Glancing up at the Old Bailey courthouse in London or at the top of many other judicial buildings in the western world, we may well see a statue representing justice. She is personified as a young, blindfolded woman holding a sword and scales. The image is derived from Egyptian, Greek and Roman concepts of justice, but they must in turn be founded upon the biblical revelation of God because He is the only … lawgiver and judge.(1) Since humanity is created in the image of God, all our passionate strivings after justice and (to a lesser extent) righteousness originate in Him. As God’s righteousness and justice are described as ‘high’ or ‘exalted’(2) it is fitting that lady justice should be physically positioned right where she is.

The firm foundation

She is usually shown standing on a book, representing the constitution of the particular country in which the courthouse is located. For Britain, the USA and many other nations, the constitutional foundation goes back to Magna Carta – ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice’(3) – but what do these terms actually mean? In both Hebrew and Greek the words ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ when applied to the character of God are often used together and sometimes translated interchangeably; their meanings, unlike in English, are closely connected. God’s nature and being are presented as always being righteous; therefore, all He does must be right and just. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne;(4) and righteous and upright is He.(5) In such verses, God’s righteousness and justice are often linked to other qualities of His indivisible character, such as mercy and truth – we will return to these later.

Teasing the Hebrew expressions apart, the word used for the righteousness of God is often closely associated with the word ‘upright’(6) or straight. So God’s righteousness is clearly an expression of His absolute holiness and moral rectitude; He acts consistently in accordance with His own holy character, always keeping His promises.(7) While it’s arguable whether any country’s constitution is entirely morally righteous, God sets the absolute standard of what righteousness is; furthermore, in everything that God does He acts righteously.(8) So while righteous is what God is, justice is at the basis of what He does. Unlike many human judges, He always acts equitably, showing no partiality or corruption, caring for the solitary and needy.(9) God’s concern to demonstrate to Abraham that He exercised justice fairly and equitably in the cases of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Lot and his family(10) is an object lesson in the way He acts in a just and righteous way.

Whereas modern society tends to exalt justice as a public good and all too often deprecates righteousness as a purely personal matter, in God’s holy character the two are perfectly united and balanced with all His other divine attributes. I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight.(11) So while human attitudes to what is right may diverge from God’s unchanging standards and humanity’s urgent cries for justice seem increasingly to go unanswered in this world, those who delight in the Lord have a sure and firm foundation upon which to base their own standards and understanding of God’s character.

A passion for righteousness, justice and mercy

Lady justice’s blindfold and her set of scales emphasize impartiality and the careful weighing of evidence as key factors in administering human justice. These are indeed high and worthy principles that should underlie all our judicial systems; God is clear about His hatred of injustice and judicial oppression, corruption and bias – for the judgment is God’s.(12) Hate evil, love good; establish justice in the gate, He states through the prophet Amos at a particularly dire time in Israel’s history. Let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.(13) While good human jurisprudence emphasizes judges conducting themselves objectively and dispassionately, God reveals Himself quite otherwise. He is absolutely passionate about righteousness, justice and equity(14) because these qualities are central to His own holy nature. The psalms portray God as a just judge who is angry with the wicked every day. Sin personally affronts Him and He manifests a deeply-felt indignation about injustice.(15)

Furthermore, God needs no probing of the evidence to get at the truth, for all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.(16) Sobering words indeed, as everyone is weighed in the scales of God’s judgement and the verdict is clear – there is none righteous, no not one … all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.(17) How can God come to this conclusion – that, despite our best endeavours, the scales of divine justice are so weighted against us? The apostle Paul in the first three chapters of the letter to the Romans elaborates on the answer to this vital question. We frail humans prefer to deal in relative terms, measuring our worth and achievements against others. But in the light of God’s righteous character and absolute holiness everyone falls short of His standards which, like His character, are absolute. He Himself is the ultimate standard of what is right, and in Him there is no unrighteousness.(18)

Against this dark background comes the blinding light of the Gospel – in it the righteousness of God is revealed.(19) Romans 3 verses 21 to 26 transport us to a dramatic courtroom scene where the only lawgiver and judge(20) reveals His righteousness in a cosmic act of both judgment and salvation. The God who is passionate about justice is also plenteous in mercy and grace – the LORD will wait, that He may be gracious to you … that He may have mercy on you. For the Lord is a God of justice.(21) So without in any way compromising His righteousness – in fact, to demonstrate it – God poured out the full measure of His righteous anger on His beloved Son. Justice was fully satisfied, and through that sacrifice God’s grace and mercy as the Justifier of repentant sinners was revealed in all its majesty – justified freely by the grace of a just God and made righteous in His Son.(22)

The sword of justice

Lady justice’s sword represents punishment; this is an important aspect too of God’s revelation of Himself as the righteous judge. In most modern systems of justice, the principle of punishment or retribution has become tempered with more liberal concepts of reform or rehabilitation of the guilty party. This was not so in ancient times. The Roman Emperor Justinian (482-565) said: “Justice is the constant and perpetual wish to give everyone his due.” If this were even partially true of a Roman Emperor’s concept of justice, it is completely true in relation to God’s attitude towards sinners. For those who wilfully reject Him there is nothing to look forward to other than God’s retribution – the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.(23) The basis upon which judgment will be dispensed is to give everyone his or her due – the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father…and…He will reward each according to his works.(24) This is a terrible prospect given God’s verdict that all have sinned, and should energize our efforts to proclaim the forbearing love of God to a sinful world.

We may prefer to think of God as a God of love which He certainly is, so how can we square this with His judgment of sinners as something which is good and righteous?(25) The fact is that the Bible has a great deal to say about judgment and punishment. The Lord Jesus, ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead,(26) spoke frequently about present and future judgment during His earthly ministry because it is such an important aspect of God’s revealed character. Could any reasonable person really believe that the great criminals of history – the Stalins or the Pol Pots – will escape accountability to God for their crimes? But God, as we have seen, is holy and righteous and His wrath must therefore be revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men(27) without exception. A God who made no distinction between right and wrong would not be righteous by His own definition, and failure to judge the world would indicate moral indifference. God cannot be other than true to His own revealed character. Abraham long ago asked shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?(28) God demonstrated to him then that He would not act unjustly by destroying the righteous along with the wicked. History is moving inexorably towards the day when that question will be authoritatively answered on a global scale, leaving no grounds for appeal.

For He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth.
He shall judge the world with righteousness,
And the peoples with His truth.
(29)

References: (1) Jas. 4:12 RV (2) e.g. Ps. 36:6; Is. 5:16 (3) Magna Carta 1215, clause 40 (4) Ps. 89:14 (5) Deut. 32:4 (6) e.g. Ps. 92:15 (7) Neh. 9:7-8 (8) Ps. 145:17 (9) Deut. 10:17-19 (10) Gen. 18:16-33; 19:15-29 (11) Jer. 9:24 (12) Deut. 1:17; see also Zech. 7:8-10; Lev. 19:35 (13) Amos 5:15, 24 (14) See Ps. 11:4-7; Is. 61:8; Heb. 1:9 (15) Ps. 7:11; 82:1-4 (16) Heb. 4:13 (17) Rom. 3:10, 23 (18) Deut. 32:4 (19) Rom. 1:17 (20) Jas. 4:12 RV (21) Is. 30:18 (22) 2 Cor. 5:21 (23) Rom. 2:5 (24) Mat. 16:27 (25) Addressing the Athenians, Paul spoke of the day when God will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained (Acts 17: 31) (26) Acts 10:42 (27) Rom. 1:18 (28) Gen. 18:25 (29) Ps. 96:13

David Viles, Hayes, England

All quotations from NKJV unless stated otherwise