The Old Testament word for judgment (mish­pat) comes from the verb shaphat, judging, and is illustrated in the proper name Jehoshaphat, God has judged. In ordinary use it would be a word of authority spoken by a judge, but as in Israel the first Judge of the nation was God, it is His laws which are judgments. Moses told the people “all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments” (Exod 24:3), that is, all the commands he had received from God; hence there is a frequent association between “the statutes” and “the judgments”. When God’s servants are obedient to His commands, they are said to “do judgment”. Abraham is commended by God in these terms: “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice (righteous­ness) and judgment” (Gen 18:19).

God’s Justice

Since God is righteous, His judgments will always be consistent with justice. When God announces His determination to judge Sodom, Abraham, thinking of Lot, fears that this may entail treating the righteous and the wicked alike, and exclaims: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right (mishpat, judgment)?” Here judgment is not just a law of God, but an act which will be seen to be done in justice. In the case of God’s servants therefore it was to be expected that obedience to His judgments would produce a society in which justice would prevail; unhappily it was not so: “… The vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah the plant of his delight; and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.” Here judgment is the obedience to God’s laws which would produce the reverse of oppression, that is justice. (Incidentally there is in this passage a remarkable verbal device: “he looked for mishpat and behold mispach; for tsedaqah, and behold tse’aqah”—the similarity in sound bringing out the contrast in sense, especially for those who heard the word of God, either from the lips of the prophet himself, or from those who would afterwards read it to them.) Again through Isaiah: “For I the Lord love judgment, I hate robbery …” (61:8).

That judgment is something far more comprehen­sive than just fairness between man and man is shown in Jeremiah 7:5–6: “If ye throughly amend your ways and your doings”, says God to Judah, “If ye throughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour …” But what is “executing judgment”? The following words leave us in no doubt: “If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt  These are direct allusions to the “statutes and the judgments” delivered to Israel through Moses for their obedience (see for instance Lev. 19) and show that “doing judgment” involved not only preserving social justice but also paying diligent attention to what God had revealed and therefore the utter avoidance of idolatry. Judgment has become quite a comprehensive term.

God’s Will

One thing is clear: Old Testament judgment is in­conceivable apart from the revealed will of God; there is no abstract or spiritual law of justice governing the universe, in its own right. “There is to the Hebrew no Ananke and no Dike (Greek personifications of Necessity and Justice) to which both gods and men must conform. God is His own necessity. Justice is what God wills, because such is His nature” (Snaith, Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament, page 77). For the servant of God judgment was no metaphysical principle, nor the highest ideal of his own social group; it derived solely from his knowledge of the revealed will of God and from his obedience to it. How firmly the Israelite’s social duties were placed in this context is shown by Hosea 12:6: “Therefore turn thou to thy God: keep mercy and judgment (chesed and mishpat), and wait on thy God continually.” The verse recalls Micah’s: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly (mishpat), and to love mercy (chesed), and to walk humbly with thy God” (6:8). Micah was not in this passage trying to educate Israel to some higher ethical standard only: he was reminding them of the all-important truth that the quality of their lives, physi­cal and spiritual, depended upon a humble obedience to the word of God which they had received.

This lesson is an important one for us in this twentieth century, when so much emphasis is laid upon social works. It is good and right that we should be reminded that we have social obligations, to those without Christ as well as to those within: but it is vital to realize that such works have no virtue in themselves but are significant before God only when they are done with a deep consciousness of His grace revealed in His word and of the obligations which that grace lays upon us. Like Israel’s, our social acts should be acts of worship, a walking humbly with our God.

The idea of righteousness in the Old Testament derives from a root ts-d-q meaning basically to be in the right, to conform to a standard. “Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin shall ye have …” the original says literally “balances of righteous­ness, weights of righteousness …” (Lev 19:36). Their righteousness was their rightness as measures. When Judah says of his daughter-in-law Tamar, “She is more righteous than I”, he means, she is more in the right than I am; and when Mephibosheth, conscious of favours received, exclaims to David: “What right have I yet that I should cry any more unto the king?” he means: How can I be in the right? (2 Sam 19:28)

As we have found occasion to say so often already, the standard of what is right is always God’s; it is never as among the Greeks the personification of an abstract principle existing in the universe in its own right, nor is it as among the moderns an ethical idea or social code developed by the most advanced human minds for the regulation of conduct. To the Hebrew righteousness is what God has commanded.

Fellowship with God

The verb of the ts-d-q family means to put in the right, hence to justify. An example of its use concerning what was at basis an immoral action is found in Isaiah 5:22. “Woe to them . . . which justify the wicked for a reward and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!”

The corrupt judges of Judah were putting the wicked in the right, so justifying them, and were taking away the right of those who would have obeyed the law of God. Since all men are sinners, they cannot be in the right with God, nor can they become so by their own efforts, so God needs to put them in the right with Him, or to justify them. This He does according to His justice and mercy, not by granting to men some ethical or spiritual quality which they cannot possess, but by restoring them to a right relationship with Himself. Men become righteous before God not by attaining a stand­ard of sinlessness of which they are incapable anyway, but by His putting them in the right with Himself, by His receiving them into His fellowship; and this He does by the forgiveness of their sins.

