What is the difference between justice and judgement?


When we read 2 Samuel chapter 8, we find there is a list of the wars and military conquests of king David. It also lists who he put in charge of the various responsibilities of the army, civil service and religious service. This chapter also reveals in verse 15 a responsibility David himself had. “So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered judgement and justice to all his people.”

Here we find the terms judgement and justice used. Is this a redundancy, or do these words have significantly different meanings? Again, this expression is repeated in Isaiah 9:7 which describes the kingdom which will be established at the time of the coming of Jesus Christ to the earth. “Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgement and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.”

Justice and judgement are translated from two different Hebrew words; justice is translated from mishpat and Judgement from tsedaqah. What is the difference between these two Hebrew words? Mishpat refers to the literal letter of the law.  God gave Israel a very comprehensive law and it provided certain specific penalties if these laws were broken. So why was anything else needed?

If we examine Deuteronomy 17:8-11, we find that the Hebrew term for judgement is used. “If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgement or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the LORD your God chooses. And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgement. You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the LORD chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you. According to the sentence of the law in which they instruct you, according to the judgement which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you.”

The implication here is not so much guilt or innocence but the degrees of guilt and accordingly what sentence should be applied. If it was just a matter of guilt or innocence, they would not have to go to the judge at Jerusalem. If the person was guilty, then the letter of the law should be applied, and there would be no problem. But obviously if they have to show them the sentence of judgement and they have to instruct them how to arrive at it, we are dealing with things that fall between the cracks. Things that aren’t specifically covered.

For example, it says in God’s law, that if a man has a slave, and he puts out the slave’s eye, or he breaks his tooth, the slave is entitled to his freedom. But what if he mangles his hand? Is the slave entitled to his freedom? The law does not mention mangled hands. It only talks about a tooth and an eye. What’s the answer? It must have happened that some other part of the anatomy was damaged, and the slave would wonder, does this give me my freedom or doesn’t it? So, the intent of the law had to be extracted from the literal instruction, looked at and a decision had to be made. Yes, this was obviously what God intended. He wasn’t just interested in eyes only or teeth only, He was interested in serious bodily injury, perpetrated on a slave. So, any such serious bodily injury would give the slave the right to his freedom. In other words, they looked behind the letter of the law to determine the intent of the law, so they could have equity. This was to enable the equitable intent of the law to be applied. This is what tsedaqah is.

In the Revised Standard Version, they use a different word. They use justice to translate mishpat, and equity to translate tsedaqah, to show that it is the equitable intent of the law which is meant by the Hebrew term tsedaqah. Literally, the Hebrew word tsedaqah means righteousness. In fact, many versions translate tsedaqah as righteousness. However, Hebrew does not have as many words as English. In Hebrew, one word frequently has a wide range of meanings. You have to know which meaning is intended in a particular passage, and not just blindly translate it the same way all the time. And so, it is obvious from the grammatical construction and the way it was applied in David’s reign, that this was the intent. The equitable intent of the law is what is meant by tsedaqah, and by ensuring equity is applied, righteousness will be obtained.

The Bible preserves for our instruction several situations which David faced; situations where he had to apply tsedaqah as well as just mishpat. It may not be just a case of something not covered in the law. Sometimes a crime was committed and there is no doubt the crime has been committed. It is a crime specifically mentioned in the law, a penalty is specifically assigned in the law for that crime, but to just apply the penalty would not really carry out true equity or righteousness. Equity would not be served. Justice would not truly be served by carrying out blindly the penalty for the infraction. And so, because of the special circumstances, something has to be done with the penalty. It needs to be made stiffer, a harsher penalty than provided for in the law be exacted to achieve equity, or because of the special circumstances, the opposite may be true. You have to soften the penalty because of the special circumstances. That’s what equity sometimes requires.

In our system, we don’t always have that leeway. Many times, sentences cannot be reduced or increased beyond certain limits because of sentencing laws enacted by the government of the day. But in Israel they could go either way because the interest was to ensure justice. So, if justice was served by making the penalty harsher, the judge could do it. If justice could be truly served by making it less harsh, the judge could do that as well.

In this Q&A, we will cover two situations in the life of David. The first situation mentioned where David was required to make a judgement was after he had committed adultery with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba and murdered Uriah. We find this in 2 Samuel 12:1-6. “Then the LORD sent Nathan to David. And he came to him, and said to him: ‘There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him.’ So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the LORD lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.’”

