Scales versus Rivers

 A helpful illustration of just how different our Western views of justice are from Biblical justice can be seen in the two of the cultural's symbols: scales versus rivers. 

In the Western world, justice is often symbolized by “Lady Justice,” a blindfolded woman holding a sword and scales. That symbol is from the Roman goddess, Justitia (or Greek goddess Themis) showing that justice is impartial, standard, and orderly. The balances weigh the two sides of a case and determines which is right. The powers that reason and justice has are contained in the sword.  Getting justice is a strict and mechanical process, involving zero passion and emotion.

Now, this image isn’t wrong, but we have to remember that our justice comes from God, not "Lady Justice." Contrast that blindfolded, scale-analyzing ideas of justice with an image used by the prophet Amos:

"But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24 ESV)

Amos gives this message as a response to the cruel injustices Israel was allowing to invade every level of their nation: trampling the poor, crushing the needy (2:7), sexually abusing servant girls (2:7), women manipulating their husbands to hurt the poor (4:1)  businesses twisting God’s laws for their selfish profit (8:4-7) Yet, at the same time, the nation thought they were fine because they were still doing all the good "religious" activities they thought God liked (4:4-5, 5:21-23).

In response to this horrific scene, Amos declares that trying to make up for injustice with becoming extra religious is wrong, and not what God actually wanted (5:14-15, 21-23). The nation desperately needed to turn back to God, and receive transformation and healing for their nation from Him. Amos prays that rivers directly from God would come and restore justice and righteousness. That's not a balanced, mechanical, impersonal, unemotional process. Rabbi Abraham Joseph Hescel describes Amos’ river this way:

“A surging movement, a life-bringing substance, a dominant power. A mighty stream, expressive of the vehemence of a never-ending, surging, fighting movement- as if obstacles had to be washed away for justice to be done. Justice is more than an ideal or a norm: justice is charged with the omnipotence of God. What ought to, shall be!  … Balancing is possible when the scales are unimpaired, and the judge’s eyes sound. When the eyes are dim and the scales unsure, what is required is a power that will strike and change, heal and restore, like a mighty stream bringing life to a parched land... Righteousness is a vast and mighty stream because God is its unfailing source.” (Abraham Joseph Heschel, "The Prophets")

God’s justice and righteousness are a powerful, never-ending river, a force that moves obstacles to its goal of healing and restoration out of its way. It’s the answer for when our human ways of justice are not capable of fixing sin, evil, and injustice. What happens if injustice is so great that no act of legal justice can correct it? Or legal justice can’t restore the deep damage done? Or when injustice has invaded every part of a nation so no legal system is capable of fixing everything? 

Lady Justice gives us Westerners an incomplete image of Biblical justice. A justice that creates laws and enforces them in a calm, impersonal, orderly way is one expression of justice. At times, it’s needed.

But it’s not the only way of justice, and doesn’t get to the heart of God’s own justice, the righting of wrongs, restoring the world back into God’s original intent for how life should be experienced.  From the beginning, God’s justice has been transformational[1]—restoring the world back to right again—and covenantal—restoring our relationships with Him and others. [2]  Legal can punish the wrong, but it can’t always make it right again. The pain in the victims or destruction in the world because of the impact of sin, that can’t be fixed by legal justice. We need the blind scales of justice. And we also need the rivers of God's justice and righteousness, the power to heal and transform the world, taking out every obstacle blocking its way. 


[1] Brueggemann, Walter et al. To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly. An Agenda for Ministers. (New Jersery: Paulist Press, 1986), 6.

[2] Gibbs, J.G. “Just” Pages 1167-1168 in vol. 2 of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Bromley, Geoffrey W., ed. 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987).  Rf. Runesson, Anders. “Judgment” pp 457-466 in Vol. 3 of 5. The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: I-Ma. Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob, ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2008).