Micah 6:8 is a summary of how God wants us to live. To walk humbly with God is to know him intimately and to be attentive to what he desires and loves. And what does that consist of? The text says to “do justice and love mercy,” which seem at first glance to be two different things, but they are not.17 The term for “mercy” is the Hebrew word chesedh, God’s unconditional grace and compassion. The word for “justice” is the Hebrew term mishpat. In Micah 6:8, “mishpat puts the emphasis on the action, chesedh puts it on the attitude [or motive] behind the action.”18 To walk with God, then, we must do justice, out of merciful love.
The word mishpat in its various forms occurs more than two hundred times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. So Leviticus 24:22 warns Israel to “have the same mishpat [“rule of law”] for the foreigner as the native.” Mishpat means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty. But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means to give people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. So we read, “Defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.
This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor—those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”19
This is what the LORD Almighty says:
Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the immigrant or the poor. Zechariah 7:10–11
In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion, or even minor social unrest. Today this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, and many single parents and elderly people.
The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.”
Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, 1st ed. https://www.mybiblestudylessons.com/justice-and-the-prophets(New York: Dutton, 2010), 1–2.
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