The Biblical Arc of God’s Justice

Intro Into Ezekiel 34

In order to understand the Biblical arc of particular theological categories like justice and mercy, it can be helpful to begin by dropping in on a particular snapshot. By going deep into a particular moment, we get a picture of justice and mercy that is much more graphic than simple words.

We will discuss the Biblical theology of justice and mercy by looking closely at a particular moment in Israel’s history as told in Ezekiel 34 (parts 1 and 2) and then extrapolating out to see the arc of justice and mercy through the framework of creation, fall (part 3), rescue, and redemption (part 4).

As always, we stand on the shoulders of giants. None of these ideas are original to me. We have a depth of wisdom on this. For me, I have been heavily influenced by N.T. Wright at the end of Simply Christian, John Stott in his many commentaries, Chris Wright in his commentary on Ezekiel, Bethany Hoang in her book The Justice Calling, Tim Keller in Generous Justice, and Gary Haugen in Good News about Injustice.

Part 1: The situation and setting of Ezekiel 34

I encourage you to read the whole chapter several times in a row. Then return to this post and look at the situation that required the justice and mercy of God.

Ezekiel 34 is a prophecy written to people who were experiencing the just consequences of their injustice. They were in exile, being disciplined by their Maker for the purpose of being restored into the vocation of being His people.

The prophet Ezekiel, in particular, was exiled to Babylon in 597 BC. He was called by God to his office at the age of 30 and his particular ministry extended over 23 years. The city of Jerusalem and the temple of God were destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. “Like all the prophets, this book is not a manual of theology, but the word of God to a battered remnant in exile that is experiencing what the theologians of the time had considered impossible.” (Chris Wright) Ezekiel experienced exile — the consequence of Israel’s sin. From exile, he wrote of a future restoration — that God’s omnipotence can’t be limited by the failure of His people. He wrote to explain, to help the people understand why this happened.

In Ezekiel, 33.21 the prophet learns of the destruction of Jerusalem.
In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, a fugitive from Jerusalem came to me and said, “The city has been struck down.”

Why did this happen? Why was Jerusalem destroyed at the hand of the Babylonians? Chapter 34 is one snapshot that explains what Israel did wrong which led to this consequence of exile. It is a chapter that helps us understand and see the heart of God for justice and mercy.

Ezekiel 34: 1-2
“The word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”

The shepherds were the leaders of Israel: politically the kings and leaders, religiously the priests. They were those who were entrusted with the care and protection of the people. They were those who were called to feed the sheep.

Of course! Righteous leaders are called to create systems where people have the opportunity to flourish— systems of justice. Systems of mishpat.

This Hebrew word, mishpat, shows up hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible and is used to describe people receiving what they are due — whether it is protection, care, provision or punishment.

  • Leviticus 24:22 “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God.”
  • Deuteronomy 18:2-3 “They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the LORD is their inheritance, as he promised them. And this shall be the priest’s’ due from the people, from those offering a sacrifice, whether an ox or a sheep: they shall give to the priest the shoulder and the two cheeks and the stomach.”
  • Proverbs 31:8-9 “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

Shepherd leaders create systems where people experience justice and have access to what they are due as image bearers of God. This is a very different qualifier than is often used for ‘what we are due’. Most systems decide what you are due based on what you have done — how have you performed, what is your race or socioeconomic level, who do you know?

But if a just system provides access to what you are due as an image-bearer of God… then all of these issues are justice issues: homelessness, hunger, immigration, racial reconciliation, at risk youth. These are all justice issues because image-bearers of God are not getting what they are due. Biblical justice is about creating systems where people get their due because they bear the image of God.

The Problem: Instead, the shepherds have created a system of injustice that benefits themselves. They are feeding themselves instead of feeding the sheep.

Ezekiel 34: 3-4
“You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness, you have ruled them.”

The shepherds use the sheep: they eat the fat and clothe themselves with the wool. They don’t take care of the vulnerable: you have not strengthened the weak, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought.

And…as leaders over systems of injustice often do, they have ruled with force and harshness. Because when some people get more than they are due and others get less, you have to keep them in line — mute their voice, limit their access.

The result (5-6): They were scattered.
“So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”

Being scattered is such an effective picture of the results of our sin, of what it means to be in exile, of the fruit of injustice. Scattered sheep are vulnerable to wolves and predators. They are unable to take care of themselves. Bad things can happen and good things (like rest and food) can’t happen. Those who serve in ministries of justice and mercy are dealing with people who have been scattered by systems of injustice. These servants see firsthand how vulnerable people are.

For those who labor in ministries of justice and mercy, it grieves you; it wearies you; it angers you.

It angers God.

In the next post, we will see what He does.

Written by David Hanke