Improve your biblical word power 1: Righteousness

From the Sola Panel:

This post is the first in a series designed to help you to get to know and love some of the important words used in the Bible so that you can be more precise as you seek to know God and talk about him.

Comments

A couple of initial comments about this series:

  1. I’m not writing the series to encourage pedantic nitpicking! Nevertheless, we should aim to be precise in our language, especially when we’re talking about important topics relating to God and our relationship with him. Why?
    1. It’s because the more we think and speak about God the way the Bible does, the more we’ll be able to know the God of the Bible (as opposed to the God of our own imagining).
    2. If we can agree on basic definitions of words, it will enable us to have more fruitful discussions about these important topics, without having to constantly clarify and correct misunderstandings or red herrings.
    3. It will help us to identify false teaching more accurately.
  2. Each post is designed to build on the previous one. I’ll give a basic description of the word’s meaning, followed by a brief discussion. My hope is that people will take a bit of time to remember and learn the description each time one of these posts appears.

Our first word: Righteousness

Today I’d like to begin with a very important word: righteousness. What is ‘righteousness’ (or, ‘being righteous’), according to the Bible? The word is used with different nuances in lots of different contexts, but there is a basic meaning that is common to all those contexts:

Righteousness = being in line with a standard.

(Note: This definition is the bit I hope you can learn off by heart).

That sounds pretty simple, right? But there’s a little trick to keep in mind—something that makes things a bit more complex, especially for us English-speakers: the same underlying root word (‘righteous’/‘righteousness’) in the original languages can be translated in our English Bibles with different words, such as ‘just’, ‘justice’, ‘fair’, ‘innocent’, ‘upright’, ‘equity’, etc. These different English words are, quite rightly, chosen by translators to suit different contexts. But the underlying original Hebrew or Greek root is the same in all cases. And the basic concept of ‘being in line with a standard’ is present in all cases as well.

What different standards are on view when the Bible uses the word ‘righteousness’? In the marketplace, for example, weights and measures can be called ‘righteous’ when they are in line with the proper accepted standard for buying and selling:

You shall have just [‘righteous’] balances, just [‘righteous’] weights, a just [‘righteous’] ephah, and a just [‘righteous’] hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. (Lev 19:36)

When the word applies to human beings or their actions, it’s often referring to a moral/ethical standard. Human beings are ‘righteous’ when they act in a morally correct way. For example:

He [Saul] said to David, “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.” (1 Sam 24:17)

When the word applies to God, it’s often talking about God acting in line with his own character as creator of moral standards and judge of those same moral standards. When God acts ‘righteously’, he sets the world to rights. For example:

… let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness.

(Psa 96:12-13)

And that’s the lesson for today! To repeat the big point,

Righteousness = being in line with a standard.

It’s important to realize that, in different contexts, different standards are in view. But next time we will look at a critically important context where ‘righteousness’ appears in the Bible: the courtroom. Stay tuned!

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