Ecclesiastes 7:20 states that there is not a righteous man on earth. Psalm 14 states that there is no one righteous. So why does the Bible say that Noah, David and others were righteous? It seems to be a contradiction.
This is a very deep question, and a complete answer would be much too long! Nevertheless, I think that the definition of righteousness that I’ve provided so far in my series can go a long way to help us answer this question. We saw that:
Righteousness = being in line with a standard.
Which standard are we talking about? Well, it depends. What does it depend on? You guessed it: on the context!
Righteousness will mean different things according to the context in which it is used. Whenever you see the word ‘righteous’ in the Bible, a good first question to ask is, “Which standard is being referred to?” You should be able to get a reasonably good idea by looking at the verse itself—or at least by looking at the verses and chapters surrounding the verse. So let’s look at the various uses of the word ‘righteous’ referred to in the quote above.
First, Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:9). The verse itself would suggest that the standard of righteousness is whether a person ‘walks with God’. This makes even more sense when you look at the previous verses, which says that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). In Noah’s day, people had turned away completely from God and were morally wicked; by contrast, Noah walked with God. He was in line with this standard, and so he (in contrast with everyone around him) can be called ‘righteous’. Note that the standard of ‘righteousness’ here is not absolute moral perfection.
Now David: there are a lot of examples here, but let’s go with Psalm 7:8: “The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me” (Ps 7:8). Here, David pleas for justice against his enemies. He claims that he is righteous—that is, he is in line with some moral standards that are particularly important for the king (see Ps 7:4 and Deut 17:14-20). Therefore, he deserves to be rescued. In contrast, his enemies deserve judgement, because they are wicked (Ps 7:9). David isn’t claiming that he is absolutely morally perfect, just that he is (at this point) generally in line with these moral standards.
By contrast, Ecclesiastes 7:20 says: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins”. This verse is talking about a much bigger and tougher standard: the standard of absolute moral perfection—sinlessness. The claim is that there is nobody who meets this particular standard (a claim that’s backed up by other parts of the Bible, e.g. 1 Kings 8:46, 2 Chronicles 6:36, Matthew 7:11, Luke 11:13). There is nobody who is righteous according to the standard of absolute moral perfection.
Psalm 14 is a little bit more complicated. It’s complicated because it doesn’t quite say that nobody at all is righteous (actually Psalm 14:5 presumes that there are some righteous people around!). The standard of righteousness in Psalm 14 is about acknowledging and following God. Psalm 14 seems to be saying that nobody in the nations around Israel is righteous according to this standard, but that there are some ‘righteous’ in Israel who will be rescued because they acknowledge God, follow God, and trust in God’s salvation.
Nevertheless, in Romans 3:10-18, Paul uses bits of Psalm 14 alongside a whole bunch of other Old Testament quotes as part of his overall proof that there is nobody at all who is righteous (including those within Israel after the exile, see Isaiah 59:1-16)! That’s because the standard of righteousness Paul is speaking about at this point in Romans is actually the big, most important standard of all: the standard used in God’s final judgement, where every act and thought will be judged by the holy and perfect God of all (Rom 2:1-16). We’re talking here about ultimate forensic righteousness. According to that standard, nobody (Jew or Gentile) is righteous in themselves. Psalm 14 by itself doesn’t prove this point, but according to Paul, when you see Psalm 14 as part of the Bible’s overall story, the picture adds up that there is no-one who conforms to the ultimate standard. Nobody on earth is righteous. In fact, even in Israel, no-one is righteous. No-one at all is righteous.
And that’s why, in the final and ultimate sense, you and I (and Noah and Abraham and David) need Jesus, the only truly righteous man according to God’s ultimate standards, who provides justification through atonement and whose righteousness is imputed to us.
I hope that goes some way towards answering this huge question!Comment on the Sola Panel