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We’ll consider further how the Hebrew understanding of righteousness relates to redefining justice, but first, we need to learn the meaning of the Hebrew word for justice, mishpat.

Although the root of mishpat often refers to judicial or legal action, its use is not limited to that context. Certainly justice – mishpat – should take place in the courts, but God calls all His people to be involved in establishing justice, not just judges and court officials.

US Supreme Court

Photo courtesy of zacklur.

The wider meaning of mishpat is setting things right, “to intervene in a situation that is wrong, oppressive or out of control and to ‘fix’ it.”1

Mishpat can refer to either the action of setting things right, the nature of things having been set right, or a situation brought forth for the purpose of having it set right. In the latter scenario, mishpat means something along the lines of “cause” or “rightful case” and, in the Bible, tends to refer to the poor, the stranger, the orphan, or the widow.2

The Widow

Photo courtesy of Ben Grey.

The clearest example I can find of this translation is Isaiah 1:17, which says, “Learn to do right! Seek justice [mishpat], encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause [shpat] of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

God hears the cry of the oppressed and acts on their behalf. In this sense, mishpat is a call to action3 that arises out of God’s love for His people and His longing for the world to be restored to its original intentions – to be a place of order, peace, and right relationship.

1. Christopher J.H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 256.

2. Wright, 257.

3. Stephen Charles Mott, A Christian Perspective on Political Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), qtd. in Wright, 257.