“How Long, O Lord?” How To Pray For Justice In The New Covenant
One of the sections of the Scriptures that is difficult for Christians to understand are the imprecatory Psalms. We love the part of the Psalms that deal with praises and prayers for God’s protection and provision but we can’t wrap our heads around passages such as: “Break the arm of the wicked man; call the evildoer to account for his wickedness that would not otherwise be found out” (Psalms 10:15).
How do we understand such passages in light of Christ’s command that we love our enemies? Should believers pray for God’s justice to be made manifest? If we should, how do we square it up with our duty to love and not retaliate?
While this is not a commentary on the imprecatory Psalms, I believe some passages in the OT and NT upon reflection can offer us some insights into the dilemma.
In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He expects us to follow in his footsteps, he who sends his sun and rain on the evil and the good.
Paul also emphasised this disposition to enemies in Romans 12. He commands us to bless those who persecute us instead of cursing them (verse 14). Further, we must not repay evil for evil, rather we should do what is right in the eyes of everyone and try to live at peace with them (verse 19,20).
Peter also encouraged us to follow the example of Christ in bearing unjust suffering without retaliating or making threats (1 Peter 2:18-25). He encouraged us to repay evil with a blessing as people who have been called to inherit a blessing. We should not repay evil with evil or insult with insult; as those who would love life and see good days, we must keep our tongues from evil (1 Peter 3:8-12).
But we also know that God is a just God (Psalms 99:4) and as those made in his image, there is a burning desire to see justice flow down like waters (Amos 5:24). In fact, one of the things God requires of us is to seek (Isaiah 1:17) and do (Malachi 6:8) justice.
If justice is a desire that people receive what is due them, how can our love for justice, as God’s image-bearers, coexist with the command to love our enemies and persecutors, individually and corporately?
Loving justice for the right reasons
First, it’s possible to love justice for the wrong reason. A love for justice — for people to receive what is due — can be nothing more than an expression of self-righteousness and pride.
My desire that the evil-doer be punished can arise from my sense of moral superiority. And my desire for retaliation when personally offended can arise from my pride — how can she do that to me, does she know who I am?
However, when we read the Psalms, we see that the Psalmist’s desire for justice was primarily God-centred. It was the glory of God that was at stake.
Take Psalms 10 as an example.
The evil-doer in Psalms 10 is proud and has no room for God (verse 4). He is also self-complacent believing that nothing will shake him and no one will do him any harm (verse 6). In fact, he believes that God will never notice him or call him to account (verse 11, 13).
This God-defying pride of the wicked motivates the Psalmist to call upon God to show the wicked that he really does notice.
He also desired justice so that people can see that the path of wickedness is destructive and the path of holiness is blessed (Psalms 5:10-12). The Psalmist, like Qoheleth, knew that when a sentence against evil is not executed speedily, evil will multiply (Ecclesiastes 8:11). His desire was that righteousness and holiness fill the earth to the glory of God.
The Psalmist’s desire for justice was also other-centred. In Psalms 94, we see the Psalmist’s concern for the widow and the foreigner and the fatherless.
Related to that, we also see that the Psalmist’s desire for justice was also kingdom-centred. The enemies are crushing God’s people and oppressing his inheritance (Psalms 94:5). His kingdom is under attack by wicked men.
While the Psalmist did call upon God to execute justice because of the harm the evil men have done to him (Psalms 5:8, for example), he was not self-consumed. His concern for the glory of God, others, and the kingdom of God shone through.
God as the executor of justice
The Psalmist always acknowledged that justice belonged to the Lord.
As God said to Moses, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Deuteronomy 32:35).
Because God is the one who is the executor of justice, it is to him that our cries for justice must go. Instead of revenging and retaliating, Paul wants us to “leave room for God’s wrath” (Romans 12:19).
Therefore, when the Bible commands us not to revenge or retaliate, it is not commanding us to care less about justice; rather, it is commanding us to recognise that God is the one who judges. How can we care less about justice when we bear the image of the one who is infinitely just?
We see the same idea in 1 Peter 2. Jesus did not retaliate when he suffered because “he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Jesus did not retaliate because he recognised that the Father is the one who executes justice.