Here, Psalm 51 can be helpful to us, as showing two aspects of God’s righteousness; that which He possesses Himself and that which He grants to the repentant sinner. “Against thee, thee only have I sinned”, cries David, “and done that which is evil in thy sight, that thou mayest be justified (shown to be in the right) when thou speakest (in condemning my sin) and be clear when thou judgest.” At first sight the second half of the verse does not seem to follow from the first, but if we insert an extra clause which is implied by David’s atti­tude in this psalm anyway, the sequence becomes clear: Against thee alone have I sinned, he says, and I now make full confession of my sin, so that thou mayest be seen to be in the right when thou judgest me. One aspect of God’s righteousness is then that it must be upheld, even when He is judging human sin. But later in the psalm David turns to another aspect: “Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.” Surely it is not the aspect of God’s sinlessness which is in David’s mind here? He is sure that God will deliver him from his state of guilt, by restoring him upon his repentance to a right relationship with Himself. God’s righteousness here is that which He grants to David, a renewal of His fellowship; it is a restoration to peace with His God, so it is a saving act; hence God is to him “thou God of my salvation”.

This association between the righteousness, or sav­ing grace, of God and His salvation is quite common in the Old Testament. “I have published righteousness in the great congregation … I have not hid thy righteous­ness within my heart …” but this righteousness of God is His putting men right with Himself, for David con­tinues at once: “I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation” (Psa 40:9–10). Psalm 98 opens: “O sing unto the Lord a new song … The Lord hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight of the nations. He hath remembered his mercy and his faithfulness towards the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” Here the parallelism between God’s righteousness and His salvation is unmistakeable. So is it in Isaiah 61:10: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord … for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness.” Ought we not then to give to the well-known phrase of Jeremiah, “This is his name whereby he shall be called (the righteous Branch who shall reign as king), The Lord our righteousness”, the sense of: the Lord our Saviour, our vindicator? The context would support this, for in the days of this Righteous Branch “Judah shall be saved and Israel shall dwell safely” (Jer 23:5–6).

The God of Salvation

Micah, fully conscious of all the judgments which are yet to fall upon Judah because of iniquity, declares his faith in God: “As for me, I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation … he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness”, His saving mercy. Perhaps this sense of setting right what is wrong explains the use of righteousness in Joel 2:23: “Be glad then, ye children of Zion . . . for he giveth you the former rain moderately”, but as the Revised Version margin shows, literally, “for righteousness”; that is, you have suffered the devastations of God’s great army of invaders, but now upon your repentance God will set the situation right by sending rain to increase the fruits of your land, and so, as the passage goes on: “to restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten”.

Of the Messiah in Zechariah 9:9: “Behold thy king cometh unto thee: he is just (righteous) and hav­ing salvation”, the last two words are but one in the Hebrew, meaning quite clearly “being saved”, or as the Jewish Soncino Bible gives it: the recipient of salva­tion; that is, because of his righteousness, his humble obedience to the will of God, God has saved him; saved him “from death” (Heb 5), and in harmony with this Zechariah speaks two verses further on of “the blood of thy covenant”.

So the Israelite is righteous (tsadiq), not because he possesses some personal value, but because he has been restored to a right relationship with his God. His righteousness consists in his response in humble obedi­ence to the revealed will of God, and so becomes, in Old Testament emphasis, something he does. Abraham would command his children to keep the way of the Lord, so that they might do justice (mishpat) and judgment (tsedaqah), righteousness (Gen 18:19). “The Lord”, says Moses to Israel, “hath commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God … And it shall be righteousness unto us if we observe to do all this commandment …” (Deut 6:24–25). If you treat kindly the poor man and give him back his pledge at sundown, says the law, so that “he may sleep in his garment and bless thee … it shall be righteousness unto thee before the Lord thy God” (Deut 24:13). The merciful act was itself an acknowledgment of a much greater mercy of redemption received from God, and the acknowl­edgment in action was counted for righteousness. In Ezekiel 18:5, the just (righteous) man is one who does “that which is lawful and right”; but the Hebrew says, “does judgment and righteousness” (mishpat, tsedaqah). He is later defined as one who has “walked in my statutes and kept my judgments” (verse 9).

The prophets do not exhort Israel to acquire righteousness, but never cease to demand that it be practised. As a modern writer has put it: “The Israelite is righteous because he acts justly; he does not act justly because he is righteous” (Jacob). If this sounds to us like putting too much emphasis on works, the reason is that we are accustomed to make a distinction between a man’s deeds and the thoughts of his heart. In the Old Testament such a distinction would be false: the man is one personality, and his deeds are a part of it just as much as his thoughts. The idea that a man could serve God in the one while ignoring Him in the other is as strange to the Old Testament as it is to the New. “Show me your faith”, says James, “without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

In the man who walks steadfastly in humble faith and obedience there develops a disposition to please God. “I walk in the way of righteousness”, says Proverbs 8:20; righteousness has become for him a way of life. “The righteousness of the perfect shall direct his way” (11:5); “Righteousness guardeth him that is upright in the way” (13:6). Here righteousness appears to have a power of its own to direct and guard; it is surely the humble submission of the servant’s will to the will of his Lord. So he becomes one of those to whom God through Isaiah speaks: “Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law” (51:7). And in those words we have surely the very spirit of the New Testament itself.