A Word for Today: Be Just, Righteous (Heb. Sedek)
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The Semitic word-group known as the ts-d-q family from which the Hebrew word sedek arises, generally relates to individual behaviour (right conduct) or some form of implied status (being right) derived from a recognized standard. DAVID HILL states that this standard may be religious, ensuring that the correct sacrifices are made, Deut. 33. 19, or in some contexts simply linked with everyday practices such as the proper use of ‘balances’ or ‘weights’, Lev. 19. 36; Deut. 25. 15; Ezek. 45. 10.1
Other family words, such as sedaqah, sedeq, sadaq, refer to ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’, and in the Old Testament these terms are mutually inclusive. Thus sedek referred to one who was considered ‘righteous’ and who pursued a ‘just’ cause.2 Jacob uses it in Genesis chapter 30 verse 33 when he asserts that his right conduct would stand him in good stead for the future. Similarly, in Genesis 38 verse 26, Judah recognizes that Tamar’s behaviour was more just (or virtuous) than his own immoral conduct, cp. 1 Sam. 24. 17-18; Ezek. 16. 52. Such texts highlight the importance that the Bible places on right conduct and the issue of justice. This should not surprise us as God reveals Himself in the Old Testament as a God of righteousness who administers justice, Gen. 18. 25; Deut. 32. 4. LEONMORRIS, commenting on Jeremiah chapter 8 verse 7, states that judgement is as natural to the Lord as the movements of the birds are to them.3
Thus, if God was essentially just there was the expectation that this would encourage and motivate Israel to act in a similar way in its dealings with others, Hos. 14. 9. Proverbs chapter 21 verse 3 suggests that even prescribed sacrifices were less important to God than justice. What God required from His people was that they should do justice, love goodness and walk humbly (wisely) with their God, Mic. 6. 8.4 Many of the Old Testament prophets are therefore highly critical of Israel’s lack of right behaviour and their inability to act in a just way, e.g., note Amos’ invective against Israel in Amos chapter 2 verses 6-11.
Linked to God’s justice was the idea of divine retribution for those who were socially unjust and failed to obey God’s law, see Lev. 26. The lex talionis (law of retaliation) principle defined justice, but at the same time limited the punishment for the guilty party to an exact equivalent, Exod. 21. 22-25; Lev. 24. 19-21; Deut. 19. 16-21. The law required that the punishment should fit the crime, and its implementation prevented blood feuds and vigilante groups taking the law into their own hands. In fact, vengeance was prohibited under the law, Lev. 19. 18. Interestingly, our Lord did not challenge the basic principle of limited retribution, Matt. 5. 38. At this time, however, this principle had been turned around and instead of being restrictive it was being used to determine how far someone could retaliate without breaking the law. What our Lord does in Matthew chapter 5 verses 38- 42 is to seek to change the mindset of individuals and show that there is a much better way than even limited retaliation. This is, for the individual who has been wronged, to show kindness and generosity to the person who has committed the wrong, even accepting more injury to one’s person.
But underpinning this just and right behaviour was the relationship between judgement and justification. Critically, in legal proceedings, when judgement was pronounced it would ‘justify the righteous and condemn the wicked’, Deut. 25. 1. So, justification in the Hebrew mind was directly bound up with the resolution of a dispute by judicial process, e.g., Ps. 51. 4; Isa. 43. 26. Conformity to God’s standard meant a righteous status for the individual who was then declared justified. This is what Abram experienced in Genesis chapter 15 verse 6 where he gained acceptance with God by being declared righteous, not by anything that he had done, but through faith which responded to God’s grace, cp. Phinehas, Ps. 106. 30f. What MARTIN LUTHER centuries later would describe as ‘the righteousness of another, instilled from without’.5
Generally, the Septuagint (LXX) uses the dik-word-group to translate the Hebrew ts-d-q family, and the Greek word dikaioo is a close dynamic equivalent of the Hebrew verb sedek. Both the Greek and Hebrew words mean ‘to justify’ in the forensic sense of ‘declare righteous’, or ‘treat as just’. These Greek words are used almost exclusively in the New Testament in Romans and Galatians where we find Paul’s unqualified commitment to forensic justification. Limited space, however, prevents us from fleshing out this topic.
In terms then, sedek is important in emphasizing that we serve a God of justice and righteousness who expects conformity to His standards. He acts with steadfast love in defending the rights of those who are powerless to help themselves, Isa. 61. 6; Jer. 9. 24. This must be significant in a contemporary world that is controlled by a free market economy where individuals are often unfairly treated and disadvantaged. If we have therefore gained acceptance with God by grace through faith then let us never fail to act as those who love righteousness and hate injustice so that ‘justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream’.6
For further reading/study
MORRIS, LEON, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross
HILL, DAVID, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms MCGRATH, ALISTER E., Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification
1. Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms, p.84.
2. Most will be familiar with Old Testament names such as Melchizedek (Gen.14.18) and Adonizedec (Jos. 10.1), where the Zedek-part (the transliterated form is sedeq) means the Lord or King is righteous.
3. The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p254.
4. R. Simlai once said, ‘Six hundred and thirteen precepts were communicated to Moses . . . Micah came and reduced them to three’.
5. Two Kinds of Righteousness (1519).
6. Amos 5. 24.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.