Hero Image

‘According to My Righteousness’

Do the Psalms Teach Justification by Works?

Article by

Guest Contributor

ABSTRACT: The language of righteousness in the Psalms often surprises Christians, especially in light of the doctrine of justification by faith. Some interpreters have even suggested that the psalmists claim a form of self-righteousness similar to what the later Pharisees would display. A portrait of the righteous in the Psalms tells the true story: they find their refuge in God and, as a result, receive a righteousness from him that increasingly characterizes their lives. They also anticipate the coming of the Righteous One, in whose mouth the psalmists’ words find their ultimate fulfillment.

We meet “the congregation of the righteous” and are promised that “the Lord knows the way of the righteous” right at the start of the Psalter (Psalm 1:5–6). But who are the righteous? We shall never make friends with the Psalms, let alone begin to enjoy and appropriate them in our devotions, until we know. They appear again and again, especially in book 1 (Psalms 1–41), often in contrast to “the wicked.”

So many promises are attached to these people. Not only does the covenant Lord know (watch over) their way and guide their steps (Psalm 1:6), but he blesses and protects them (Psalm 5:12), he is with them and terrifies their enemies (Psalm 14:5), he surrounds them with steadfast love (Psalm 32:10–11), he watches them with his eyes and listens for their cry with his ears (Psalm 34:15, 17), he upholds them (Psalm 37:17), and he gives them the new creation, which is the fulfillment of the Promised Land (Psalm 37:29), so that they will flourish in his presence for ever (Psalm 92:12–13). These people — and it is important to remember that, in the Old Testament, these were real flesh-and-blood people — are showered with blessing.

It matters deeply to know who they are, not least so that you and I can make sure we belong among them, inherit their promises, and sing their psalms.1

Who Are the Righteous?

Two large and closely related problems raise their heads. First, we struggle to know what to make of it when psalmists claim to be righteous, sometimes in quite strong terms. For example, the prayer “judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me” (Psalm 7:8) rather alarms us. If I were to pray that, what if the Lord did judge me according to my righteousness and found it severely wanting, as he surely must — must he not? Dare I pray this?

“Who are the righteous? We shall never make friends with the Psalms until we know.”

Second, we have to grapple with the apparent contradiction that the psalmists who claim to possess righteousness also admit that it is not possible to be righteous before God (e.g., Psalm 143:2). How can both be true at the same time? How can I possess righteousness if I have no righteousness?

There is a simple, superficially attractive, and yet deeply problematic “solution.” This is to conclude that claims to righteousness in the Psalms are actually professions of self-righteousness that anticipate the later self-righteousness of the Pharisees so roundly condemned by the Lord Jesus (e.g., Luke 18:9–14).2 This is unsatisfactory, first, because it supposes that some of the words of the psalmists are flawed expressions of merely human convictions. Many do hold this opinion, but we have no warrant to suppose that the Psalms contain a mixture of truth and error (unlike the speeches of Job’s three comforters, whose words God explicitly tells us are not entirely trustworthy, Job 42:7).

It is also unsatisfactory because it does not reflect the portrayal of the righteous in the Psalms themselves, to which we turn. While it would be possible to read back New Testament expositions of righteousness, especially in the apostle Paul, we shall focus on building up a picture from the Psalms themselves. I shall do this under seven heads, before considering how these people compare with those accounted righteous by grace under the new covenant.

These headlines are based on a fairly comprehensive study of the words righteous and righteousness in the Psalms. There are more than 120 verses in which one or more of these occur, in about 60 different psalms. A full study would consider each of these in context.

Who are these people? What do they look like, not in terms of their outward appearance, of course, but in their heart, their spirit? What gets them out of bed in the morning — what are their longings, their pleasures, their hopes, their fears?

As we consider them, it is worth remembering that a word study of righteous or righteousness3 will miss the parallel descriptions, in which these people are often referred to as “upright” or “upright of heart,” meaning straightforwardly moral in their lives (e.g., Psalm 11:7; 32:11; 33:1; 36:10; 37:37; 94:15; 97:11); as “blameless,” having integrity, the opposite of hypocrisy (e.g., Psalm 15:2; 18:25; 37:18, 37; 64:4; 101:2, 6; 119:1); and on one occasion as “the living” (Psalm 69:28) since they live in the sight of God. These are all the same people, whose prayers and praises are expressed in the Psalms and whose contours are there delineated.

