One of the advantages of reading through the Bible on a regular basis is that you will encounter passages that you might not otherwise read.  In my reading today it was the juxtaposition of the OT and NT readings that raised some interesting questions.

The OT reading for today included Psalm 18, a portion of which reads:

20 The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
21 For I have kept the ways of the LORD,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
22 For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
23 I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
24 So the LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
(Ps. 18:20-24, ESV)

Here David says that God rewards him for his righteousness.  But the NT reading was from Romans 3, which includes these verses:

10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
(Rom. 3:10-12, ESV)

The contrast between these two statements really jumped out at me.  Was David righteous or was he not?  Was he simply deceived or arrogant for claiming to be righteous?  Or was he using the word “righteous” in a different sense? It might be tempting to explain this as a different view of righteousness in the OT and NT, but that won’t do because the Romans passage is excerpted from Ps. 13:1-3 and Ps. 53:1-3.

In Romans Paul is talking about our lack of absolute sinless perfection, but David was talking about something else.  David was very aware of his sinfulness as some of the other Psalms attest (Psalm 51 comes to mind).  So I don’t think that his statement in Psalm 18 was a claim to sinless perfection.  David was aware not only of the need for forgiveness, but also the need for God’s grace to live for Him (Ps. 19:12-13).  Can a person who has needed to confess some serious sin and who needs God’s help every day to walk with Him still talk about “my righteousness” and “the cleanness of my hands”?  Apparently David thought so.

Should we think of ourselves as righteous?  I don’t mean only “positional righteousness” (I am considered righteous by God because Christ died for me) but “practical righteousness” (I generally live my life according to God’s standards).  I am not suggesting a legalistic approach or an arrogant superiority (“I am not like other men,” Lk. 18:11-12).  But if we are serious about following Jesus should we see ourselves as people who normally do the right thing and usually obey God?  Perhaps if we did we might find it a little bit easier to live as God intended us to live.  If we constantly tell ourselves and each other, “You’re going to sin, and sin a lot” it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What do you think?  Was David right to think of himself as righteous?  How do you think of yourself?

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  1. I am a Christian songwritter. I happened upon this reflection of yours, and have to say this is very helpful for where I was trying to go in a song. I like the observations here, and the passages you chose. David clearly understood that he was a sinner and had an understanding of God, and was close to Him in a sense. He was after all a man after God’s own heart. So I think he is stating these things only under God, whom he follows. As far as we ourselves go as Christians, while we never need to think of ourselves as perfect and righteous (If we did we would think we were God…..also, we’d be lying), we do however need to remember that we are righteous only because of Christ in the sense that we have been forgiven of the things that make us unrighteous.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. My point is that we are not only righteous because we have been forgiven, but we should also see ourselves as gradually becoming righteous in our behavior as well.

    I’d be interested in hearing your song or reading the lyrics when it is finished.

  3. Hello, I’m sorry, I read this, then immediately had finished the song and forgotten.

    [Lyrics removed at the author’s request.]

  4. P.S. I hate to ask this, but I wasn’t thinking. Could you by any chance delete my lyrics post when you’re done reading them? I don’t think you would steal them, and I don’t really think anyone else would either, but you never know. It’s not a huge priority, so it’s alright if you can’t.

  5. I understand the need to preserve your rights as an author. Lyrics have been removed

  6. I know that this post is 2-3 yrs old and you probably don’t check it but I liked that you left the topic open-ended so there was room for thought. Is there some possibility that God is looking at a repentant heart rather than actions. David certainly had the repentant heart. It is hard to see David doing a self-examination as we all are susceptible to rationalization in our favor. But my questions have centered around how can we be righteous without being perfect and it (seems to me at this point) centers around a repentant heart.

  7. I agree that the key is a repentant heart. But a repentant heart will impact our actions. In the passage I quoted above, David says “I have kept the ways of the Lord…” It seems that he claimed to generally follow God’s commands, although there were some rather serious lapses.

    One of the characteristics of a righteous person is the way they react when they do sin. An ungodly person will take sin lightly and make excuses, but a godly person will experience genuine sorrow and humbly repent before God.

    1. I know this article is years old, but I myself have had the same question about whether David was righteous or not. Every time I read the Psalms and Romans I noticed what seemed like a contradiction, but I knew I had to examine it deeper. Thank you for creating this article and discussion. I have fallen into a sinful pattern and it was deeply encouraging to read this comment, “a Godly person will experience genuine sorrow and humbly repent before God”. Thank you for listening to the Lord and spreading His truth.

  8. What do you think of this statement?

    “You can not walk in disobedience and expect to stay in right standing with God.”

