Psalm 18 (paralleled in 2 Samuel 22) is introduced with this title: “For the choir director. A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who spoke to the LORD the words of this song in the day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.”
“He brought me forth also into a broad place;
He rescued me, because He delighted in me.
The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness;
According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me.
For I have kept the ways of the LORD,
And have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all His ordinances were before me,
And I did not put away His statutes from me.
I was also blameless with Him,
And I kept myself from my iniquity.
Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness,
According to the cleanness of my hands in His eyes.
With the kind You show Yourself kind;
With the blameless You show Yourself blameless;
With the pure You show Yourself pure,
And with the crooked You show Yourself astute” (Psalm 18:19-26).
Psalm 7, too, is identified as a Psalm of David: “A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning Cush, a Benjamite.”
“The LORD judges the peoples;
Vindicate me, O LORD, according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me.
O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous;
For the righteous God tries the hearts and minds.
My shield is with God,
Who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge,
And a God Who has indignation every day” (Psalm 7:8-11).
How are we to understand David’s appeals to God which seem to be based on his own personal righteousness? There are a few options:
- We take it just as it seems at first read: David is making an appeal for God to act on his behalf with his own personal righteousness as the basis for the appeal. The problem is the testimony of Scripture concerning the righteousness of sinful humanity (including David). “...we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one’” (Romans 3:9,10). It would seem that David’s own righteousness would not account for his statements in Psalms 7 and 18. The Bible explicitly tells us that our personal righteousness (the farce that it is) has no role in our right relationship with God, and therefore our appeals to Him: “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, Whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified [proclaimed righteous] by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).
- David could be prophesying of the Christ, Who alone can make appeals to God based on a perfect righteousness. Psalm 16 is explicitly said to be the work of David the prophet, who “looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ” (Acts 2:30,31). We also know that Jesus Himself said the Psalms spoke of Him (Luke 24:44). Therefore, if we are to understand Psalms 7 and 18 as appeals from the singer to God based on the singer’s righteousness, we would be justified (pun intended) in considering these words of Christ prophetically given by the Holy Spirit to David. Christ, in His perfect righteousness, appeals to God for rescue and justification (Hebrews 5:7). But is there a way to understand Psalm 7 and 22 not just as the words of Christ (based on His own righteousness), but first as the song of David (a man like us who could not make appeals based on his own righteousness)?
- Since the Psalms were written under the old covenant, we could postulate that under that covenant personal righteousness was a means of standing before God and making an appeal. I’m sure you’re familiar with this caricature of the covenants: the old was based on works, the new is based on faith. However, the two great statements of salvation by faith are from the Old Testament (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4b)!
The writer of Hebrews gives us a way of understanding the statements of Psalm 7 and 18 that integrates the appeals of David with the Gospel of justification (being declared righteous before God) by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
“[As it says in Habakkuk 2:3,4] ‘For yet in a very little while, He Who is coming will come, and will not delay. But My righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in Him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it [faith] the men of old gained approval...and without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him...and what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of...David...who by faith...performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises” (Hebrews 10:37-11:2,6,32,33).
David lived by the Gospel principle summed up in Habakkuk 2:4b. The “acts of righteousness” by which David made an appeal to God in Psalm 7 and 18 were acts done by faith. In other words, David’s righteousness came by faith, not by his own self-efforts. It’s a Gospel righteousness that comes by faith: “...I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for Whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).
And, of course, the Psalmist speaks of God’s righteousness many, many more times than he does his own (Psalm 5:8; 31:1; 35:24,28; 36:6,10; 37:6; 40:10; 51:14; 69:27; 71:2,15,16,19,24; 72:1; 88:12; 89:16; 119:40,142; 143:1,11; 145:7). Understanding the smaller light of references to “my righteousness” as it relates to the greater light of references to God’s righteousness is a vital exercise. It is not just a question of hermeneutical approach (though it is, and this is always an important question). It is not just doctrine (though this is also immeasurably important). It is the difference a Gospel that is true, biblical, and can alone save, in contrast with a hopeless reliance on one’s own righteousness before God (the attempt of every non-Christian religion).
Trust in the righteousness of Christ the Son alone both for salvation and every appeal you make to our Father Who is in heaven.