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.

Jeremiah 22

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

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.

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24 thoughts on “Seven Passages on Social Justice (3)”

  1. ChrisB says:

    Too many read verse 3 and insert their own definition of justice. Thanks for pointing out that the text carries its own.

  2. Michael A says:

    Are we using the Matthew 25 definition of rob? Are we using the Matthew 5 definition of murder? The greatest injustice ever was committed on my behalf, and I can’t really turn justice into something manageable.

  3. Mr. History Book says:

    “Social justice” = “social gospel” = liberal fascism.

  4. Malin Friess says:

    Moving the definition of justice away from redistribution of wealth to a more biblical definition of justice (fairness and honesty) is a good thing.

  5. CT says:

    A timely article: Glenn Beck vs. social justice and the Catholic Church:

    http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&id=21159420-3048-741E-7761300524585116

    Does Kevin DeYoung stand with Glenn Beck?

  6. Dan S. says:

    “Christians who do not cheat, swindle, rob, murder, accept bribes, defraud, and hold back agreed upon wages are probably doing justice.”

    So according to DeYoung’s summary, it looks like we’re all pretty much good to go. I knew this passage had nothing to do with me.

    Now back those crystal clear proof texts on restless reformed stuff…

  7. Eric says:

    Consider the following excerpt from the Wikipedia definition of “social justice”:

    “Social justice is also a concept that some use to describe the movement towards a socially just world. In this context, social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality and involves a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution, policies aimed toward achieving that which developmental economists refer to as more equality of opportunity and equality of outcome than may currently exist in some societies or are available to some classes in a given society.”

    Nowhere, but nowhere, does the Bible promise equality of outcome or equate the concept of equality of outcome with justice. Neither does the Bible advocate or allow that the government or any authority should by law or coercion demand money or property from some so as to distribute to another for the purpose of establishing equality. Unfortunately, a segment of professing (and often vocal) Christians have bought into this conception of justice that is actually the opposite of biblical justice.

  8. Michael A says:

    I agree that nowhere is outcome equality promised. In fact, it seems that the rich have a much worse go of it.

  9. CT says:

    Eric,

    I’m not sure what you mean by “equality of outcome,” but what are your thoughts on equality of opportunity?

  10. Eric says:

    CT,

    The “equality of outcome” phrase comes from the wiki definition, so it is more probably a question of what they mean by the phrase. Taken at face value based on a straightforward application of the individual words in the phrase, I would understand the phrase to mean that that all persons end up at the same economic level. This understanding is bolstered by the additional phrases “income redistribution” and “property redistribution” used in the wiki definition.

    To me, the idea of equality of opportunity is much more biblical, but it also depends on how one defines “equality” and how one defines “opportunity”. It seems to me that there is plentiful biblical support for the idea that all persons should have legal equality (excluding criminals, etc.) in the context of pursuing economic gain. The question of social or practical equality is a harder concept to view clearly, in my mind. Take for instance a hypothetical situation where I marry a woman from a poor background, the daughter of a janitor with no particular means or influential position in a company. Against my situation take my hypothetical brother who marries a woman whose father is an economically successful businessman who owns an expanding company. Clearly my brother and I do not have social or practical equality of opportunity. I fail to find biblical support for the idea that I should somehow be provided equality of opportunity by government action or by moral compulsion.

    Of course, interplaying with this concept are numerous other factors, including historical legal inequities that no longer exist but may or do have lasting implications. So, to conclude this rudimentary thought on equality of opportunity, I would say that how the concept is defined and applied makes a great difference in how I react to what someone is trying to accomplish or defend. While I feel that legal equality of opportunity is a biblical concept, the water gets murky much faster if we try to extend a guarantee of equality of opportunity to all situations. I’ll never have the opportunities that some are afforded and some will never have the opportunities that I have been afforded. It’s for me to be happy with my lot in life and to seek to glorify God with the “talents” (with at that that entails) that he has given me.

  11. Eric says:

    CT,

    I forgot to ask, what are your thoughts on “equality of outcome” and “equality of opportunity”?

