I sat down a week or so ago to share my study on the last half of Romans 1, but I ran smack into righteousness. Righteousness is a word you see a lot of in Romans — that and justification. Since I’ve started this study I’ve been thinking I should look into this word and its meaning. Do you know what it means? Can you explain it to someone who has no idea? Are you sure you’re right about your definitions?
How is this word, righteousness used elsewhere in the New Testament and in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures)? The Hebrew word usually rendered righteousness or justice is tsedakah. Tsedakah is also rendered kindness on nine occasions and mercy three times. It is usually translated with δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosune). Strong’s on tsedakah didn’t help me a lot:
From H6663; rightness (abstractly), subjectively (rectitude), objectively (justice), morally (virtue) or figuratively (prosperity): – justice, moderately, right (-eous) (act, -ly, -ness).
That’s great as far as it goes, but it’s kind of like defining “definition” as “something that defines.” Maybe it will be more helpful to look at the Greek words used by the Hebrew translators when creating the Septuagint. As already mentioned, tsedakah can mean kindness and/or mercy. That’s not a definition I’d have guessed at for righteousness or justice.
Let’s look at the more common dikaiosune, which our English translators render alternatively justice or righteousness. I won’t say that justice and righteousness are absolutely the same things, however I was surprised to learn that in both the Old and New Testaments, these two words are translated from the single same word; tsedakah in the Old and dikaiosune in the New. Based on that, it’s fair (just), I think, to suppose they are close cousins at the least. Also take note of the variants; just, justice, justification and right, righteous, righteousness. These are all translated from declensions of the same Hebrew and Greek word families.
To keep this reasonably short, I’m going to talk here only about New Testament usage, since it’s Romans I’m principally interested in. The first incidence of just or righteous in the NT is the description of Joseph’s reaction upon learning of the pregnancy of his promised wife, Mary. We’re told:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Mat 1:18-19 RSVA)
I always thought this odd. The law said that a woman who betrayed her husband (betrothed or otherwise) should be stoned. Doesn’t it seem strange that a just man would show mercy to someone whom he believed to be guilty of a crime deserving death? A kind man perhaps, but a just?
Remember though — the Septuagint, in addition to rendering it justice or righteousness, translates tsedakah as mercy sometimes, and other times as kindness. What’s more, sometimes the Hebrew words for kindness and mercy are translated to the Greek as variants of dikaiosune. According to Vincent’s Word Studies on Romans 1:17 (where I got much of this), “Righteousness is union with God in character.” And: “This idea includes all the social aspects of right. Love and duty toward God involve love and duty to the neighbor.”
As counter-intuitive as I found it, the scriptural meanings of righteousness and justice seem to be intertwined with mercy and kindness. To be honest, mercy and kindness are not words or concepts that come to mind when I think of righteousness and justice. I see a stern judge, perhaps sorrowful, but unbending. What’s right is right and what’s just is just. Mary has sinned; she must suffer the penalty. God who is loving is nevertheless just. But Joseph was a just or a righteous man and because of this, he did not want to put his (apparently) unfaithful betrothed bride to open shame.
It turns out that dika carries the idea of fairness, and sune brings in togetherness. Dikaiosune. Fair-togetherness. Kindness, mercy, love; the character of God. God is love. God is just and therefore He is merciful. There’s more to this, of course. I’ll talk about that next time. For the next post on the topic of righteousness, click here: The Justification of the Prodigals