[NOTE FROM AUTHOR: This is far and away the most read article on this blog site. Unfortunately, I am unable to track who is reading it or how they are being linked to it. Because it is so popular, I am curious about these two facts. If you would, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know who you are, how you found this article, and especially if it was helpful to you. Shalom, Dave Doty]
(This essay is a close adaptation excerpted from the book Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission, © David B. Doty, 2011, available from the author or from Wipf & Stock Publishers. This essay should be read with the thesis of Eden’s Bridge—the marketplace is an institution of God, implicit in the creation narrative of Genesis 1–2 and vital to God’s mission in the world—in full view.)
The translation of mishpat as justice oversimplifies its meaning in the Old Testament, especially in modern Western thinking. Mishpat is derived from shawfat (Strong’s 8199) which means to judge. But the modern understanding of to judge tends to focus only on properly judicial activities. In its broader sense, shawfat means to govern. Moses was called and appointed by God, the supreme judge over Israel. It was an all-inclusive position which proclaimed ordinance (legislative), passed judgment (judicial), and carried the authority to punish or release (executive).
Mishpat implies the whole determination and consequence of juxtaposed good and evil. It contains the establishment of law, the interpretation of ordinance, the pronouncement of verdict, and the legal foundation of the authority to execute sentence. The Judeo-Christian tradition accepts this as emanating from God. It is at the seat of the divine throne that rights are determined.
Mishpat is a two-edged sword, reminiscent of the duality illuminated in Psalm 61:11–12: “Once God has spoken; twice I have heard this: that power belongs to God; and loving kindness is Thine, O Lord, for Thou dost recompense a man according to his work.” It seems the psalmist was struggling in trying to see two sides of the same coin simultaneously.
We sometimes hear of Gods’ wrath (judging authority) illuminated in the Old Testament Law juxtaposed against God’s love (merciful forgiveness) illuminated in Christ in the New Testament. Reconciling the two can challenge human rationale.
“That power belongs to God” recognizes God’s sovereign authority to judge. His “loving kindness” reveals God’s grace and mercy to judge according to His heart rather than human logic or notions of fairness. False teachings that isolate Jesus, as the God of the New Testament, from Jehovah, as the God of the Old Testament, at least by implication, erroneously separate God’s wrath and judgment from His love and mercy. This duplicity tends to gloss over the Psalmist’s point: God’s sovereignty empowers the authority to forgive, that power and mercy are not only compatible but congruent in God’s nature and character (see also, Exod 34:6–7).
To borrow an analogy from digital electronics, where 1’s and 0’s represent all reality, nothing exists conceptually without its “null” correspondence. There is love so there is conclusively that which is not love. God’s power, the authority to determine, judge, and execute sentence, is the determination of how love acts (i.e., its manifestation). This power differentiates and separates itself, as God is love (1 John 4:8; 1 John 4:16), from that which is not love. Hence, the consequences of not love, technically, must be separate from God. This is the whole of mishpat. Love determines good and evil. It divides (judges and sentences) between love and that which is not love. Love and not love help define each other by the contrasts of their respective natures.
But the digital analogy can be taken too far if it leads to the conclusion that good and evil are in perfect balance. God, who is love, retains the sovereign authority to forgive evil and so is necessarily greater than evil. Our hope in Christ resides deeply in the belief that our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29) and that the judgment of God ultimately condemns and annihilates evil.
Christians are governed, and therefore should govern, by love. Hopefully this illuminates 1 John 4:16b: “The one who abides in love, abides in God and God abides in him.” By abiding in love, we allow the justice (the mishpat) of God to prevail in our lives.
Marketplace Christians are constantly confronted by the basic questions of abiding in love, bringing God’s mishpat to bear in daily decisions. Jesus exhorted that we should love others as ourselves. This challenges how people are viewed and treated in the workplace. Are employment and layoff decisions based solely on the expediency of profitability? Is pay based entirely on the financial contribution each employee brings to the enterprise or should we take into account real individual and family needs? Are failures, both mistakes and ethical lapses, forgiven? Are there accommodations to afford second and third and even fourth chances (forgiving seventy times seven times—Matt 18:22)? The justice of God is sacrificial and active. How does the marketplace leader make such hard, seemingly incongruent circumstances and values align?
