Psalm 7:1-17 and others
October 31, 2004
The Righteous One expects righteousness - and provides it.
I. The Righteous One (Psalm 97:1-6, Psalm 7:1-17)
II. . . . expects righteousness (Ezekiel 18:20, Isaiah 64:5-9)
III. . . . and provides it. (Genesis 15:4-6, Isaiah 53:10-12)
MessageAre you a person who marks in your books? I only tend to mark in commentaries and reference books, highlighting them in preparation for preaching. I personally dont mark in my Bibles, but there are many people who do. We were blessed at the memorial service for Ed Lewis by the marks and highlights and notes in his Bible. And I understand the instinct that makes you want to highlight certain words and phrases. In fact, in a larger sense, there are certain words in Scripture that stand out to me every time I read them, just as if they were highlighted. I call these neon words, and Ive mentioned a number of times in Scriptures weve studied.
Between now and Christmas were going to focus on some of these words that give real windows into Gods heart, his character and his saving work. It will be a two part series: a few weeks of Neon words of the Old Testament and then a few weeks of Neon words of Christmas, just a few of the many words that jump out and kiss me on the nose when I read my Bible.
So where do we start? The word I rather arbitrarily choose for this first week is the Hebrew word zedek which means righteous or righteousness. We finished Malachi last week with the thought of waiting righteously. But maybe righteously wasnt a neon word for you last week, didnt carry a lot of weight or meaning. I hope that after today it will be a highlighted word not only in your Bible, but in your understanding of who God is and what hes done. Because the bottom line is that the Lord who is righteous expects righteousness from us - and he provides it.
We ought to start with a definition. On a very simple level we say a person is righteous who sticks to a moral standard. So we say God is righteous because he conforms perfectly to his own moral standard, and we can say that people are righteous when they perfectly meet that standard of moral goodness. Our word righteous comes from an older English word right-wise which literally means going in the right way or the straight way. We will also use the English word just or justice or justify, which translates the same Hebrew word and adds the thought not only of being morally straight but of judging others by the same standard - justice, or of somehow imparting righteousness to someone else - to justify.
I. The Righteous One (Psalm 97:1-6, Psalm 7:1-17)
The best way to learn about these words is to see how the Bible uses them. Were going to spend our time walking through Scriptures, looking at this word righteousness, and seeing what it really means to us. The place to start is with the simple assertion that God is a righteous God. There are dozens of these in Scripture. Psalm 11:7 The Lord is righteous, he loves justice, upright men will see his face. The Lord is righteous and loves righteousness. This a basic truth of Scripture.
Lets look at two longer texts that help us understand Gods righteousness. First, Psalm 97:1-6 The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice. 2Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. 3Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side. 4His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. 5The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. 6The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory.
Notice first that righteousness is associated with the Lords reign - because he reigns, his moral standards are the moral standards of the universe. Now Im not saying these are arbitrary standards of right and wrong - Im saying that because a good God is the sovereign God, then the universe is held to a standard of goodness. Second, the appearance of righteousness is as clouds and thick darkness. There is an awesome and fearful quality to Gods moral goodness, His standard is so absolute and so far above our normal purity that it is awesome. Furthermore, his righteousness and justice are not passive: this is a picture of God actively judging people and nations on the basis of his moral standard, judgment that is like a fire that consumes, or lightning that causes the earth to tremble, or heat that melts mountains like wax.
This is the impact of righteousness when it deals justly with those who are not righteous. Yet the Scripture says that the earth rejoices to see it, verse 1, and that in seeing it the peoples see Gods glory, verse 6. Gods glory is revealed when we see any perfection of his character. Whether it is his love, his truth or his righteousness, when you see it, it comes as overwhelming light. So this righteousness, this moral goodness, is a core character trait of God. Its wonderful, fearful, and not passive.
Thats the cosmic or global view of God as the righteous one. David gives the personal view in Psalm 7, which Id like to read paragraph by paragraph. Verses 1 to 5: O Lord my God, I take refuge in you; save and deliver me from all who pursue me, 2or they will tear me like a lion and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me. 3O Lord my God, if I have done this and there is guilt on my hands-- 4if I have done evil to him who is at peace with me or without cause have robbed my foe-- 5then let my enemy pursue and overtake me; let him trample my life to the ground and make me sleep in the dust. Selah
David is being pursued by his enemies - that was a fact of life for him for a number of years. He lived on the edge of disaster and death, with enemies all around him. And like many of us, he at times asked did I do something to deserve this? In other words, did I do something to violate your standards of justice and righteousness, your moral standards? David describes what unrighteousness is like: it is guilt on a persons hands; it is doing evil to someone who is at peace with him; it is robbing without cause. Righteousness is meeting Gods standard of moral goodness. David is saying If I havent done that, let my enemy triumph.
But, David says, judge the wicked as well, verses 6 to 9: Arise, O Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice. 7Let the assembled peoples gather around you. Rule over them from on high; 8let the Lord judge the peoples. Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, according to my integrity, O Most High. 9O righteous God, who searches minds and hearts, bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure.
