Justice in the Bible
[Reprinted from the Henry George News, July,
"IN THE beginning God created the heaven Land the earth."
These are the most famous opening words in all literature. They
introduce us to a work -- or collection of works -- that has no
parallel in history. If another book is spoken of in superlatives it
is always as something "next to the Bible."
We cannot overestimate the influence of this book on our
civilization. Our morals, our loftiest ideals, are still those of the
Bible. Our God is still Jehovah, the Lord God of Israel. And the idea
of justice that we revere is not the least of the fruits that have
come down to us from this source. As Frederick Verinder puts it, in
My Neighbor's Landmark: "The concept of justice
as the foundation of all law, divine and human, pervades all the
teaching of the Law and the Prophets."
"Justice" is one of those sublime words attempts at
defining which never seem adequate, never come up to the mere mention
of it. It is not once defined in the Bible. Indeed, seldom if ever in
that book do we find a definition of any of the vital concepts that
mean so much to us. Rather they are brought home to us by precept, by
warning, by stories and deeds, by fulfillment. And when these matters
are related, we have a more precise knowledge of those concepts than
any defining or abstracting could ever give us.
The Old Testament
"And God blessed them [man and woman], and God said unto them,
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it."
(Gen. 1:28). In the Bible you never get any other impression than that
great numbers of people are a good thing, meaning more abundance. A
nation is great when numbered as the sands or the stars. Injustice,
not over-population, is blamed for misery. From Genesis on, contrast
between wealth and want, the oppressors and the oppressed, is
constantly pointed out as an evil condition --
the evil condition.
In Exodus, the very motive of the Hebrew trek to Canaan is an escape
from injustice and oppression, and a quest for justice and freedom.
The Ten Commandments are universally recognized as embodying the Law
of Justice. What is the essence of these Commandments? A relation of
equity between man and man under God. Throughout the remaining
chapters of the Pentateuch the children of Israel are constantly
reminded what they are escaping from. The "false gods"
represent the laws which sanction oppression, injustice, corruption.
The true God to which they owe allegiance represents the Law of
Justice. Throughout the Bible, the prophets and preachers reiterate
this with increasing emphasis and insistence until it becomes their
The 25th chapter of Leviticus is one of the most important chapters
in the Bible. Here is laid down what is to be done with the land of
Canaan, the Promised Land, once it is entered. Here is the foundation
of the economic and social life of the people. "The land shall
not be sold for ever; for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and
sojourners with Me." From the first chapter of Genesis throughout
the Bible it is taught that the earth is the Lord's.
"For what are we but tenants for a day?" asked Henry
George. "The Almighty, who created the earth for man and man for
the earth, has entailed it upon all the generations of the children of
men." And in Leviticus an effort is made to secure to all
generations their rights in the land, by the method of the Jubilee
year. Every fiftieth year the land was to revert to the families in
whose trust it was originally given, no matter through how many hands
it may have passed. This was to present the disinheritance of the
people and the concentration of land in the hands of a few. That this
law was often violated we find much evidence, especially in the
denunciations of the later prophets.
The prophets are certainly among the most inspiring phenomena in the
Bible. One of the first on record, Nathan, makes his appearance
fearlessly denouncing King David for an act of injustice. There were
many such injustices, as Samuel, the last and greatest judge, had
warned the people there would be if they got the king for which they
clamored. But measure for measure, the prophets were on hand,
denouncing the oppressors, comforting the oppressed, exhorting the
people, and rising higher and higher toward a vision of God. Elijah
appears to denounce Ahab and Jezebel for their theft of Naboth's
vineyard (I Kings 21). Isaiah cries against the same sort of crime
(Isa. 5:8), and so do the other prophets.
In Isaiah we find a note often sounded by the prophets. "If ye
be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: but if ye
refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword." The Lord
is a just God. Things don't just happen; there's a reason. There is
cause and effect. And there is responsibility. There is precious
little soothsaying and no star-gazing in the Bible. There are very few
unconditional prophecies, despite the fact that some look for them in
such books as Daniel and Revelation. The great message of the Bible is
rather, "If you do thus and so, such and such will result."
Let those who would seek escape from responsibility look elsewhere
than in the Bible.
Jeremiah is known as the gloomy prophet-but he wasn't unconditional
about his pessimism. We find the same "if" philosophy as in
Isaiah: "For if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if
ye thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor.. . then
will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to
your fathers for ever and ever." (Jer. 7: 5-7)
In Isaiah 58: 4-12 we find another strain of the prophets. They
reject, on behalf of the Lord, the formal observances, the surface
acceptance, the lip service, when justice and righteousness are not
done. In their fierce bursts of wrath against idolatry, the prophets
associated such idoltry with forsaking the ways of justice. For the
mere ritualistic worship of strange gods could not have meant much
more evil to them than the mere ritualistic worship of Jehovah meant
The "minor prophets" are so called because their writings
are shorter than those of the major prophets. But there is nothing "minor"
about their message. To take Micah as an example: "Will the Lord
be pleased with thousands of rivers of oil? . . . He hath shewed thee,
0 man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do
justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
(Mic. 6: 7-8). Here again is a heartfelt plea for the simple rule
of justice. The short book of Micah is a treasure trove, as are
those of Hosea and Amos -- and these three form a trio quite as
inspiring as the three major prophets.
One last glance at the prophets: In Malachi we find a further
striving toward the universality of New Testament ideas: "Have we
not all one father? Hath not one God created us?"
