“the ordinances of the Lord are sure, and altogether righteous.” Psalm 19
I read somewhere that the word righteous has just about fallen out of usage. I’m sure you can hear the word in churches around the country, in meditations like this, and other things apostrophe-ly “Christian”; but on the street and in the workplace, the word is just about gone.
Not so self-righteous. That word has tons of currency and still sprinkles conversations hither and yon. So the word exists healthily in the negative, but is almost extinct as a positive. Strange.
I’m no entomologist, but you don’t need to be a language scholar to take a shot at why. Judging righteousness in a human being is a much tougher job than judging self-righteousness, in part, perhaps, because it’s far easier to be self-righteous than it is to be truly righteous. I don’t think there are necessarily more phonies around than there are saints, but I’m quite sure those people I consider worthy of being described as righteous, would likely be the first to swear it off and claim the opposite—and do it in a saintly way.
In fact, one mark of the truly righteous is that they know deep within the sinews of their hearts that they aren’t—that they’re sinners. Which leads us back to the original claim—the truly righteous would inevitably be the last to make that assessment.
Whatever the case, it’s probably fair to say to say that the word righteous works only when it’s applied to someone else. “My Uncle George is a truly righteous man.” That assertion feels acceptable. “Listen, I’m a righteous man,” on the other hand, makes me raise an eyebrow.
In Psalm 19, at the heart of David’s final assertion about the Torah, or the way of the Godly or—as most real commentators would say, the Word of God, is the word righteous, used, if I may say, in a fashion which is perfectly honorable. Here, the word has absolutely nothing to do with John Doe and everything to do with the Torah, everything to do with God’s commands, his judgments (through history, too), his Word.
If it seems a mess—this language problem of ours; if it appears that all around you there simply are no more righteous people to be found (the woeful claims of other Psalms); if it appears that those who consider themselves Godly are smarmy, forked-tongued fakes; if it seems there is no justice in your world, that no one cares, that only the rich prosper, then, David says, note this eternal truth: God’s way is sure and altogether righteous.”
A while ago a bunch of college guys came over and roofed our house. The shingles were a mess, bent and torn and enfeebled by too many
hailstorms. They were cutting some
plywood one day, when one of them pulled out a chalk line, marked out two spots
on two edges of the sheet, then pulled that turquoise chalk line back as if it
were the string of bow and snapped it down on the plywood, creating a perfectly
straight blue line. He pulled out the
circle saw and let fly, never doubting.
Nothing crooked about it. The way of the Lord, David says, is perfectly straight, something like that fine, blue line.