Its easy to get distracted in these verses by Davids claim of integrity or righteousness. If we had more time we could pursue this through the Psalms, and what we would find is that David really does recognize that the righteousness he has is a gift of God. Were going to get there by another route. Here I simply want you to see that the one David calls the Righteous God does exercise justice by judging the wicked and making the righteous secure. This righteous and just judgment is intrinsic to the character of God. Let me say that again: For a believer, whether in the Old Testament or the New, an underlying truth that shapes our understanding is that a righteous God judges sin. A few weeks ago at Awana I illustrated the verses we were studying in Ephesians by the use of baking soda and vinegar. Paul says in Ephesians 2 that we are all sinners and are by nature objects of wrath. Just as baking soda by nature produces a strong reaction with vinegar, so too our sin by nature produces a strong reaction of justice from a righteous God.
And David points out very perceptively that we often mistake this justice for coincidence, when in fact God is using natural consequences to express his righteousness. Psalm 7:10-16 My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart. 11God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day. 12If he does not relent, he will sharpen his sword; he will bend and string his bow. 13He has prepared his deadly weapons; he makes ready his flaming arrows. 14He who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth to disillusionment. 15He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made. 16The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head.
God is a righteous judge, who expresses his wrath every day. How does he do it? On the one hand he can be seen as a God militantly imposing judgement, with a sharp sword and deadly weapons and flaming arrows. On the other hand the visible outworking of that judgment tends to be what we call natural consequences. He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made. We say youve made your bed and now youve got to lie in it. Even in our culture we see a cause/ effect relationship between sin and misery. The drug addict is the most miserable of people, as his habit consumes him from the inside and destroys every relationship and foundation of his life. The sexual offender reaps broken relationships and malice, not to mention sexual diseases and in many cases the judgment of the law. The person who plays fast and loose with finances, ends up in poverty or prison: the trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence descends on his own head.
Now I know what youre saying that doesnt always happen. Some people get away with this stuff or prosper from it. Youre right. The Biblical authors, including David, recognize that the wicked seem to prosper. But they have confidence that God will normally work justice through natural consequences, and that there is judgment waiting in the wings for those who appear to glory in their shame. The constant is the moral goodness of Gods judgment. The variable is how he expresses it.
II. . . . expects righteousness (Ezekiel 18:20, Isaiah 64:5-9)
So weve seen that God is the Righteous One, the one who possesses moral goodness and who expresses that moral goodness in judgment. He also expresses it in mercy, but were not there yet. We have see first that individual righteousness makes all the difference in our relationship with God. Ezekiel 18:20 The soul who sins is the one who will die. . . The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him. Nothing in the Bible is more clear than the fact that sin separates us from God and results in death. Our neon word, righteousness, helps us to understand this truth: God examines each life with objective justice, asking has this person shown moral goodness, and therefore conformed to my character and so that they are fit for an eternal relationship with me? Or have they acted against moral goodness so that they are unfit for that relationship. Its like a jigsaw puzzle - the tabs or knobs from one piece have to conform to the cutouts in the other pieces or there is no fit. Our goodness must conform to Gods goodness or we dont fit into a relationship with him.
But do our lives conform to this standard? No: were a bit like deformed puzzle pieces, who dont fit together with each other or with God. Isaiah 64:5-9 amplifies this: You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? 6All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. 7No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. 8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people.
All our righteous acts are like filthy rags. Even when we try to live according to Gods standards, there is so much selfishness and pride in our attempts that any righteous thing we accomplish is tainted with unrighteousness. Its universal: we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you. So Isaiah asks the question of questions: How then can we be saved? If Gods standard of righteousness is absolute moral goodness, and if even our best attempts to achieve that goodness are tainted by pride and marred by self interest, then how can we ever meet the standard? How can we ever be fit for a relationship with God?
We cant: Isaiah 59:2 Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you. The Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments, are clear that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, the perfect standard of Gods goodness. How then can we be saved? How can we ever be righteous? The amazing thing is that people like David in Psalm 7 and Isaiah in this Scripture are not really in despair. They see a way out. They know God well enough, through his word, to know that there is more to the story than righteous judgment. Isaiah even reminds God that he is father and creator, and in effect has some responsibility to do the impossible, to make unrighteous sinners righteous in his eyes. Isaiah says Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord. Do not remember our sins forever?
III. . . . and provides it. (Genesis 15:4-6, Isaiah 53:10-12)
How can God pull this off? If we are by nature objects of wrath, what can possibly change our very nature? You know the answer: its the mercy and love of God expressed in the sacrifice of Jesus. In Jesus God satisfies the requirements of his righteousness while extending grace to sinners. In the Old Testament this justification, making righteous, is seen especially in the work of the Suffering Servant, in the middle chapters of Isaiah. Listen to what God says about this Suffering Servant, Jesus: Isaiah 42"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. 2He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.
