July 3, 2005

JUSTICE FOR ALL

He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice.  Psalm 9:8

“Justice for all” is a powerful political motto. And it’s not just a motto; it’s an ideal and a longing for many people in many nations. The ideal of “justice for all” seeks for everybody—rich or poor, powerful or weak, famous or unknown—to receive equal protection, to be treated fairly, and to be judged by the same standard.

But is justice for all really possible? It sounds great, but how can there be justice for all when many people around the world live under corrupt politicians who are more concerned with power politics and enriching themselves than with justice? How can there be justice for all when even countries with free elections and many good laws can’t provide justice for everyone? Even in the best countries, rich and powerful people have more clout in public affairs than poor people do. Even in a legal system aimed at justice, crooks often get away with crimes, while innocent people suffer.  Justice for all is a worthy goal and a noble motto, but is it a real possibility? No government or judicial system in any human culture has ever provided justice for all. However, despite that gloomy record, justice for all is still a possibility. In fact, it’s not just a faint possibility; it is an unstoppable reality.

Justice for all is an absolute certainty because it depends not on human government or human juries and judges but on divine government and on the divine Judge, Jesus Christ. God’s justice gets the final word for every person and every nation. In Psalm 9 the Bible says, “The Lord reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice” (9:7-8). Throughout Psalm 9, and all through the Bible, justice for all is a theme that rings out again and again. Let’s consider four main points. First, justice for all is guaranteed by God’s power. Second, justice for all is rooted in God’s character. Third, justice for all is accomplished in God’s time. Fourth, justice for all is good news for some and bad news for others.

Guaranteed by God’s Power

Let’s begin by considering God’s power. We’re tempted to think that justice is good but not strong—that it’s a noble ideal but unable to make sure the right side prevails and that everyone gets the right reward or punishment. But such thinking ignores the power of God. “The Lord reigns forever,” declares Psalm 9. The all-powerful God is on the throne, so we may be sure that there will be justice for all.

Nothing lies outside God’s power. The Lord is present in all places at all times, providing energy and life and direction for all things. Someone wrote a little rhyme which said:

He was just a little boy, on a week’s first day.
He was wandering home from Sunday School, and dawdling on the way.
He scuffed his shoes into the grass; he found a caterpillar.
He found a fluffy milkweed pod, and blew out all the “filler”.

A bird’s nest in a tree overhead, so wisely placed on high,
Was just another wonder that caught his eager eye.
A neighbor watched his zigzag course, and hailed him from the lawn,
Asked him where he’d been that day and what was going on.

“I’ve been to Bible School,” he said and turned a piece of sod.
He picked up a wiggly worm replying, “I’ve learned a lot of God.”
“Hmm … very fine way,” the neighbor said, “for a boy to spend his time.”
“If you’ll tell me where God is, I’ll give you a brand new dime.”

Quick as a flash the answer came! Nor were his accents faint.
“I’ll give you a dollar, Mister, if you can tell me where God ain’t.”

That’s not great poetry, but it makes a great point. God is above us, below us, all around us—and it’s foolish to think there’s anyplace “where God ain’t,” any earthworm or galaxy outside the scope of his power, any event or circumstance beyond his control, any person or nation beyond the reach of his justice. If the all-knowing, everywhere-present, all-powerful God wants justice for all, then there will be justice for all.

God’s power means that justice will always prevail in the end, and recognition of God’s power is the foundation on which nations can begin to work for just laws and equal rights for all people. The opening statement of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms declares, “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” The American Pledge of Allegiance, before speaking of liberty and justice for all, says that the nation is “under God.” Atheists might like to remove any mention of God from public life, but belief in God has historically played a vital role in limiting government and establishing the rights and freedoms of citizens.

There’s danger when people with political aims talk of God. They may follow their own ideas and then talk as though God is on their side. It’s dangerous to assume that every politician or document that mentions God is following God’s commands.

But it’s even more dangerous when people with political aims never talk of God, or when they even speak against God. When the supremacy of God is ignored or denied, political leaders almost inevitably claim supremacy for themselves. Their political goals become the supreme standard for everything. They feel free to anything they wish, no matter what standards they violate, no matter how many people they destroy. People may sometimes do evil while speaking of God, but they do even more evil when they dismiss God.

The American Revolution, though it wasn’t perfect, involved people who believed that God is on the throne, and it produced many good results. The French Revolution of a few years later, on the other hand, rejected God, and it resulted in a horrendous Reign of Terror that eventually gave way to Napoleon’s military dictatorship. The Russian Revolution and other atheistic revolutions of the 1900s murdered millions because their only gods were political programs and power-hungry leaders. Rulers who forget that they are “under God” easily become the most vile and violent tyrants. Nations that acknowledge God are far from perfect, but they are less likely to assume that government may dispose of human life and human rights.]

