Word Study ‘Righteous’ – Part 03 – Ethical Standard

In this post we consider the ethical nature of righteousness and what it means over various stages in salvation history. The post also looks at rewards for righteous behaviour and if or not the righteous sin.

This is the third of a series of posts on the concept of righteousness and justification in the scriptures. I’ve listed most (if not all) references to right, righteous, righteousness and just, justified and justification in the scriptures to do my own study on what the scriptures say about the concept.

Click on this link to go to the first post which has a summary and links to all.

Ethics

Different people groups and cultures define ethics and morality in sometimes similar and sometimes different ways. It’s not helpful assume what our culture thinks is right and wrong is what the bible says about ethics and morality. Sometimes there are similarities. At other times there are differences.

Basic Categories

The categories I sort the majority of references of the ‘righteous’ word group are Identity, Character and Behaviour.

These categories overlap. So, for example, while a particular instance may lean towards a ‘Character’ interpretation of the word, it implies that the others are true as well. This will make more sense as I explain what I mean by each of these categories and give some examples.

Identity (Ps 1.5-6; Mt 9:10–13)

As may be inferred from the previous post, there are numerous instances where a group of people is called ‘the righteous’. Since it is a way of naming them, the reference in part describes their identity. This identity is frequently in distinction to another group of people called ‘the wicked’ or ‘sinners’. Calling a group ‘the righteous’ is synonymous with saying they are the people of God.

1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the RIGHTEOUS; 6 for the LORD knows the way of the RIGHTEOUS, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Ps 1:1–6)

Character (Gen 6.5-9,22; Mt 1.19)

Calling someone righteous says something about that person’s character and attitude. Quite often in the Old Testament people are described as being righteous. Again there are numerous occasions where the term applied to them distinguishes them from those described as ‘wicked’ or ‘sinners’.

The main distinction I make between righteous denoting identity and character is that when a group of people is described as ‘the righteous’ I tend to think of it in terms of their identity. But, if a single person is described as ‘righteous’ I lean more towards it being a description of his or her character and attitude. Clearly there is overlap. Those given the identity of ‘the righteous’ are also righteous in terms of their character.

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. 9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a RIGHTEOUS man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. …

6.22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him. 7.1 Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are RIGHTEOUS before me in this generation. (Gen 6.5-9,22)

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a RIGHTEOUS man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Mt 1.18-19)

To describe someone’s character as righteous suggests some sort of standard of ethics and morality is being measured up against. I will discuss this further below.

Behaviour (2 Sa 22.21-25; Rom 6.17-18; 1 Tim 6.11)

Generally the term ‘righteousness’ is employed to denote the righteous behaviour of a person. Behaviour involves some sort of action and is thus observable. People can be identified as belonging to the group called ‘the righteous’ and having a righteous character by their words and actions.

21 “The LORD dealt with me according to my RIGHTEOUSNESS; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. 22 For I have kept the ways of the LORD and have not wickedly departed from my God. 23 For all his rules were before me, and from his statutes I did not turn aside. 24 I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from guilt. 25 And the LORD has rewarded me according to my RIGHTEOUSNESS, according to my cleanness in his sight. (2 Sa 22.21-25)

17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of RIGHTEOUSNESS. (Rom 6.17-18)

11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue RIGHTEOUSNESS, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. (1 Tim 6.11)

God promises his people will be righteous (Isa 32.15-17; 33.5; 61.3,11; 62.1-2; Je 31:23-24; 33:14–26; Hos 10.12; Lk 1.72-75)

It should not surprise us there have been people throughout time who have been righteous because God has promised to make this happen.

62 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her RIGHTEOUSNESS goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.

2 The nations shall see your RIGHTEOUSNESS, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. (Isa 62.1-2)

God is able to make his people abound in righteousness (2 Cor 9.8-11; cf. 1 Cor 15.10-11)

8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 9 As it is written,

“He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his RIGHTEOUSNESS endures forever.”

