Justice As Worship in the Prophets
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
Author's Note: This post was originally published on The Front Porch and was written by Thabiti Anyabwile. Do justice. That might be the simplest way of summing up the teaching of the prophets on the theme of justice. Just do it.
For the prophets, justice is and justice comes before public ceremonial worship. In the prophets, God hates and rejects any worship offering from people who do not actually do justice.
A Brief Survey of the Prophets on Justice and Worship
This is the emphasis of those well-known words in Micah 6:6-8.
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah teaches us that a variety of offerings—from burnt offerings to offering the firstborn child—will not really please God. The Lord will not be pleased with even thousands of rams and ten thousands of rivers of oil.
But at heart, what pleases God, what God requires of His people, is that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. All the offerings in the world do not satisfy God if we are the kinds of worshippers who fail to actually do justice—not talk about it, write about, preach about, sing about it—but do it.
This means superficial and false worship always tempts the people of God. Amos joins Micah in denouncing the false worship of public offerings without personal equity. In Amos 5 we read:
Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, 7 O you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth!
10 They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth. 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. 13 Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time.
14 Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. 15 Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Here we have God’s old covenant people desperately trying to get God’s attention with offerings but by those very offerings angering God because of their corrupt and unjust lives. Their public worship repulses God because their public injustice goes unrepented and unrepaired. God isn’t so much interested in the sound of worship as the substance of worship—which includes justice.
As you can see, the prophetic call to do justice is not an isolated teaching in the prophets. Isaiah gets in on the theme as well.
11“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
12 “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:11-17)
See how active a part of our worship this is meant to be.
“Seek justice”—search for it like treasure; hunt it like a hound.
“Correct oppression”—take your stance against it; make the crooked straight.
“Bring justice to the fatherless”—don’t make them come looking for it; we are to deliver it to them.
“Plead the widow’s cause”—open your mouth; speak up for the vulnerable; take up their cause as your own.
These are the worship requirements of the God who “practices steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth,” who finds delight in these things. We cannot continue to come to Him praising Him with our lips if our hearts are not like His heart. The deepest worship occurs when the worshipper’s heart and actions match more fully the heart and actions of God. The truest worship involves us becoming like the one we worship. It involves us learning that all of life is worship and all of life should be dedicated to steadfast love, justice and righteousness because God is so dedicated.
“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:20).
What Does This Mean for Piety?
One wonders how many of our spiritual offerings appear to God as burdensome and wearisome because of our indifference and injustice. One wonders if God cannot endure our gatherings, if He sees our public worship as a trampling of His courts, because we have not yet washed ourselves, removed evil from before our eyes and “learned to do good, seek justice, correct oppression; and bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” One wonders if our worship before God is lacking because we have sought only to be clean in an inward, spiritual sense but have not sought to express that same purity in the outward works of goodness, justice and mercy.
Perhaps we must come to think that God is not pleased with our songs, our quiet times, our offerings. God doesn’t need those; He is satisfied with His Son’s sacrifice. What the Lord requires of us is that we do justice. This is our reasonable act of worship.
What Does This Mean for Preaching?
Evangelical pastors have to preach justice because the evangelical church is not starting on neutral with this issue. The evangelical is starting with a long history of injustice, complicity and guilt. There are habits of mind and life that have not been renewed by the word of God and must be lovingly confronted. Change cannot be as simple as saying, “We believe in Dr. King’s message now” and putting up a few quotes. Change must be as fresh and solid as hearing the Bible call us to justice and as deep and consequential as true repentance that results in justice rolling down like waters and righteousness flooding the banks of its stream.
I want to give us five applications to preaching based on the prophets’ understanding of justice as essential to the worship that God accepts.
We must no longer give the impression that the greatest act in Christian worship is listening to a sermon.
We must teach our people in our preaching and by our example that the greatest act of Christian worship is applying the word of God in our lives.
We must preach a conception of worship that includes all of life.
We cannot leave our people with the mistaken impression that worship is what we do on Sunday for a couple of hours. Our people must be taught a Romans 12:1-2 notion of worship where we present our lives as living sacrifices, where everything we do is offered to the Lord.
We must preach a conception of worship that involves ethical demands.
We have preached so much to the heart and to personal living that we have created the impression that Christianity has nothing to say or to do with social responsibilities like correcting oppression, seeking justice, and bringing justice to the orphan and widow. We have inherited and spread a piety that is almost entirely inward. We have done that despite the fact that our Bibles tell us that, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). We have to correct this over-emphasis on inward personal piety to the exclusion of social duty.
We must preach a conception of worship that connects what God loves about himself and loves to do in the world with what the Christian loves about himself and loves to do.
We want the hearts of our people to overlap the heart of God. We want the lives of our churches to mimic the life of God. If God delights in justice and righteousness, then we should too. Our highest happiness should be found in the things that make God happy.
We must preach justice in a way that helps our people understand that to do justice is consistent with—not contrary to—Jesus and the gospel.
Let’s conclude with two texts from the prophets that connect the coming of the Savior with the execution of justice. Jeremiah writes:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jer. 23:5; 33:15)
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. 2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (Isaiah 11:1-5)
Matthew picks up on this theme when he quotes Isaiah 42 and tells us Jesus fulfills this longing for righteousness. Matthew 12:18-20—
18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; 20 a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; 21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
Jesus is not contrary to justice; Jesus accomplishes justice! Part of what makes the good news good is our Savior comes to ultimately establish righteousness, justice, equity and goodness for all.
Some Christians and pastors need to stop telling people in frightened and conspiratorial tones that they are “liberal” because they care about justice! They might be liberal—but it’s not because they care about justice! If caring about justice makes a person “liberal,” then I’m here to tell you that God himself is a liberal. And you had better become one!
We preach and we do justice because we wish to be like our Lord and see His righteousness fill the earth. The pursuit of justice and equity does not take us from the heart of our Savior; the pursuit of justice and equity takes us deeper into the heart of our Savior. If we know God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, if we have been instructed by wisdom and received Jesus as our wisdom, then we ought to understand justice completely. We ought to understand that doing justice is essential to that worship that pleases God our Father. So, let’s preach justice to the people of God until justice belongs to the people of God.