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  • « Clarifying Some Confusion About "Free Will" | Main | Can this resource serve you? »

    A Survey of the Usage of “Tsedek/Tsedekah” in the Hebrew Old Testament


    While the issue of authority no doubt underlay the Protestant Reformation, so that the basis upon which men began to question the corruption of Rome was only the “formal principle” of sola scriptura; and while the sole weapon which the Reformers ever wielded against their doctrinal foes was the grammatico-historical hermeneutic; it is no less certain that the one great battlefield upon which the war was waged was constituted of the biblical word groups for “righteousness”: in the Old Testament tsedek/tsedekah, and in the New Testament dikaiosis/dikaiosune. It is no accident that the question of justification, or how a sinner may be declared righteous before a holy God, is the question to which sola scriptura must ultimately give rise: for from the beginning of the scriptures, man’s plight is cast in the direst of terms, and the basic direness is the result of a lack of righteousness, and all the troubling effects to which that condition must succumb, when the righteous Judge appears upon the scene. In other words, the “formal principle” of the Reformation, namely sola scriptura, could not but give rise to its “material principle,” justification by grace alone through faith alone.

    It is vital that we recognize this truth. If we embrace sola gratia, but forget sola scriptura, we are no true heirs of the reformers, and have already taken a giant step back to Rome, or some other equally devastating doctrinal ogre. And if we forget that sola scriptura is only strong to retain her hold of sola gratia through the iron vise-grips of tsedek and dikaiosune, we have cast away our weapons, and stand naked on the battlefield before a very fearsome foe. As the centuries roll on, new insights will be gained into these word groups by philologists and theologians, and new riches will be made available – but these very discoveries will be used by the Serpent to destroy the sheep who are not secure in their fold of doctrinal stability. The multi-faceted nature of the central term of the Christian faith, having so many edges with which to smite the enemy, may cause no little havoc among those not competent to wield it. The rich nuances of covenant-faithfulness, relational mercy, vindication, and victory which are now coming to the fore, and which glisten like gems in the hilt of the King’s own sword, have the capacity to blind many to the crucial two-edged blade of sin-bearing and righteousness-bestowing, with which the Redeemer beheaded the dragon; and that which holds forth rich instruction, when seen in its proper position as an admirably-crafted part in a greater whole, may prove the undoing of many, who use it to deny (either practically or in words) the very reality it complements, or rather is melded together with to form. There is no remedy for this contingency but a very thorough grounding in the many nuances of these “righteousness” word groups, and a well thought-out understanding of the relationship that all these nuances have to each other. This article is intended to be something of a first step in that direction, beginning, appropriately enough, with the Old Testament tsedek word family.

    In any account, the data with which we have to deal is bountiful, even overwhelming. The two noun forms of the word family in question, tsedek in the masculine and tsedekah in the feminine, which seem to have little, if any, discernible difference in meaning, occur a combined 274 times in the Old Testament – and that leaves out the very numerous appearances of the related adjective and verb, tsadik and tsadek, respectively. To some of these occurrences we will now turn, hoping to gather a sampling of the most various usages, and to gain a feeling for the most prominent among them all.

    Righteousness and Man

    If there is any common factor which binds all the nuances of the word group together, it is the idea of an outside objective standard, by which everything must be weighed, and in accordance with which everything must be brought to terms (e.g. Exodus 23:7; Leviticus 19:15, 36; Deuteronomy 1:16; II Samuel 8:15; I Kings 8:31-32; Proverbs 17:15; Isaiah 5:22-23; Jeremiah 22:13; Ezekiel 45:10). For this reason, “righteousness” and “judgment” (mishpat) are often seen in close parallel with each other, even pointing to the same basic reality through poetic parallelism (e.g. I Kings 10:9; Psalm 106:3; Proverbs 8:20; 21:3). Sometimes, however, there appears to be this basic difference: righteousness is the state of conformity to the standard, and judgment is the “balancing of the scales,” giving a precisely comparable, inversely proportionate retribution for every transgression of the norm, in the good old Hebrew “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” sort of justice (see Exodus 21:23-25). Hence, the passages where following specific commands of God are seen as so many instances of “righteousness” (e.g. Psalm 119:106), although note the times in which righteous acts and “sacrifices of righteousness” presuppose the previous reception of covenant mercy (Psalm 51:19; Isaiah 1:26; Jeremiah 31:23); and hence the passages that speak of righteous judgment in terms of retributive justice (e.g. Deuteronomy 25:1-2; I Kings 8:32).