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your RIGHTEOUSNESS. 11 You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. (2 Cor 9.8-11)

God’s works through Jesus Christ (2 Pet 1.1)

To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the RIGHTEOUSNESS of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: (2 Pet 1.1)

Types of righteousness

Pre-Mosaic Saints

Prior to Moses, descriptions of what constitutes righteous behaviour are almost non existent.

I assume that all those who are called righteous were at some time sinners, but at some point God came into their lives. I assume all the righteous have a relationship with God and through knowing him they live the way they do.

Here is what the scriptures say of the righteous prior to Moses.

Abel (Heb 11.4)

4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as RIGHTEOUS, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. (Heb 11.4)

We can see here Abel’s, sacrifice was regarded as acceptable.

Noah (Gen 6.5-9; 7.1; Heb 11.7; 2 Pet 2.5)

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. 9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a RIGHTEOUS man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. (Gen 6.5-9)

7 Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are RIGHTEOUS before me in this generation. (Gen 7.1)

7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the RIGHTEOUSNESS that comes by faith. (Heb 11.7)

5 if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of RIGHTEOUSNESS, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; (2 Pet 2.5)

Noah is described as righteous and blameless in contrast to his generation. Noah is also known for walking with God (hence my relationship assumption above) and obeying God’s commands (Gen 6.22).

Abraham (Gen 15.1-6; 17.1; 26:4-5; Heb 11.8-9)

15 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as RIGHTEOUSNESS. …

18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, (Gen 15.1-6,18)

17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, (Gen 17.1)

4 I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” (Gen 26:4-5)

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. (Heb 11.8-9)

Abraham obeys God when he was called into the promised land. His faith in God and his promise of offspring is counted as righteousness. There are several verses which suggest at some point he was commanded to observe various laws, but other than circumcision (Gen 17) it is not clear what they are. Like Noah he is commanded to walk with God and be blameless.

Lot (2 Pet 2.6-9)

6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued RIGHTEOUS Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked 8 (for as that RIGHTEOUS man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his RIGHTEOUS soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the UNRIGHTEOUS under punishment until the day of judgment, (2 Pet 2.6-9)

We are told Lot was tormented over the wickedness in his city. In the Genesis account he is known for his hospitality (Gen 19).

Sodom (Gen 18.22-26)

22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the RIGHTEOUS with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty RIGHTEOUS within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty RIGHTEOUS who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the RIGHTEOUS to death with the wicked, so that the RIGHTEOUS fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty RIGHTEOUS in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” (Gen 18.22-26)

Abraham assumes the existence of other righteous people around the world. We are not told what other things he knows about the righteous and their relationship with God. I assume from previous accounts the righteous walk with God and are blameless. Abraham in this account knows it would be unjust for God to destroy them along with the wicked in Sodom.

Tamar (Gen 38.24-26)

24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more RIGHTEOUS than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. (Gen 38.24-26)

Tamar’s behaviour is commended as righteous. She was keeping the tradition of preserving her dead husband’s family line by ensuring she produced an heir for him by his closest relatives. When Judah says of Tamar, ‘She is more righteous than I’, he is referring to her being righteous in her pursuit of covenantal, familial responsibility.

Covenantal Connotations (Heb 11.13,39; Dt 5.1-3)

While we can see ethical and relational connotations associated with the term – blameless, innocent, obedience, walking with God, free of judgment, there are also covenantal connotations. We can see these in Hebrews and assume from Deuteronomy.

13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. …

39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, (Heb 11.13,39)

The Hebrews chapter makes all these pre-Mosaic Saints beneficiaries of the covenant promises. If we can believe the righteous always walk with God, then we can assume they also are in some sort of covenantal relationship with him.

5 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. 2 The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. 3 Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. (Dt 5.1-3)

Moses suggests the pre-Mosaic Saints were also under some form of covenant, not the same as the Mosaic covenant.