The mission of the servant is to bring righteousness. Isaiah 46 associates that righteousness with salvation: Listen, you stubborn-hearted, you who are far from righteousness. 13I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away; and my salvation will not be delayed. I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendor to Israel. But how will the servant accomplish salvation? Isaiah 53 is the answer. Many are familiar with the early verses of Isaiah 53 which tell how he was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. But are you as awed with verses 10 to 12? It was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. 11After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Do you see what is happening here? These verses tell us that it was Gods will to crush his servant Jesus, to cause him to suffer, and to make his life a guilt offering. He suffers and dies as a sacrifice to pay the price for the sin and guilt of others.
Thats what Jesus did: he died. Then he rose. Verse 10 says that this guilt offering will see his own spiritual offspring and prolong his days; he will see the light of life. This is resurrection, clear and simple. Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead.
But the key phrase for us today is at the end of verse 11: By his knowledge - or by our knowledge of him - my righteous servant will justify many. First, this affirms that the suffering servant is, as the New American Standard version says the Righteous One, clearly a title for God Himself. Weve already seen that no mere human qualifies as righteous, let alone as the righteous one - but this suffering servant, Jesus, does. In fact it is because he is himself righteous, fully meeting the moral standard of a Holy God, that he is qualified to offer himself as a guilt offering for the sins of others. Verse 12 tells us that he poured out his life unto death, was numbered with the transgressors, bore the sin of many, and made intercession for them. And as a result of this righteousness, he justifies many.
Of all the neon occurrences of zedek in our study today, this is the most neon of all: that by his death and resurrection the Righteous One righteousifies - justifies. He pays the price of our sin, so we are forgiven; endures the judgment of our sin so our unconformity to Gods moral goodness is removed. By nature we are objects of wrath, but by this miracle we are no longer objects of wrath, but objects of relationship. This is an awesome transformation: from the first verses we looked at righteousness was an impossible standard. It was Gods moral perfection, and no one besides God met that standard; we fell so far short that our righteous acts were like filthy rags, and Gods judgment was a cause of awe and fear. But now righteousness is a gift, bought and paid for at a great price, and the key to an eternal relationship of joyful fellowship with God. Psalm 32:11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!
But how do we obtain this righteousness? Its obvious we cant be good enough to meet Gods moral standards - thats been the premise of almost everything weve seen. Therefore it is not by works, by righteous acts, that this righteousness is appropriated. There has got to be some other way, and there is. Its called faith, but in one of the most significant Old Testament verses on this subject, its called believing: Genesis 15:4-6 Then the word of the Lord came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." 5He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." 6Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
God has promised Abraham a land, and descendants and an influence on the whole world, but Abraham doesnt even have one child, and hes having a little trouble believing these promises. So God reassures him you will have a son and then makes the promise again your offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
So Abraham says yeah, right, sure, and God turns away and we never hear about him again. Not. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. After all weve seen, thats a greatly weighty statement. Abraham believed God. The key is trust, faith, belief, dependence. And it was credited to him as righteousness. He didnt have righteousness, but in believing Gods promise the righteousness of Christs sacrifice was applied to his account, so he received a righteousness not his own. This is a moral goodness that comes from God and is by faith. Thats what saves - trust in what God has promised and what God has done through Jesus. It is not works that cause us to be declared righteous - its not church attendance, its not giving, its not any kind of law-keeping - its the sacrifice of Jesus, that supplies the righteousness we need and cannot obtain, and its our faith in him, itself a gift from God, that applies the righteousness of Jesus to our account.
So righteousness is provided by God through Jesus. Thats the message of these verses. And of course, it is also the message of the New Testament. Everything weve looked at is taught on the other side of the cross in Romans. Romans 3:23 all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death. Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And Paul specifically relates all this to righteousness. In Romans 1:17 he says that in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith." And in Romans 3:21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. This neon word of the Old Testament leads to the most profound truths of the New Testament: sin, judgment, the sacrifice of Jesus, and righteousness by faith. Its all there, and arguably the greatest truth of Scripture.
Certainly Martin Luther thought so. He wrestled for a long time with righteousness as enacted judgment before he finally discovered the corollary truth of righteousness as imparted gift. I want you to imagine yourself in a small round room in the tower of an Augustinian monastery. There a monk and college professor named Martin Luther has retired to struggle with the Scriptures. Here are his words, in which it is clear that the righteous one expects righteousness, but its suddenly revealed that he also provides it. Luther gave these details in the 1545 preface to his writings:
Meanwhile in that same year, 1519, [though] I had dealt in university courses with St. Paul's Letters to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the Letter to the Hebrews. I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans. Thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: "The justice of God is revealed in it."
I hated that word, "justice of God," which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust. But I, blameless monk that I was, knew that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, "Isn't it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?" This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.
I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: "The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: 'The just person lives by faith.'" I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith alone.
All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, "the justice of God," with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine's "On the Spirit and the Letter," in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted "the justice of God" in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us.
The righteous one expects of us righteousness, and gives it to us as a gift through faith in his Son.