Like sedaqah, the word mishpat (translated justice) has a relational connation that informs its usage.
Mishpat is not an abstract, universal concept,1 but a concrete action determined on the basis of relationship and circumstances.
According to theologian Hemchand Gossai, the point of mishpat is always to restore broken relationships.2 He says that even when a judge serves a sentence to a guilty party, the ultimate goal is not to punish, but to restore the relationships damaged by what that party has done.3
I don’t think this necessarily points to reconciliation between wronged parties and their oppressors, but to returning things to a state of what is right or expected within the context of a particular relationship. In this way, the wronged party can no longer be taken advantage of by the oppressor.
Gossai clarifies this point when he quotes Johannes Pedersen: “Justice demands that equilibrium shall be re-established between the wronged and him who committed the breach, for thereby the covenant is healed. To reestablish this relation is to justify a man. To justify a man means to obtain for him the place due to him within the covenant.”4
Some surprising uses of mishpat in reference to architectural structures further clarify the word’s meaning. 1 Kings 6:38 and Ezekiel 42:11 use mishpat to indicate the parts of the completed temple fitting together as they should. The New American Standard Bible translates mishpat in these verses as “according to all its plans” and “according to their arrangements,” respectively.
Not only are the parts of the temple in right relationship to one another,5 but they correspond to the plan laid out for them. They fulfill the architect’s original intentions for them.
Likewise, in Jeremiah 30:18, the Lord says He will have compassion on Jacob’s dwelling places and restore the palace to mishpat – to “its rightful place.” Though foreign nations have demolished the promised land, God will rebuild on the ruins and make things right once again.
1. Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament. I. OTL. Trans. J.A. Baker (London: SCM Press, LTD), 1961, p. 240, qtd. in Gossai, 198.
2. Hemchand Gossai, Justice, Righteousness and the Social Critique of the Eighth-Century Prophets (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 184.
3. Gossai, 182.
4. Johannes Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, vols I-II (London: Oxford University Press, 1926), p. 345, qtd in Gossai, 59.