It is Isaiah that provides us with visions of the time when David’s Son will reign in judgment and justice (Isa 9:7; 32:16; 33:5). However, Isaiah prophesied through the reigns of Uzziah and Ahaz before Hezekiah came to the throne and clearly demonstrated justice and judgment to Judah. Even when Hezekiah reigned, these principles were not seen among all of his people (56:1; 58:2; 59:14). The lack of justice can just be ignorance if we don’t really know what Yahweh requires because we haven’t bothered to find out. It can also be a pure selfishness on our part by which we put Yahweh down in our minds and pursue our own desires. As the unjust Sennacherib came up against Jerusalem, those who followed God’s righteousness glorified His name: “Yahweh is exalted; for he dwelleth on high: he hath filled Zion with judgment and righteousness” (Isa 33:5).

Earlier, in the days of Uzziah, Isaiah’s explanation of the parable of the vineyard alluded to the lack of these principles in the nation: “he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness [justice], but behold a cry” (5:7). Uzziah had done that which was right before Yahweh, but when he arrogantly assumed the role of the priest he had set an example in which Yahweh was not elevated. Around the nation, divine principles were being ignored, just as their king had done. To do justice requires knowing what justice is. So at the end of Isaiah 5 we read the promise of a king who will exalt Yahweh, unlike Uzziah who exalted himself. By righteous principles of judgment, the holy Yahweh is sanctified in our lives: “But Yahweh of hosts shall be exalted in judgment, and God that is holy shall be sanctified in righteousness” (5:16).

Judgment and justice are God’s standards; we will be measured by these principles. In light of the coming chief cornerstone, Isaiah explains that if we want to be a stone in the house of God, the length will be measured by judgment and the vertical alignment by justice. We cannot a ord to ignore these measures for they are the basis of our own acceptance: “Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies” (Isa 28:17).

Judgment and justice in Josiah and Jehoiakim’s times

At the end of the kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah spoke much of these principles which are central to God’s character; Yahweh does judgment and justice in all the earth ( Jer 9:24). While Josiah was alive the nation of Israel had an exemplar of those qualities in their king, even if they had not followed his pattern (4:2). Jeremiah told Jehoiakim to stop oppressing the poor and follow the example of his father, Josiah, who lived a simple life of enjoying eating and drinking, and doing judgment and justice (22:15). While in most kingdoms the poor were oppressed, their properties and possessions taken by the rich, Josiah worked hard to stop this in Judah. Despite his best endeavours, during his reign they still oppressed “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow”, and “shed innocent blood” (7:6). In contrast, Josiah cared for the poor; he made sure their causes were heard. We can only presume that he encouraged that the spirit of generosity to the poor, outlined in the Law of Moses, be seen in daily life.

Josiah’s eldest son, Jehoiakim, was the opposite of his father; he used forced labour and refused to pay wages to the poor. Jeremiah was sent to the gates of Jehoiakim’s palace to denounce him for his lack of judgment and justice. “Hear the word of Yahweh, O king of Judah” cried the prophet (22:2), but there is no evidence that Jehoiakim listened to a word he spoke. It seems almost needless for Jeremiah to remind him: You sit “upon the throne of David”. While he was part of the royal lineage, he did not regard and copy the pattern of David in doing judgment and justice; neither did his servants. Palace protocols had radically changed. The message was clear: “Execute righteousness and judgment” (v3). In case Jehoiakim didn’t understand exactly what he was doing wrong, Jeremiah spelt out four things that should happen to restore judgment and justice:

Those that had their goods violently taken away should be delivered and their goods returned.

They should do no wrong, no violence in heat of anger.

Specific defenceless and ill-treated classes – the stranger, the fatherless and the widow – should not be treated violently anymore. Yahweh loved these people and so should the king.

Jehoiakim should stop shedding innocent blood in Jerusalem (cf. 2 Kgs 24:4).

If Jehoiakim had implemented these principles, his dynasty would have continued with a blessed household (v4). In contrast, disobedience would bring the royal palace to ruin (v5). History records how his younger brother, Zedekiah, was denounced as profane and wicked and the kingdom was lost. In contrast to kings who showed no compassion to the poor, Jeremiah prophesied of a righteous Branch who would reign and prosper by doing “justice and judgment”. This was such a hope compared to his day that Jeremiah twice records this prophecy (23:5; 33:15). In Jeremiah 23:5 it is set in the chapter after the denunciation of Jehoiakim to show what a true king on David’s throne would do: “Behold, the days come, saith Yahweh, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth”.

Justice and judgment in the disciple’s life

As prospective kings and priests with Christ, we must develop these characteristics in our own lives now. Would anyone ever complain that we had “robbed” them by paying them less than we should have? Have we ever “dudded” someone by doing shoddy work or half-hearted effort? Do we ever oppress brothers and sisters by putting unfair pressure on them? In the workplace, do we put extra pressure on other workers while we take an easy ride? Do we see people in need and ignore them? These are all integral parts of judgment and justice which we can extract from Jeremiah’s message.