I just wanted to share a couple of paragraphs from Richard P. Belcher Jr.’s essay, “The King, the Law, and Righteousness in the Psalms” from The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant, along with my own thoughts:
“The relationship of the king to the torah is important. The king meditates on the torah and desires to keep the torah. The king declares that his life is a reflection of the righteousness of the torah in that he is blameless. Thus the king is able to ask God to judge him according to his righteousness because his life is a reflection of the righteousness of the torah.” (p168)
An unthinking cursory reader of Psalms 7, 18, and 26 might not recognize the apparent problem with these Psalms in that the author (the king) considers himself to be righteous in the sight of the law. But how does this square with Psalm 143:2, in which the Psalmist specifically asks God not to enter into judgment with him, because “in Your sight no one living is righteous?” What are the options for interpreting these Psalms? As I see it, there are three.
The first option is that the human Psalmist is speaking in a general manner, about how he has lived a mostly upstanding life, making his best effort to uphold God’s law. Thus he is asking God to judge him based on his history of having more “rights” than “wrongs” in his life. Yet this option cannot be true, for in Isaiah 64:6, we see that even our righteousnesses are like filthy rags. Even our best works of following the law cannot earn us entrance into heaven.
The second option is that the Psalmist is speaking in light of his sanctification by God. Through the power of God’s work, the righteousness of Christ is infused into the believer, and he is made into a righteous being. Through this righteousness worked in the believer, God can judge the Psalmist as holy enough to earn eternal life. Many who profess belief in Christ hold this view. Yet is this how God judges men to be righteous? By infusing them with righteousness, by recreating them into a righteous being worthy of heaven? The answer from Scripture is a resounding “NO.” No works of righteousness, even those wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, are enough to gain us entry into heaven. Romans 4 explains how Abraham was considered righteous before God, not by any work of obedience (and Abraham was certainly obedient many times), but by faith in the promise of God!
So how are we to interpret the words of the Psalmist who claims that he is righteous enough to stand before the judgment of God Almighty? This brings us to Option #3, which Belcher explains:
“All the statements in the psalms related to the benefit of the law would have been true of Jesus’ sinless human life. He would have delighted in the law and kept his way pure according to its precepts. In this way he not only fulfils the role of the king in relationship to the law, but he also fulfils the original role of mankind in creation as the one who rules over God’s creation in obedience to the word of God.” (p.168)
Thus, the pertinent portions of Psalms 7, 18, and 26 can be understood as being from the point of view of Christ. Only Christ could point to His own righteousness for judgment in God’s sight; no other man ever could. While the Psalms had a human author (in this case, David), they are also God-breathed.
Thus Christ fulfilled the law in every way. As the perfect sacrifice he fulfils the sacrificial system and bears on the cross the punishment for sin (the passive obedience of Christ). But he also perfectly keeps the requirements of the law so that he is allowed into the presence of God on the basis of his own righteousness (the active obedience of Christ). His righteousness is imputed through faith alone, and apart from his righteousness all are condemned. The statement of Machen as he neared death is so pertinent: ‘I am so thankful for [the] active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.'” (p.169)