    This leads us to a twofold manner in which the appeal to “righteousness” is made by the Old Testament saints: positively, on the basis of the plaintiff's conformity to the divinely revealed standards of justice, he often pleads for the righteous reward of vindication, deliverance, and reward, over against his opponent, who in the matter being brought before the court is clearly in the wrong (see Deuteronomy 16:20; I Samuel 26:23; II Samuel 22:21, 25; Psalm 7:8;
    Proverbs 11:4-6, 19). And negatively, the plea is likewise made for his opponent's destruction, or the retribution which righteousness demands of the transgessor of the law (e.g. Psalm 7:9).

    Of course, these examples unexceptionally involve occasions in which righteousness is evaluated in terms of a specific situation or relative to one particular standard; Tamar was considered righteous, that is, she was justified, in relation to Judah, who in a particular circumstance was more at fault than she. When the facts of their case were brought before the standards of justice, his own actions were condemned, and in relation to himself he confessed that she was righteous (Genesis 38:26; see also Jeremiah 3:11; Ezekiel 16:51). To a certain extent, perhaps, many of the examples of the psalmists who brought the circumstances of their conflicts before the bar of divine justice, seeking exoneration and vengeance, may be taken in the same way.

    However, these cases of righteousness relative to a more wicked opponent, or with respect to a single, specific standard, were never broad enough to constitute a claim for righteousness in a general and unqualified sense before the righteous Judge; which is ultimately what the Old Testament saints were seeking. They could plead their case against their opponents, but when brought before God in solitary audience, they had no plea. They were seeking the ultimate rewards of righteousness, namely, dwelling in God's own habitation, and being joyfully at peace with him; but they recognized the radical extent of the righteousness which could claim such a reward (Psalm 11:7; 15:1-5; 24:3-5); and they recognized, moreover, that this sort of righteousness was possessed by no living man (Psalm 14:3; 143:2; Ecclesiastes 7:20). For this reason, the prophets speak much of the folly of seeking a reward for a righteousness which is not grounded in the realities of covenant mercy (Isaiah 58), or of trusting in one's own righteousness at all (Ezekiel 33:12-13).

    This tension lies at the heart of the book of Job: Both Job and his friends recognized that no man was able to claim an absolute righteousness before God, and that God's mercy was necessary for the well being of anyone who would come before him (Job 4:17; 9:2; 25:4); however, Job's friends erred in assuming that mercy would be given without exception to the one whose righteousness was great in the relative sense; to the one who consistently acted in justice and mercy toward those around him, God would reward the relative righteousness thus displayed with the rewards thus merited in relation to his fellow men, and crown this righteous vindication with mercy (e.g. Job 8:3-6). In other words, when one man was blessed with prosperity, and another was cursed with affliction, it was unexceptionally the case that the one was more righteous than the other; God's mercy leveled the playing field, so to speak, so that the fortunes of men were a reliable indication of their righteousness relative to each other. Job, of course, realized that his righteousness was greater than that of all others around him (e.g. Job 29:14-16) and was left without an answer as to why such monstrous calamities had befallen him. He grows bolder throughout the book in his assertion of righteousness, and at last becomes willing to meet God face-to-face in court, and there plead his righteousness (e.g. Job 27:6; 31:6); but when God does in fact meet him, he is forced to acknowledge his wickedness, and submit to God's sovereign dispensations (Job 42:1-6). In this sense, absolute justice triumphs over relative justice at the end of the book.

    However, the question of mercy is also brought into sharp relief; if absolute justice must finally win the day, why are God's mercies known at all? Why is it that God is favorable to Job even (and we might say, only) after he had renounced all claim to such favor? How does it accord with justice that God sometimes gives affliction to one who is relatively righteous and prosperity to one relatively more wicked? And more to the point, how does it accord with justice that God gives mercy to anyone at all? The book of Job demonstrates that both justice and mercy are essential attributes of God; but the way in which they can co-exist without compromising the one-to-one weighing of a man's actions against an immutable standard, and rewarding retributive judgment in proportion as he fails to measure up, is left rather obscure (although hinted at – see Job 9:33; 19:25).

    This tension between righteousness and mercy shapes much of Old Testament theology; and at no point does it become more stark than when mercy is enjoined upon God's people as an act of righteousness. Many times, God indicts his people for failing to display justice by virtue of the fact that they had not shown mercy to the weak and afflicted (see Deuteronomy 24:13; Psalm 82:3; 112:9; Proverbs 31:9; Jeremiah 22:3; Isaiah 58:2, 6-8). This observation leads us to a very sticky dilemma: in one sense, righteousness demands a strict measurement against an objective law, and a precise retribution for every failure, as we have observed before. But in another sense, this same righteousness demands the display of mercy, which is exactly the opposite of exacting a precise retribution for a transgression. How this tension may ultimately be resolved will be the subject of later inquiry; but for now, it is vital to recognize that the tension does indeed occur in Old Testament “righteousness” passages.