1. Their Delight

At the heart of the question lies the heart of the righteous. In what, or in whom, do they most deeply delight? Had they been incipient Pharisees, the answer would have been, for each, “I delight in myself. I thank God that I am who I am. I praise myself, and I want others to praise me.”

That the praise and delight of the righteous is focused intensely on the covenant Lord gives perhaps the clearest indication that they belong to this covenant Lord by grace. Repeatedly, we are told that their joy and exultation is found in the Lord (e.g., Psalm 33:1; 64:10; 68:3; 97:12). It is — to put it in colloquial terms — the covenant Lord who puts a spring in their step, who gets them out of bed in the morning, who energizes them and delights their hearts.

2. Their Desire

Closely tied to the delight of the righteous is the question of their desire, their hope, their longing, their aspiration. For what do they hope? The answer, which follows necessarily, logically, and experientially from their delight, is that they desire to see the face of the covenant Lord God. Nothing is more precious to them than to have the face (the personal, beneficent presence) of the Lord turned toward them, both in this life (in part) and in eternity (in full). This is a most precious promise (e.g., Psalm 11:7). Not to have it is the most painful experience on earth (e.g., Psalm 13:1–2; 88:14). Him they seek (Psalm 24:6; 27:8–9), and for him they thirst (e.g., Psalm 42:1–2; 143:6–7). Far from being satisfied in themselves and with themselves, their desire is passionately and intensely directed upward to the Lord.

3. Their Repentance

The third facet of the righteous is of a rather different kind: their penitence. Far from being self-confident, the truly righteous person knows deeply his own sinfulness and urgent need of repentance. We see this most clearly in Psalm 32, in which David celebrates, and tells the story of, his rediscovery of the blessing of confession of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. At the end of the psalm, he exhorts all who walk this way of repentance, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous” (Psalm 32:11). This congregation of the righteous (cf. Psalm 1:5) consists of men and women who have learned, and continue to learn, the necessity and the blessing of confession and repentance. Here in anticipation we see the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, of Jesus’s parable (Luke 18:9–14).

We see this spirit again at the start of Psalm 143, in which David leads those who have no natural righteousness (v. 2) in pleading for covenant mercy (v. 1), that God in his righteousness will answer him, and them, with steadfast love (v. 8).

4. Their Refuge

The fourth facet is perhaps the one that most clearly indicates the presence of faith or trust. It asks and answers the question, Whither or to whom do the righteous flee when under pressure or threat?

Again and again, we hear and see the righteous fleeing to the covenant Lord as their refuge, the only safe place in the face of the assaults of their enemies and ultimately in the face of the righteous judgment of God. To him they cry for help in troubles, and he delivers them (Psalm 34:15, 17, 19, 21). They commit their way to him, trust in him, confident that he will bring into the open the righteousness (or vindication) that he will give them (Psalm 37:5–6). For him they wait and hope (e.g., Psalm 37:7), for “he is their stronghold in the time of trouble” (Psalm 37:39). They cast their burden upon him, trusting that “he will never permit the righteous to be moved” (Psalm 55:22). Repeatedly, they take refuge in him (e.g., Psalm 64:10). One of the psalms where we see this most intensely is Psalm 71 (e.g., vv. 2, 3, 15, 16, 19, 24).

5. Their Assurance and Covenant Head

We come now to consider the occasions when the psalmists speak about their own righteousness (e.g., Psalm 4:1; 7:8; 18:20–24). What do they mean by this? This is arguably the most significant part of our study, and most needful of careful thought. Two observations need to be made before we can make progress.

“No human being has righteousness by nature; this is the preserve of the covenant Lord.”

