God cares about people, and because we live in a world of sin, his care extends to advocating justice. However, one of the most misunderstood and misapplied aspects of theology in the Hebrew Bible (HB; what Christians call the Old Testament) is social justice. It has been so politicized in North America that no longer is the Bible central to our understanding (even though in many Evangelical circles they think it is). Also problematic is that (for Adventists) the writings of Ellen White can be used biasedly and out of context to justify the political views people have on social justice.
In two previous articles, I have tried to set the table so to speak on reading the Prophets responsibly. The goal of this series on the Minor Prophets and Social Justice is to get a sense of God’s heart and Word on the matter in the time of the people of God when He was ruling over them through a Davidic covenant king (ca. 900–585 B. C.).
That distinction is crucial because it suggests that it is not the final word on the matter but has a definitive trajectory of a more concentrated effort of reconciling the world to God through holy living (i. e. biblical social justice). What that means is that all that is said here must go through the prism of the New Testament writings and the ways they appealed to the HB to make that trajectory relevant for those who would hear their message and apply it, as the Second Coming of Christ hastens.
Related Article: Sitting with the Sages: Justice, Ethics, and Adventism (Part 1)
Biblical Definition of Social Justice in the Prophets
Anyone who reads the writings of Plato will soon get a sense that often the main protagonist, Socrates, had a penchant for establishing correct definitions because in his view wrong definitions cause wrong ideas and they have consequences. This is no less true of the Bible and even more critical because right now in America it is clear that political ideology, demographics, and personal philosophies are influencing how social justice is being defined in the church.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about those subjects, only that we need to be clear how the Bible teaches us to deal with those issues. The fact that we fail to see that and fail to admit the role those influences play in our lives is why the needle has moved so little on the odometer of actual biblical social justice in practice among us together as the people of God.
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When the Prophets proclaimed the injustices that were occurring it was clear that they had a reference point for defining injustice and the same is true of their calls for biblical social justice. It was the “Word of the LORD that came to them” (cf. Ezek 7:1; 12:1, 21) it was not their own ideas and feelings. In fact, Ezekiel and Jeremiah go to great lengths to show the people that their feelings and personal ideas do not equate to God’s Word or God’s perspective on matters of right and wrong and what life should look like (Jer 2:13; 12:5–17; Ezek 13).
The irony is that often times there were political factions, geographical factors, and cultural influences from the surrounding nations that infected how these issues were defined among the people of God (Amos 7:10–16; Mic 3:9–11). Sadly, as a church, we have not paid attention to those problematic areas that the prophets addressed in the time they ministered, and it has caused great confusion concerning how we should ‘apply’ their message today.
Related Article: Toward An Adventist Theology of Social Justice
The reference point for the prophet’s understanding of Justice is first the Torah (the word of God expressed in Genesis to Deuteronomy). From this foundational revelation of God comes a wide range of words and concepts that carry a significant impact on the nature of injustice as understood by the prophets.
First, the concept of Justice has at least 20 conceptual words that occur within the dynamic of Israel’s daily life. What these words show us is that biblical social justice was more than just an idea of a more ‘perfect union.’ It occurred within a system that included a legal system of personnel (judges, the defendant, the accuser, avenger, witness); problems (lawsuits, misdeeds, inequity, perversion of right, disputes); ethical concepts (righteousness, innocence, guilt) and goals (compensation, restoration, equity).
With that said, if we do not understand how these all factor into the nature of social justice in the Prophets, we will inevitably misuse God’s Word for our own purposes that may have nothing to do with what God is doing in the world or even ignore how they shape our understanding of what God is doing in the world.
Related Article: 5 Reasons Adventists Stink at Social Justice
The second reference point is divine revelation and inspiration. The prophets were given access to the thoughts, motives, and feelings of people (Jer 5:24; Zeph 1:12). While we can hold people’s actions up to scrutiny, because we have little to no access to the inner workings of people’s hearts, it is difficult for us to ascribe ‘hatred’ or some other emotion or feeling to people.
This is a crucial point because the secular mind today tries to guilt/shame people into their view of ‘social justice’ because they don’t have a bedrock of moral absolutes grounded in a higher power who can and will hold people accountable for their actions. On the other hand, because the church’s witness is so tempered in this country, Christians often try to use the power of the state to legislate its view of social justice.
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Christians often accuse unbelievers, non-believers, and agnostics of radical rebellion in their hearts. The problem with this approach to social justice is that we cannot measure the heart of another from our own vantage point (John 7:24). In fact, we (Christians) may be the reason why non-Christians refuse to come to Christ. Our moral malaise and the inconsistent faithful witness may prove a stumbling to others (cf. Ezek 14:3–7; 44:12).
So, a tentative definition would include “the practice of revealing the lordship and love of God in our actions towards others in a covenant community wherein we will be held morally accountable for our actions according to the revealed will of God.” I intentionally left out any political wording because I believe the NT writings have to be included in the conversation to have a true, holistic, view on the topic and modern political lingo is ideologically fraught with bias, prejudice, and moral myopia. Here we are just looking at the Minor Prophets.