The American Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, appeals to “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and insists that human dignity and human rights are given by God, not by government. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” says the Declaration, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Because basic human rights come from God and not from government, no human government can justly take away what God has given. No government is a law to itself, answerable to nobody. Government must serve people’s welfare and must answer to God. Nations that recognize this can work harder for justice than those nations which refuse to recognize this.

Even nations that ignore God’s power and purposes are still somehow used by God’s power to accomplish his purposes, and the end result will be a display of God’s justice for all. According to the Bible, when a nation becomes powerful, it may be a tool or weapon in God’s hand to accomplish his justice. But the nation itself may not care about justice and may think to itself that its own strength has made it the superpower it is. This, God says, is like an axe bragging that it is higher than the person swinging it, or like a saw boasting it is stronger than the one using it, or like a club saying it’s in charge of the hand that holds the club. God can use a nation to carry out justice against other nations, but once he has done that, he can also carry out justice against the cruelty and arrogance of the nation he has used as his weapon (Isaiah 10:5-19). No superpower is so strong that it surpasses God. No nation can ignore his standards and get away with it.

The Bible says, “This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations. For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 14:26-27) “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations” (Psalm 33:10-11). God says of Jesus, “I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations… he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth” (Isaiah 42:1,4). Nothing can stop Jesus from carrying out justice for every nation and individual. Justice for all is guaranteed by God’s power.

Rooted in God’s Character

The next thing to know about justice is that it’s rooted in God’s own character. Psalm 9 says, “The Lord is known by his justice” (v. 16). The rest of the Bible echoes this: “The Lord is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18). “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.” (Psalm 89:14-15). “The King is mighty, he loves justice” (Psalm 99:4). Justice flows from who God is. What is right and fair is defined by the Lord’s own righteousness and fairness.

Some people don’t have the money or the influence to get a fair hearing. They suffer at the hands of those who are more powerful. But God himself promises to stand with the oppressed. He will rescue them and restore to them what has wrongly been taken from them.

Because God’s own character is just, he commands individuals and governments to do justice, and he says that our well-being is linked to such justice. “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29:7). “By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down” (Proverbs 29:4).

God cares about justice so much that he won’t listen to people who go to church and give large offerings and sing religious songs but treat other people unjustly. “Away with the noise of your songs!” thunders the Lord. “I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:23-24). Jesus told some religious people that they were right to give away exactly a tenth of their wealth, but that it would do them no good because they neglected the more important matters of God’s law: “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

God warns that he will punish those who ignore justice and wrong others: “I will come near you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord (Malachi 3:5).

God’s insistence on justice is one of the many great and admirable things about him. God’s character shines not only in his acts of kindness but also in his acts of punishment. When the Lord brings trouble to a wicked person or nation that deserves it, or when he sentences to hell people who persist in evil, he is displaying his own perfection. Some of us are quick to speak of God’s compassion but not of God’s punishment. However, the Bible makes it clear that God’s willingness to punish evil is a vital part of the Lord’s character. This doesn’t mean God doesn’t care about those whom he punishes, but it does mean that no matter how much he cares, he is still right to punish those who defy him and wrong other people.

During the American War for Independence, a certain Major Andre was an agent for the enemy. The American army captured him, but before he could be executed, George Washington had to sign his death warrant. Andre was an impressive person in many ways, and Washington had the power to prevent the major’s death. But Washington signed the death warrant, and Major Andre was executed.

Did this mean Washington had no compassion, no pity, no care or concern for the major? No, George Washington felt very reluctant to have Andre killed. His compassion for the major was “real and profound,” according to his biographer. But as commander-in-chief, Washington cared not only about Major Andre but about all the troops and people of the United States, whom the Major had endangered. Washington’s character included compassion but also included justice, wisdom, and determination to defeat the enemy. When Washington signed the death warrant of a man he cared about, it did not show a defect in Washington’s character; it showed his strength of character.

So too, it is not a defect in God’s character but strength of character that he executes justice and punishes evildoers. God’s compassion is enormous, but it does not cancel out his justice. The Lord doesn’t take pleasure in destroying the wicked, but he will indeed destroy them, because he does take pleasure in showing his justice and in defending those who have been wronged. Justice for all is rooted in God’s character.

Accomplished in God’s Time

A third point about God’s justice is that it is accomplished in God’s time. When God speaks in the Bible of his great power and just character, we may look around us and wonder how it’s possible for so much evil to go on unchecked and so much good to remain unrewarded and even persecuted. We might think that if God is all-powerful, he would be able to end injustice; and if he is just, he would want to do so. So if injustice continues, that would mean God is either less than just or less than all-powerful—right? Wrong. If injustice continues, it simply means that God’s timing doesn’t always match our timing. God will indeed bring justice for all, but in his own time and in his own way. In the Bible God says, “I choose the appointed time; it is I who judge uprightly” (Psalm 75:2).

