“No One is Righteous”: How to Read with the Righteous in the Psalms
The Psalms are rich spiritual food for the Christian life. I have recently returned afresh to the wellspring of deep renewal found in the book of Psalms, and certainly numerous others have found the same sweet rewards in these Spirit-inspired poems of old. From the homilies of early church Fathers, to the intoned prayers of medieval monks, and even modern praise choruses, the Psalms have formed a 2,000-year-old liturgical backbone shaping the Christian response to God. However, I find that actually dealing with the Psalms is a bit more challenging for Christian readers. As with many things in life, talking about enjoying the Psalms can only be done on the backside of first wrestling with them.
One such struggle is how we as Christians understand “the righteous” in the Psalms. At first glance our encounters might actually be more disheartening than uplifting. We read glorious promises for the righteous: “For you bless the righteous” (5:12, all references taken from the ESV); “God is with the generation of the righteous” (14:5); “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous” (34:15); “The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord” (37:39). But our first inclination as Christians is to say “I’m not righteous. No one is.” Indeed, Psalm 143:2 reads, “No one is righteous before you.” So, how do we recite, pray, and reconcile these blessed truths knowing we are not righteous before God? How do we engage these passages of the Psalter as Christian Scripture? In response, I want to offer three important concepts to keep close by as we read with the righteous in Psalms.
1. The Righteous Live a Godward Life
Psalm 1 opens with a depiction of the stark contrast between the life of the righteous and that of the wicked; we often come to know these two ways of life through their comparison. For example, “the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish”(1:6); “let the evil of the wicked come to an end, and may you establish the righteous” (7:9); and “the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous” (37:17). Similar to the categories of the wise person and the fool in Proverbs, Psalms promotes a way of life that conforms to God’s moral and covenantal expectations for his people. Indeed, “The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom” (37:30).
The Godward life of the righteous finds its contours and shape not by mere deviation from the wicked, but by conformity to the righteousness of God revealed through both his mighty acts of salvation (98:2) and his revealed word (119:7, 62, 75, 142). The righteous are those who shape their lives around the great redemptive and revelatory work of God, and we come to understand both of these fully in the coming, dying, and rising of the Son of God. Reading with the righteous means turning from the paths of the wicked and building our lives upon the redemption and revelation of God through Christ. Click To Tweet
2. The Righteous are not Self-Righteous
When the psalmists take up the moniker “righteous,” they are not adducing moral perfection or proclaiming to be self-righteous. They are not saying, “God is going to take care of me because I am morally perfect.” So, what is the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness? To be clear, righteousness in the Psalms does point toward conformity to a standard or norm, not simply a relationship. The writers believe that their lives bear the fruit of right living within God’s creation and his covenant. The righteous are those whose lives consists of a covenant-mediated pursuit of God.
However, nowhere do we see the idea that the righteous perceive themselves to be sinless. It is quite the opposite—the righteous are those who pursue the righteousness that comes from God (5:8). It is the soul’s proper orientation toward the one who is truly and wholly righteous. We are told that the righteous “cast their burdens” (55:22), “take refuge,” (64:10), and “cry for help” (34:17). These are the ones who know their need and turn in faith to the Lord who is “righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works” (145:17). Just like the humble must continually fix their eyes upon their master lest they become proud in their humility, the righteous understand that every good and moral act lived out is one lived upward, in conformity to God and by his power. Reading with the righteous is to recognize the fruit-bearing grace of God in our lives (1:3; 92:12), turning our eyes to the origin and source of our righteousness—God.
3. The Righteous are United with the Righteous One
The Psalms hurl us into the deep waters of biblical theology, and as we begin to swim, often the theological waves of Messiah, prophecy, covenant, and kingship start surging and swelling. While potentially scary at times, these large currents are the same waves that drive us toward the sacred ground of the Old Testament Scriptures. As the divine word of God, the Psalms point us toward a greater Son of David (18:50; 132:10), one who comes as the fulfillment of the righteousness of God. Jesus lived a perfectly obedient life to the will of the Father and instructed his followers that his life, death, and resurrection were “written” in the Old Testament (Luke 24:44; 46-47). As the true and perfect Israelite, the Righteous One, Jesus now stands as the epitome of righteousness for all who unite with him by faith—“the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom 3:22). To read with the righteous in the Psalms is to read the Old Testament as pointing toward the work and person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. While we strive to see our lives evermore conformed to God’s revealed will observed in the Scriptures, we find hope and security in the promises for the righteous, trusting that they are ultimately ours because we are Christ’s. As Paul says, “you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
So Christian, take up the Psalms and read. Read deeply and often, recognizing that the rich rewards of the righteous are yours in Jesus. Let the redemptive and revealed works of God transform your life to fight sin and turn from wickedness. Flee self-righteousness, knowing the son of David has come and true righteousness with him, so that “the righteous shall be glad; they shall exult before God; they shall be jubilant with joy!” (Ps 68:3).