Social Justice in the Minor Prophets, Part 4: The Justice of God

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Social Justice in the Minor Prophets, Part 4: The Justice of God

If there ever was a need for the people of God to understand the justice of God, it would be during a time of both renewal and of judgment. Between the fall of the Northern Kingdom, Israel (ca. 722 B. C.) and the Southern Kingdom, Judah (ca. 586 B. C.), two prophets emerge on the scene during a time of national renewal and the coming judgment. During the reign of one of Judah’s most faithful kings, Josiah, the Torah had been found while the Temple was being repaired, spiritual reforms were enacted, and a purge of the idols in land commenced.[1] Yet, harbingers of God’s judgment were on the horizon as the national response to Josiah’s reforms lacked faithfulness worthy of God’s gracious blessings. This is informative for today’s notions of justice.

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Typically, social justice in the religious realm is understood primarily in political terms when something is wrong, but what the prophets Zephaniah and Habakkuk teach us is that the justice of God not only addresses the wrongs among people but is also the paradigm for establishing the ‘right’ in society. Finding the Torah, which proclaims the just character and ways of God, meant that His people would have in their possession the divinely inspired revelation of God’s justice the people were to live by.

In other words, it was because of who God revealed Himself as that revival and reformation were possible. When the people of God tried to establish their own ethic and social apparatus outside the revelation of God’s character, idolatry was always sure to follow.[2] This may seem like a strange observation, but it is possible to make an idol out of one’s own private morality. This is precisely why caution is necessary when ascribing one’s own political view as reflecting a “biblical” notion of justice. The prophet Zephaniah places the issue of the justice of God front and center for our thinking and action about social justice.

Zephaniah and the “Justice of God” in Social “Justice”

In three chapters of an overlooked book in the current mood about justice, the prophet Zephaniah expounds on the justice of God as the foundation and precursor to true restorative social justice. The prophet couches his call for repentance from idolatry and spiritualism, and renewal of a practical faith in the context of the “Day of the LORD” (1:2–2:3). This is significant because he uses the universal flood as the “theological backdrop” to frame his initial call for repentance and renewal (1:2–3).

One wonders why a call for social justice would be framed this way. Would you or I preach about the flood today if we were calling the world (I’ll explain this below) to faithfulness to God’s holy lifestyle ethic in a social context? Zechariah did! Why? Like other prophets,[3] Zephaniah was committed to connecting what happens on earth with what is happening in and will happen from heaven. There are several reasons why the flood provides an apt background for our thinking about the justice of God.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Day of the Lord

  1. Is its Universality—“all flesh from the “face of the ground” are held culpable before the divine tribunal.[4]
  2. The notion of a Faithful Remnant is part of God’s restoration project.[5]
  3. The eventual Reversal of Sin in Creation must be addressed, rather than simply putting a political band-aid on a sinful and sin-filled society.[6]
  4. The Cause of the Flood is described as moral “corruption” and “violence” according to God’s standard of righteousness.[7]
  5. A New Creation is the only substantive cure-all for mankind’s woes. When God brings an end to the flood, there are several parallels to the original creation account:[8]

a. God sends a wind to push back the waters and uncover the dry land.[9]

b. Upon coming forth from the protective hand of God, God tells Noah to be fruitful and multiply”[10]

c. God commands Noah concerning what to eat.[11]

d. Noah plants a vineyard.[12]

Finally, God establishes His sovereignty in a New Covenant. Noah emerges from the ark, and God makes a renewed covenant with him, an “everlasting covenant” that defines His sovereign control over creation as King.[13]

RELATED ARTICLE: Metamoderism and it’s Impending Challenge to Christianity

Imagine if the church proclaimed a message of social justice in harmony with this beautiful biblical picture! Yet, there are two more pictures of the justice of God as a moral impetus for social justice that demands our attention.

Another judgment background from Genesis frames how God will deal with the nations. Rather than use legal means to judge the wicked, God uses Sodom and Gomorrah as a way for His people to understand how the wicked, unjust peoples of the world will be held accountable.

Because legal systems vary in the world today, it would border on national–centrism to purport that one’s own legal system is “God’s way” of mitigating His justice in the world. The problem is that, as we have noted, God’s call for revival and renewal is in accordance with His standard of righteousness and despite the notions of the United States as a “Christian nation” the legal system does not reflect God’s character, restorative aims, or character justification that true biblical justice points to.

In other words, Zephaniah’s proclamation of the judgment of the nations, in terms of God’s act of judgment in Genesis 18–19, assesses the moral travesties in terms of God’s final act of judgment, which no modern civic system has a claim to.

This is important because, in the United States, religious political conservatives highlight issues dealing with ‘moral individual choices,’ while religious political liberals highlight issues dealing with ‘moral social ills.’ While both views demand attention, neither ascribes to a holistic view of the importance of both in the context of cosmic judgment.

Aside from this, other nations struggle with other dilemmas and their perspective demands the same attention, lest we (people in America) assume God only cares about or deals with the issues germane to western society, which is a sign of hubris, considering the majority of earth’s population is found in non-western continents (South America, Africa, and Asia).

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Finally, in the last notion of the justice of God which should inform how we think about social justice today, Zephaniah expresses in terms of cosmic renewal (3:9). In the judgment of the nations, God dispersed the people and confused their language.[14] God’s promise of renewal, which was to serve as an impetus for social action, is framed in a way that the ultimate goal is to bring His people together (i.e. “purified language”).