Law of Moses (Dt 6:20–25; Eze 18.5-9; cf. Dt 4.13; 29.9; Mt 3.13-15; Lk 1.5-6)

The LORD God and his covenant law dominates the Hebrew understanding of ethics and morality. Their understanding of right and wrong behaviour was defined by the covenant law. Their understanding of good and evil was defined by the covenant law. Hebrews believed the ongoing practice of all the covenant laws was ‘righteousness’. (Dt 6:20–25; cf. Dt 4.13; 29.9)

20 “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ 21 then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. 23 And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. 24 And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. 25 And it will be RIGHTEOUSNESS for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.’ (Dt 6.20-25)

From this we can see that ‘righteousness’ was understood as covenant keeping behaviour. The opposite is true too. Disobeying these commands was understood as breaking the covenant.

14 “But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, (Lev 26.14-15)

Righteous rules (Dt 4.8; Ps 19.8-9; 119.7f; Rom 7.12; 8.4)

The commands in the law of Moses are occasionally called righteous in themselves.

7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;

8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;

9 the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and RIGHTEOUS altogether. (Ps 19.7-9)

Covenant keeping (Isa 56.1-4,6; Hos 10.12; Ps 132.9,12)

Righteousness is also covenant keeping.

56 Thus says the LORD: “Keep justice, and do RIGHTEOUSNESS, for soon my salvation will come, and my RIGHTEOUSNESS be revealed.

2 Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”

3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;

and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”

4 For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, (Isa 56.1-4)

As we have seen earlier, the Hebrew law is made up of actions, attitudes, prohibitions and conditional laws. The table I have developed categorising the covenant law this way is below.

Attitudes Actions Prohibitions Conditional Laws
Love

(LORD and neighbour)

Circumcision Idolatry and Foreign Worship Firstborn
Honor (Parents) Festivals and holidays Murder and Violence Property, Land and Servants
Worship and Sacrifice Sexual immorality Punishment and Restitution
Purity and Washings Stealing Social Justice and the Poor
False Witness Vows
Covet Trumpets
Food laws Clothing

Below are some more specific examples.

Helping the poor and needy (Dt 24.12-13; Pr 29.6-7; 31.9; Isa 58.6-10; Jer 22.3,15-16; Eze 18.7-8; Dan 4.27; Mt 6.1-4)

12 And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. 13 You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be RIGHTEOUSNESS for you before the LORD your God. (Dt 24.12-13)

Sharing wisdom and Instruction (Pr 10.20-21,30-32)

30 The RIGHTEOUS will never be removed, but the wicked will not dwell in the land.

31 The mouth of the RIGHTEOUS brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off.

32 The lips of the RIGHTEOUS know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse. (Pr 10.30-32)

Contrasted with sacrifice (Pr 21.3; Am 5.21-24)

On occasion righteousness is contrasted with sacrifice.

21 “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.

23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.

24 But let justice roll down like waters, and RIGHTEOUSNESS like an ever-flowing stream. (Am 5.21-24; cf. Mt 23.23)

Clothed in righteousness (Job 29.14; Ps 132.9; Isa 61.10)

People in the OT were said to be clothed in righteousness. That is righteous deeds.

11 When the ear heard, it called me blessed, and when the eye saw, it approved,

12 because I delivered the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to help him.

13 The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.

14 I put on RIGHTEOUSNESS, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban.

15 I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.

16 I was a father to the needy, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.

17 I broke the fangs of the UNRIGHTEOUS and made him drop his prey from his teeth. (Job 29.11-17)

Righteousness in the Gospel and Apostles

Typically I assume New Testament believers are no longer under the law of Moses. However, Jesus and the apostles commanded God’s people to live a certain way. Here are a few examples of what the New Testament says about righteousness in this respect.

