Much like Sin, the concept of Righteousness transcends the pages of the Bible and has been a part of just about every human culture since time immemorial. We’ve always known that there is good and evil, right and wrong—the concept of Righteousness is the other side of the coin of being human. If we can choose wrong, we can choose right.
The Hebrew word for Righteousness, Tsedek, and its many grammatical forms, derive from a word that means “of good and equal measure” in regards to balancing scales. Up until modern times, it was a pretty common practice among shady dealers to “fix” the scales in their favor in order to cheat people. Because it was so common, a truly balanced scale became a cross-cultural symbol for Justice that is even still used today. Western images that personify Justice usually follow the old Roman tradition of a blindfolded goddess holding a sword and scales. In ancient times, to be considered Righteous was to be like the balanced scales—just and lawful. Righteousness wasn’t about being a squeaky-clean religious nut, it was about being a good and decent human being that thinks about others before himself.
The ancient Egyptians illustrated these concepts beautifully in their religious views of the Afterlife. In their traditions, when a person died they went before the great Lord of the Underworld, Osiris, to be judged and to see if they were worthy of Paradise. This divine judgment occurred when the person’s heart (symbolizing their deeds in life) was weighed against a feather (symbolizing Ma’at—the Egyptian concept of divine balance, Justice, etc.). If the heart was too heavy, they were fed to the chaotic demons of the Underworld.
In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Righteousness is treated in a similar vein to the Egyptian concept of Ma’at. God’s righteousness is what brings balance, order, and justice to the Creation, and it is a Humanity’s righteousness, or lack thereof, that can bring order or chaos to society. If wickedness and injustice reign, it is because no one is righteous. A good definition of what it means to be a righteous person can be found in Ezekiel 18:5-9 (see my post The Real Deadly Sins for a more in depth look). Righteousness is understanding and following the Law, and as Jesus artfully says centuries after Ezekiel, this really means loving God and loving your neighbor more than yourself. Injustice and wickedness—evil—is ultimately caused by human selfishness. Yahweh is very much a God of Justice, and many times in the Bible, “cries” of rampant unrighteousness and injustice reach God’s ears and he must judge accordingly (e.g., the Flood of Noah’s day, Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, and the exile of Israel and Judah). It’s possible that these “cries of sin” are actually the voice of the Accuser—Satan—in his role as Heaven’s prosecuting attorney.
The relationship between Righteousness, Justice, Judgement, and divine courts, continued on through to the Greco-Roman Period and the era of the New Testament. The Greek word for Righteousness, dikaiosuné, means “that which is just,” usually in terms of behavior and ethics, and is derived from the Greek personification of Divine Justice herself, Dike (Roman Justitia). A common Greek word for Judge was dikastes (“Agent of Justice.” Used in Luke 12:14 and Acts 7:27). It’s also the word used throughout the Greek version of the Book of Judges for those particular “commander in chiefs” of the ancient Israelites (Hebrew shofét).
In his ministry, Jesus often played on the concepts of outward and inward Righteousness. To the legalistic Pharisees, Righteousness meant following every statute of the Law, even if it meant being a generally horrible person. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example of this—the “righteous” would rather leave an innocent man to die on the side of the road than to offend the Law. The Samaritan, who is considered an unworthy and sinful person by birth, displays true Righteousness. Like his prophetic forebears, Jesus proclaimed that true Righteousness was loving God and loving your fellow man, and that sacrifices and legalism pale in comparison to a compassionate heart.
While Jesus’ views on Righteousness are pretty straightforward, the Apostle Paul’s use of the concept has filled volumes of books and sparked countless debates. I don’t have the time (or the energy) to really go into all of that right now. We shall save that discussion until we discuss another important topic—Sin.