The Righteousness of God
Psalm 9 includes many different things. We find praises of God. We find descriptions of God’s actions in the past. We find proclamation of general truths about God’s relation to creation and his people and the wicked. We find exhortations to praise the Lord. We find requests for mercy. We find almost demands for divine action.
But if I were to pick out one theme that unites all of these different things together, I would pick the righteousness and justice of God. The language of righteousness, justice, and judgment appears explicitly in 9:4, 7, 8, 16, and 19. But the concept and theme of righteousness and justice pervades the entire psalm. So I want us to explore the them of God’s righteousness in this psalm. My outline is simple.
What God’s Righteousness Does
What God’s Righteousness Is
What We Should Do in Light of It
What God’s Righteousness Does
I’ve summarized four things that God’s righteousness does in this psalm. For each one, I’ll point to it in the psalm, and then fill it out from elsewhere in the Bible.
1) God’s righteousness compels him to rule his creation with impartiality. His righteousness is connected to his kingship. As the King, as the Creator of Heaven and Earth, God rules and reigns over his creation in righteousness, which means that he judges his creation with equity and impartiality.
You have sat on the throne, giving righteous judgment. (9:4)
But the LORD sits enthroned forever;
he has established his throne for justice,
and he judges the world with righteousness;
he judges the peoples with uprightness. (9:7-8)
Notice that God’s righteousness and justice are tied to his throne. He sits on a throne and he judges. And he judges with righteousness and uprightness.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98:9)
The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The LORD is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name!
Holy is he!
The King in his might loves justice.
You have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob. (Psalm 99:1-4)
Notice that his reign is universal. He judges all the peoples. All of creation is subject to his judgment. And he judges them with equity, with impartiality. He does not show favoritism or pervert justice, but does what is right. That’s what his righteousness does.
A clear example of this aspect of God’s righteousness appears in Genesis 18. Abraham appeals to God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. God plans to judge the wicked cities, to pour out his wrath upon them. Abraham appeals to him, saying,
Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? (Genesis 18:25)
To sweep away the righteous with the wicked would not be right. It would not be judging with equity and with uprightness. And God is the King and Judge of all the earth. So the first thing that God’s righteousness does is to rule the creation with impartiality and equity.
2) God’s righteousness compels him to punish the wicked. In Psalm 9, David describes the “righteous judgment of God” (9:4).
You have rebuked the nations; you have made the wicked perish;
you have blotted out their name forever and ever.
The enemy came to an end in everlasting ruins;
their cities you rooted out;
the very memory of them has perished. (Psalm 9:5-6)
This is God’s retributive justice. He brings retribution, ruin, destruction upon the wicked. God’s righteousness here is closely tied to his anger. As we saw a few weeks ago in Psalm 7:11: “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.” This is an extension of his sovereign and just rule over creation. If he is to judge impartially, he must give the wicked what they deserve, and what they deserve is his wrath. We see this connection throughout Scripture.
The LORD is righteous;
he has cut the cords of the wicked. (Psalm 129:4)
But, O LORD of hosts, who judges righteously,
who tests the heart and the mind,
let me see your vengeance upon them,
for to you have I committed my cause. (Jeremiah 11:20)
He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
According to their deeds, so will he repay,
wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies;
to the coastlands he will render repayment. (Isaiah 59:17-18)
All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem. As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favor of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth. Therefore the LORD has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us, for the LORD our God is righteous in all the works that he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice. (Daniel 9:11-14)
But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:5)
3) God’s righteousness compels him to keep his promises and save his people.
And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:10)
God does not abandon those who seek him. He keeps his covenant. He is faithful to his promises because he is righteous. His righteousness compels him to keep his promises.
Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
The LORD has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God. (Psalm 98:2-3)
God reveals his righteousness by saving his people because of his steadfast love and faithfulness. When God keeps his promises, he does what is right (see Nehemiah 9:8).
A moment ago, I read Daniel 9, where Daniel says that God has brought calamity on Israel for her sins because he is righteous in all his works. But listen to the next verse.
O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us. (Daniel 9:16)
Daniel asks for God to turn away his wrath and anger “according to all his righteous acts.” Righteousness doesn’t just punish; it also saves and delivers according to God’s promises.
4) God’s righteousness compels him to rescue the oppressed. Immediately after celebrating God’s sovereign rule in creation, David says this:
The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble. (Psalm 9:9)
God’s righteousness moves him to have a particular concern for the weak, for the oppressed, for the afflicted. This is an extension of the previous three. Because he rules his creation impartially, when the wicked oppress the weak, God acts in his righteousness to both punish the wicked and to rescue the oppressed.
The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed. (Psalm 103:6)
So God’s righteousness means that he rules his creation with impartiality, he punishes the wicked with wrath, he keeps his promises, and he rescues the oppressed. All of these things are right. But they are not the heart of God’s righteousness. They are what God’s righteousness does, but they are not what righteousness is.
In other words, when we’re talking about God’s righteousness and justice, there is something deeper than ruling creation impartially, and judging the wicked, and rescuing the oppressed, and keeping his promises. And we can get at this deeper thing by asking, “How does God know what is right?” Does he have a book that tells him? When he’s deciding on a course of action, does he pull a volume off his shelf and consult it?