Jesus’ Commands (Mt 5.17-20; 6.1-4; 32-33; 21.32; cf. Jn 15.9-10; Mt 28.17-20; Lk 10.25-28)

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your RIGHTEOUSNESS exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5.17-20)

6 “Beware of practicing your RIGHTEOUSNESS before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mt 6.1-4)

32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his RIGHTEOUSNESS, and all these things will be added to you. (Mt 6.32-33)

32 For John came to you in the way of RIGHTEOUSNESS, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him. (Mt 21.32)

Apostles standard (Acts 24.25; Rom 6.13-20; Rom 14.17; 1 Cor 1.30; Eph 4.23; Eph 6.14; 1 Tim 6.11-14; 2 Tim 2.22; 3.14-17; 1 Pet 2.21-25; cf. Rom 6.17; Eph 4.20)

15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to RIGHTEOUSNESS? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of RIGHTEOUSNESS. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to RIGHTEOUSNESS leading to sanctification. (Rom 6.15-19)

Put on the new self (Eph 4.24)

17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true RIGHTEOUSNESS and holiness. (Eph 4.17-24)

Life’s Journey

Righteousness involves a whole life journey.

The righteous make a practice of righteousness (1 Jn 3.7)

5 You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices RIGHTEOUSNESS is RIGHTEOUS, as he is RIGHTEOUS. 8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice RIGHTEOUSNESS is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 Jn 3.5-10)

John explains to his audience what is involved in being righteous. Making a regular practice of righteousness like God does. He uses this to distinguish the children of God from the children of the devil.

The righteous walk in God’s commands (Lk 1.5-6)

5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both RIGHTEOUS before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. (Lk 1.5-6)

The righteous follow the right path (Ps 23.3; Pr 2.9,20; Isa 26.7)

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.

3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of RIGHTEOUSNESS for his name’s sake. (Ps 23.1-3)

There is a way of righteousness (2 Pet 2.20-21)

20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of RIGHTEOUSNESS than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. (2 Pet 2.20-21)

People pursue righteousness (Pr 15.9)

9 The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves him who pursues RIGHTEOUSNESS. (Pr 15.9)

God’s people are filled with the fruit of righteousness (Prov 12.12; Isa 3.10; Isa 45.8; Php 1.11; Heb 12.11; cf. Amos 6.12)

9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of RIGHTEOUSNESS that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Php 1.9-11)

The righteous keep the law

The majority of references to righteousness understand it in terms of the law of Moses. The Mosaic covenant.

Keep the covenant (Dt 7.9,12; 1 Ki 9.3-5; 11.1-6,30-39; 2 Ki 23.3,21,25; Ps 103.18; 2 Chr 7.17-18; Isa 56.4; cf. 1 Ki 14.8)

Righteousness is the fulfillment of covenant obligations. In the Old Testament God commanded his people to keep the covenant with all its rules and statutes (Gen 17.10; Ex 19.5; Dt 29.9; Neh 1.5; Ps 25.10; 132.12; Dan 9.4).

30 And the king went up to the house of the Lord, with all the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the Levites, all the people both great and small. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. 31 And the king stood in his place and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book. (2 Chr 34.30-31)

9 walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is RIGHTEOUS; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD. (Eze 18:9)

There are instances in the Old Testament where God acknowledges that people have done so;

6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in RIGHTEOUSNESS, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have kept for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. …

14 And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” (1 Ki 3.6,14)

David is held up as a standard of righteousness future kings were compared against. But those who know David, know there must be something deeper going on here because he had a notable sin. There are a few concepts associated with righteousness that can help us understand this which we will consider a bit later.

Levels of righteousness

When someone is described as being righteous in the scriptures it does not necessarily mean they are perfect. Otherwise how could someone be more righteous than another? It may mean this certainly with respect to God, who is, and is the only one absolutely perfect. But being righteous may also mean the person being described comes within a degree of accuracy of absolute perfection. Both are righteous, one more so than the other.