    At this point, we will only mention one hint of the ultimate solution to this problem: and that is, those passages in which the imputation, or free bestowal of an outside righteousness is indicated. In Genesis 15:6, we have the first clear suggestion of this concept – there, Abraham's faith is considered to be righteousness for him, not as if it were in itself a meritorious act, which outweighed any positive transgressions of righteousness that he may have committed (for that would be in direct contradiction to the very tenor of the biblical understanding of righteousness); but rather in that his faith was the means by which he received an altogether different righteousness which was held out to him in the promises of God. Later passages which hint at this same idea, some more explicitly than others, include Job 33:23-28; Psalm 132:9; Isaiah 53:11; Isaiah 61:10-11; Jeremiah 23:6; 33:16; Micah 7:9.

    Righteousness and God

    We have come to a tension with respect to righteousness as enjoined upon man, in that it demands precise retributive judgment, in some cases; and the opposite of judgment, free mercy, in other cases. As we look now to how righteousness relates to God himself, we will find that this tension does not inhere in the mere commandments of God, but is rather the reflection of a similar interplay in his own character. The fundamental self-revelation of God in the Old Testament is framed by these paradoxical (but not irreconcilable) joint truths: “Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and great in covenant love and faithfulness, retaining covenant love for thousands of generations, forgiving guilt and transgression and sin; but not at all declaring the guilty innocent, visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children and upon the children's children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7). This merciful and retributive Judge is the fountain from which flows those joint demands of justice, retribution and mercy.

    And it is certainly not a stretch to say that the character and demands of Old Testament righteousness derive immediately from God's own character. The authors of scripture repeatedly stress that God is absolutely and unflinchingly righteous in his very character (see Psalm 97:6; Isaiah 45:24; Daniel 9:7); in other words, he himself is that standard against which a man must be compared to be counted righteous. And the extent to which a man falls short of this divine standard, he must receive a comparable punishment. Furthermore, God's individual actions are always righteous actions; in other words, he always acts consistently, in accordance with his own just nature, than which there can be no higher standard of righteousness.

    The varieties of actions which are wrought by God and stamped with the seal of righteousness by the Old Testament authors are really quite diverse, and emphasize this dual nature of retribution and mercy that we have seen before. God is righteous in in his verdicts as Judge (Psalm 9:4,8); he is righteous in condemning and exacting punitive satisfaction from those who fail to meet his standards (Isaiah 28:17; Ezekiel 3:18-20); he is righteous in showing mercy (Psalm 51:14; 119:40; Isaiah 1:27; Isaiah 11:4; Daniel 9:16); he is righteous in vindicating one party's cause in relation to another's (Isaiah 54:17; Jeremiah 51:10); he is righteous in delivering and blessing his people (Judges 5:11; Psalm 31:1; 65:5; 71:2, 15-16; 103:6; 119:123; 143:11; Isaiah 46:13; 51:5-6; 62:1; 63:1); he is righteous in the sense that he “brings things to right,” both by removing the wicked (Psalm 104:35; Ecclesiastes 3:16-17) and by granting true righteousness to others (Isaiah 33:5; Ezekiel 36:25-29), creating through these dual means a land and a people characterized by a thoroughgoing righteousness (Isaiah 32:17; 45:8); and he is righteous to remember his covenant, and to show himself faithful to fulfill it forever (Isaiah 16:5; 42:6; Hosea 2:19). Furthermore, his righteousness is ultimately too unexceptional to allow for an actual contradiction in the presence of justice and mercy; thus he will not stop his active governance until “righteousness and peace have kissed each other,” that is, exist together without contradiction (Psalm 85:10-11; Psalm 89:14).

    Righteousness and Covenant

    This last point leads us to the only venue and paradigm in which these corollary concepts of righteousness and mercy might be reconciled; and that is, the eternal covenant into which God entered with his people. From the beginning, God's interactions with fallen mankind have been covenantal; and moreover, have involved God's unilateral promise to restore his people at his own expense, as it were. He would provide a Deliverer who would conquer the serpent, at cost to himself (the bruising of his heel, see Genesis 3:15); he would preserve a new earth where he might dwell forevermore with his chosen people, in testimony to which he drew back a bow against himself (Genesis 9:12-17); he would be God to Abraham and his seed, in confirmation of which he took upon himself the curse demanded by righteousness, walking alone through the animal halves (Genesis 15). In this way, God, who cannot lie, promised mercy and salvation to his people. And so, inasmuch as righteousness demands truth, permanence, and faithfulness (as it clearly does, see Psalm 119:142, 144, 160; Proverbs 12:17; 16:13), mercy and deliverance became a very notable subset of righteousness. This is the first step in which the two paradoxical truths of grace and justice begin to come together; in God's covenant dealings with mankind, justice takes mercy under her wing, as it were, and demands that she be preserved. The two become so bound up together, that they live or die at one stroke.