The mishpat of God—determining how love is known (legislative), the sentence (of blessing or curses) is pronounced (judicial), and how judgment is executed (executive)—is the Way of the Cross. It calls Christians to sacrificial life for the benefit of others. How can executives reconcile the divergence of pay and affordable lifestyles between the president and custodian? What values should guide executives faced with contentious vendors? What responsibilities does business have in the broader community?
These are hard questions in light of the systems of this world. Business leaders have a laundry list of rational justifications for the disparate treatment of employees. And the questions keep getting more pointed: Can God be trusted to keep His promises if decisions are made that seem irrational to the world, and even to ourselves? Can the Christian CEO afford to fail by the world’s rules? Should profit come before people? Is Jesus the end (consummation, i.e., telos) of the law or does pragmatism rule?
The key question in Scripture comes from Mark 8:36–37: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” How do Christians reconcile disparities in compensation or the impersonal commodifying of labor with Galatians 5:14?—“For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Godly mishpat reaches far beyond the single issue of employee relations. It leaves each of us with the responsibility of how to apply it to other relationships, including those with superiors (whether boss or board), vendors, customers, surrounding communities, within our particular industry, including competitors, and the earth itself. The pervasiveness of the marketplace extends its moral reach beyond issues of economic justice in immediate relationships to its role contributing to the common good in social and environmental justice.
The Word of God can leave us baffled, infuriated, frustrated, convicted, and conflicted. But we may be encouraged that we are becoming, and shall be, the sons of God as we seek fulfilling His mishpat. Though we all fall short of the glory of God, the opportunities to do good are ever present. And our sanctification is in the process. The wisdom of God is available to all who would ask in humility and brokenness. God has called marketplace Christians to ministry in business for His glory not ours.
To speak of the righteousness (tsadaq—Strong’s 6663) of God seems redundant. Righteousness is mishpat, the justice of God, enacted. Tsadaq means to be or to make right in a moral or forensic sense. Among its derivatives we find the notions of natural, moral, and legal rights. Tsedeq (Strong’s 6664, a derivative of tsadaq) means equity (in the abstract) and prosperity (figuratively). Equity and prosperity taken together imply a communal rather than individual sense. This is strong iteration of the idea of shalom. Tsedaqah (Strong’s 6666, a derivative of tsadaq) is an abstraction of rightness interpreted subjectively as rectitude or straightness, objectively as justice, morally as virtue, and figuratively as prosperity. Tsidqah (Strong’s 6665, corresponds to tsedaqah) connects righteousness and beneficence. The tsadaq of God inextricably links morality and prosperity. Some popular modern doctrines, especially the “prosperity Gospel,” operate from the egocentric view that the moralist will be blessed with personal prosperity. Tsadaq, however, suggests that righteousness is manifest in beneficence and virtue practiced outwardly toward the common good and help for specific people and classes. Hence, the morally upright will be blessed with communal prosperity.
Justice and righteousness emanate from the nature and character of God. That the people of God are called to abide in that character is presented throughout the Bible. “Learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa 1:17). And in Isaiah 16:5 we find, “A throne (seat of honor) will even be established in loving-kindness, And a judge will sit on it in faithfulness in the tent of David; Moreover, he will seek justice And be prompt in righteousness.” Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And James 1:27 explains, “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
The New Testament reveals that Jesus committed Himself to no home or personal economic endeavor during the years of His ministry. He was detached from worldly ambition and things. On the other hand, though some may be, we are not all called literally to “sell all” and “give it to the poor.” (Luke 18:22). Jesus was prone to hyperbole to drive home His points (like cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye—Matt 5:29–30). His concern was that wealth has a way of ruling over us and we would do better, if necessary, to rid ourselves of the burden. Marketplace Christians, especially those blessed with power and wealth, run the risk that the cares of this world may overtake the call to Christ (Matt 13:22).
The four vital relationships in which we live—with God, with others, with our environment, and with ourselves—remain under the microscope of mishpat and tsedeq. Constant review of how our marketplace relationships are tempered by biblical justice and righteousness is a necessity in following Christ.