Related Article: Sitting with the Sages: Justice, Ethics and Adventism (Part 2)
Aspects of Social Justice in the Prophets
Covenant and Social Justice
First, and foremost social justice in the Bible is called “social” because it involves the community of faith who have accepted God as their king and made a covenant with Him that they would abide by his moral imperatives in how to relate to each other and the wider world (Jer 11:1–9).
Second, the notion of justice is in harmony with the character of God. Thus any definition of justice without this crucial aspect is not justice at all from a biblical perspective. So, when the prophets called out the injustice of the people, it was in terms of a defined covenant (relationship with God and fellow believers mediated by the Word of God) and in harmony with God’s character of love, holiness, and moral uprightness. They were not just pointing out problems that were solely pertinent to their own life.
In other words, we do not get the sense that Amos was negatively affected by the actions of the Northern Kingdom of Israel because he was resident of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, yet that did not stop him from following God’s leading and addressing the Northern Kingdom of Israel. This is why biblical social justice was covenantal rather than personal. Otherwise, Amos could have refused to engage his fellow Israelites because he was not personally distressed by their actions.
We see this man of faith with a deep sense of God’s love for righteousness and hate for sin and injustice lifting up biblical social justice before the people. Note that his indictments included indictments against the nations surrounding him (Amos 1:1–2:1–3). So, the belief that that the church has nothing to say to the world about injustice is not biblical.
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Judgment and Social Justice
Within that covenant, there was a clear indication of blessings and curses (judgments) that resulted from faithfulness or unfaithfulness to God’s call to selfless covenant love (Lev 26; Duet 28). For example, the prophet Amos gives a litany of covenant curses coming to the Northern Kingdom of Israel because of their social injustice toward others in the covenant community (Amos 4:6–11).
The fulfillment of many of the oracles (messages) of judgment had a local application (i. e. the people suffered material calamity, they were defeated in battle, and they were taken captive into exile). But there was also an eschatological aspect to some of the prophecies about judgment (Amos 9:11–5; cf. Isa 24–27).
Sometimes both are mixed together, and it’s difficult to note the difference (Zeph 1:7–18), making the point that justice is not solely a temporal phenomenon. This is another key principle about social justice; justice in this world is part of the final judgment in the next, and if it isn’t clear to people from our attempt to live out these principles that we are seeking justice in connection with God’s ultimate and cosmic acts of justice, then we are not living out biblical social justice.
Related Article: Social Justice, A Christian Duty?
Kingship and Social Justice
While social justice in general points to the Lordship of God, in the prophets in was particularly connected with the Davidic kingship, with a particular justice system. The way the prophets functioned in this system is crucial to understand the prophetic voice in the world. There were what can be called institutional (professional) prophets and non-institutional prophets. Interestingly, there was usually one of each in every generation. Isaiah was of royal origin, and he had ease of access to the king (Isa 7–8).
During the same period the prophet, Micah ministered and was not a court prophet. While Jeremiah was in Jerusalem prophesying in the court, Ezekiel was in Babylon ministering to the exiles. Compare also Hosea/Amos; Haggai & Zephaniah/Habbakuk. So, critique came from within and outside the apparatus of the state. Sometimes the indictment landed at the feet of the kings because they were to reflect God’s leadership regarding the treatment of the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Godly leadership is held accountable for how it represents God to the world regarding justice, equity, giving voice to the voiceless (cf. Hosea 4:1–6).
And whenever the people of God tried to trade in their responsibility of holy living in the community as their mission in favor of power politics, they were condemned (Hosea 7:11–16). The modern application of so-called social justice rarely pays attention to this fact.
Community and Social Justice
The last aspect addressed here is what it means to belong to a community of faith striving for biblical social justice. The Prophets make it clear that a whole and holy community is one that strives for cohesion in care for others. The notion of the haves and have-nots drew the sharpest criticism not because it’s wrong for differences in socio-economic status, but because the haves generally participated in a system that was set up to protect their wealth at the expense of the poor (Amos 5:10–13).
Biblical social justice takes account for how a system is generated and sustained that banks on keeping disparities in the socio-economic realm for personal gain. I often hear people use the statement in Deuteronomy 15:11:
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land.”
As if that was a mandate to be indifferent to the poor. Ironically, the next sentence is rarely appealed to as a motive clause for the responsibility of the wealthy,
“Therefore, I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”
I suspect that if the prophets were alive today among us, their message would not be that different. Thankfully, as a community, we have the gift of a modern prophet, Ellen White who has much to say on the subject.
Related Article: Living a Life of Social Justice
Reading the Prophets: Moving Toward the Messiah
For the Prophets, they were looking toward the first coming of the Messiah (Joel 2:23; Hosea 3:4–5; Amos 9:11–15; Micah 2:12–13; 5:1–4). Amazingly, that expectation didn’t encourage them to be indifferent to injustice by saying “When the Messiah comes, he will make all things right.” The Messiah’s approach was the very impetus for their calls to biblical social justice.
This is a lesson we are long in learning. The advent of the Messiah should not create a feeling of spiritual superiority based on intellectual attainment. It should burn deep in our hearts and minds that we should do everything we can to make it clear what the Messiah’s soon coming does in us that we should care so much about His justice. That’s what stirred the Prophets, and I pray that is what stirs us. Next time we will look at how the “Day of the Lord” impacted moral action against injustice and for biblical social justice.
 J. David Pleins, Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 100–101.