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"That's not fair" is one of the most commonly heard complaints in American society. If we understand the word "fair" as meaning "treating everyone the same," it is usually impossible to understand what the person is really saying. For example, if a student with dyslexia makes a low grade on a test, he or she may exclaim, "That's not fair; I wasn't given enough time to finish!" But in reality, that person was given exactly the same amount of time as every other student taking the test; it was simply insufficient.

Those in favor of affirmative action (giving hiring preference to minorities or women) say it isn't fair to judge minority applicants and majority applicants on the same basis because systemic factors give built-in advantages to white males. In other words, purely equal treatment can never really be truly equitable because so many factors obtain. "That's not fair" often means in reality: "You haven't taken into account my personal situation and acted accordingly in a gracious and merciful manner."

In scripture, the words "justice" and "righteousness" go hand in hand. There is one Hebrew word for "justice" or impartial, unbiased judgment and another for "righteousness" or conformity to a standard of right. Forms of these two words frequently appear in the same verse as virtual synonyms, although "righteousness" is essentially a broader term (Psalm 103:6; Isaiah 5:16; 59:9). Sometimes, writers use the Hebrew word for "righteousness" in the more limited sense of "justice" (conformity to a standard of impartiality) and English translators translate it by the word "justice" (Psalm 11:7, NIV, REB). On the other hand, one never translates the specific Hebrew word for "justice" (mishpat) by "righteousness."

All this may seem confusing, but the point is that the English language has no one consistently good way to translate the Hebrew word "righteousness." It is simply too elastic and evocative a word. In English, the word "justice" is more commonly used and therefore more important than "righteousness." But from a biblical perspective, it is impossible to render justice without understanding the standard by which it must be rendered. That standard is God's righteousness.

Righteousness means "conformity to a norm." That standard does not have to be strictly ethical. Judah declares that Tamar (who disguised herself as a prostitute to seduce him) was more "righteous" than he (Genesis 38:26). Why? Because she had been obedient to the requirements of the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) while he had neglected his responsibility. David was more "righteous" than Saul because he had honored the subject-king relationship while Saul had betrayed David's loyalty (1 Samuel 24:17).

Righteousness in scripture often means behaving according to the requirements of covenant relationship, which involves showing faithful obedience on man's part, faithful love on God's (Deuteronomy 6:25; Psalm 103:17-18). When Paul says that in the gospel "is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith" (Romans 1:17, ASV), he means that God's covenant love has been passed from Abraham to us through Christ. In both the Old Testament and the New, God's righteousness becomes an umbrella term for his saving power (Isaiah 45:21; 46:13; 51:4-5; 61:10; Psalm 51:14).

Is the righteous God of the Bible just (fair and impartial) or is he merciful? Thankfully, one can say he is both. Sovereign lords like God are not forced or obligated to be just. If they are just instead of arbitrary and capricious, it is because they have a prior disposition toward goodness, kindness, and mercy. Whenever we find ourselves in positions of power over others, we should seek to be righteous like God, adhering to strict standards of both justice and mercy. "The holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness" (Isaiah 5:16).


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 9, 2007 2:17 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Holiness.

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