What makes all of these actions righteous is that they flow from God’s unswerving commitment to his own glory and worth and value. That’s the heart of God’s righteousness. The deepest aspect of God’s righteousness is his fundamental allegiance to do everything he does for his own glory. Can we demonstrate that from the Bible?
What God’s Righteousness Is
1) There are passages that directly link God’s righteousness to his commitment to his glory and his name.
For your name’s sake, O LORD, preserve my life!
In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble! (Psalm 143:11)
As your name, O God,
so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth.
Your right hand is filled with righteousness. (Psalm 48:10)
The heavens proclaim his righteousness,
and all the peoples see his glory. (Psalm 97:6)
Each of these passages links God’s righteousness to his name sake, to his praise, to his glory.
2) Consider Paul’s argument in the book of Romans. First, notice how Paul describes what human unrighteousness is.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23)
Human unrighteousness is a failure to be unswervingly committed to the worth and value of the glory of God. It’s when we refuse to honor God as God. It’s when we exchange the treasure of God’s glory for created things. Or in the words of Psalm 9:17, it’s when we forget God. That’s unrighteousness. And therefore righteousness, whether human or divine, is upholding the worth and value of the glory of God as God.
Second, consider Paul’s description of the reason for the cross in Romans 3.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
The cross is a demonstration of God’s righteousness. Why did God’s righteousness need to be demonstrated? Because in his forbearance, he had passed over former sins. By passing over the sins of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Israel, God appeared to be unrighteous. He didn’t care about his glory. They trashed it, and he passed it over, and therefore appeared unrighteous. But, on the cross, by punishing Christ (by putting him forward as a propitiation, a wrath-bearer, God showed his righteousness. He showed, “I do value my glory above everything, and I will pour out my wrath to demonstrate my commitment to my worth.”
God is infinitely valuable. Objectively, he is the most valuable being in the universe. He is one of a kind. There’s no one like him. That’s what he mean by his holiness. He is unique, and therefore valuable. If that’s true, then what is the right thing for God to do? It’s to commit himself to always acting in such a way that he uphold his infinite value. That’s what his righteousness is.
And now you can see how this deeper definition of righteousness ties together what God’s righteousness is and what God’s righteousness does in Psalm 9.
Because God is unswervingly committed to his own glory, he creates a world to reflect his worth and value. He makes a well-ordered cosmos, where everything fits together in perfect harmony, and he commits to ruling this world in such a way that he values everything in it according to its value. He will judge and assess and value things with equity and uprightness.
Because God is unswervingly committed to his own glory, when human beings rebel, he acts to put things back right. This means that he punishes unrighteousness. He upholds his glory by rebuking the nations and bringing destruction on the wicked. He upholds his glory by remembering the afflicted, avenging their blood, and rescuing the oppressed. He upholds his glory by showing himself to be trustworthy and faithful to all of his promises, by never forsaking those who seek him.
His sovereign and impartial rule over his world as King and Judge, his judgment and wrath upon the unrighteousness of men, his deliverance and saving power for the afflicted and oppressed, his faithfulness to his covenant promises—all of these flow from his fundamental commitment to his own glory.
What We Should Do In Light of It
1) We must evaluate all earthly definitions of justice in light of this definition of God’s righteousness. Justice is a major theme in our culture. Everyone wants to talk about justice. But few root their discussions of justice in God’s commitment to his glory. But this is what the Scriptures call us to do. Definitions of justice that end with humanity are of limited value.
2) We ought to make our appeals to God based on his allegiance to himself. When we cry to God to rescue the oppressed, we ask that he do so for his namesake. We call upon him to maintain our just cause, in order to vindicate his name. When we cry to God to punish the wicked and to save his people, we do so so that his glory might be revealed in the sight of the nations. We pray for God to humble the pride of men by reminding the nations that they are but men. They’re not god. They’re men. And when we ask God to be faithful to his promises, he do so that he might be known as the Mighty One, the Faithful One, the Righteous One.
3) We rejoice when God’s justice is done. When the wicked receive their just desserts, we rejoice. Especially when God delivers poetic justice. Did you catch that theme in the psalm? The nations sink in the pit that they made. Their foot is caught in their own net. They are snared by the work of their own hands. Because they forget God, God will cause them to be forgotten. Their memory will perish.
On the other hand, those who know God’s name and trust him, they will not be forgotten. God will be their stronghold. And when he is, we must sing praises to the Lord, who sits enthroned in Zion. God’s righteous deliverance must be declared to all peoples. When God in his righteousness acts on our behalf, we must give thanks with all of our hearts and exult in him. In him. That’s how the psalmist prays. He cries for God’s gracious deliverance from affliction so that I may recount all your praises and rejoice in your salvation.
This brings us to the Table. At this Table, we see God’s righteousness. Here we see and rejoice in his salvation. Here we are reminded of the wrath that our sin deserves. Here we recognize that God is faithful to his promises. Here we remember that Christ fell into the pit of the wicked. He descended to the gates of death. And then God lifted him up, up to the gates of the heavenly Zion where he sits enthroned even now, judging the world with righteousness and the peoples with uprightness. Here at this table, we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes again to make himself known, to judge the nations, to pour out his vengeance on the wicked, to rescue the weak and oppressed, to fulfill his promises, and to uphold and display his glory for all to see. Come and welcome, to Jesus Christ.