In a case like this, the law prescribes a penalty. Exodus 22:1 states, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep.” Nowhere does the law specify that the death penalty is required. Applying mishpat (justice) only requires restoration of four sheep. So why did David say the rich man should die? This is where tsedaqah (judgement) comes into play. The reason for David’s judgement was that the rich man had no pity. The lamb meant everything to its owner and wasn’t just an animal to him. It was like a son or daughter to him. He had a deep personal relationship with his lamb. He had raised it like a child. The rich man could easily have provided out of his own abundance for the wayfaring stranger and not even have missed it. But he hardened his heart to such a point that he took this poor man’s possession.

The fact that the owner of the lamb was poor of itself did not affect the penalty.  God’s law specifically says not to favor the poor. God stated this in Leviticus 19:15. “You shall do no injustice in judgement. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.”

After David declared the righteous judgement, Nathan informed him in 2 Samuel 12:7-12, that he was the rich man. “Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! Thus says the LORD God of Israel: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I would have also given you much more! Why have you despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.” Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will raise up adversity against you from your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun.”’”

In this statement by Nathan, God reminded David that God gave him Saul’s house, or office, and Saul’s wives. When David was anointed king, he inherited Saul’s wives, and they joined his already existing harem. In the Middle East, this is how it was publicly symbolized that a person had succeeded to the throne. He may or may not have relations with them but they are his. It’s a sign of coming to royal power. When we read of Absalom’s rebellion soon after this, one of the things he did was to have sexual relations with David’s wives publicly. This was a way of saying “I have taken over the kingship.”

We should also point out that it was wrong for David to have more than one wife. Note our Q&A on polygamy for further explanation. https://www.eternalgod.org/question-and-answer-713/

We can also note that God gave David the house of Israel and Judah. After the death of Saul, the houses of Israel and Judah were never truly united. They had one king over them but they were partially divided, and finally totally divided after the death of Solomon.

Because David truly repented, God did not demand the death penalty that David himself had proclaimed, but God applied other severe penalties until David’s death. But nowhere did God state that David’s pronouncement of the death penalty for the rich man was excessive.

Another incident where David was required to give a judgement is in 2 Samuel 14. In this instance, David’s son Amnon had raped Absalom’s sister Tamar. Two years later, Absalom had his half-brother Amnon murdered. He then fled to his maternal grandfather’s homeland of Geshur and remained there for another three years.

In 2 Samuel 13:39, we read, “And king David longed to go to Absalom. For he had been comforted concerning Amnon because he was dead.” Here we see that David longed to go to Absalom but felt legally he could not because Absalom was a murderer. He longed after Absalom but analyzing the law, it wasn’t just a matter that Absalom deserved to be sentenced to death, but David himself quite possibly could have been the executioner if he was the nearest male relative of the murdered Amnon. He could have been considered to be the avenger of blood.

At this time Joab, the commander of the army, saw the problem that David was experiencing over this matter with Absalom. In 2 Samuel 14:1-3 we read what Joab did to resolve this problem. “So Joab the son of Zeruiah perceived that the king’s heart was concerned about Absalom. And Joab sent to Tekoa and brought from there a wise woman, and said to her, ‘Please pretend to be a mourner, and put on mourning apparel; do not anoint yourself with oil, but act like a woman who has been mourning a long time for the dead. Go to the king and speak to him in this manner.’ So Joab put the words in her mouth.”

In 2 Samuel 14:4-11 she pleads her pretended case. “And when the woman of Tekoa spoke to the king, she fell on her face to the ground and prostrated herself, and said, ‘Help, O king!’ Then the king said to her, ‘What troubles you?’ And she answered, ‘Indeed I am a widow, my husband is dead. Now your maidservant had two sons; and the two fought with each other in the field, and there was no one to part them, but the one struck the other and killed him. And now the whole family has risen up against your maidservant, and they said, “Deliver him who struck his brother, that we may execute him for the life of his brother whom he killed; and we will destroy the heir also.” So they would extinguish my ember that is left, and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant on the earth.’ Then the king said to the woman, ‘Go to your house, and I will give orders concerning you.’ And the woman of Tekoa said to the king, ‘My lord, O king, let the iniquity be on me and on my father’s house, and the king and his throne be guiltless.’ So the king said, ‘Whoever says anything to you, bring him to me, and he shall not touch you anymore.’ Then she said, ‘Please let the king remember the LORD your God, and do not permit the avenger of blood to destroy anymore, lest they destroy my son.’ And he said, ‘As the LORD lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground.’”

