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Question and Answer

Perplexed by the Psalms' "righteous" attitude

Question:

I have a lot of trouble reading the Psalms out loud. Many of the Psalms seem to approach God with an attitude of "I am righteous and have been wronged." This seems contrary to the "broken and contrite heart" that's supposed to be acceptable to God. Certainly it makes me quake in my boots to recite phrases like "Judge me by my integrity"—something I hope God never does! Can you shed some light on a Reformed reading of passages like these?

Answer:

The very first rule for interpreting any passage of Scripture is to consider the context. Thus to understand properly such a statement as is found in Psalm 7:8 (which you cite and which we will explore in more depth later) we must consider what is said elsewhere in that Psalm (and in the Psalms in general).

In fact, Scripture as a whole (including both Old and New Testament) helps us to interpret Scripture. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.9) puts it, "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly."

Let's start with Romans 3:9-18 (New King James Version):

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written:

"There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one."
"Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practiced deceit";
"The poison of asps is under their lips";
"Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness."
"Their feet are swift to shed blood;
Destruction and misery are in their ways;...
"There is no fear of God before their eyes."

In this passage, the apostle Paul argues that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (3:23) and that "the righteousness of God" is "through faith in Jesus Christ" (3:22). To prove his case, he quotes one Psalm after another: Psalms 14:1b-3; Psalm 5:9b; Psalm 140:3b; Psalm 10:7a; Psalm 36:1. Thus in the Book of Psalms, when someone describes himself as "righteousness," it cannot mean "sinless" (only our Savior is that!). Rather, a person who is "righteous" in the Psalms is such through "the righteousness of God," because he is "justified" [i.e., accounted righteous] freely by His grace" (Rom. 3:24).

Psalm 7 is a Psalm of David. Does David consider himself "righteous" in some sense where he can take Pharisaic pride in that fact? (see Luke 18:10-14). No way! Consider David's comments in Psalm 51.

Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight—
That You may be found just when You speak,
And blameless when You judge....
Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom....
Hide Your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me....
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You....

Or consider David's comments in Psalm 32:

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit....
I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I have not hidden.
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,"
And You forgave the iniquity of my sin....
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous;
And shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

Obviously, David regards the "righteous" and the "upright in heart" as those who have confessed their sins, who have had their sins forgiven, and who find joy in God's mercy and grace.

There is another reality that must be considered. If someone is regenerate, he has been given a new heart. He is not perfect, not without sin, but—if he has sincerely repented—there has been a genuine "change of mind," a change of direction in his life. And just as New Testament believers are called "saints," there is a sense in which Old Testament believers can be described as "righteous."

Although we continue to sin against God in word, thought, and deed, that is not our desire. Although both the apostle Paul and the Psalmist (especially David) recognize that they are at best "redeemed sinners," yet the apostle Paul in Romans 7:22 can truly say, "I delight in the law of God according to the inward man," and the Psalmist in Psalm 119:47 can declare, "I will delight myself in Your commandments, which I love."

When the Psalmist looks to God to attest to his "integrity" or that he is "upright in heart," that appears similar to what the apostle John has in mind in 1 John 3:21, "Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him."

The Westminster Confession of Faith (16.6) puts it this way: "... the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God's sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections."

Psalm 7:8, which you cited, speaks of David's integrity in the context of his comparing himself with his persecutors. Notice the parallel in this very verse—i.e., integrity is to be seen as a synonym for righteousness. Comparing himself with his enemies, David is simply saying, I have done nothing to deserve this treatment by them. In verse 8, then, he is simply saying he is willing to have his heart judged by God. In the very next verse he counts himself as among the righteous—i.e., those who have been forgiven by God by faith in his promises (cf. Abraham in Gal. 3 and Rom. 4).

In New Testament terms, the "righteous" are those who trust in Christ alone. Indeed! Christ is your righteousness, if you have trusted in him alone for salvation. In God's sight you have the righteousness of Christ, and therefore also his integrity! Thus you are relying ultimately not on your own integrity but on the integrity of God when you also say, with David, that you want God to judge you according to your integrity.

But take it to the next level. Christ himself is foreshadowed by David, and Christ himself was persecuted. Do we not hear an echo in the Psalmist's words of the cry of Jesus on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (see Ps. 22:1 and the remainder of that Psalm). Like David, you can be "righteous" only through the righteousness of Christ imputed to you as a result of His perfect person and work, including His death on the cross.

In summary, when you are faced with a question of interpretation of a passage of Scripture, determine the context of the passage of interest—historical and grammatical—see what the writer is trying to express and why. Then seek to find Christ either speaking or foreshadowed in such passages and then tie the passage to your own life. And of course, always ask the help of the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writing of Holy Scripture, infallible and inerrant.


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