  12. CT says:

    Eric,

    You won’t find many liberal thinkers who endorse equality of outcome as you have characterized it, especially since there are usually ways to make everyone better off by allowing certain inequalities to persist.

    Equality of opportunity does, however, figure prominently in liberal conceptions of justice (and the same cannot really be said of liberatarian conceptions of justice).

    Equality of opportunity shows up in one of the most famous liberal proposals in John Rawls’ claims that “that every citizen should have a fair chance to attain the public offices and social positions” (at least whenever economic and social inequalities are attached to these offices/positions). But what is a “fair chance”? Well, each person is said to have a fair chance “when, in all parts of society, individuals have roughly the same prospects of…achievement for those similarly motivated and endowed.”

    So here’s a liberal position minus the caricature. How does it strike you?

  13. MJ Nienhuis says:

    Kevin,

    “Seven Passages” is also a play title that was written and performed at Calvin College to advocate acceptance of homosexuality – it is both sad and in-your-face that many are taken with false teaching and choosing tolerance over truth.

  14. Eric says:

    CT,

    First, as to “equality of outcome”, are you saying that the wiki definition of “social justice” formed by the “community” is then incorrect? According to you, what exactly does “equality of outcome” refer to in the definition.

    As to “equality of opportunity”, are you saying that I introduced a caricature or the wiki definition contains a caricature? If me, can you help me understand how I’ve introduced a caricature, as I’m not sure I follow you. Thanks.

  15. MJ Nienhuis says:

    Correction(?) – as i was falling to sleep last evening i’m thinking the Play given at Calvin College may have been “Eight Passages”. And i think this Play has been invited to play at other venues. ;)

  16. CT says:

    Eric,

    The problem isn’t so much with wiki definitions, or with your citation of them. If there’s a concern, it’s with the caricatures of liberal conceptions of justice which DeYoung and others are using as their targets. In reading these series of posts, one gets the impression that DeYoung is interacting with straw men.

  17. Eric says:

    CT,

    I’m not sure that I’m seeing any straw men erected by Kevin. The reason I pointed out the portion of the wiki definition is that it illustrates how the biblical idea of justice has been turned on its head. Wiki definitions are said to be formed by the “community” and thus represent a comment modern understanding of the term. When the definition contains phrases such as “equality of outcome”, “income redistribution”, and “property redistribution” it is very indicative of unbiblical thinking. You may say that liberal thinkers don’t endorse equality of outcome, but that concept seems to be reflected in the modern definition of social justice, a term most bandied about in liberal circles.

  18. CT says:

    “When the definition contains phrases such as ‘equality of outcome’, ‘income redistribution’, and ‘property redistribution’ it is very indicative of unbiblical thinking.”

    Eric, I wonder if you regard the year of Jubilee as unbiblical. Perhaps Leviticus 25 got inserted by liberal pagans of old? ;)

    As for “equality of outcome,” it is likely that a pursuit of greater equality of opportunity will lead to, as the wiki definition has it, “more…equality of outcome than may currently exist”. But, to object that “nowhere, but nowhere, does the Bible promise equality of outcome or equate the concept of equality of outcome with justice” (these are your words) is to object to a position that few (if any) informed people would take or do take. Likewise, when Kevin DeYoung criticizes “a certain view of the world where disparity in wealth is considered de facto injustice,” he is attacking a straw man.

  19. Daniel Esperanza says:

    In jeremiah 3:22, what does he mean and who was he talking to or about?

  20. Philip says:

    “Christians who do not cheat, swindle, rob, murder, accept bribes, defraud, and hold back agreed upon wages are probably doing justice.”

    Is this all it means? I would think, at the least, it should mean that Christians take steps to ensure that others do not cheat or swindle the poor. Any negative command in the Scriptures also includes a positive demand.

  21. Justin says:

    I’m on board with everything you say until the unsexy conclusion. I don’t think NOT doing harm is doing justice. I read Jeremiah 22 and your overall reflection to say that staying faithful to God’s mission is to DO justice, not merely avoid injustice. We have the obligation to act!

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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