did keep the Mosaic Law. (Matthew 5:17, 18) In doing so, he did not allow the letter of that righteous Law to override its principles. When a woman who had suffered from a flow of blood for 12 years touched his garments and was healed, Jesus said to her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go your way in peace.” (Luke 8:43-48) Jesus’ sympathetic words confirmed that God’s justice had taken into account her circumstances. Although she was ceremonially unclean and thus had technically violated the Mosaic Law by being in among the crowd, her faith deserved to be rewarded.—Leviticus 15:25-27; compare Romans 9:30-33.
Righteousness Is for Everyone
15, 16. (a) What does Jesus’ illustration of the neighborly Samaritan teach us about justice? (b) Why should we avoid being “righteous overmuch”?
15 Apart from emphasizing its compassionate nature, Jesus also taught his disciples that divine justice should embrace all people. It was Jehovah’s will for him to ‘bring forth justice to the nations.’ (Isaiah 42:1) This was the point of one of Jesus’ most famous illustrations, that of the neighborly Samaritan. The illustration was a reply to a question raised by a man versed in the Law who wanted to “prove himself righteous.” “Who really is my neighbor?” he asked, doubtless wishing to restrict his neighborly responsibilities to Jewish people. The Samaritan in Jesus’ illustration displayed godly righteousness, for he was willing to spend his time and money helping a stranger from another nation. Jesus concluded his illustration by advising his questioner: “Be doing the same yourself.” (Luke 10:25-37) If we likewise do good to all people regardless of their racial or ethnic background, we will be imitating God’s justice.—Acts 10:34, 35.
16 The example of the scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, reminds us that if we would exercise divine justice, we should not be “righteous overmuch.” (Ecclesiastes 7:16) Seeking to impress others with showy displays of righteousness or attaching excessive importance to man-made rules will not bring us God’s approval.—Matthew 6:1.
17. Why is it so important for us to display godly justice?
17 One reason why Jesus made clear to the nations the nature of God’s justice was so that all of his disciples could learn to display this quality. Why is this so important? The Scriptures exhort us to “become imitators of God,” and all God’s ways are justice. (Ephesians 5:1) Likewise, Micah 6:8 explains that one of Jehovah’s requirements is that we “exercise justice” as we walk with our God. Furthermore, Zephaniah 2:2, 3 reminds us that if we wish to be concealed during the day of Jehovah’s anger, we have to “seek righteousness” before that day arrives.
18. What questions will be answered in the following article?
18 These critical last days are therefore an “especially acceptable time” to exercise justice. (2 Corinthians 6:2) We can be sure that if, like Job, we make ‘righteousness our clothing’ and ‘justice our sleeveless coat,’ Jehovah will bless us. (Job 29:14) How will faith in Jehovah’s justice help us to look to the future with confidence? Moreover, as we await the righteous “new earth,” how does godly justice protect us spiritually? (2 Peter 3:13) The following article will answer these questions.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, three principal words are involved. One of these (mish·patʹ) is often translated “justice.” The other two (tseʹdheq and the related word tsedha·qahʹ) are in most cases rendered “righteousness.” The Greek word translated “righteousness” (di·kai·o·syʹne) is defined as the “quality of being right or just.”
Jesus’ example was well chosen because the oral law of the Jews specifically allowed them to render assistance to an animal in distress on the Sabbath. On several other occasions, there were confrontations on this same issue, namely, whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath.—Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 9:13-16.
Can You Explain?
□ What is the meaning of divine justice?
□ How did Jesus teach justice to the nations?
□ Why was the righteousness of the Pharisees distorted?
□ Why do we need to exercise justice?
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Jesus made clear the breadth of divine justice