Consequently, as individuals, rather than retaliating against our enemies, we should leave justice to God to execute as he pleases.
Instead of retaliation, we should bless (Romans 12:14) and love (Mathew 5:40-45) and feed and give something to drink (Romans 12:19-20). In essence, we should overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).
How God executes his justice
One way God executes his prerogative as the judge is through civil governments. Immediately after telling us to leave room for God’s wrath, Paul instructs us to be subject to the governing authorities. God has established civil authorities as his servants and instruments to “bring punishment on the wrong-doer” (Romans 13:4).
Therefore, when we leave justice to God, we must also acknowledge that one of the means he uses is the civil government. While individual believers are to live by the “overcome evil with good” principle, civil governments have been given the sword to serve as God’s “agents of wrath” (verse 4).
Infact, when a civil government allows evil to go unpunished, they incur God’s displeasure. He called out civil rulers in Israel who defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked (Psalms 82:2). He reminded them that their primary task was to “defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed” (verse 3).
There is a sense in which Israel as a theocratic nation was God’s sword. God used them to destroy the Canaanites for their gross idolatries (Deuteronomy 9:1-6). And David, as a leader of the theocratic nation, was God’s sword for the execution of justice. God even used other nations to execute his justice on his own people (Isaiah 10:5-19, Habbakuk 1:5-11). So the use of civil magistrates as a means for the execution of justice does extend to nations as a whole. In that sense, nations are not bound by the “overcome evil with good” principle. Many of David’s imprecatory Psalms were written in his position as the leader of a theocratic nation who was God’s sword.
[This article doesn’t delve into self-defence, but a biblical case for self-defence can be found here]
God also executes his justice directly through his providential acts (non-miraculous acts that follow the ordinary course of nature. These acts may include the good acts of the righteous towards the wicked as in Romans 12:19-20) or direct miraculous judgments (like the case of Annanias and Saphirra and King Herod in Acts 5 and 12, respectively).
The ultimate justice
But while we live on this earth, we will never see perfect justice.
Paul promised the Thessalonians that indeed God was going to pay trouble to those who trouble them. But it will happen “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels” (2 Thessalonians 1:7).
When the souls under the altar cried out for justice, they were told to wait until the rest of their brothers and sisters were killed as they had been (Revelation 6:9-11).
This coming judgment was the consolation God gave to his children who wondered about the prosperity of the wicked in this life. He assured Asaph that the final destiny of the wicked who seem to be prospering in their evil deeds is destruction (Psalms 73:16-20). He also assured the Israelites through Malachi that on that day the difference between the righteous and the wicked will be on full display though now it seems that the righteous are being righteous in vain (Malachi 3:16-18).
The ultimate judgment of all wickedness and evil awaits the second coming of Jesus Christ. When he appears, full justice will be displayed.
But while we wait for that time, God continues to manifest his justice through civil governments, providence, and miraculous acts of temporal judgments.
Mercy and Justice
But justice does not tell the full story. God is also merciful, longsuffering, and kind.
God does save people. He turns his own enemies into his friends (Romans 5:10) and he once turned the biggest persecutor of the church into an apostle. His desire is that all of his elect will be brought to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
The gospel is all about how God upholds his justice and still shows mercy by punishing our sins in his Son. This means that some of our prayers for justice will be answered through the substitutionary atonement of Christ.
Some of the sins we pray for God’s justice against, though they may be punished temporally through the civil magistrate, will not be punished eternally because the sinner is one of God’s elect and his sins have been punished in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20).
And this is what makes the Christian prayer for justice more complicated. To recap, the first difficulty is that of desiring justice (for good reasons) while maintaining a disposition to love, bless, and do good to the enemy. The second is the fact that God is merciful and some of the enemies of the kingdom today may be God’s elect, whose sins have been eternally punished in Christ’s death and who will be brought to the kingdom in the future.
How do we navigate this difficulty?
Praying for justice
That believers can pray for justice is established from Revelation 6:9-10. Even the souls of believers who are already in God’s presence in the intermediate state were crying for justice. They want God to avenge the blood of the saints that have been spit on the earth.
Secondly, Jesus told a parable about a widow who pleaded with the judge to grant him justice against his adversary. After many pleadings, the unjust judge yielded to her cry, not out of his goodwill but to ward off her constant nagging.