Here we see an example of David weighing up the circumstances of this supposed case and pronouncing his judgement. If only justice was considered, the brother should be put to death, if he was guilty of murder; or he had to flee to a city of refuge to stay there until the death of the high priest, if he was guilty of manslaughter (compare Exodus 21:12-14). But David considered that the widow had no one else to provide for her in her old age, as she said, “they would extinguish my ember that is left,” as embers provide warmth, symbolic of support. He also considered the fact that the inheritance might be removed from this part of the family and given to a different part of the family for their benefit, thus extinguishing this particular line of the family’s inheritance, Therefore, David removed the justified penalty. Another factor was that there was no one in the field to intervene in the fight and prevent the murder or manslaughter.

In 2 Samuel 14:12-17, the supposed widow then explains how this case and judgement that David has pronounced also applies to the situation with David, Amnon and Absalom. “Therefore the woman said, ‘Please, let your maidservant speak another word to the lord the king.’ And he said, ‘Say on.’ So the woman said: ‘Why then have you schemed such a thing against the people of God? For the king speaks this thing as one who is guilty, in that the king does not bring his banished one home again. For we will surely die and become like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. Yet God does not take away a life; but He devises means, so that His banished ones are not expelled from Him. Now therefore, I have come to speak of this thing to my lord the king because the people have made me afraid. And your maidservant said, “I will now speak to the king; it may be that the king will perform the request of his maidservant. For the king will hear and deliver his maidservant from the hand of the man who would destroy me and my son together from the inheritance of God.” Your maidservant said, “The word of the lord my king will now be comforting; for as the angel of God, so is my lord the king in discerning good and evil. And may the LORD your God be with you.”’”

So, the widow requested that as David pardoned the widow’s son who killed or perhaps even murdered his brother, he should also be able to pardon Absalom who murdered his half-brother Amnon.

Now David realized that Joab was involved in this case and that David could pardon Absalom because of the similarities in both situations. Both the invented case brought by the widow and the real case of Amnon and Absalom involved brother killing brother. One particularly strong reason for the similarities, and one that condemned David himself, was that no one was in the field to part the widow’s sons. In the case of Absalom murdering Amnon, David was very angry, but there is no mention of him punishing Amnon for his crime of rape, this being a breach of justice. If David had been the intercessor and had punished Amnon justly, Absalom might not have murdered Amnon two years later. This implies that David might have been a causative factor in the crime of murder.

After all these events, David pardoned Absalom and allowed Joab to bring Absalom back to Jerusalem, but David did not see Absalom. 2 Samuel 14:28 says: “And Absalom dwelt two full years in Jerusalem, but did not see the king’s face.” But when Absalom was killed by Joab for rebelling and assuming the kingship, David wept over his death. He probably realized that he was partly responsible for this unfortunate outcome.

So, while David was overall a man after God’s heart, and is praised because he ruled mainly with judgement and justice, he still exhibited human frailties, one of them being not applying correct justice and judgement within his own family.

As mentioned above, when Jesus Christ returns, He will rule in judgement and justice, and this is mentioned in Isaiah 11:3. “His delight is in the fear of the LORD, And He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, Nor decide by the hearing of His ears; But with righteousness He shall judge the poor, And decide with equity for the meek of the earth; He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked.”

In the book of Habakkuk, God reveals why He does not hear Habakkuk’s cry to Him. A large part of the reason is the lack of true justice and judgement. Habakkuk 1:4. “Therefore the law is powerless, And justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore perverse judgement proceeds.”

In concluding passages, God gives us a warning about judging in an unrighteous manner. This is explained well in Matthew 7:1-2 in the Amplified Bible (copyright 2015). “Do not judge and criticize and condemn [others unfairly with an attitude of self-righteous superiority as though assuming the office of a judge], so that you will not be judged [unfairly]. For just as you [hypocritically] judge others [when you are sinful and unrepentant], so will you be judged; and in accordance with your standard of measure [used to pass out judgment], judgment will be measured to you.”

But John 7:24 informs us how we should judge. Again, from the Amplified Bible, “Do not judge by appearance [superficially and arrogantly], rather judge fairly and righteously.

As we have the hope of being like God and being God—a member of the God Family—we should learn to live with both justice and righteous judgement, copying Christ’s example, in order to please Him.

Lead Writer: Paul Niehoff (Australia)

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