Sadly, many notions of social justice do not have this as the goal, primarily because sinful worldviews that define reality in hierarchical terms will admit no “mixing” of every nation, language, tribe, and people.[15] Thus, in America, notions of social justice “fight” against the notion of a hierarchical structure of civic and social life.

While this has its merits, it will never bring about the type of justice God is working for in His heavenly sanctuary for the whole world. In modern times, laws can define punishments for immoral and unethical actions but can never get the root of the problem: the motives, dispositions, and desires that are exploited in acts of injustice. So, what we end up with is a survivor’s approach to assuage the impact of injustice in the world. This is not what God had in mind for His people.

Habakkuk and the ‘Injustice’ of the Justice of God

I mentioned last week that the prophet Micah expressed that part of God’s response to injustice among His people was to bring judgment from the nations upon them. Habakkuk looks at this act from a different perspective. He first acknowledges that “violence” “iniquity” and “wrong” (i. e. social injustice) are operative among God’s people.

This is important because too often the church is guilty of downplaying the inequities it participates in (often by proxy). Without becoming morose or extremely critical of the church, true repentance must be preceded by an honest evaluation of our condition in the world.[16] Ellen White affirms the need to honestly look at ourselves and the ways we work at cross purposes to what God is doing by condemning PRIDE.

RELATED ARTICLE: Habakkuk –Questionings of Faith

God does not regard all sins as of equal magnitude; there are degrees of guilt in His estimation, as well as in that of man; but…, no sin is small in the sight of God…God estimates all things as they really are. The drunkard is despised and is told that his sin will exclude him from heaven; while pride, selfishness, and covetousness too often go unrebuked…pride feels no need, and so it closes the heart against Christ and the infinite blessings He came to give. Steps to Christ, p. 30.

So, Habakkuk rightly calls upon God to bring judgment against His people’s social injustice (Hab. 1:2–4). However, the way God brings about that judgment (Babylon; 1:5–11) roused vehement protest from Habakkuk (1:12–2:1). Habakkuk’s issue was that the way God worked out His ‘justice’ made Habakkuk uncomfortable because it wasn’t according to his own sense of justice.

He basically blames the LORD of using an immoral, idolatrous nation to punish the wicked people of God. It is primarily in the books of Daniel and Revelation where the providential veil is drawn back, and a clearer view of theodicy (the justice of God) is given. But for the prophet of God, it seemed unconscionable that the Judge of all the earth would answer his prayer this way.

Amazingly, God responds with what in Christian history has become the linchpin of Protestant theology “the just shall live by faith.” God actually is subtly rebuking His servant. Habakkuk rightly asks God to hold the unjust accountable, which is a prayer we should pray as Christians. However, he wrongly assumed that God somehow was absolving the crimes and injustice of Babylon; He was not (2:6–20). The people of God must pray for God’s justice and trust that despite appearances, God is working out the counsels of His will. God promised Habakkuk that He would judge Babylon, but more importantly, His restorative agenda included all manifestations of injustice, be they among the ‘wicked’ nations or His ‘wicked’ people.

RELATED ARTICLE: Listening to Habakkuk

Jesus and the Justice of God

Historically, the line from these two prophets to Jesus’ proclamation of divine justice twists and turns but ends up at the same place God intended in His word that He spoke to these two men.

Matthew 25 is famous for the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Talents. It’s what follows that ties together the notion of trusting in God’s providence during a time of judgment (Habakkuk) and being a faithful servant in the light of God’s cosmic renewal (Zephaniah). Note how Jesus begins the final section of this chapter.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne (Matthew 25:31).

What follows is a description of a separation (sheep/goats). His final word of the justice of God in this world at his coming is based on the moral character of his faithful people, not their political ideology or social methodology, but on the use of what God entrusted to them and their trust in God in light of the delay of his coming.

Note the point that everybody slept (v. 5), the difference is their preparedness to do the work that waiting for the bridegroom entails. Again, the issue of delay is the focus on the Parable of the Talents (vv. 24–26). What is the outcome of the delay?

The issue that Zephaniah and Habakkuk address is one and the same as what Jesus addresses; the Lord is coming, but an unexpected development challenges faithfulness in the mission of selfless service to our fellow human beings. Jesus makes clear what that looks like in light of his return (feeding the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, helping the sick, visiting the prisoner). When the church sees that its mission as part of the justice of God, may God help us to live that out, because as Jesus said that’s what it is to know him which will lead to eternal life (v. 45–46).

Read the rest of Jerome’s series on Social Justice and the Minor Prophets

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Notes.

[1] 2 Kings 22–23.

[2] 1 Kings 12:25–33

[3] cf. Isaiah 24.

[4] Genesis 6:12; Zephaniah 1:2–3.

[5] Genesis 7:23; Zephaniah 2:7.

[6] Genesis 6:9–7:24; Zephaniah 1:14–16.

[7] Genesis 6:11, 13; Zephaniah 1:5–6, 9.

[8] cf. Zephaniah 3:9–20.

[9] Genesis 8:1, cf. Zephaniah 1:2.

[10] Genesis 8:17; 9:1; cf. Zephaniah 1:17, 28.

[11] Genesis 9:3, cf. Zephaniah 1:29-30; 2:16-17.

[12] Genesis 9:20; cf. Zephaniah 2:8.

[13] Genesis 9:16; Zephaniah 3:15.

[14] Genesis 11.

[15] Revelation 14:6–12.

[16] Revelation 3:14–16.

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Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.