Looking for Justice? Try the Second Book of Chronicles.
Justice is a slippery concept. So often we are punished for things we do inadvertently (consider a traffic accident), and even more often we receive no punishment for evil words or deeds in which we willingly engage. The same is true for all, which makes justice in this world very slippery indeed. There are interesting lessons about this slipperiness in several books of Scripture, including the Second Book of Chronicles.
First, let me offer an overview of the book. Second Chronicles surveys Jewish history from the reign of Solomon through the Fall of Jerusalem and the start of the Babylonian Captivity. At the very end, it jumps over the period of captivity to end on a positive note: King Cyrus’ proclamation of liberty for the Jewish exiles so they can go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. We have seen a good deal of this before in the Second Book of Kings, though there are some differences as well.
As an example, the account of Micaiah’s prophecy of defeat in Chronicles 18 is very much the same as in Kings, nearly word for word. Here again we receive the invaluable lesson that most of the so-called prophets, living in large communities with no commission from God, said pretty much what the rich and powerful wished to hear; whereas those who had really been fired by the Word of God could do nothing but speak the truth. For the rich and powerful, the truth is very often bad news. (This too addresses my theme of justice.)
But there are differences as well. For example, in Chronicles we learn a good deal about the reign of Solomon’s hapless son, Rehoboam (chapters 9 through 12). Even his wives are enumerated. But in Kings, there is very little about Rehoboam. Also, a new episode involving Elijah is recounted in this book (chapter 21) and the prophet Jeremiah is mentioned for the first time in the very last chapter.
We have already seen that Divine justice is the most important theme of all the historical books which cover the monarchy, from Samuel through Chronicles. Fidelity brings blessings; infidelity brings punishment. But even Divine justice can be confusing, most often because it is hard even under the Old Covenant to see an exact correspondence between those who are guilty and those who are punished. This is so true that I believe we may take as the first two principles of Scripture study that: (a) In some sense we are all guilty; and (b) The fundamental purpose of what we might call the public manifestation of Divine justice is neither to exact punishment nor to balance the scales of good and evil but to bring about an interior conversion that leads to love and life.
Another way of saying this is to affirm that, in God, justice and mercy are inescapably one and the same thing. I have already alluded to this understanding in my commentary on the Second Book of Kings. But it is worthwhile to develop it further here.
It is hard to see any other explanation for the LORD’s frequent adjustment of the time when punishment will come. The Second Book of Chronicles covers a striking case of what we might call the temporality of punishment, the case of Hezekiah which I have already touched on in Kings. We learn again in Second Chronicles that King Hezekiah prospered initially. But:
Hezekiah did not make return according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud. Therefore wrath came upon him and Judah and Jerusalem. But Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the LORD did not come upon them in the days of Hezekiah. [2 Chr 32:25-26]
We saw in Kings that Hezekiah thought it very good that the punishment would fall not on himself but on his descendants; his repentance, while real, was not marked by any great spiritual depth. He repented because of illness and, if you read verses 27 through 31 in the Chronicles account, you will see more clearly than in Kings exactly why he was so happy with the result.
This pattern repeats itself in Chapter 34 when, through the prophetess Huldah, the LORD accepts the repentance of the King of Judah after the rediscovery of the book of the law, with its threats of punishment for disobedience:
“Behold, I will bring evil upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the curses that are written in the book which was read before the king of Judah….” But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: …[B]ecause your heart was penitent and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants…you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place and its inhabitants.” [2 Chr 34:24-28]
Assuming God’s constancy of purpose (which it is philosophically and theologically impossible to doubt), we must also assume that God exacts his publicly manifested justice when and how it will most effectively accomplish the deeper purpose of His love. Moreover, we must reflect that Divine justice is not only part of His love but also inextricably linked to His goodness, in ways which, to us, are both obvious and hidden. As God said through Isaiah during the same period:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. [Is 55:10-11]
In addition to helping us probe the mystery of Divine Justice, the Second Book of Chronicles teaches an important lesson about human justice. If we are not carefully taught to ignore the obvious, we tend to know instinctively (through natural law) that human justice, imperfect as it must be, is necessitated and even guided primarily by the demands of the common good. Its purposes are not as far-reaching as those of Divine justice, but it does run along the same lines—within human limits, to maximize the good. Interestingly, Second Chronicles contains an important practical lesson about the administration of human justice.
We find it in the highly-praised reforms of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, as recounted in chapter 19:
Moreover, in Jerusalem Jehoshaphat appointed certain Levites and priests and heads of families of Israel, to give judgment for the LORD and to decide disputed cases. And he charged them: “Thus you shall do in the fear of the LORD, in faithfulness, and with your whole heart: whenever a case comes to you from your brethren who live in their cities, concerning bloodshed, law or commandment, statutes or ordinances, then you shall instruct them, that they may not incur guilt before the LORD and wrath may not come upon you and your brethren. Thus you shall do, and you will not incur guilt. And behold, Amariah the chief priest is over you in all matters of the LORD; and Zebadiah the son of Ishmael, the governor of the house of Judah, in all the king’s matters….” [2 Chr 19:8-11]
How much these injunctions differ from our contemporary culture’s conception of law and justice, with its pronounced secularism, by which the Author of the natural law is ignored and government officials constantly define and redefine good and evil according to their own desires! That is obvious here, but note also the nascent separation of Church and State—the understanding that the administration of human justice depends not only on God’s law (as articulated by what in the Western tradition is called the “spiritual arm”) but also on human laws for the common good (as articulated by the “secular arm”).
Here the two are administered under separate authorities, authorities we would recognize as Church and State. But both derive their substance from a single overarching context, the fundamentals of justice which we learn from God both directly and indirectly through His impress on our very nature. This too is essential for justice. It returns us to Justice 101: Laws contrary to the natural law are, by the very nature of things, empty. They are void. They are null.
To be both legitimate and well-ordered, all human governance must recognize this principle.
By way of conclusion, I want to return to the question of balancing the scales of good and evil, which has so often come up in Catholic discussions of justice over the centuries. In the context of this discussion, I believe it is safe to say that as long as God’s larger purposes are being accomplished, this balance is constantly being restored and maintained. Whether we should directly perceive this balancing may be helpful at times, but it is hardly intrinsically necessary. But when God’s purposes can no longer be served by a particular approach to punishment—or, to return to the Biblical text, when His purposes can no longer be served through a Divine reticence or restraint regarding a particular sort of punishment—then we come up against the lesson of the last chapter of the Second Book of Chronicles:
The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, till the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, till there was no remedy. [36:15-16]
But is this really a fundamental shift? No it is merely the end of a particular path, and so the beginning of a further path, in this case through the punishment of the exile. God knows at this point that He must achieve His purposes by entering into a new stage in His relationship with His people. To Christians this should be a familiar concept, for our loving Father does it repeatedly over time, culminating in the sacrifice of His only begotten Son (in which, by the way, the alleged cosmic scales are forever not only balanced but overbalanced), and continuing through all the remarkable and often highly personal ways in which He brings us to receive the fruits of so great and thorough a Redemption.
So, yes, it is true that justice is a slippery concept, probably more slippery than we can ever know here and now. But we should learn from God that its slipperiness does not consist in its definition, but only in its application. The nature and purposes of justice remain the same. But the manner of its application, in both Divine and human law, is continuously adjusted as needed in accordance with the larger purposes justice is supposed to serve. God’s purpose is always Himself. God’s purpose is always Love.
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