I didn’t grow up in a church tradition that talked about justice. In fact, I don’t recall a single sermon or song that addressed God’s heart for justice. As a child growing up in an evangelical congregation in Guatemala City, justice was what the Roman Catholics did. When I moved to the United States in the mid-1980s, justice was what the theological liberals did.
And while in my early adulthood I embraced the idea that justice mattered to God, it wasn’t until I began to study the Psalms that I discovered the centrality of justice to faithful Christian living. The Bible changed my mind, and it changed how I saw the world around me.
No True Faith Without Justice
The fact that injustices occur every day will be obvious to anyone who follows the news. Injustices happen to individuals, mar institutions, and befall entire people groups. The killing of George Floyd was a high-profile tipping point of sorts in our awareness of grievous injustice. But terrible injustices occur each day, in each community, far removed from the headlines.
For the psalmists, such a world is all too familiar, and they pray repeatedly for justice because they understand that a world full of broken humans and dark forces generates injustice everywhere and always. They also pray repeatedly for a just Judge to make things right.
When we look to the Psalms—which functioned as Jesus’s prayer book and have functioned for 2,000 years as the church’s official hymnbook, teaching Christians how to talk to God and hear from God—we discover that there is no true worship, faithful prayer, or genuine faith that neglects justice. No true account of God makes justice an afterthought to his redemptive work in the world.
This is decidedly good news for our fractured world.
What else might we discover if we looked to the Psalms for our understanding of justice? And how might such a vision for justice inform our practices of prayer and worship as a community?
1. There’s no generic idea of justice. There’s only God’s idea of justice.
Psalm 89:14 says, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” Psalm 111:7–8 adds, “The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.”
For the psalmist, it is not simply that God cares abstractly about the idea of justice; it is that God loves justice and does justice. Psalm 37:28 declares: “For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.” Psalm 99:4 proclaims: “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.”
On what basis do the psalmists make this claim? On the basis of God’s kingship. As king, he stands sovereign over all creation and sovereign over all nations. There is no place, therefore, that God’s justice should remain absent (Pss. 33:5–9; 97:6). Psalm 85:11 articulates this comprehensive vision: “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”
2. Justice isn’t only God’s business. It’s also what God commands the faithful to do in his name.
This is certainly the case with individuals in positions of power. Israel’s king prays this, for example, in Psalm 7:
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor! (Ps. 7:2, 4)
If any of us were tempted to believe that doing justice is only the business of folks in authority, the psalmists tell us otherwise: it’s all our business. Psalm 106:3 frames the work of justice in the language of a beatitude: “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!” Justice is what human beings get to do: “I will sing of steadfast love and justice!” (Ps. 101:1). “It is well with the man . . . who conducts his affairs with justice” (Ps. 112:5).
3. The psalms show us what justice looks like.
Justice maintains the right of the weak, and it rescues the needy (Ps. 82). It rejects the desire to take advantage of the vulnerable (Ps. 94). The just refuse to speak out of two sides of their mouth (Ps. 28). They aren’t bloodthirsty (Ps. 139), greedy (Ps. 10), or conniving (Ps. 94), and they don’t love violence (Ps. 11). Those who love justice actively reject all systems that oppress people (Ps. 58).
Who are the recipients of justice? All people alike require justice. But those who need it most, according to the psalms, are what philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff calls the “quartet of the vulnerable”: widows, orphans, poor, and resident aliens. In Israel, these four groups represented the most vulnerable members of society. Psalm 103 offers a blanket term for this quartet: the “oppressed.” For them the Lord works justice day and night (Ps. 103:6; Ps. 10:14–18).
Justice in Action
It’s a regrettable fact that in the church of my youth, I only heard emphasized the latter two parts of prophet Micah’s threefold call “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). But the psalmists, as much as Jesus, would have us embrace all three: mercy, humility, and justice.
How exactly are we to do this work of justice? Perhaps the following three suggestions might offer a starting point.
Personally, consider reading Psalm 113, Isaiah 61, and Luke 4, one after the other. Read them once a day for a whole week. Pay attention to how these passages are “talking to each other.” Pray that God would show you how you might do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the face of the difficult realities of injustice in our world.
As a small group, read and discuss one of these books: Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Tim Keller; The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby; or Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance by Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson. Prayerfully consider how the Lord might ask you to respond together practically.
As a congregation, invite someone to your community who exemplifies God’s concern for justice. Welcome their insights about how justice is both personal and communal, both individual and systemic. With the Spirit’s guidance, consider preparing a worship service of confession and repentance for ways you may have been explicitly or implicitly involved in cultures of injustice.
In the end, as the Psalter sees it, faithful prayer and worship require something of all who bear witness to the God of Jesus Christ, the Righteous King: doing justice. And in doing justice—however difficult or costly it may be—we testify in word and in deed to the Messiah who brings justice to victory.