“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just:
that his justice cannot sleep for ever.”
—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 289
God is our judge; he is a God of justice. It’s a major biblical theme, a heavy biblical truth, and it’s one that a lot of people don’t like; we tend to prefer the warmer biblical language that God is love, that he’s our good shepherd, and so on, and so a lot of times, we quietly shuffle the “judge” language out the back door into the shed. In some ways, this is ironic, because many of those who most dislike thinking about God as judge are quite convinced they want justice, even folks who really should be asking for mercy (as the Calvinator noted in the comments a while back); I guess the lesson here is that people want “justice” defined as them getting whatever it is they happen to think they deserve. We want justice measured by our own standard, and God uses his standard, not ours.
If we’re going to be faithful to Scripture, though, we just can’t go along with that. All through the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, as God declares himself the God of the weak and the powerless, of whom the archetypal examples are the widow, the fatherless, the homeless foreigner, and the stranger; over and over, he condemns the evildoers who “kill the widow and the stranger, [and] murder the orphan.” Again and again, we have the affirmation that God is a God of justice, and that those who exploit the poor and defenseless will be punished. The psalmist may ask, “How long shall the wicked exult?” but he does so in the certainty that the one who disciplines the nations will dig a pit for the wicked in the end. Those who build their mansions on the backs of the needy may prosper for a time, but not forever.
And in the end, though talk of God as a God of justice and judgment rings a harsh note, it’s important for us to remember that the judgment of God comes on those who do evil, on those who reject his ways; and it’s important to remember that it’s rooted in his insistence on making right all that is wrong, and on his concern for the powerless—and that his concern includes us. The highest and greatest expression of this concern came in Christ, in his death and resurrection on our behalf, taking the punishment for our sin and paying the price that we were powerless to pay, winning for us the freedom we were powerless to win.
Which means, I think, that here we see justice and mercy meet; God’s greatest act of mercy was also his greatest act of justice, as here he defeated not just human evildoers but the power behind them, the slavemaster who bound all of us helplessly in sin. In showing us mercy, he was working justice on our behalf.