The word righteous has fallen on hard times. When we hear it today, we tend to think of “self-righteous”—a do-gooder looking condescendingly down her nose at all the filthy sinners. When I was a kid, we also used the word for something really inspiring, as in “Whoa, dude! That skateboarding move was totally righteous!” But neither of these meanings is what Scripture has in mind.
To be righteous is to live justly and seek justice. The Old Testament word translated “righteous” is tzedakah, a close parallel with another Hebrew term—mishpat, meaning“ justice.” In fact, “righteousness and justice” are paired throughout the Bible. God makes Solomon king “to maintain justice and righteousness” (1 Kings 10:9 NIV); Job says, “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; My justice was like a robe and a turban” (Job 29:14); and the psalmist says he hopes the king will “judge [God’s] people with righteousness, and [His] afflicted with justice” (Ps. 72:2). Righteousness and justice are born twins in the Bible; it’s a shame we separate them at birth.
Why should we seek justice? Because it’s grounded in the very character of God. The psalmist declares that God “loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord” (Ps. 33:5) and that “the heavens declare His righteousness, for God Himself is judge” (Ps. 50:6).
God’s love gives rise to His justice for the world. He loves people, and because of this, there are good ways to treat each other and bad ways to treat each other. Since Jesus loves you and wants you to flourish, if I abuse, exploit, or cheat you, I do not treat you in the way you deserve as someone who is loved by Jesus. If I malign, molest, or murder you, I violate an object of God’s affection. I do damage to the dignity you bear as someone God created in His image and loves deeply. In other words, I commit an injustice against you.
God’s love is more than a comfort; it is a confrontation. God’s love has teeth.
When a father verbally abuses his child, God stands with that child in love, receiving the pain as the words rain down, as if taking the beating Himself. When a CEO skimps on employees’ pay to enrich herself, God stands with their struggling families and against her. As she increases her profits, she cheats the Lord.
God stands against injustice because He identifies in love with those who are harmed. His love is more than a comfort; it is a confrontation. God’s love has teeth.
Some members of society are more vulnerable, so the Lord constantly tells His people to seek justice for them. Four groups are regularly mentioned in this way throughout the Old Testament: widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. By citing these classes of ancient society that were the most at risk, God in the bigger picture is declaring He is for and with the vulnerable.
Ultimately, how we treat them is how we treat the Lord. When we sin against others, we sin against Him. For example, David famously abused his power to commit adultery with Bathsheba and have her husband Uriah killed to cover it up. But at the end of the day, when he came to grips with how grievously he had mistreated others, he cried out in repentance to God, “Against You, You only, I have sinned” (Ps. 51:4).
God’s justice should give rise to ours. After the Lord liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt, Moses commanded the people, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan” (Ex. 22:21-22). He also warned, “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow” (Deut. 27:19). Israel was commanded to do this as a memorial, to remember that the Lord delivered her from Egypt. (Also see Lev. 19:33; Deut. 24:17, Deut. 24:21.)
God pursues justice and righteousness for His world and calls His people to participate with Him.
In other words, Israel was called to do this because of who God is—a deliverer. God pursues justice and righteousness for His world and calls His people to participate with Him: “Seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:17). This is more than just a good thing to do; it is a way to bear the very character of God, for He “performs righteous deeds and judgments for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6).
This principle isn’t limited to the Old Testament. The word dikaiosune shows up a lot in the New Testament—sometimes it is translated as “justice” and other times as “righteousness,” but it’s the same word. So when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness,” it can also be read as “for the sake of justice” (Matt. 5:10).
In some ways, this translation actually makes more sense. Have you ever heard of someone persecuted for what we think of as “being righteous”? For avoiding drugs, helping old ladies cross the street, or generally being a nice person? But if you push against injustice in our world, you might find it very quickly pushing right back.
If we’re going to seek justice, we must learn to trust and rely on God as we sacrificially give of ourselves, potentially ending up in difficult or risky situations. As Habakkuk 2:4 (KJV) says, “The just shall live by his faith.” So as people of faith, longing to be agents of God, let us pursue life-giving action—for our neighbors and our enemies, for a world torn apart by sin.
Illustration by Marina Muun