A Gathering Voices post by Don McKim
I was reading Psalm 146, a great Psalm praising God for who God is and for the help God gives.
The Psalm advises against putting one’s trust in “princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help” (146:3). These will fail; and when their breath fails, they “return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (v.4). This is a graphic picture of the frailty of all human flesh; and of all human power. There can be no “help” from these mortals since their power and plans do not endure.
Contrast this to those who can be “happy” because their “help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God” (v. 5). This is the God who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever” (v. 6). What a contrast! The true help in life is from the “God of Jacob”—Jacob, trickster, deceiver, and moral failure that he was! The “God of Jacob” is the one who gives help and hope. This great creator God is also the one “who keeps faith forever.” What more could we ask? This is the God in whom we can trust; and the God who can enable all things to be carried out according to the divine faithfulness which will never be broken.
The next descriptor of this God is as the one “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry” (v. 7). The God who is creator, who is faithful, is also the God who gives justice for people who are oppressed. Justice for the oppressed ranks high on the priority list of what God does!
Jürgen Moltmann has noted that Protestant theology has not developed “the analogy between God’s ‘justifying’ righteousness and his righteousness that ‘creates justice.’” This is because, Moltmann suggests,
so sharp a separation has been made between the Old and New Testaments; for just as in Paul the justification of the sinner becomes the revelation of God’s righteousness in the world, so in the Old Testament the establishing of justice for people deprived of it is the quintessence of the divine mercy, and hence of the divine righteousness. Nor is the righteousness which establishes justice retributive justice, requiting good with good, and evil with evil (iustitia distributive). It is a creative righteousness (iustitia iustificans).
The nature and character of God as one who carries out justice is well-established in the Hebrew Bible (Deut. 10:18; Ps. 82:3; Isa. 1:17). The messiah will “judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land” (Isa. 11:4; CEB). The messiah “will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa. 42:1) and when a “spirit from on high is poured out on us….then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. The effect of righteousness will be peace” (Isa. 32:15-17).
Moltmann says this means that the great God, creator of heaven and earth “ is “on the side of the people who have to suffer violence because they cannot defend themselves. Their rights are his divine concern.” But “it also means that God places the weak and vulnerable under his divine protection.” Liberation theologians call this God’s “preferential option for the poor.” In Jesus Christ, God “feels with” those whom God has created for in him, “their experience is his experience too.”
When we think of the God of justice, we may think in juridical models of sinners getting what they deserve from a holy God, who is “just.” But we should also have the wider vision of the God who carries out justice for the oppressed. Those who are powerless, victimized, betrayed, and are without resources of their own, can find “help” in this God of Jacob who is faithful forever and in whom we can also hope.
Because this kind of justice is at the essence of God’s character, we find our own characters, on the human level, to be in seeking this justice on earth. We are passionate for justice because God is passionate for justice. Jerome captured it for us, centuries ago: “When we perform deeds of justice we are alive; when we sin we cease to be.” Concerns about working for justice are not options for us as Christians. They are absolute necessities because they express the nature of the God we worship. When we turn away from this God and the divine concerns, we sin—and “cease to be.” But we worship and serve the God who “executes justice for the oppressed” (Psalm 146:7).
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. Margaret Kohl, rpt. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 129.
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