First, it is abundantly clear in the Psalms that the source of all righteousness is the God who is righteous in himself (e.g., Psalm 11:7), whose law is righteous (e.g., Psalm 19:9), who does, or works, righteousness as the expression of his covenant faithfulness and love (e.g., Psalm 22:31; 36:6; 48:10; 103:6, 17), and who will judge the world in righteousness (Psalm 9:8; 96:13; 98:9). No human being has righteousness by nature; this is the preserve of the covenant Lord.

Second, the king in David’s line holds a unique position in the Psalms. When studying the Psalms, it is striking how often there is an interplay between a singular leading character (most often the king) and a plurality or congregation of the righteous. Because the Lord saves the king, the king’s people experience blessing in him (e.g., Psalm 3:8).

David calls the Lord the “God of my righteousness” (Psalm 4:1), which appears to mean the God from whom my righteousness, and my hope of vindication, proceeds. In both Psalms 17 and 18, the king professes a righteousness on which his hope is built. In the drama of Psalm 18, he is rescued because of this righteousness (see vv. 20–24). For David himself, this poses a problem, for we find ourselves asking about Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11); how can the David who sinned (or would later sin) so grievously claim such righteousness? The answer, hinted at in the Psalms and blazing forth with the full light of day in the New Testament, is that his righteousness is given to him, ultimately because of the flawless righteousness of “great David’s greater Son” (cf. Romans 5:12–21). The Lord in his righteousness leads David, and all the little anticipatory “messiahs” in David’s line, “in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3), because there will be a true Messiah who will walk those paths without slipping or sliding into moral failure of any kind. Having said this, there is a real visible measure of actual lived righteousness of life evident in the life of any old-covenant believer who is truly justified by faith (see section 6 below).

The interplay between the righteousness of the covenant Lord and the righteousness of the king is clearly seen in Psalm 35:24–28. In verse 24, David the king pleads for God to vindicate him “according to your righteousness” (that is, in fulfillment of his covenant promises). In verse 27, there is reference to the assembly or congregation of the king’s people, “who delight in my [that is, the king’s] righteousness,” a righteousness given to the king and possessed by the king on behalf of his people. These people will be glad because their king is righteous and therefore they are blessed. And then in verse 28, the king’s tongue tells “of your [that is, God’s] righteousness.”

We see the movement from the righteousness of the king to the righteousness received by the people in Psalm 72. In verses 1–3, God is petitioned to give righteousness to his king. When this happens, the king’s people (ultimately all who are “in Christ”) will be called “righteous” and will “flourish” under the rule of their king (v. 7).

In the light of the New Testament, this focus on the righteousness possessed by the king may be understood to be fulfilled in the righteousness of Christ the King. When David (like Abraham or any Old Testament saint) spoke of his righteousness, he meant, first and foremost, a righteousness given to him by God. When old-covenant believers who were neither patriarchs nor Davidic kings echoed this language, their righteousness likewise was found ultimately in the king, their covenant head. This federal headship of the king is fulfilled when Christ lives a righteous life and dies a sin-bearing death as the representative head and substitute propitiatory sacrifice for his people.

6. Their Life

A pen portrait of the righteous in the Psalms would be woefully incomplete if it did not include a mention of their visible life. I have deliberately held over discussion of this until now, because their life is the fruit, and not the root, of their existence as believers in the covenant God. It would be a mistake to begin with a consideration of their lives of right living. Nevertheless, their lives are inseparable from their identity and closely tied to their blessing and assurance. The covenant Lord does not give to his king and people a righteousness of status simply that they may enjoy it while continuing to live evil lives, for he “is righteous” and “loves righteous deeds” (Psalm 11:7; cf. Psalm 33:5). It is very clear (e.g., in Psalms 15 and 24) that authentic righteousness of life is the necessary marker of the genuine Messiah and of his people. Jesus is the fulfillment of Psalms 15 and 24, as he is of all the descriptions of human righteousness in the Psalms.

Sometimes the righteousness claimed by a psalmist may focus particularly on innocence with respect to a particular accusation (e.g., Psalm 7:8). Under these circumstances, he not infrequently pleads with God for vindication. Often, however, this particular righteousness overflows into a broader whole-life righteousness that, albeit partial, is nevertheless real.