God has an appointed time when he will display his justice fully. Meanwhile, his justice is not entirely on hold until the final judgment. Scripture says, “God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses wrath every day” (Psalm 7:11). Not only in the future but also right now, God judges and shows his anger against injustice. “Morning by morning he dispenses his justice, and every new day he does not fail” (Zephaniah 3:5). Already now the Lord judges wicked people by letting them slide into even worse evil and into many of its painful consequences. Already now the Lord rewards righteous people by make them more like Jesus and by giving a richer enjoyment of fellowship with him.

On a larger scale, God has his own timing in the affairs of nations, in which he shows his justice through the long-term unfolding of historical events. For example, God promised Abraham that his offspring, the Israelites, would possess the land of Canaan. But this wouldn’t happen right away. Why not? Because the Amorites, who lived in Canaan in Abraham’s time, had not yet become so evil that it was time to wipe them out completely. That time would not come for 400 years, God told Abraham. During those years, God’s people would go to Egypt and endure slavery. Their Egyptian masters would exploit them. The land God promised to Abraham’s offspring would remain in the hands of pagans who would become more disgusting and evil all the time. It might seem during those years that God was either unjust or powerless, but in fact God was waiting for the right time to judge the Egyptians, rescue the Israelites, and destroy the wicked Canaanites (Genesis 15:13-16).

Meanwhile, even as God waited, he was not idle. Even as the Israelites endured slavery, the God of justice was making them numerous and strong. Even as the Egyptians oppressed them, the God of justice was preparing plagues to punish them. Even as the Amorites of Canaan wallowed in wickedness, the God of justice was letting their evil grow until they would be ripe for destruction.

Things developed just as God had foretold, and 400 years later God did just as he had promised. God punished the Egyptian taskmasters, he liberated the Israelite slaves, and he destroyed the wicked Canaanites and gave the land to Israel.

It was belief in this God of justice that made President Abraham Lincoln see the American Civil War as the Lord’s punishment on both sides for the evil of slavery. The nation began with a compromise constitution that denied the full humanity and freedom of black slaves. The South had most of the slaves, but the North benefited economically from cheaper goods produced through slave labor and had little interest in stopping slavery. Reflecting on the dreadful war, Lincoln said, “The Almighty has his own purposes.” He added,

Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln saw God’s judgments not as a reason for one side in the war to judge the other but as an occasion for both sides to be humbled and to seek healing and justice for all. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Reading the Bible and studying history gives us a glimpse of God’s justice in dealing with individuals and nations. But only at the end of history will God’s justice be perfectly applied to each individual and made plainly visible to all. “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). God’s time for accomplishing justice for all, fully and completely, is at Jesus’ second coming.

Good News and Bad News

Justice for all means good news for some and bad news for others. Psalm 9:16-18 says, “The Lord is known by his justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands. The wicked return to the grave, all the nations that forget God. But the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted ever perish” (vv. 16-18). Whether that’s good news or bad news depends on who you are. “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers” (Proverbs 21:15).

God will make sure that those who trust him and do right will be rewarded. “God is not unjust,” says the Bible; “he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (Hebrews 6:10).  God will also make sure to punish those who oppose him and persist in being unjust toward others. “God is just,” the Bible tells Jesus’ followers. “He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-7). God’s justice means heaven for God’s people and hell for those who oppose God’s cause and mistreat God’s people.

It’s not too late for bad news to become good news for you. Even if you’re on the wrong side of God’s justice, that may still change. God does not enjoy punishing the wicked, and he promises to forgive and transform unjust people who repent of their sins, trust in Jesus, and walk in his ways. Jesus suffered and died on a cross to absorb God’s just punishment against human sin, so that people who repent and trust in the Lord can be accepted by a just God in spite of their past injustices. If you simply go on with business as usual, you will perish forever. But if you turn to God, receive his mercy, and seek his Kingdom and his justice, you will live forever.

It’s not too late for personal repentance, and it’s not too late for national repentance. A nation that continues aborting helpless babies, misusing military power, neglecting the poor, engaging in sexual immorality, wrecking the family, giving godless education a monopoly on taxpayer funds, and committing other evils will end up in history’s garbage bin, as surely as God is just. But national injustices may yet be forgiven and a nation healed and made stronger, if only citizens and government confess their sins and seek God’s pardon and renewal.

Let us therefore accept justice for all as good news. Let us humbly admit the injustices of which we ourselves are guilty, and turn from them. And let us patiently endure injustices inflicted on us by others, hoping that God will yet transform them, knowing that in any case, his justice will surely triumph.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.