February 3, 2022

The Arc of Biblical Justice

We may have been reading the story wrong

Howard A. Munson, IV

We hear a lot of phrases with the word “justice” in them. Climate justice, social justice, occupational justice—the list goes on much further. As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I believe God is the Creator of justice, but in the back of my mind I’ve wondered: What is “biblical justice”?

Unfortunately, there is no single chapter in the Bible in which God spells out biblical justice. Most biblical uses of the word “justice” are built around the phrase “to do justice and judgment,” but there is no corresponding description of what that means.

Recently I was listening to a podcast that an Adventist pastor recommended to me because it was about ancient patterns of history—and I teach history at Pacific Union College. As I was listening, I thought to myself, This is itthis is biblical justice.[1]

Zeroing in on biblical justice begins with Solomon in 1 Kings 3, when God responds to Solomon’s request for wisdom. During this exchange, God offered an important qualification on what He meant by wisdom. God stated, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, . . . but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked” (1 Kings 3:11).[2]

Administration of justice is a suitable definition for the purpose of government. Because King Solomon famously possessed great wealth, it’s tempting to conclude that Solomon must have excelled at the administration of justice and that the wealth was the confirmation of God’s blessing. Indeed, just after the Lord appeared to Solomon, the next story in the biblical sequence is about Solomon’s wise judgment between two prostitutes and a disputed baby—a decision that clearly demonstrated excelling at the administration of justice. Yet a comparative reading of the story of Solomon in 1 Kings with the recommendations from God regarding future government found in Deuteronomy places Solomon in a very unflattering light.  It also provides us with important descriptions of biblical justice in the process.

God’s Master Class on Justice            

The narrative in Deuteronomy 10, retelling the Exodus story, encompasses a series of directives that God gives the Israelites just after providing them with a replacement set of the Ten Commandments. As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites were more Egyptian in culture, religion, and government philosophy than anything else. At this pivotal moment in the biblical narrative God needs to instruct them in His ways. In Deuteronomy 10:17 God describes His approach to government by stating, “[God] shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.” Showing no partiality is the ancient version of a blind Lady Justice. Not accepting bribes highlights that government is not about self-enrichment, but about doing what is right.

Verse 18 further elaborates on God’s judicial priorities: “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” Driving the point home, God concluded, “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (verse 19). Thus far we have God saying that biblical justice is fair; it doesn’t show partiality; it’s honest; it accepts no bribes; and God prioritizes taking care of the most vulnerable in society as part of discernment in administering justice.

What does this have to do with Solomon? For that we need to look specifically at Deuteronomy 17. After describing His own governing philosophy, God addresses future Israelite government, prophesying that someday the people will say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us” (verse 14). Anticipating that coming day, God offers a collection of very specific warnings. “The king,” declares God, “must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’” God further states, “He [a future king] must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.” The final warning about a future king reads: “He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold” (verses 16, 17).

The Way of Egypt

Contrast these stipulations with the description of Solomon in 1 Kings. Solomon violates God’s directions for biblical justice at every turn. Compared to where God warned Israel “not to go back that way [Egypt] again,” we see that “Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter” (1 Kings 3:1). Instead of not acquiring “great numbers of horses” as weapons of war, we see that “Solomon accumulated . . . fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses” (1 Kings 10:26) and that they were “imported from Egypt” (verse 29). Contrary to the stipulation not to “make the people return to Egypt to get more of them,” Solomon dispatched “the royal merchants” (verse 28) to buy them for him.

It gets even worse. The royal merchants “also exported them [chariots and horses] to all the kings of the Hittites and of the Arameans” (verse 29). Solomon is not only consuming the Egyptian way, but also exporting the Egyptian way, literally to the point of becoming an arms dealer. Similarly, in 1 Kings 11:1-3 we read that Solomon “loved many foreign women besides Pharoah’s daughter. . . . He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.” The word “excess” hardly does this situation justice. If a man has 700 wives, why would he need 300 sex slaves? Solomon helps illustrate biblical justice by demonstrating point by point everything God instructed a government and a king not to do.

The final prohibition from Deuteronomy for a future Israelite king, that of not amassing great wealth, deserves special consideration. On the one hand, God promised to give Solomon great wealth. Throughout centuries Christians have admired Solomon and celebrated his wealth as confirmation of God’s blessing, even to the point of applying the same interpretive tool to their own lives. The important point is not whether the wealth came from God, but what Solomon did with it. There’s no dispute that Solomon had great riches. Solomon had so much gold that he had the excess metal fashioned into 200 large shields and 300 smaller shields just to hang as decorations in his own personal palace, a palace he spent nearly twice as long building as he spent on God’s temple.[3]

In order to protect this colossal wealth, Solomon built a formidable and expensive military. According to 1 Kings 10:29 he “imported a chariot from Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for a hundred and fifty.” One thousand four hundred chariots at 600 shekels per chariot is 840,000 shekels of silver. The 12,000 horses at 150 shekels per horse is a staggering 1.8 million silver shekels.