More righteous (Gen 38.24-26; 1 Sam 24.16-20; 1 Ki 2.31-33; Jer 3.11; Hab 1.13; cf. Eze 16.48-52)

16 As soon as David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. 17 He said to David, “You are more RIGHTEOUS than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. 18 And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. 19 For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. 20 And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. (1 Sa 24.16-20)

When someone is described as being righteous in the scriptures it does not necessarily mean they are perfect. Otherwise how could someone be more righteous than another? It may mean this certainly with respect to God, who is, and is the only one absolutely perfect. But being righteous may also mean the person being described comes within a degree of accuracy of absolute perfection. Both are righteous, one more so than the other.

Be not overly righteous (Ecc 7.15-17)

The same thought is expressed in a different way in Ecclesiastes.

15 In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a RIGHTEOUS man who perishes in his RIGHTEOUSNESS, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. 16 Be not overly RIGHTEOUS, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them. (Ec 7.15-18)

That the author instructs his listeners not to be be overly righteous (however strange that seems!?!) suggests varying degrees in righteousness among people.

Rewards for righteousness (1 Sam 24.16-20; 26.21-25; 1 Ki 8.31-32; 2 Sam 22.21-27; 1 Ki 8.31-32; Ps 18.20-27; 58.10-11; Isa 58.6-10; Mt 6.1-4)

In the scriptures, God as king rewards the righteous just he punishes the wicked for their behaviour.

Receive God’s Promises (Gen 18.19; cf. Isa 57.12-13)

17 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing RIGHTEOUSNESS and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Gen 18.17-19)

Entry into kingdom of heaven (Mt 5.17-20)

(Receive land despite current generations righteousness Dt 9.4-7)

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your RIGHTEOUSNESS exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5.17-20)

Delivers from death (Pr 10.2; 11.3-9; Isa 33.14-15; Eze 14.12-20; 18.19-28; Zep 2.3; Acts 24.25)

12 And the word of the LORD came to me: 13 “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, 14 even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their RIGHTEOUSNESS, declares the Lord GOD. (Eze 14.12-14)

Life (Pr 10.16; 11.18-19; 21.21)

16 The wage of the RIGHTEOUS leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin. (Pr 10.16)

Good (Pr 13.21; cf. 1 Sam 24.19)

21 Disaster pursues sinners, but the RIGHTEOUS are rewarded with good. (Pr 13.21)

Divine anointing (Heb 1.8-9)

8 But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You have loved RIGHTEOUSNESS and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” (Heb 1.8-9)

Righteousness not rewarded when the person turns to sin (Eze 3.20-21; 33.10-20)

12 “And you, son of man, say to your people, The RIGHTEOUSNESS of the RIGHTEOUS shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the RIGHTEOUS shall not be able to live by his RIGHTEOUSNESS when he sins. 13 Though I say to the RIGHTEOUS that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his RIGHTEOUSNESS and does injustice, none of his RIGHTEOUS deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. (Eze 33.12-13)

The righteous sin (Ecc 7.20; 1 Ki 8.32,46)

As a general rule the righteous do not need to repent (Lk 15.7). However there are other passages which suggest the righteous still sin. Consider the following;

20 Surely there is not a RIGHTEOUS man on earth who does good and never sins. (Ecc 7.20)

The author of Ecclesiastes uses the Hebrew ‘ṣǎd·dîqʹ ʾā·ḏāmʹ – a ‘righteous man’. The point is not to deny the existence of righteous men. Rather it is that all of them at some point neglect to do what is good and they occasionally sin.

Likewise consider these two sayings of Solomon during the dedication of the house of the LORD.

32 then hear in heaven and act and judge your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing his conduct on his own head, and vindicating the RIGHTEOUS by rewarding him according to his RIGHTEOUSNESS. (1 Ki 8:32)

46 “If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, (1 Ki 8:46)

Solomon acknowledges the righteous, but soon afterwards he says everyone sins. He must think the righteous sin.

Likewise in James if we compare two verses.

2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. (Jas 3.2) …

16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a the RIGHTEOUS person has great power as it is working. (Jas 5.16)

Putting the two together, if we all stumble in many ways, the righteous also stumble.

