In the first post, we saw that righteous leaders are called to create systems where people have the opportunity to flourish — systems of justice. Instead, the leaders in Ezekiel 34 have created systems of injustice that only benefit themselves.
In the second post, we see that God holds BOTH the leaders of injustice and the people who benefit from injustice accountable for their oppression of others.
In this post, we will follow the thread of justice and mercy through the opening Biblical theology chapters of Creation and Fall. Post #4 will finish the thread through Redemption and Restoration.
Creation: What was intended. What ought to be.
The prophecy from Ezekiel 34 was a snapshot of what was happening in Judah around 586 BC when God’s people experienced one of the lowest moments of their existence. It was a moment that tells us a lot about a Biblical theology of justice, mercy, and righteousness. Let’s pull up and see the sweeping arc of the Biblical narrative and how justice and mercy are woven through it.
The story always begins with God. Our dignity comes from being created in God’s image: He calls us male. He calls us female. God gave us the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, and to have dominion over every living thing that moves on the earth. The good intention of our loving Creator was that men and women would fill the earth with men and women who bear the image of God and who steward the resources they have been given ‘in the place of and in the way of’ God Himself. He gives us meaningful labor to name, fill, and subdue. It is good. It is shalom.
Using the picture from Ezekiel 34: Sheep ought to be fed. Shepherds ought to feed.
In the beginning, we see order created out of chaos for the sake of multiplicative flourishing. We see the earth teeming with life.
As image-bearers of God, we are valued because of who we reflect and represent. We have our worth and dignity from our Creator. We create systems where people get their due as agents of God.
Fall: What went wrong.
Almost immediately in the story, something breaks. From Ezekiel 34: instead of feeding the sheep, the shepherds consume them.
God called us to trust him and gave a very tangible way to demonstrate that trust — to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Instead of gratitude for the abundance that was given, Adam and Eve focus their attention on what was not given. They could have every tree, but they go to the one tree that was a ‘no’. Idolatry is the choice to trust anything else besides God for our comfort, security, and worth. That choice breaks a relationship and introduces unrighteousness.
Those who worship idols create correlating systems that protect their idol worship — systems that protect their position, place, and choices to the exclusion and the harm of others. This is what we call injustice.
In Ezekiel’s terms, this is ‘feeding yourselves.’ It is using the good land and the clean water while trampling down and muddying the land and water of others. It is getting what is mine with no regard for you to get yours.
Who are the most at risk from the injustice of others? Nicholas Wolterstorff calls them ‘the quartet of the vulnerable’ — the widow, orphan, immigrant, and financially poor. “They were the bottom ones, the low ones, the lowly. That is how Israel’s writers spoke of them. Given their position at the bottom… they were especially vulnerable to being treated with injustice. They were downtrodden…the rich and powerful put them down, tread on them, trampled them. Rendering justice to them is often described as ‘lifting them up.’ They had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there was famine, invasion, or minor social unrest.”
The result of the fall — our idolatry and injustice — is isolation, what Ezekiel described as being scattered.
The beginning of rescue is the pronouncement of judgment. This is why God comes looking for Adam and Eve and says, ‘Where are you?’ ‘Who told you that you were naked?’ ‘Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ Pronounce what you have done. So that I can pronounce what I will do. I will give you the consequence you are due: enmity, pain, thorns and thistles, exile.
The pronouncement of justice (what they are due) allows the correlating pronouncement of mercy (what they are not). God’s chesed: His steadfast loving-kindness is a grace that is required because of His justice. He makes for them garments of skins and clothed them. He covers their nakedness and their shame. They don’t immediately die. Mercy is withholding ultimate punishment for the sake of the opportunity of restorative justice.
The rest of the story is the work of restoring what was lost because of sin and exile — of finding our way home. God chooses Abraham out of all the families so that through Abraham’s family he can be restored to all the families. That family becomes a nation with rules that codify who they are as people who bear God’s image and how their community of image-bearers should treat each other. Specifically that they should resist their idolatry and worship God alone. And they should stand against injustice by treating each other with dignity and watching out for those who are most vulnerable — the immigrant (sojourner), the widow, the orphan, the under-resourced poor.
God says over and over that if you don’t resist idolatry and injustice, you will be exiled. Israel’s exile is evidence of their injustice. The Fall has been woven into their corporate systems.
For over 500 years God’s prophets are silent. They long for the rescue that does not come. They wait for a leader who will restore justice. They ask for mercy. Grace shows up in the most surprising place in a most surprising baby.