Who are the righteous? Who are the wicked?
This was the question prompted in my heart recently as I read Psalm 1, which begins with a warning not to walk in step with the wicked, stand in the way of sinners or sit in the company of mockers. I describe how that question was prompted in Part 1 of this blog series.
Beyond equating the wicked with “sinners” and “mockers” (and speaking to the company we keep), Psalm 1 doesn’t go into much detail on the characteristics of the wicked (or the righteous). I realized as I responded to the prompting in my heart that I had some old assumptions about those things that might not be true, or at least not completely true, so I set out to dig a little deeper.
As Christians, we know that no one is righteous; we have all sinned and fallen short. We know that righteousness is credited to those who believe God and have faith (trust) in Him. We might assume, then, that there isn’t much more to it – that believing God, and the Bible and going to church is all it takes to make a person righteous; and, of course, that these things distinguish the righteous from the wicked.
This view, though, is only partly right. Even demons believe (Jam. 2:19), but that doesn’t make them righteous! We need to dig a bit deeper to develop a more complete understanding of what it means to be righteous. God, of course, is righteous, and our righteousness is gained only in relation to Him – by believing in Him – by what does that mean for us?
I have been particularly struck by the fact that God’s righteousness and His justice are intertwined. We read that “[God] loves righteousness [tsedaqah][i] and justice [mishpat][ii] ….” (Ps. 33:5); and that “[r]ighteousness [tsedeq][iii] and justice [mishpat] are the foundation of [God’s] throne….” Ps. 89:14 (NASB)
We often think of righteousness and justice in moral terms. We also tend to think of these terms in the abstract, but this way of viewing the characteristics of God is actually the result of a pagan (Platonic) influence on western civilization.
I learned this in a religion class from a Jewish professor: the Old Testament is not western at all. It is “eastern” (or middle eastern) in its fundamental construct. Without going into all the nuances, I simply point out here that we miss something big if we think of righteousness and justice as abstract ideas. I believe we also get a bit off base when we view righteousness and justice in overly moralistic ways.
Righteousness and justice are the foundational characteristics of God because they are who God is. God doesn’t decree righteousness and justice by arbitrary fiat; God is righteous and just. Righteousness and justice can only be known in relation to God. God doesn’t live up to the standard of righteousness and justice; God is the standard.
Righteousness and justice do not exist apart from God. Righteousness and justice flow out of who God is, out of His very being. Righteousness and justice are what they are because God is who He is.
The determination of “righteous” and “wicked” people, therefore, has everything to do with God and his character, which defines righteousness and justice. Since God alone is righteous, we can not (should not) call ourselves righteous in the sense of living up to the ultimate standard, which is God. (We have fallen short.)
Any moralizing on the matter is nothing more than self-righteousness. We aren’t righteous in ourselves. Righteousness really isn’t about our morality; it’s about relationship.
Our righteousness depends on our relationship with God. Our relationship to God, who is righteous and just, determines whether we fall into the category of righteous or wicked. God has chosen to attribute righteousness to those who have faith in him. Like Abraham, we are credited (counted) righteous for simply trusting God. (See James 2:23)
But is that all there is to it? We might be tempted to think so: believe God, believe the Bible, maybe got to church, too, and we are golden. Right?
Actually, I don’t think so. The beginning of the distinction between “righteous” people and “wicked” people is belief, but James, who is quoted above, reveals that there is more to it. The “more” has everything to do with who God is and His nature – the foundation of which is righteousness and justice. I will try to unpack that in the next part of this series as I continue on my journey of discovery that was prompted by reading Psalm 1.
[i] Meaning “righteousness” – from tsadaq (properly, the right (natural, moral or legal); also (abstractly) equity). It has been translated in various contexts to mean righteousness, righteous deeds, righteous acts, vindication, etc. with connotations of meaning also truthfulness and ethically right.
[ii] Meaning “judgment” – from shaphat (properly, a verdict pronounced judicially, especially a sentence or formal decree, including the act, the place, the suit, the crime, and the penalty; abstractly, justice, including a participant’s right or privilege. It has been translated in various contexts to mean case, cause, custom(s), justice, matters of justice, mode of life, order, ordinance(s), plan(s), practice, procedure, regulation, standard, etc.
[iii] Meaning “rightness” or “righteousness” – from tsadaq (properly, the right (natural, moral or legal); also (abstractly) equity). It has been translated in various contexts to mean righteousness, rightness, accurate, just, what is right and vindication.