Justice in the Psalms

It is helpful to remember the Psalms were musical worship

Enrique Nardoni in Rise Up, O Judge summarized the view of justice in the Psalms this way:

Basically, it includes or presupposes the idea of order, an order encompassing the whole world and all of humanity. It is the order the Creator established in the world by his will and then expanded in the course of history. But in addition to the idea of established order, justice includes a dynamic dimension, one that is expressed in action in accordance with the established order. Its effect is either to return to others what belongs to them or to restore them to their proper position according to the design of the Creator. In this regard, right order is something not established once and forever but something to be accomplished by both divine and human action. (pp. 122-123)

That sums it up pretty nicely, I think, and really describes justice throughout all of Scripture: established by God but dynamic in that it is inviting us to act in alignment with him.

There are some other specific themes in the Psalms which we could also look at:

God is named as the protector of the poor and source of justice:

3 Be fair to the poor
and to orphans.
Defend the helpless
and everyone in need.
4 Rescue the weak and homeless
from the powerful hands
of heartless people. (Psalm 82:3-4 CEV)

9 The poor can run to you
because you are a fortress
in times of trouble. (Psalm 9:9 CEV)

5 Our God, from your sacred home
you take care of orphans
and protect widows. (Psalm 68:5 CEV)

God always keeps his word.
7 He gives justice to the poor
and food to the hungry.

The Lord sets prisoners free
8 and heals blind eyes.
He gives a helping hand
to everyone who falls.
The Lord loves good people
9 and looks after strangers.
He defends the rights
of orphans and widows,
but destroys the wicked.

10 The Lord God of Zion
will rule forever!
Shout praises to the Lord! (Psalm 146:6b-10)

Also see 22:26, 33:5, and 132:15.

This justice is praiseworthy, such as in Psalm 147:

1 Shout praises to the Lord!
Our God is kind,
and it is right and good
to sing praises to him.

2 The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem
and brings the people of Israel
back home again.
3 He renews our hopes
and heals our bodies.

6 The Lord helps the poor,
but he smears the wicked
in the dirt. (CEV)

Acts and perpetrators of injustice are called out:

Lord God, you punish
the guilty.
Show what you are like
and punish them now.
2 You judge the earth.
Come and help us!
Pay back those proud people
for what they have done.
3 How long will the wicked
celebrate and be glad?

4 All of those cruel people
strut and boast,
5 and they crush and wound
your chosen nation, Lord.
6 They murder widows,
foreigners, and orphans. (Psalm 94:1-6 CEV)

We all have a responsibility to do our part in justice work and are told that those who do justice will experience blessing.

72 Please help the king
to be honest and fair
just like you, our God.
2 Let him be honest and fair
with all your people,
especially the poor.
3 Let peace and justice rule
every mountain and hill.
4 Let the king defend the poor,
rescue the homeless,
and crush
everyone who hurts them.
5 Let the king live forever
like the sun and the moon.
6 Let him be as helpful as rain
that refreshes the meadows
and the ground.
7 Let the king be fair
with everyone,
and let there be peace
until the moon
falls from the sky. (Psalm 72:1-7 CEV)

41 You, Lord God, bless everyone
who cares for the poor,
and you rescue those people
in times of trouble.
2 You protect them
and keep them alive.
You make them happy here
in this land,
and you don’t hand them over
to their enemies.
3 You always heal them
and restore their strength
when they are sick. (Psalm 41:1-3 CEV)

Side Notes

 

There are two significant side notes that comes to mind from these texts.

First, we must remember that our relationship to government is very different than Ancient Israel’s. In Ancient Israel as most of the Ancient Near East, the King was the representative of God, therefore held the primary responsibility to oversee justice in the kingdom. This was in line with the old covenant that was primarily a national covenant. We don’t live in this kind of political system and we are under the new covenant. Different Christians have different approaches to how to relate to their political leaders, but we can agree on two things: it is good to pray and encourage that our leaders be just, but we cannot use encouraging them as an excuse to not act justly in our own lives.

We also have to be careful about strict cause-and-effect thinking where acting justly automatically results in material blessing for you. Many of the Psalmists pray for this but it is definitely not the reality. Many Psalms clearly argue that the struggles of the poor are due to social injustices where the rich take advantage of them for their own gain, such as bribes in the courts or outright physical attacks (e.g. Ps 7, 9, 10, 11, 71, 82, 109). One of the sub-categories of Psalms is that of lament: those who are innocent lamenting their suffering caused by others while those who oppress them profit from their unjust acts. Many argue that the Psalms were predominately written and sung by the poor; since they often could not get justice from human courts they turned to God for help. In a couple of posts, I’ll take a look at Job which is the ultimate case study of this clash between the ideal of everything being fair and the reality that it is not.

With those two notes said, there is clearly a lot here in the Psalms reinforcing the message that God is just and we are invited to be a part of carrying out that justice in the world today.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.