Next Solomon built “chariot cities” (verse 26) just to house the weapons he purchased for 2.6 million silver shekels. The sums described in the Bible clearly illustrate that Solomon amassed “large amounts of silver and gold” in violation of God’s specific instructions. 

The final elements of Solomon’s violation of biblical justice have to do with forced labor and store cities. First Kings 9:15-19 describes how “all his store cities and the towns for his chariots and for his horses” were built with “the forced labor King Solomon conscripted.” Solomon required the Israelites to work for him for free for one month out of three in a yearly rotation, even though he clearly had the means to pay for the labor he wanted. Instead, he hoarded his wealth and required his people to donate a third of their lives to his service, as well as taxing them heavily. The store cities they built for Solomon were not granaries. These were treasure cities in which to store excess stuff.

The land of Israel offered abundance. It was a time of plenty. Yet many people suffered slavery, while others suffered forced labor, so that a few could stockpile and protect their colossal wealth. The term “store cities” is not unique to 1 Kings. Exodus 1:11 reads, “So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” The clearest antithesis to biblical justice would have to be the enslavement of the people of Israel by the Egyptian government and people. It was systematic and structural injustice. To further recognize that that enslavement and forced labor was for the purpose of stockpiling excessive wealth and stuff stands in stark contrast to the judicial and administrative priorities that the God of heaven articulated in the Old Testament. If we connect this to Solomon—and see him as a new pharaoh--we see plainly the outcome when believers ignore biblical justice.

For these reasons, as soon as Solomon died, the tribes of Israel sent representatives to his son and heir Rehoboam and said, “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you” (1 Kings 12:4). This set up the fulfillment of what the prophet Ahijah had predicted in 1 Kings 11:31: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says: ‘See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand. . . . [He has] not walked in obedience to me, nor done what is right in my eyes, nor kept my decrees and laws as David, Solomon’s father, did.”

Despite his faults, David clearly had a heart for biblical justice that Solomon lacked. When Rehoboam rejected ruling with more biblical justice than his father had, the people rebelled, and the kingdom permanently splintered. Solomon’s legacy as Israel’s greatest king barely outlasted his life. Solomon’s failures to uphold biblical justice resulted in centuries of civil war and the destruction of most of the tribes of Israel.

Viewed from the perspective of biblical justice, Solomon’s wisdom literature reads differently. Solomon appears to describe himself in Ecclesiastes 5:13 where toward the end of his life he writes, “I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners.” Is it further self-reflection when he writes in Ecclesiastes 7:7, “Extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart”? Or in Ecclesiastes 8:9: “There is a time when a man lords it over others to his own hurt.” Or in Ecclesiastes 5:8, where he states, “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things. . . . The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.” Solomon was wise enough to know that he did not prioritize biblical justice during much of his lengthy reign, and he left clues about this in his wisdom literature.

The Way of Christ

A suitable conclusion for almost any biblical discussion is to ask the question “What did Jesus say or do regarding this topic?” Many Jews expected the Messiah to be a powerful king. Who was the most powerful king in Hebrew history? Solomon. So the Messiah would be a second Solomon and would usher in a second golden age. Instead, Jesus was a poor, humble teacher. Fulfilling the precepts of biblical justice, Jesus consistently looked after the needs of the most vulnerable in society, taking care of widows, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick. In Matthew 6:19 Jesus taught, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” In Luke 14:13 He instructed, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Teaching about the final judgment, Jesus stated, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine [the vulnerable], you did for me’” (Matt. 25:40).

The failure to popularly connect King Solomon to his violations of biblical justice was visible throughout Jesus’ lifetime and helps explain why most Jewish religious leaders rejected Jesus. Most wanted another King Solomon (or King David), rather than a Jesus Christ. Jesus called them out on this repeatedly. In Matthew 23:23, amid extensive and specific condemnation of Jewish religious leadership, Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! . . . You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”

For Christians ever since, the temptation has been the same. If we ignore what God taught about justice and what Jesus demonstrated about justice, and instead focus on prosperity and power, presenting them as evidence of God’s blessing, we set ourselves up to follow the way of Solomon and the way of Egypt, rather than the way of Christ. Christianity today is under threat from the way of Solomon, and the non-Christian world is watching on the sidelines. We need to make biblical justice a major animating force among Christians, instead of pursuing a quest for individual salvation, or being hoodwinked by the popular whisperings of the prosperity gospel.

Howard A. Munson IV,Ph.D., is chair and professor of history at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, where he has taught for the past 10 years. He is married to Brenda and is the father of two boys, Lincoln and Ronan.


[1] Rob Bell, “Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer,” Robcast, June 25, 2015, https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/hazor-megiddo-and-gezer/id956742638?i=1000479143959.

[2] All Scripture quotations have been taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

[3] See 1 Kings 6:38, 7:1, and 10:16, 17. Shields made of a soft metal such as gold would serve no practical military purpose.

Howard A. Munson, IV
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