Sunday Sermon: Zion Shall Be Redeemed Through Justice, not Judgment

This is a story about, among other things, how reading the Bible in different translations can open up vistas that the church-approved King James Version closes down—not by being wrong or inaccurate, but by being more than 400 years old in a language, and a culture, that continue to change.

It is also a story about how slight changes in meaning can have huge implications for how we understand both God and our responsibility to each other.

But mostly it is a story about Zion and how we are supposed to make it.

But let me start with Robert Alter’s epic translation of the Hebrew Bible with commentary. I have resisted buying the three-volume complete set, not because I don’t like Alter’s work, but because I have already bought and read the five incremental volumes that he produced while completing the work. But last week I gave in (a $100 Amazon gift certificate for taking a survey helped) and bought the full set. Mainly because the earlier volumes did not include the Later Prophets, and I wanted to read Alter’s Isaiah.

Yesterday I started reading Isaiah in this new translation. I have struggled with Isaiah for years, read it in a half a dozen translations, and I still don’t feel that I understand at all. And in the first chapter of Alter’s version, I came across something that I have never noticed before:

Zion shall be redeemed through justice, and those who turn back in her through righteousness. –Isaiah 1:27

This caught my attention because my whole point in reading Isaiah again is to try to understand what he means by “Zion.” As a Latter-day Saint, the concept has always fascinated me, and as a Bible reader, I have grappled a lot with the differences in the ways that the term in used in the various standard works. Like Joseph Smith, Isaiah was obsessed with Zion. But what exactly does that mean?

For Isaiah, as I understand it, Zion is what will be restored after Jerusalem is destroyed. Jerusalem destroyed is Babylon; Jerusalem redeemed is Zion. Babylon and Zion are complete opposites in this regard: both have their own civic cultures, social assumptions, and economic structures. And they are incompatible with each other. Zion is what the City of God was supposed to be all along, what it was destroyed for not beng, and what it is always able to become. And, according to the Alter translation, the thing that will restore it is “justice.”

But that’s not quite how it comes out in the King James Version, whiich reads “Zion shall be redeemed with judgment,” not justice. The difference is extremely important, since “judgment” in the Bible usually refers to something that God does, whereas “justice” refers to something that human beings are supposed to create.

This difference goes throughout the two versions in the writings of the prophets about justice and/or judgment. Here is a quick test chart of places where it seems to matter.

KJVAlter Translation
Isaiah 1:27Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness.

Zion shall be redeemed through justice, and those who turn back in her through righteousness.
Isaiah 30:18And therefore will the LORD wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you: for the LORD is a God of judgment: blessed are all they that wait for him.And therefore the Lord shall wait to grant you grace, and therefore He shall rise to show you mercy. For a God of justice is the Lord.
Isaiah 61:8For I the LORD love judgment, I hate robbery for burnt offering; and I will direct their work in truth, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

For I, the Lord, love justice, hate robbery and vice.
Amos 5:24
But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

But let justice well up like water and righteousness like a steady stream.
Zechariah 7:9Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying, Execute true judgment, and shew mercy and compassions every man to his brother:

Thus sayeth the Lord of Armies, saying: Judge true justice, and do kindness and mercy each man with his fellow.

It is the KJV, and not the Alter translation, that is the outlier. Nearly ever other modern translation of the five verses above uses “justice” rather than “judgment” to render the Hebrew word mishpat into English. The word itself can take both meanings, along with “rightness,” “propriety,” “ordinance,” and its modern Hebrew meaning of “law.”

But these particular uses of mishpat occur in contexs that make it very clear what the prophets mean. Not only do Isaiah, Amos, and Zechariah use the term to describe what we would call “justice”; they use it to describe what people today call “social justice,” or the structural elements of our social institutions that either empower, or disenfranchise, the poor.

This is not a hippie-dippy liberal re-writing of sacred writ. It is the plain meaning of the text. Consider the charge that Amos makes against Jerusalem:

And thus sayeth the Lord:
For three tresspasses of Israel,
and for four, I will not turn it back—
for their selling the just man for silver
and the needy for sandles.
Who trample the head of the needy
in the dust of the ground
and pervert the way of the poor. (Amos 2:6-7)

Or Isaiah

Woe, who inscribe crime’s inscriptions
and writs of wretchedness write,
to tilt from their cause the poor
and rob justice from my people’s needy
making widows with their booty
and despoiling or[phans. (Isaiah 10:1-2)

We do not have to search very far to realize that, when the Hebrew prophets say “justice,” they mean social justice. They scream about it constantly, and they confront their people with the consequences of ignoring it.