What is known miscellaneously as "the writings" (everything
other than "the law" and "the prophets") comprise
a vast variety of material set down over a long period of time. Much
of it was written between the period of the return of the Jews from
their captivity in Babylon and the time of Christ, though in most
cases much older authorship is attributed.
Such books as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom (the
two latter unfortunately termed "apocryphal," except in the
Catholic Bible, because they are frankly later writings) represent a
more mature sophistication of Hebrew thought. The basic concept of
justice is still there but refined and viewed under a variety of
aspects. To take Proverbs as an example: "Men do not despise a
thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry; but if he be
found, he shall restore sevenfold
" There are extenuating
circumstances in some acts of injustice -- a heralding of New
Testament leniency; and yet, justice shall be done. The solid
virtues are extolled in Proverbs -- honest toil, thrift, sensibility.
There is no sympathy with poverty due to voluntary idleness: "How
long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard?
So shall thy poverty come as
one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man." But wealth
acquired in any way but honest labor is equally frowned upon: "Better
is a little with righteousness than great revenues without right."
These books contain much wisdom. And in them this thought emerges: It
is good to have enough. And God's laws are so that all will have
enough. It is not good to have too much nor too little, and a
perversion of God's laws will result in this.
Always there is association of great luxury and wantonness, and deep
poverty, with injustice. Always a prosperous and happy land is
associated with justice for all. This is the social message of the Old
The New Testament
When one tries to explain Jesus one unconsciously tries to do "beyond
his best," and when it is all explained something yet remains.
"I come not to destroy but to fulfill,' said Jesus -- though
many suppose that the New Testament replaces the old. It does not. It
reinterprets the basic message of justice, broadens it, makes it a
matter of fulfillment in the heart of man rather than a mechanical
observance. The New Testament expresses what the law and the prophets
were driving toward. The way of justice is opened up into the way of
love and there fused -- but not replaced.
The two laws which Jesus gave are found in the Old Testament. Love
God and love thy neighbor (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). It is a matter of
going straight to the heart of the law and the prophets and revealing
the underlying spirit.
When asked for advice as to the right path to follow, Jesus repeated
the Commandments of Moses. When more was asked, he gave the law of the
When he found it so difficult to get across his message, Jesus would
say, "They have the law and the prophets. If they hearkened not
to them, neither will they hearken to me." And he indicates that
had hearkened there would be no special need for his mission
Jesus has meant so many different things to so many different
peoples, and has been reinterpreted and adjusted to conform with so
many ways of life, mores and ideas, that we sometimes forget to look
at the original Jesus. In Christ's Object in Life, John C
Lincoln reminded us that we can do this no better than by studying the
first three gospels Ane J believe we can best understand Jesus as the
culmination of a mighty movement that might be said to have begun with
In the days of Jesus, the Messiah was expected by the Jews. He was to
be the one who would restore the kingdom of Israel to its former
glory, establish a reign of justice peace and prosperity that would be
a wonder to the world, and usher in a golden age There is no doubt
that Jesus considered himself the expected Messiah, and his followers
Jesus considered that the time was at hand for his mission to be
accomplished, for all to be fulfilled. But the nature of the reign he
sought to bring about was very different from what was expected. It
was a kingdom of the spirit. No doubt many were disappointed at this.
Jesus more than half expected uncomprehension but he was still
discouraged with it.
At first Jesus intended his message primarily for the Jews, in his
role of Messiah. He saw that only a few comprehended and that
sometimes Gentiles would come to him showing equally good
comprehension, and he decided that his message was for all who would
His message was in the tradition of the prophets and he spoke as a
prophet of Israel. Obey the laws of God not merely outwardly, but more
important, inwardly. As you do this you become a more worthy subject
of the kingdom of God. You must live in this world. Do not waste time
resisting the temporal power of the conqueror (as Isaiah and Jeremiah
also warned), but build within Caesar's reign the new kingdom. Adjust
insofar as necessary to the way of the world, but in the word of God,
As those who have realized the inner kingdom associate with one
another, in the spirit of love and justice, the new reign will shine
forth and become manifest. Then, when God's judgment is visited upon
the earth and nations must reap the harvest of their wickedness, and
collapse in ruin then will that bright spiritual kingdom be on hand as
a light and an example to the world. Thus the kingdom that Jesus stood
for was by no means a retreat from the world, but was indeed that
which should triumph.
But woe to those who know the word and harden their hearts.
In that day it shall go worse with them than with those who knew not.
For to whom much is given much is expected. As with the prophets of
Israel, Jesus is at his most fiery when inveighing against those who
should know better. His oration against the Pharisees (Matt. 23) could
be a page from Jeremiah or Isaiah.
Does love replace justice? Jesus asked people to be forgiving. He
urged his listeners not to judge others. As was pointed out by the
author of Proverbs, there are extenuating circumstances. We do not
always know why a man acts as he does. Loving-kindness and forgiveness
will do more to set him on the right path than punishment. "Judgment
is mine, saith the Lord."
And as for the judgment of God, Jesus left no doubt that justice
would be fulfilled. When speaking of the retribution of God, he was
merciless (Matt. 24 and Mark 13). The high and mighty would be laid
low. The oppressors and the hypocrites and the unjust and the wicked -
"thou shalt not go out thence until thou pay the very last mite"
(Luke 12). Justice shall be fulfilled.
The idea of justice-from its straightforward exposition by Moses to
its sublime enrichment by Jesus-the idea of equity between man and man
under God -- is so concentrated upon, and labored over, through out
the Bible that it is sometimes difficult to see how that book can be
so revered with its essential theme so neglected. Let us hope that it
will not be long before the supreme message of the Bible will be
grasped by a generation that is not a "perverse generation."