Those who are truly righteous, by virtue of their membership of the covenant people under the king, their covenant head, and who are genuinely righteous because they trust the covenant promises (fulfilled in Christ), will live upright, blameless, and righteous lives. Perhaps the clearest exposition of this in the Psalms is in Psalm 111 followed by Psalm 112. Psalm 111 celebrates the righteousness of the covenant Lord. Then Psalm 112 (with close echoes) declares a blessing on those who exhibit those same qualities in the generosity (cf. Psalm 37:21) and righteousness of their lives. These people act and speak (cf. Psalm 37:30) in ways that demonstrate the fruit of their hearts of faith. Paul will later call this “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26), and the letter of James will expound it forcefully.

7. Their Enemies

The final facet is of a very different kind. The enemies of the righteous, by their polar contrast to the righteous, shine a paradoxical light on the identity of the righteous. Here is a brief pen portrait of who the righteous are not. Most often described as “the wicked” (but also, for example, as “evildoers”), I want to mention just two characteristics that are thematic of their portrait in the Psalms.

The first is their consistent, bitter, implacable hostility toward the righteous (e.g., Psalm 94:21). Here is the fruit of Cain’s unbelieving hatred of Abel, who was righteous by faith. We see this as a consistent theme in, for example, Psalm 37, and also in Psalms 9, 10, and 11.

The second facet of their portrait is that, in polar contrast to those who are righteous by faith, the wicked naturally trust in themselves and their own resources. We see this clearly in the portrait of Doeg, the Edomite, in Psalm 52:1–7. Especially in verse 7, he will not make God his refuge but trusts in his own riches and resources.

Nothing is more obnoxious to the hardened wicked, who trust in themselves, than the presence on earth of the Righteous One, who trusts his Father, and the people of the Righteous One, who share his faith.

Psalms and New-Covenant Righteousness

If we ask, “Are the righteous in the Psalms the same as those who are righteous by grace alone through faith alone under the new covenant?” the answer must be “yes and no.” Overwhelmingly, the answer is yes. We who are new-covenant believers, who belong to Christ, share with them their delight in God, their desire to see the face of God, their penitence, their fleeing to God for refuge from both troubles and judgment, their assurance of forgiveness because of their covenant head, the outworking of their faith in righteousness of life, and the presence in our world, as in theirs, of hostility to Christ and his people (cf. John 15:18–16:4).

“When we come across the righteous in the Psalms, we recognize in them people who trusted in the Christ to come.”

But there is, I think, one significant difference between these righteous old-covenant believers and believers in Christ under the new covenant: under the new covenant, we enjoy a deeper assurance and the riches of a definitively cleansed conscience, and this is a blessing known only in anticipation and shadow under the old covenant (see Hebrews 8–10).4

So, when we come across the righteous in the Psalms, as we do in about 40 percent of the Psalms, we recognize in them people who trusted in the Christ to come. By believing and living in the obedience of faith in the covenant promises, they believed implicitly in the Christ who would fulfill those promises. They did not know as clearly as we do the fullness of that magnificent Christ nor the grandeur of those gospel promises. But that apart, we recognize in them people very like us today in Christ. This transforms the way we read the Psalms.

  1. Some other discussions of this question are to be found in Geoffrey Grogan, Prayer, Praise and Prophecy (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 2001), 122–26; Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, trans. Keith Krim (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986), 154–62; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, vol. 5, Life Together; Prayerbook of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 155–77. 

  2. C.S. Lewis wrongly refers to “the self-righteousness in many of the Psalms” (Reflections on the Psalms [London: Fount Paperbacks, 1977], 34). 

  3. The three most important Hebrew words are the noun “righteous (person)” (tsadiq), the adjective “righteousness” (tsedaqah), and the abstract noun “righteousness” (tsedeq). 

  4. See Christopher Ash, Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience (Philipsburg NJ: P&R, 2014), 128–48. 

is writer-in-residence at Tyndale House, Cambridge, and a former pastor and director of the Cornhill Training Course in London. He has written several books and commentaries on Job and the Psalms, including Trusting God in the Darkness.