The righteous are not perfect, they are made perfect.

23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the RIGHTEOUS made perfect (Heb 12.23)

The righteous under judgment (Pr 11.31; 1 Pet 4.17-18)

16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And

“If the RIGHTEOUS is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Pet 4.16-18)

Israel’s righteous deeds polluted (Isa 64.6)

6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our the RIGHTEOUS deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isa 64.6)

People deluding themselves they are righteous (Lk 18.9-14)

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were the RIGHTEOUS, and treated others with contempt. (Lk 18.9)

The Greek is plural.

The righteous atone for their sin (Ecc 9.1-3)

The righteous deal with their sin by the means of atonement and forgiveness God has given them in the covenant law. The author of Ecclesiastes also says;

9 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the RIGHTEOUS and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens

to the RIGHTEOUS and the wicked,

to the good and the evil,

to the clean and the unclean,

to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice.

As the good one is, so is the sinner, and

he who swears is as he who shuns an oath.

3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. (Ecc 9:1–3)

One may see from the parallel that ‘the righteous’ are also those ‘who sacrifice’. Spelled out in Leviticus 1-5, the sacrifices required in the covenant law include sin offerings (Lev 4). Sin offerings atoned for sin and enabled the offerer to be forgiven. To imply that the righteous sacrifice and thus make sin offerings themselves suggests that they do sin, but are provided with a means of atonement and forgiveness by the covenant law they practice.

We must assume that God would only forgive the Old Testament offerer if he or she genuinely repented of their sin and trusted in God for their forgiveness. They trusted God, that through the offering of an animal sacrifice they would be forgiven. In the light of Christ we know the animal sacrifice itself wasn’t the true means of atonement and forgiveness. Christ’s blood shedding on the cross is. But they didn’t know this and it was not necessarily a problem that they didn’t know this. God has always been gracious and merciful to those who humble themselves before him in history. God still forgave the Old Testament offerer who repented of sin and trusted in Him even though the offerer wasn’t aware that the underlying sacrifice was Christ himself when they offered up the animal sacrifice.

Here we can see how insignificant perfections were generally dealt with during Old Testament times.

One of the words I’ve mentioned commonly associated with ‘righteous’ is ‘blameless’. Being blameless under the law means there is no record of debt held against that person. They may not necessarily have done wrong, but if they have, the wrong has been atoned for by the means of atonement and forgiveness provided within the law. People are ‘blameless’ through an imperfect, but ongoing practice of all the covenant law. The law which provides a means of atonement and forgiveness.

Common Associations

In addition to all these, the righteous are also considered;

Blameless (Gen 6.9; Ps 37.17-18; 1 Thes 2.10)

9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a the RIGHTEOUS man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. (Gen 6.9)

The righteous stand blameless before God (Eph 1.4; Phil 1.10; Col 1.22; 1 Thes 3.13).

Innocence (Job 27.17; Ps 94.21)

20 Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who frame injustice by statute?

21 They band together against the life of the RIGHTEOUS and condemn the innocent to death. (Ps 94.20-21)

Upright (Ps 11.7; 33.1; 92.15; Pr 2.20-21; Isa 57.1-2)

57 The the RIGHTEOUS man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the RIGHTEOUS man is taken away from calamity;

2 he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness. (Isa 57.1-2)

Good (Lk 23.50; Rom 5.6-7)

50 Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and the RIGHTEOUS man, (Lk 23.50)

Contrasted with the wicked (2 Sam 4.11; Ps 1.5-6; Ecc 9.1-3; Mal 3.17-18; Mt 9.10-13; Mt 13.47-50; Lk 15.7; Rom 5.6-8; 1 Pet 4.16-18; Ecc 3.16-19; 8.14; Eze 21.1-5)

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the RIGHTEOUS;

6 for the LORD knows the way of the RIGHTEOUS, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Ps 1.5-6)


Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2017. All Rights Reserved.

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