    This still leaves untouched the way in which the problem is to be reconciled; it just demands, by the very character of God, that a way must be found. If either justice or mercy ever fail God's people, then God is no longer God. But how is this to be done? There is now a twofold dilemma, each of which seems insurmountable: first, righteousness forbids mercy, in one sense, and now demands mercy, due to God's covenant; and second, the covenant demands mercy, but at the same time requires a curse. The only possible reconciliation would be God's taking the curse upon himself, as he indicated his willingness to do when he walked through the animal halves with Abraham, and so satisfying justice, while at the same time providing the mercy for his people which justice now demands. The covenant is, therefore, the non-negotiable foundation for understanding the various effects to which righteousness gives rise in the Old Testament. Vindication, deliverance, and mercy become acts of righteousness, because the covenant had promised them. At the same time, retribution against the wicked is shown to be just, for they are out of the covenant; but on the other hand, retribution against God's people is no longer required, for by virtue of their covenant relationship with him, the necessary retribution has been figuratively taken upon himself, and the burden of accomplishing it has therefore devolved upon him.

    This leads us to a more exact definition of righteousness as required of those who are in the covenant: without exception, they all have been shown mercy, as justice herself has demanded, and at whose stern hand she has been won; now, the requirement devolves upon them to show forth to others the same twofold demand of righteousness. Just as mercy became a subset of righteousness in the objective sense of its being shown to covenant members; now, it is reduplicated in their lives, so that mercy is a necessary subset of righteousness in the subjective sense of what the covenant members must do. They have been shown mercy, and now they must be merciful. Justice demands that they who have been forgiven must forgive. And in fact, if such righteousness as willing forgiveness and mercy do not flow from their lives, they have proven themselves unworthy of covenant status (see Genesis 18:19; Deuteronomy 16:20; I Kings 3:6; Isaiah 56:1), and the justice which remains outside the covenant – a cold, retributive justice – must be exacted upon them, just as they have exacted retributive justice upon others. Free, objective righteousness comes to the covenant family as a result of objective mercy, and it springs up in a justly-required subjective mercy. But the proud, who would rather trust in retributive justice, thinking they are righteous enough to be vindicated at her hands, receive the retributive justice that they hoped for, to their eternal ruin. This interplay is summed up in Micah's famous passage, which sets forth the three elements that God requires of man: to do justice, to love covenant mercy, and to walk humbly before God (Micah 6:8). It is also at the heart of Hosea's intriguing passage, “Sow for yourselves in tsedek, reap in proportion chesed (i.e., the mercy brought about by covenant faithfulness); break up your fallow ground, for it is a time to seek Yahweh until he should come and rain tsedek on you” (Hosea 10:12). Those who display righteousness, and in particular that sort of righteousness which demonstrates mercy, display their nature as covenant members, and receive what must by justice come to covenant members – mercy and righteousness. Both righteousness and mercy are seen here in a twofold sense – they are given freely to all the covenant family, and they are displayed subjectively in the lives of all the covenant family.

    Righteousness and Messiah

    We have now examined the covenant as the sole venue in which the righteousness and mercy may be found peacefully co-existing, and have hinted at the way in which this is to come about. Let us reflect on this point a little further. In covenant, God's righteousness demands that he show mercy to his people, and it demands that he do so at his own expense; but furthermore, his righteousness still demands that his standard of justice be upheld in his covenant, and that, where it does not, retributive justice be exacted. In other words, for God to declare that the covenant would be a place of free mercy, without respect to the demands of justice that its members had already come under, would no more be consistent with his righteous character than to promise mercy and refuse to provide it. His justice, in the covenant, demands both retribution and mercy – and it demands that the retribution fall upon himself and the mercy upon his people! From the beginnings of the covenant, no other solution could be found than that God condescend to take upon himself a man's punishment for the sins of men, and that he provide a man's righteousness as a gift to these same men. In short, God's dual character, mercy and justice; and the venue in which he displayed himself in that character to his people, the eternal covenant; required a substitute, who would be both God and Man.

