“Righteous art thou, O LORD, and upright are thy judgments” (Psalm 119:137).
In our culture, we Christians often feel small and insignificant, due to the relentless pace of relativism. What was true and right yesterday is no longer true and right today; and what is true and right today for one person may not be true and right today for another, or so says our culture. Against this rationalized forgetfulness of God’s word, we appear frozen in time, adhering to an old Book, which the culture despises as long outdated. Consequently, we are marginalized, caught in “trouble and anguish” as between the proverbial rock and a hard place (v. 143). Given such a cultural context, what should we do?
At the very least, we should resist the temptation to assert our own significance. In light of the world’s pride, and in the context of a self-esteem “gospel,” which is not a gospel, it would be tempting to fight fire with fire, answering their proud words with our own proud words; however, this temptation must be resisted. The psalmist points to a better way. Instead of asserting ourselves, let us instead assert God, as the implicit contrast in the two halves of the stanza demonstrates:
“Righteous art thou, O LORD” (v. 137a).
“I am small and despised” (v. 141a).
Regarding ourselves, we agree, “I am ‘last-born’ (as if I were born yesterday) and despised by fellow men;” but, as the verse continues, “I do not forget Your precepts.” Ultimately, it is not our own word that counts, but God’s word. Specifically, it is the righteousness of God in His word that must be asserted against this present culture. Five times in eight verses, the psalmist uses the word “righteous” or “righteousness.” Why is the righteousness of God so necessary in combating a culture of relativism?
First, the righteousness of God guarantees the perfection of His word (vv. 137-140). Please note the logical sequence in the opening verse: “You’re right, Lord; and Your decisions are right on.” All that God decides upon (or judges) is perfectly straight and smooth (“upright”), having no kink or dip, strictly because He Himself is righteous (cf. v. 68). Imagine! What if we wholeheartedly believed in God’s righteousness and confessed it the next time God crosses out our plans for His own! Such “crosses” are indeed hard to bear sometimes, but what an act of worship it would be, if with sincere lips, we are able to confess the perfect rightness of God to decide as He has decided! Oh, our faith still has far to go!
Indeed, the psalmist is so enamored with the rightness of God in deciding and speaking, he elaborates on its implications with two statements having “very” as an adverb. In the second verse, he asserts that the testimonies of God are not only right, but “very faithful” (v. 138). God is not merely technically accurate in His commands, as a slick salesmen might be, but He is also fully trustworthy. What He tells us to do is truly for our best. In the fourth verse, the psalmist declares, “Thy word is very pure: therefore thy servant loveth it” (v. 140). Like smelted ore, refined seven times of all impurities, God’s words are “pure words” (Psalm 12:6). Very pure, very faithful. We have every reason to believe and to obey.
Is this how you feel about God’s words, that they are very faithful and very pure? If so, you will love them, and you will be jealously upset–even pressed flat with jealousy–when the world not merely disobeys, but forgets God’s words (v. 139). Beware of criticizing your brother for getting strongly upset over our culture’s relativism. Granted, there may be in him an admixture of unhealthy anger or even a touch of pride, but if deep down, the heat is stoked by love, it is at its core the same zeal that consumed the Lord Jesus, when He cleansed the temple, and did it twice (Psalm 69:9; John 2:13-17; Matthew 21:12-13). Heaven knows we need more love for the word of God!
Second, the righteousness of God guarantees the longevity of His word (vv. 141-144). Technically, what is stressed is not the longevity of the words, but the longevity of the righteousness of those words (vv. 142, 144). To explain the importance of this distinction, it is first necessary to explain the concept of righteousness itself.
The idea of righteousness is closely related to truth, and can be illustrated with a simple math lesson about apples:
A teacher sets fives apples on the desk, and asks the class for the sum of two plus three. One student answers, “Four,” to which the teacher responds, “Your answer is not right, for it does not conform to the truth. The truth is: Two plus three equals five.” At this point, the teacher sets forth two apples, adds three more, and then counts them individually–one, two, three, four, five. “There!” announces the teacher, “In reality, adding two apples to three apples gives us five apples; therefore, the statement that ‘two plus three equals five’ is true, for it represents reality. Moreover, the answer ‘five’ is right, for it conforms to the truth.”
Granted, first-grade teachers are probably not so philosophical with their classes, but hopefully the point has been made that reality grounds truth, and truth grounds righteousness. To ascribe righteousness to God means that He always acts in accordance with truth, and truth is the representation in word or deed of what is really existing.
In our culture, the relativists assert that reality is changing, and changing so fast that what is true for one person is not necessarily true for another. This presumption of change receives much of its credibility through the rapid advance of technology, which has blinded us to areas of degeneration in our culture, such as in the arts, as J. Gresham Machen pointed almost a century ago. In reality, this assertion of change is a mirage. For all our technology, man still lives to be about seventy or eighty, as Moses asserted over three millennia ago (Psalm 90:10). Moreover, the fundamental cause of death remains unchanged: sin (Romans 6:23). In his essence, man has not changed, either constitutionally, as if he were evolving, or morally, as if he were good. The twentieth century was not the utopia predicted by the nineteenth century, and the twenty-first century does not bid much better. Therefore, against the postmodernist cries of relative “truth,” we assert, “Thy law is the truth” (v. 142), and take delight in all God’s commandments (v. 143).
This very delight, however, poses a problem. Are there not aspects of the Law that have ceased to be in force? For instance, what about the sacrifices, the food laws, and even the Sabbath? Are Christians to obey such things? Moreover, how are we to differentiate between laws that cease, such as not wearing garments with two kinds of thread, and laws that remain, such as not lying with a man as with a woman, which is the “abomination” of homosexuality? After all, both laws appear in close proximity (Leviticus 19:19; 20:13).
Although this is a very broad question, it actually has a simple answer: When reality changes, truth about the current situation changes; and when truth changes, what is right changes with it. For example, because the Cross removed the guilt of sin once and for all time, reality changed; therefore, animal sacrifices and all atoning sacrifices (including the Catholic Mass) are no longer right (see Hebrews 9:1-10:18). Moreover, because the Cross removed the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:13-18), all codes designed to create an artificial distinction between Jew and Gentile have ceased–codes that forbade the mixture of traits, whether in food (having a cleft hoof but not chewing the cud) or in clothing. Jesus pronounced all foods clean, and He Himself is “Lord also of the Sabbath” (Mark 7:19; 2:28). In contrast to these laws, all laws regarding marriage and sexual morality are still in force today, for the reality of man and woman has not fundamentally changed since God instituted marriage with one man and one woman for a lifetime (Genesis 2:24). Therefore, until that reality changes, which it will in the resurrection (Luke 20:34-36), we are still bound by God’s laws over marriage, and the rightness of those laws is everlasting.
God is righteous, but we are small; therefore, everything God decides is right–everything He commands is faithful–everything He says is 100% free from all error–and His righteousness endures forever! Why, then, should we have any trouble with anything that He tells us? Let us take all our hesitancies to Jesus and ask that He would melt them away in the heat of His zeal for His Father’s words. Amen.