When the apostle Paul wrote that the righteousness of God would be revealed, (Romans 1:17) he was talking about something a lot bigger than just God’s moral virtue. In my last blog, I explained that the righteousness of God very often refers to God’s faithfulness to keep his covenant promises.
Study the Psalms
Sometimes you can learn a lot about a word or phrase by looking at how it is treated in Hebrew poetry. The Psalms make frequent use of a kind of parallelism wherein one line of poetry is explained and expanded upon in the next line. Psalm 143 is full of this kind of parallelism. Paul quoted Psalm 143 in the heart of his argument in Romans 3, so it’s an especially good Psalm to study while reading the book of Romans. Let’s look at part of it together:
“Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my supplications!” (Psalm 143:1) The Psalmist is crying out for help. He’s introducing us to the idea that God can rescue in accordance with his righteousness.
“Answer me in Thy faithfulness, in Thy righteousness!” (Psalm 143:1) God has promised that if his people will cry out to him, he will rescue them. Israel entered into covenant with Yahweh, who had already entered into covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Adam in times past. He is Israel’s God, and he will take care of his people. Notice the Hebrew parallelism in this line: the word righteousness is parallel to the word faithfulness.
“And do not enter into judgment with Thy servant…” (Psalm 143:2) In other words, don’t act based on the cursing side of the covenant. God can reveal his righteousness—his faithfulness to his covenant—in two ways: he can curse or he can bless. If his people kept their side of the covenant, they would be blessed. If they disobeyed, God had promised to send them into exile. God always keeps his promises!
The righteousness of God doesn’t just mean his activity to save. It means that he keeps his word. Sometimes you’ll see references to both the blessings and the curses of the covenant used in the same passage.
“…for in your sight no man living is righteous.” (Psalm 143:2) This is the first reference to human righteousness in this Psalm. The Psalmist pleads for mercy because there is no way for people to keep the entirety of God’s covenant on their own.
You’ll find another reference to human righteousness in Psalm 143:8, “Teach me the way in which I should walk….” The Psalmist is asking God to help him be faithful to the covenant, because he can’t do it on his own.
Psalm 143:11 continues, “For the sake of Thy name, O Lord, revive me.” This can mean two things. The Psalmist may be saying something like, “If your nation is scattered, then you, O God, will appear weak.” It may also mean something like, “Act, because you promised you would. Your name is attached to the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
“In Thy righteousness bring my soul out of trouble. And In Thy lovingkindness cut off my enemies.” (Psalm 143:11-12) Do you see the theme here? The Psalmist’s appeals to righteousness, faithfulness, and lovingkindness really mean something like, “save us in accordance with your promises.”
Pay attention to words like righteousness, mercy, faithfulness, and lovingkindness in the scriptures. When you see one of these words, ask yourself, whose righteousness is this verse referencing? What does it mean for God to be righteous in this context? What does it mean for man to be righteous? You’ll find Psalm 89, Psalm 71, and Psalm 119 especially helpful in this particular word study.
The previous was adapted from a class Dr. Sloan taught on the book of Romans at Houston Baptist University.