So, why does this not come out in the King James Version of the Bible? Why do the KJV scholars insist on turning mishpat into “judgment” in spite of all of the textual evidence that it means something different?

Part of the answer, I think, lies in the fact that English has changed over the last 400 years. The word “justice,” especially, has taken on many connotations that it did not have in 1611. At the time, “justice” and “judgment” would both have been understood as a vehicle for God’s punishment. People back then thought a lot about God’s punishment, and “social justice” wasn’t really a thing.

But King James himself, along with commissioning a major translation of the Bible, was also the architect of Stuart abosolutism, or the idea that Kings ruled absolutely with the consent of God. It would not have been common at the time—and it certainly would not have been wise—to suggest that people in a society had a responsibility to make that society more just, and less economically stratified. All justice came from God, through the King, and economic stratification was the backbone of society.

That is not the world we live in today. As citizens of a democracy, we, not the King, shape the social and ecomomic structures in which our fellow human beings live, work, suffer, and die. How we shape those structures matters. If they tilt to favor the rich, then they, and we, earn the same condemnation that Amos and Isaiah had for the people of Jerusalem. And if they both care for and empower the poor, we have created a just society.

But either way, the responsibility is ours, not God’s. This is the difference between justice and judgment where the redemption of Zion is concerned. If we say that Zion will be redeemed by judgment, then it is all up to God. He has to sweep in and destroy the wicked and then set up a truly just melinneal society where lions lie down with lambs and there are neither rich nor poor. No point in trying to do anythying about justice now; we have to wait for God to go “poof.”

But if we say that Zion will be redeemed by justice, we are saying that Zion will be created by people willing to devote their time and treasure to creating a just society. It matters, in this case, how we set things up. It matters what happens to poor people, oppressed people, vulnerable people, and everybody else. Zion is a constituitive enterprise: it exists only, and only to the extent that, we do the hard work necessary to create it. And it will never get here until we do.


  1. I recently listened to the Faithful Feminists podcast in which they described the freeing of Jewish slaves in Egypt being not of mercy, which is how I previously would have described it, but as being justice. That liberation was justice! This thought and what you’ve written here are helping me to rethink and reframe God’s justice and mercy. Thank you for writing this!

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Solid reading, Michael. Thank you.

  3. Avraham Gildeadi’s translation use justice or just ways in all the Isaiah passages you list.

    Isaiah 30:18 states that “Jehovah is the God of Justice” which is about as emphatic as you can get.

    Goes along with the idea that iniquity is largely in-equity, meaning someone is taking advantage of someone else.

  4. Once Upon a Time in Institute, my teacher handed out a paper listing 10 steps to understanding Isaiah. In my innocence, I read it as 10 *easy* steps to understanding Isaiah. Then I read the first step: “have the spirit of prophecy.” The whole “easy” thing went right out the window.

  5. Fascinating. Why must we only use the KJV in church?

  6. Aussie Mormon says:

    “Fascinating. Why must we only use the KJV in church?

    Because that’s the version the church has footnoted in English speaking countries.

    For non-English speaking countries the church recommends other versions

  7. You can even think of “judgment” as judgment *against oppressors*, which is the definition of justice. But it’s something the KJV, as you point out, is unclear on.

  8. Levi Rasmussen says:

    In my estimation, “Mercy cannot rob justice” is misinterpreted so often as Mercy being Justice’s opposite. It seems to me that Mercy satisfies the Demands of Justice because Mercy allows Justice to be made realized. Mercy is the mechanism by which Justice comes into being or into a society. On an individual level, God’s mercy allows us to repent and re-choose our actions and behavior until we are “reconciled with the will of God” thus becoming “just [persons] made perfect (or just) through (Jesus’ mercy and perfect atonement).” Zion too becomes just or perfect through Christ’s mercy when we as a society practice the mercy of Christ in our treatment of others, which constitutes God’s justice. Thanks for your words Michael.

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