After coffee with my friend, I promptly returned home to start looking up every occurrence of the word justice in the Bible.
A quick search for “just” and “right” on BibleGateway (using the NIV translation) reveals seventy-six verses where the words occur together in a manner referring to justice and righteousness. (As in, I’m not counting verses like 2 Kings 18:3, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done.”) The vast majority of these verses use the words directly side by side, in a manner that makes them appear interchangeable.
For example, Isaiah 9:7 says, “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” Isaiah goes on to say, “In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it— one from the house of David— one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness.”1
A personal favorite is Hosea 2:19: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.”
Throughout a vast number of the instances where righteousness and justice occur together in Scripture, Old Testament writers use the literary device of repetition. Biblical Hebrew frequently used this device to emphasize a single concept. While the technique would have been obvious to Jews at the time, the emphasis is sometimes lost in translation for modern-day English speakers.
With that in mind, consider Job 29:14: “I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban.”
For the purpose of explaining the Hebrew use of repetition, assume that Job’s only clothing was a robe and turban. The author is being purposefully redundant in saying Job put on his clothes, which were his robe and turban, because he wants to emphasize a point. I imagine the point is what Job was clothed in: righteousness and justice.
From what I understand (one of my scholarly friends, please correct our course here if I’m wrong – I’m looking to you Gerry Breshears), Job did not intend to make a distinction between righteousness and justice any more than he intended to differentiate between clothing and a robe and turban.
The author of this verse uses the same technique as Gloria Gaynor in her popular 70’s hit, I Will Survive: “Go on now, go, walk out the door, just turn around now, ‘cause you’re not welcome anymore.” The wording of her phrases differ from one another but make the same point, thus emphasizing her message to the man who left her: you’re not welcome anymore.
Another example is Amos 5:24, which exclaims, “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
The similarity between a river and a never-failing stream calls attention to the similarity between justice and righteousness. (For those of you who love verbal analogies or want a throw-back to your SAT days, river : never-failing stream, justice : righteousness.) With these parallels in place, the two phrases clearly repeat the same concept: bring on God’s righteousness! The words chosen are not intended to delineate two sharply distinct concepts.
It’s important to note, however, that Hebrew does use different words to indicate justice and righteousness (unlike Greek, which uses dikaiosune for both). English translators did not arbitrarily decide to translate the same word differently in these verses. We’ll take a closer look over the next couple days at these two distinct Hebrew words and how they work together to form a single concept.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in starting your own word study, here are some other key verses where righteousness and justice occur together. I highly recommend reading the chapters surrounding these verses as doing so offered me much deeper insight into the biblical meaning of justice.
1 Kings 10:9
Isaiah 1:21 & 27
Isaiah 5:7 & 16
Isaiah 32:1 & 16
Isaiah 59:9 & 14
Jeremiah 22:3 & 15
Ezekiel 18 & 33
1. Isaiah 16:5.