Justice and peace

The first article in this series drew attention to the link, in both Old and New Testaments, between the words for ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’; the Scriptures also reveal a close connection between the words for ‘justice’ and ‘peace’. At times those terms are used interchangeably. Viewed in parallel to justice, peace is an active rather than a passive thing; peace is something to be pursued rather than something that simply happens. So, in Psalm 85:10, righteousness and peace kiss each other; they go hand-in-hand in the blessed life of God’s covenant people on earth, as they mirror the loyal love and faithfulness of the covenant God in heaven.(1)

In Isaiah 32:17, we learn that the work of righteousness will be peace,(2) which implies that peace is more than a resulting state of tranquillity. Rather, peace is a deep commitment to the ‘work’ of justice. Peace in action is the pursuit of wholeness (shalom) in community through rightly-ordered, just relationships, established on the bedrock of God’s unchanging standard of righteousness.

Peace and the kingdom

‘Wholeness in community’ is a legitimate definition of ‘shalom’ because the baseline for our understanding of God’s peace is our triune God Himself, eternally existing in the perfectly-ordered, supremely harmonious ‘community’ of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God’s kingdom is, then, an extension of the blessings of this divine community to God’s creation – to men and women who, according to the riches of God’s mercy, are called into fellowship with Him to experience and to express His shalom.

God’s covenants provide the framework of law and love in which relational shalom can be pursued and, indeed, guaranteed. This is why God’s covenant is sometimes characterised as a ‘covenant of peace’.(3) It is through the covenants that God promises His peace to His people,(4) whom He has gathered to Himself and set apart for His own glory – relational wholeness with God and with one another that proclaims the excellencies of God’s name.

The glory of God dwelling among His people, manifested in the glory cloud under the old covenant, is a confirmatory witness to the presence of divinely-ordained shalom.(5) That is why God’s house, the locus of the shekinah glory, is regarded as the focal point of God’s peace.(6) God’s kingdom, another term associated with His covenant, is the realm in which God’s peace is both enjoyed and pursued by His covenant people as they serve Him in His house. Peace, together with righteousness and joy, is the very substance of God’s kingdom,(7) a way of life that sacrifices individual preference for the edification of the community, making every effort to do what leads to peace.(8)

Justice and the kingdom

Given the overlap we have observed between peace and the work of justice, we should expect the themes of justice and God’s kingdom to be linked in the Scriptures. And, frequently, they are! There’s an interplay between the eschatological reality of God’s shalom and justice, to be enjoyed in their fullness in the millennial and then the eternal kingdom, and the current work of God’s holy people in giving expression to that reality in kingdom life today.

In Psalm 82, we are transported to the unseen realm, to the highest court of justice, to witness God judging the spiritual rulers to whom He had entrusted the administration of the nations. The reason for God’s scathing judgment upon them is their perversion of justice, their favouritism of the wicked and their neglect of the vulnerable in the kingdoms that had been entrusted to their care.(9) The abuse of power and the sad plight of the oppressed is a depressingly consistent theme throughout the kingdoms of human history right up to the present day. As Augustine observed: ‘Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?’(10)

The true God, who delights in exercising justice on earth, was zealous to reveal a better way and, to that end, He required a nation of His own special possession.

Indeed, it was for the sake of justice that, following the Babel event, God called Abraham and promised to make from him a nation – a nation and a kingdom unlike any other and through which all other nations on earth would be blessed.

God said:

“For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him”.(11)

God’s choice was for the purpose of working God’s justice in order that God’s blessings might come to the whole earth. That’s the defining concept of the holy nation.

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”(12) The work of justice, then, is not an optional extra for the people of God, but their essential priority. The pursuit of the kingdom, a commitment to experience the rule of God in a community life which both expresses God’s shalom within its borders and extends it to the nations, is bound up with a passion for righteousness and justice.

The proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom must be supported by the evidence of a people who hunger and thirst for justice in all their relationships, especially on behalf of the quartet of the vulnerable so dear to God’s heart: the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and the poor.(13)

Justice and the king

Historians tell us that in the ancient Near East, the concept of divine justice was inextricably linked to the edict of the king, since human kings were regarded either as divine or divinely appointed. Justice, for many in the ancient Near East, was inseparable from law, which was brought into effect by royal pronouncement. It isn’t hard to imagine how those invested with such power could abuse their position.

The witness of the Old Testament stands in contrast to the customs of the ancient Near East in that the measure of righteousness for Israel was not the word of the king but the word of God, spoken through His prophets. Nonetheless, Israel’s king would be central to the administration of justice among God’s people in accordance with God’s revealed standard of lawfulness.

A millennium after Abraham, the covenantal promise of blessing was refocused from the nation as a whole to one of the nation’s great kings, to Solomon, in particular.(14) Attributed to Solomon, Psalm 72 is a prayer for the king to be endowed with divine ability to judge righteously. The psalmist anticipates the blessings of prosperity and peace that flow from such a righteous rule, in which the oppressed are defended and the oppressor is crushed.

To some extent, the psalm may be descriptive of Solomon’s reign. For, following her investigation of Solomon’s splendour and glory, the Queen of Sheba praised Israel’s God, saying:

“Because of the LORD’S eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness”.(15)

Surely, though, the Psalmist looked forward, as indeed the prophets did, to one far greater than Solomon, “a King who will reign wisely and do what is right and just in the land”,(16) a King who would reign on David’s throne eternally, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.(17)

In this context, the title ‘Prince of Peace’(18) should perhaps be understood as the ‘Bringer of Justice’. Since the sceptre of His kingdom is a sceptre of justice,(19) there will be no end to the greatness of His kingdom and to the peace that accompanies the return of the King to this earth.(20)

The Lord Jesus Christ is the figure described in Isaiah 11:1-5, who will inaugurate His millennial kingdom, a just and peaceable kingdom in which the wolf will live with the lamb.(21) After that 1,000-year reign, the curse of sin will be fully and finally removed, death itself will be thrown into the lake of fire, and the restoration of God’s shalom will be complete.

Though the King has already ascended the throne, we long for the day when His enemies will be made a footstool for His feet, the brokenness of injustice will be done away with, and abiding peace will reign in righteousness.(22) In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.(23)

References: (1) Ps. 85:10-12; Mat. 6:10 (2) NASB (3) Num. 25:12; Eze. 34:25; 37:26 (4) Ps. 85:8; Ps. 29:11 (5) Ps. 85:8-9 (6) Hag. 2:7-9 (7) Rom. 14:17 (8) Rom. 14:19 (9) Ps. 82:2-4 (10) Augustine of Hippo. ‘The City of God’, chapter 4. (11) Gen. 18:19 ESV (12) Mat. 6:33 (13) Zec. 7:9-10 (14) Ps. 72:17 (15) 1 Kin. 10:9 (16) Jer. 23:5 (17) Is. 9:7 (18) Is. 9:6 (19) Ps. 45:6-7; 99:4; Heb. 1:8-9 (20) Is. 9:7 (21) Is. 11:6 (22) Is. 60:17 (23) 2 Pet. 3:13

Stephen Hickling, Birmingham, England

Bible quotations from NIV 2011 unless otherwise stated.