What was Jesus’ application of the parable?
“And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:7-8).
Therefore, praying for justice in and of itself is not wrong.
However, given all that has gone before, we can make some points about the way believers should pray for justice.
First, our prayers for justice must be bound up with God’s sovereignty and our expectation of Christ’s second coming.
Only God knows how he will choose to answer our prayers for justice. Some of them will be answered “in Christ” since some of the enemies of God and his kingdom are God’s elect that will be brought into the fold at some point in the future. Some of them will be answered temporally through civil magistrates and God’s providential and miraculous judgments. And in some cases, God may choose to only answer that prayer in the final judgment at the second coming of Christ.
Therefore, our prayers for justice must be offered generally with a submission to God’s sovereignty.
Secondly, our prayers for justice should be offered positively. When the early believers were persecuted by the Jewish authorities they gathered together to pray. In their prayer, they quoted from Psalms 2:1,2 about the nations’ rage and opposition to the Lord and his anointed and how this was fulfilled in Jesus’ death and their persecutions.
They then prayed that God would “consider their threats” (the threats of the Jewish leaders, that is) and enable them to speak his word with great boldness. They also prayed that God would use them to perform signs and miracles through Jesus’ name.
Notice first that they were not specific about how God should “consider their threats.” They left it to God’s sovereignty to decide how to do that. But they were positively specific about how God should enable the gospel and the kingdom of God to prosper.
In the OT, the blessing of God’s people and the judgment of their enemies always go together — the two sides of a coin. While the disciples prayed generally regarding the justice and judgment side, they prayed specifically regarding the blessing part.
In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul requested for prayer that “the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured” (verse 1). He is requesting this prayer because there are wicked and evil people who are opposing the gospel. But Paul was not specific about what God should do with the wicked and evil people. He only asked that “we may be delivered.” What he was specific about was that the gospel should spread rapidly and be honoured.
We see another example in Romans 15:31. Paul acknowledged the presence of enemies in Judea and he prayed that God would keep him safe from them. But he was specific about the blessing he desired for the kingdom — that the church in Jerusalem and Judea may favourably receive the gifts he was taking to them.
Paul would acknowledge to Timothy that some of these prayers were answered. God did rescue him from persecutions and he did deliver him from the lion’s mouth (2 Timothy 3:11, 4:17).
There are times when God will answer the specific prayer for the expansion of the gospel by delivering his children from the enemies of the gospel without doing anything to those enemies (he delivered Peter and John from prison without doing anything to those who imprisoned him). But there are times when he kills the Herods of this world (Acts 12) and blinds the Elymas’ of this world (Acts 13).
Our duty is to pray generally for justice and specifically for the success of the gospel and the expansion of the kingdom and allow God to be God and decide how to answer that prayer.
Finally, we must pray for justice with a heart of love towards our enemies and a readiness to accept God’s mercy towards them. God’s command to love, bless, and do good to our enemies has no qualification. Even when we pray for justice, it must be out of a heart where such readiness to love, bless, and do good is present.
Moreover, we must not be hesitant to accept God’s mercy. Some in the early church found it difficult to accept Paul, a former persecutor, into the fold. But the gospel is all about a just and merciful God who saves the worst of sinners (2 Timothy 1:5). And aren’t we all wretched sinners who God saved in his mercy? Part of our submission to God’s sovereignty when we pray for justice is the readiness to accept his mercy.
The idea that the OT was all about justice and the NT all about mercy cannot be substantiated from the Scriptures. God showed mercy and favour to Noah, Abraham, and Israel, among others. And in the new covenant era, God executed instant justice on Annanias and Sapphira.
The Psalmist prayed for justice, but so do the souls under the altar and Jesus himself said he will answer his people’s prayers for justice. Justice is not antithetical to mercy. Rather, even in mercy, there is justice since God only pardons sinners because he executed his justice on Jesus.
However, new covenant believers must pray for justice with the understanding of all that the Bible teaches on that subject.
As God’s image-bearers, our desire for justice must not be obliterated and as people who have been saved by God’s grace, our desire for that grace to find many more must not be obliterated.