Judge me, O Yahweh
In my previous post, I suggested that the Psalms disprove the dictum that we should never pray for justice. There are many such Psalms; one example is David’s Psalm 7:
Yahweh judges the peoples;
judge me, O Yahweh, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me.
Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
and may you establish the righteous—
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God!
My shield is with God,
who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge,
and a God who feels indignation every day. — Psalm 7:8-11
Jamie Soles has a great rendition of this Psalm on his album Pure Words, which you can listen to here: Psalm 7. But how can we sing this without the words sticking in our throats? For that matter, how could David sing this?
Before attempting to answer that, we should remember that it is of greater importance that we obediently sing the Psalms (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16), and it is only within the context of obedient faith that we seek to grow in understanding them. We approach God with childlike faith and trust in the beauty, goodness and truth of what he has given us. As we become familiar with the Psalms, the Spirit will help us grow in our understanding of them. Even the thousandth time we sing them, God will be revealing new things to us.
Perhaps our first instinct is to read David’s words like this:
Judge me, O Yahweh, according to my perfect obedience
This cannot be what David meant. No one was ever saved — or even promised salvation — on the basis of obedience alone. This was even true of Adam and Eve; if they had persevered, they would have had to do so in faith. This is clear from the way in which Satan tempted them — he tempted them to mistrust and disbelieve God and his goodness toward them. Perhaps surprisingly, this was even true of Jesus; again, we see in his temptations in the wilderness and at Gethsemane that the substance of his struggle was one of faith and not merely obedience. Would he trust his Father’s plan, or would he take things into his own hands? He persevered and saved us through faith (1 Pet. 2:23).
Could this instead be imputed righteousness, the active obedience of Christ?
Judge me, O Yahweh, according to my Savior’s obedience
The difficulty with this suggestion is that we understand imputed righteousness as an “alien” righteousness, a robe that we receive (e.g., Isa. 61:10). David, however, is talking about what is “in me,” in “minds and hearts.”
Calvin suggests that it is a relative or comparative righteousness, when measured against David’s adversaries. He writes of Psalm 7:
The subject here treated of is not how he could answer if God should demand from him an account of his whole life; but, comparing himself with his enemies, he maintains and not without cause, that, in respect of them, he was righteous. But when each saint passes under the review of God’s judgment, and his own character is tried upon its own merits, the matter is very different, for then the only sanctuary to which he can betake himself for safety, is the mercy of God.
This seems somewhat plausible, but unsatisfying. We are still on a treadmill of obedience, only now it is a relativistic one, which makes David’s appeal rather cheap. Why would David not rather appeal to God’s mercy if this was the case?
The answer lies in returning to our observation above that faith is more fundamental than obedience. Skipping a couple chapters back to Psalm 5, Calvin has an insightful comment concerning God’s righteousness:
The righteousness of God, therefore, in this passage, as in many others, is to be understood of his faithfulness and mercy which he shows in defending and preserving his people.
If we understand human righteousness in the same way, that yields the following interpretation:
Judge me, O Yahweh, according to my faithfulness to you and your covenant
Such faithfulness has a number of components. First, it begins with faith: it trusts in God, his goodness and his promises. Second, this faith obeys, because God can be trusted to give us good and wholesome commands, and he can be trusted to be working out what is best for us even if our obedience proves very costly or painful. But third, this faith also grabs hold of God’s provision of a sacrifice for sin when we fail to trust and obey. To be faithful is to regularly confess our sins, repent, and move on in the joy of forgiveness. In this sense, we can be righteous without being sinless, a people who meet with God at mountains and altars. This is the sense in which Zechariah, Elizabeth and Simeon were righteous (Luke 1-2), and in which Noah (Gen. 6), Abraham (Gen. 15) and David were righteous. The righteous shall live by his faith (Hab. 2:4).
Another way of putting this is to say that we have entrusted ourselves wholly to God and not to ourselves or others; that this thorough-going trust is the basis of all righteousness; and thus we are pleading with God that he would not put us to shame for trusting in him:
In you they trusted and were not put to shame. — Ps. 22:5
O my God, in you I trust;
let me not be put to shame;
let not my enemies exult over me.
Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. — Ps. 25:2-3
Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. — Ps. 25:20
And many more. All this is to say that it is a short hop from appealing to our righteousness (God, I have entrusted myself to you!) to God’s righteousness (I know you will be faithful to deliver me!). This is a persistent pattern; for example:
In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me! — Ps. 31:1
Fittingly, this is how Psalm 7 ends up:
The Lord judges the peoples;
judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness
. . .
I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness,
and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.
It is because God is righteous and faithful that we can put our complete trust in him. Because of his faithfulness we can be sure that he will vindicate our trust in him.
But we should take care; we cannot always substitute faithfulness for righteousness any more than we could substitute perfect obedience earlier. It is right for us to formulate systematic definitions of words like this, but we also must recognize that the Spirit uses words in Scripture in varied ways.
For example, when Isaiah says that “our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6), he indicates that Israel’s righteousness has become a mere shell of selective external obedience — they have ceased to walk by faith, to obey the weightier matters of the law, and to truly repent of their sins. They have become faithless. In Luke 18:9ff, Luke draws attention to the irony of righteousness having anything to do with trust in oneself, so here again it has become an empty shell of genuine righteousness.
Paul also uses the word in varied ways. He sometimes uses it to point out that the Jews’ so-called righteousness has become faithless. For example, Romans 5:7 reads the reverse of what one would expect; this seems to me a scathing condemnation, as though it should have been translated with scare quotes. Earlier, when Paul says that “none is righteous” (Rom. 3:10), he is obviously using it in a different sense. He is quoting Psalm 14, where David applies this statement to “the fool,” to “evildoers” and to the “children of man,” but takes comfort because “God is with the generation of the righteous” (i.e., the children of God). It is possible that Paul is applying Psalm 14 in a new direction, to all people everywhere. But there are better passages he could have used if he had wanted to make that point (e.g., Ps. 51:5). It seems more likely to me that he is saying something more subtle. Paul is not saying that no one anywhere is righteous; rather, he is making the provocative application of Psalm 14 to the Jews. They have ceased to be God’s righteous people and have become boastful evildoers, enemies of Jesus and his church. Thus, the deepest sense in which sin caused grace to abound (Rom. 5:20-6:1), in which good was brought about by evil (Rom. 3:8), is that the evil act of crucifying Jesus brought about the salvation of the world.
Finally, as is always the case with the Psalms, we need to circle back and evaluate how they apply to Jesus, and how they apply to the church as the body of Jesus (who is our head). We approach Psalm 7 individually having repented of our sin and renewed our trust in Jesus. But Jesus is able to sing this Psalm with a more perfect sort of righteousness. Thus, when we sing this Psalm together as the gathered church, we sing it in Jesus who is our head, and we share in the confidence of his righteousness. Thus, when we sing the Psalm corporately, there is an additional sense in which the righteousness referred to is Jesus’ righteousness. This is subtly different from the imputed righteousness suggested above: in this sense, we are praying that the church would be vindicated against her enemies. To persecute the church is to persecute Jesus (Acts 9:4).
See also: The Righteousness of God.