by Mark Horne
One meaning of “righteousness” in the Bible is moral uprightness. Perhaps a more basic meaning would be faithfulness. For example, Psalm 96.13 praises God, saying:
He will judge the world in righteousness,
And the peoples in faithfulness.
In Hebrew poetry two lines often say the same thing using different words. In this case, “faithfulness” and “righteousness” are very close in meaning, if not identical. Because faithfulness to God’s commands would constitute moral goodness, one can see how righteousness came to designate one’s moral behavior in general.
But God tells us that none of us is faithful to all God’s commands. As King Solomon confessed in his prayer to God at the dedication of the temple, “there is no man who does not sin” (First Kings 8.46). The question then is: How can we be counted as righteous before God when we are not faithful to God’s commandments?
To get to the answer to that question, we have to realize that the language of “righteousness” is most at home in the setting of a law court. For example, in Exodus 23 we read:
You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent or the righteous, for I will not acquit the guilty. And you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of the just.
I’m using the NASB here, but it is somewhat misleading. Because the word for “acquit” is the verbal form of the word “righteous” and “the just” also uses the same word: “the righteous.” In this court setting the word “righteous” comes up repeatedly. As Biblical scholar, N. T. Wright summarizes the date in the entry for “righteousness” in the New Dictionary of Theology: “Righteousness is the status which results, for either party [defendant or plaintiff], if the court finds in his favor.”
Because God is the judge of all the earth, righteousness is very important for our relationship with him. When Solomon prays at the Temple dedication, he makes it clear that God’s judgments are an important aspect of the new place of worship:
If a man sins against his neighbor and is made to take an oath, and he comes and takes an oath before Your altar in this house, then hear You in heaven and act and judge Your servants, condemning the wicked by bringing his way on his own head and justifying ["declaring righteous"] the righteous by giving him according to his righteousness (First Kings 8.31, 32).
Obviously, since Solomon goes on to admit that no one is without sin, the “righteous” here are not those who are morally perfect, but those who have conformed to the covenant requirements in the case of his oath.
Notice that being declared “righteous” here is not some inaudible activity on God’s part. Solomon is asking God to intervene in history so that his verdict is obvious to all. Likewise, when Israel went into exile as punishment for sin, God promised to bring them back to their land through Isaiah the prophet (54.17).
No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper;
And every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn.
This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD,
And their vindication [or "righteousness"] is from Me, declares the LORD.
Here the promised military deliverance from oppressors and accusers (“no weapon… against you shall prosper”) is interpreted as a judicial verdict from God.
Thus, righteousness can be used to describe a gift of glory and salvation from everything that is bad.
If only you had paid attention to My commandments!
Then your well being would have been like a river,
And your righteousness like the waves of the sea.
Your descendants would have been like the sand,
And your offspring like its grains;
Their name would never be cut off or destroyed from My presence” (Isaiah 48.18-19).
Here on might think that God is simply saying that obedience would mean one is morally upright (“righteous” by one possible meaning). But in the context of promising well being and many offspring, “righteousness” probably means the blessings from God that are a public declaration that his people are righteous in his sight. We see the same thing in Isaiah 58.8:
Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
The glory of the LORD, the light and recovery his gives his people, is a public verdict: “not guilty.” This is probably the background to Paul’s term “justification of life” (Romans 5.18) his concern that the Law cannot “impart life” or be a basis for “righteousness” (Galatians 3.18).
Then how can we, who suffer just like the nonchristians around us, have any confidence that we are righteous in God’s sight. He has not publicly liberated us has he? First of all, by the Spirit, God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him new life. In the Gospel we see our righteousness, our vindication from God. Furthermore, by giving us faith, God has given public witness that we belong to him (Acts 15.8) so that we know we will, through Christ, be openly declared his children at the Last Day (Romans 8.20-25). There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.1).