    So if David was considered righteous and not by his own merit but through God’s. In his disobedience and sin with murder, adultery and etc would that mean; he can fall out of right-standing? Yet he didn’t, even though he still received consequences for his action(sins). If our righteousness is not our own, can our disobedience take us out of right-standing? So would that statement be wrong? Current Bible School Student…

  9. In the passage above, David seems to be talking about his own righteous character, not only God’s righteousness given to him. He talks about his behavior. He generally tried to follow God’s laws, but he was not perfect. Sometimes he fell short. A few times he failed spectacularly. Yet God still called him “a man after my own heart.”
    I’m not quite sure what you mean by “right standing” with God. As believers, our relationship with God does not change when we sin. But our sin interrupts our fellowship with God. On the other hand, a consistent pattern of disobedience calls into question whether we really know God (Mat. 7:21-27)

  10. True David had a repentent heart, and when we read the bible almost everyone God used in the bible was not perfect. Even our father of faith doubted God by having Ishmael, but God called him the father of faith. Our righteousness is by faith as the bible says we live by faith not by sight.

  11. Thank you Ken, I found this interesting. I had just read 2 Sam 22- David’s Song of Praise and was struck by verses 20 – 25. They suggested the question: Was David being self-righteous? I like what you have said about this, Ken. My mind had moved to David’s adultery and lust and so there was a sort of conflict in my mind. He cannot mean sinless perfection, of course. And I agree that it must mean more than justification – we are declared righteous through faith in the finished work of Christ. But I think either David is referring to specific actions of his which were righteous, such as the way he dealt with Saul and didn’t kill him when given the opportunity, or to a more general sense of righteousness in which his heart is turned towards God, even though he sins. So we see that his terrible sin with regard to Uriah and his consequent repentance when challenged by Uriah ( Ps 51) shows he has a heart which although sometimes goes astray is quick to recognise his own sin and to own it. Is this not a sort of righteousness? Doing the right thing when confronted with our sin can therefore be seen as a form of righteousness. I think we are slow to talk about our own righteousness without immediately saying actually not my righteousness but Christ’s. Which, of course, is true. However, there is a real sense in which we do righteous things and therefore have righteousness. As long as we don’t think that it is this righteousness which saves us. However, doing the right thing does bring reward from God like closeness with him, deeper joy, closer relationship, and lots of other effects. It could be David is referring to these benefits that God conferred on him. It was clear from Joshua’s life that when he sought the lord before a battle things went well, but if he didn’t then there was disaster. Therefore we are being righteous by seeking the lord, and there are positive consequences for us because of this. Perhaps David is meaning this…

  12. Really this is useful for my spiritual life, I need more help from you to grow in the spritual life. Thank you so much for your wonderful service.

  13. I am happy to stumble upon this article. I am currently studying psalms and the life of David and I have similar questions to yours. This is the answer i have been able to come up after reading a little bit more:

    David was a man who truly knew God, he understood the deep characters of God and that God is very forgiving. The moment David sinned against God, and he repented, he was sure that God forgave him. God does not hold a grudge, he forgives and let go. So I believe David spoke about his righteousness based on the fact that he was on a clean slate (no record of sin) with God. Remember God is love and love keeps no record of our wrong doings. David truly knew God’s heart and ways.

    1. Thanks for sharing your insight. David is a great example of what a godly person does when they sin. He repented deeply and received God’s grace and forgiveness. David had his faults and some very public sins, yet God still calls him “a man after my own heart.”

  14. I think this verse, as well as the portrayal of others in the Bible such as Noah, call into question the idea that grace is meritless. I don’t mean to say that we earn God’s favor through actions or that our righteousness impresses God but that grace is matter of God’s judgment. God knows the heart and the secret things, and we can say boldly if God smiles upon us that we are in fact righteous. And while we may stray from that overall righteousness from time to time, sin is contrary to our nature rather than being a part of our nature. I know that may be controversial to some, especially those who read Romans as a theological treatise on salvation and mistake the Greek sarx as “sinful nature” but it seems to me the most consistent reading of the Bible. We know we are righteous because we know God and God reveals Himself to the righteous.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I look at it from a different direction. We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9), and grace that is earned is not grace. But many other passages make it clear that our behavior matters and that God rewards righteous behavior. Putting that together, I think that righteous behavior is the fruit of God’s work in our hearts. By God’s grace we gradually become the sort of person who habitually (but not perfectly) does what is pleasing to him. It is a work of grace in our lives, yet God rewards such behavior because it is in his nature to reward the righteous and punish the wicked.

  15. Another view could be that because David existed before the physical Christ, he and all other’s didn’t have the detailed description of what sin really is, specifically of the heart and not necessarily of deed as taught by Jesus in accounts such as Matthew 5. Although David was a man after God’s heart, he was not divine but human.

    1. Interesting point! The OT says that the heart of David was “wholly true to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:4; 15:3). I’m not sure that that is describing merely external obedience. Obviously David was a fallen human like the rest of us, and was not righteous in an absolute sense. But yet his heart was “wholly true.”

  16. Thank you for this! And the comments. I stumbled here myself after reading Psalm 18 and having the same nagging thoughts, as I’m currently also reading through Job and just about to get to the part where God deals with Job’s arrogance. Was Job righteous? I read an interesting response on that. While he wasn’t righteous completely on his own, he was relatively righteous compared with others in his day and age. It also made the comparison that sometimes there is a “righteous party” in a litigation settlement- not to say that one side was sinless but that they were relatively righteous by comparison.

    All very interesting.

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