    It would be impossible to embrace so shocking a logical conclusion, were it not spelled out for us in so many ways: but the fact of the matter is, this very idea is foreshadowed and promised in many countless ways throughout the Old Testament scriptures. The triumph of righteousness would involve a Redeemer who at one stroke would accomplish the salvation of his people, which covenant righteousness demanded; and the satisfaction of the curse, which retributive righteousness demanded. When God “saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no Mediator, then his own arm brought salvation to him, and his own righteousness sustained him” (Isaiah 59:16). The Messiah would accomplish the righteousness of salvation, deliverance, and vengeance upon their enemies for his covenant people, as the covenant demanded. He would satisfy the demands of retributive righteousness by his sufferings in their behalf; and he would provide the righteousness that they needed to stand before the just God, the subjective, human righteousness which mercy had promised and which divine righteousness had undertaken to accomplish. All these truths are revealed in hints and fragments throughout the scriptures, and shine with the brilliance of an almost New Testament degree of clarity in that most blessed of all scriptures, Isaiah 53 (see also Psalm 22:31; Isaiah 42:6; 45:8; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:14-16; Daniel 9:24; Malachi 4:2).


    In the end, we have learned several things about the Old Testament usage of the “righteousness/justice” word family, but it remains for us to consider just how all of these diverse elements relate to each other; for there is a danger in keying in on one aspect to the minimization of another, which will always result in confusion at the least, and a thorough doctrinal meltdown at the worst. The tendency has long been to under-appreciate the covenantal flavor that righteousness almost invariably has in the scriptures, and this may lead, first, to an individualistic conception of salvation which tragically minimizes the unity and coherence of redemptive history, in which the Son of God, stepping down into history to fulfill the eternal covenant, wins an everlasting people to declare his praise, who are united as his own body, and become his true Israel, whether Jew or Gentile; and second, to a minimization of the subjective righteousness of law-fulfilling-through-mercy-showing (see Romans 13:8-10) which the covenant demands of and produces in all its true members. However, the maximization of the covenant flavor of righteousness to the exclusion of the foundational meaning which inheres in the word, namely, an objective weighing against the standard of God's own character and retributive judgment in proportion to the disparity, misunderstands the covenant as the place in which true righteousness and free mercy have wed each other, through the justice-satisfying, covenant-faithfulness-fulfilling, righteousness-bestowing redemption of the representative God-Man. To refer to “righteousness” as a mere synonym for “covenant membership” is to commit the grievous error of rejecting the whole of biblical witness for the sake of the part, and to refuse to take seriously the inter-relationship of covenant and righteousness. They are no mere synonyms, after all, but inextricably joined and fundamentally different realities.

    So let us conclude by reviewing what we have noted of the developing theology of the tsedek/tsedekah word group: first, righteousness is the state of being declared fully in accordance with the standard of God's own character, and it demands precise retribution of one not thus in forensic accordance; second, God's own character includes eternal faithfulness and truth; third, when God entered into a covenant to provide mercy, he therefore effectually brought mercy under the rubric of righteousness; not to provide mercy, righteousness, salvation, and vindication for his covenant people would be a violation of righteousness, just as giving those things without regard to the just requirement of a curse would be a violation of righteousness; fourth, the only way in which this paradox could be solved, and the various demands of righteousness could all be accomplished in harmony with each other, was by the sending of a God-Man to be a substitute for his people, accomplishing righteousness in the threefold manner of satisfying its demands for punishment; fulfilling its requirement to measure up to God's own character; and accomplishing its covenantally-derived necessity of salvation for God's people. The covenant is therefore founded upon righteousness in an astonishing variety of ways: righteousness is the cause, the means, and the result of covenant fulfillment. The cause in that, by entering the covenant, God bound himself by righteousness to provide salvation; the means in that, by the Messiah's threefold accomplishment of righteousness the covenant was in fact fulfilled and salvation was provided; and the result in that, what flowed forth from this firm establishment of the covenant was a subjective righteousness in its members, a righteousness that is in accordance with God's own character in the twofold sense of obeying his commands and showing free mercy. It is only in those whose lives display this God-produced and God-imitating righteousness that the covenant is made firm. It is only they who, at the end of the age will be proclaimed “justified,” that is, free from sin and possessing a character in accordance with God's; for these gifts come only in covenant, and actual covenant membership is a predicate only of those whose lives display the righteousness they have already been given. All others are found out to be imposters, and will bear the weight of retributive justice for all eternity.

    Posted by Nathan on July 29, 2007 07:35 AM

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