Within this series, I want to look at a term we’re all familiar with but may not fully understand—righteousness. We will examine its meaning in ways that may be novel to us. Not that the term righteousness is new, or that we’ve never heard an adequate definition. Instead, the novelty is in an expanded definition of righteousness based on the way Biblical writers use it.
Dedication to the Word
We continue to see David’s astounding dedication to God’s word. Indeed, this type of dedication is something we should each strive for. David had a deep and intimate knowledge of God, His Word, and the meaning behind those words.
All through Psalm 119, we see David refer to God’s word in many different ways. For example, David said God’s word is a help. And because we cannot separate God from his word, we understand that God himself is a help. Consider Psalm 46:1:
Returning to Psalm 119, we also see that David says God’s word revives us. It’s truth. It’s everlasting. It’s to be treasured. It’s peace. It’s the path to all understanding. It delivers us. It’s righteous.
And though we could dedicate entire sermons on each of these concepts, today we will focus on that final one.
Continuing in Psalm 119, we will focus on eight verses during our study. Those verses are Psalm 119:137-144.
God is Righteous, God’s Word is Righteous
Righteous are You, O Lord,
And upright are Your judgments.
You have commanded Your testimonies in righteousness
And exceeding faithfulness.
My zeal has consumed me,
Because my adversaries have forgotten Your words.
Your word is very pure,
Therefore Your servant loves it.
I am small and despised,
Yet I do not forget Your precepts.
Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness,
And Your law is truth.
Trouble and anguish have come upon me,
Yet Your commandments are my delight.
Your testimonies are righteous forever;
Give me understanding that I may live. Psalm 119:137-144
Did you catch the repeating theme of righteousness? This concept is so important that David reiterated it five times within eight verses. So, what does it mean?
To understand the breadth and depth of this concept, we must come to a better definition. A more nuanced definition than we might already possess. What do we mean when we speak of righteousness? And more importantly, what did the Biblical writers mean when they wrote about righteousness.Do we truly understand what the Biblical writers meant when they spoke of righteousness? #biblestudy Click To Tweet
Lexicons & Dictionaries, The Beginning of Study
We can pull down our lexicon from the bookshelf or dig deeper into any verse via Blue Letter Bible, but dictionaries and lexicons don’t always give us the whole picture. We can’t rely on Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance to provide an exhaustive understanding of any Biblical concept.
In order to truly understand what any word or idea means, we must go even further. We must understand how the words were used in the original writer’s culture. We need to understand the word in the same way the original writer understood the word.
Dr. Michael Heiser once said, “Words don’t mean anything. People mean things by words.”
Each person, when they use a word, means something very specific by it. This sounds obvious, but what do I mean? Let’s look at an example.
If someone (within today’s culture) mentioned to you that you needed to brand yourself, what would you understand that to mean? Of course, we understand that they do not mean we are to press hot irons against our skin. We rightly understand that they mean we should take steps to cultivate our reputation to gain recognition.
Within this example we see that a word can mean something by itself, but the person using that word also means something within the context of their sentence, their subject, and their culture.
Jesus demonstrated this in the New Testament. When we read, “I am the door” we understand that Jesus was being literal. He is the door that leads to salvation. But in this literalness, we do not also understand that he is saying he is a piece of wood and he hangs from a structure on squeaky hinges.
Humans are verbal communicators capable of building elegant frameworks with words alone. Because of this, we inherently understand that there are nuanced meanings behind the words we use.
So why do we neglect these nuances when we study the word of God? We must dig further down than surface meaning to fully understand the terms in the way the original author intended them to be understood.Humans are verbal communicators capable of building elegant frameworks with words alone. Because of this, we inherently understand that there are nuanced meanings behind the words we use. #biblicalinterpretation Click To Tweet
The Righteousness of God
With this in mind, let’s walk through these verses and expand our understanding of righteousness. I believe we will walk away with a far bigger picture of righteousness than we have been conditioned to see.
Righteous are You, O Lord,
And upright are Your judgments. Psalm 119:137
Reading this verse, we understand that righteous means upright. Why? Because we cannot divorce who God is from his Word. And, if we understand that he is his Word, then we conclude that God is upright, that his judgments are righteous, and that God’s righteousness is uprightness. But let’s zoom in for an even better picture.
The word ‘righteous’ plays out in certain ways depending upon the context in which it is used. Let’s look to the book of Ezra for an example.
O Lord God of Israel, You are righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant, as it is this day; behold, we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this.” Ezra 9:15
The context of this verse is a remnant who went back to the sin that they had previously been disciplined for. Now, with our previous knowledge from Psalm 119:137 in which we learned that righteousness is uprightness, can we now substitute upright for righteous and understand what the author meant?
No. Because within this text, the idea of righteousness expands even further. Is God upright? Yes. But what is the context of his righteousness within this situation? As we read it, we see that Ezra is calling God righteous because God showed mercy to the sinful remnant.
Usually we understand righteousness in the context of judgement. Indeed it can, and does, mean judgement. Remember, our Psalm 119:160 principle. The sum of God’s word is truth.
But within this passage in Ezra, our understanding has expanded to not only encompass judgement and uprightness but to also encompass mercy.
Ezra finds it fitting to declare God righteous because He had mercy on the sinful remnant, because He was faithful even in the face of his people’s faithlessness. Though his people had sinned, God remained faithful.
This is God’s righteousness. Not only is God righteous in his judgments, he is also righteous in his mercy. Let’s look at this situation through the eyes of Ezra’s contemporary, Nehemiah.
“However, You are just in all that has come upon us;
For You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly. Nehemiah 9:33
Look at Jeremiah’s understanding of the situation. Jeremiah speaks to God saying, “You have dealt faithfully but we have acted wickedly.” Do we truly see the parallel? Even when we act wickedly, God acts faithfully and Jeremiah proclaims that faithfulness.
As you and I live out righteousness, we are mimicking our God. And this is what God means by righteousness. It’s so much more than an entry in a lexicon. It’s so much more than righteous judgment. It is uprightness and right judgments and beautiful mercy. This is righteousness and this is what we are to model.
In the next post, we will continue studying the nuances of God’s righteousness. Until then, I’d love to hear how you’ve traditionally viewed righteousness and if it is changing as you delve deeper into the word. Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.