The righteous man occupies the central place in the book of Proverbs. He is seen as a shining example to the various characters as they move around him on the stage of life. His morally upright walk and his excellent judgement in all matters are the result of his acceptance of the teaching and instruction of the wise man. This man is both a hearer of the word and a doer and, accordingly, he receives the acclaim for his consistency. He is a man whose ‘delight is in the law of the Lord’, Ps. 1. 2.
There is, of course, only one truly righteous man. The Lord Jesus alone is the one who can fully appropriate every virtue seen in the righteous man of Proverbs, the only man who did ‘always those things that please the Father’. It is a worthwhile exercise to apply to the life of the Lord Jesus many of the verities recorded of the character in our current study, always bearing in mind the practical voice, which we must hear for our own instruction.
Righteousness is an essential and intrinsic attribute of deity. In simple terms it just means doing what is right, and God can never deviate from that standard. The Psalmist David declared that, ‘The Lord is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works’, Ps. 145. 17. In like manner, the word of God is righteous and can be trusted in every detail, Prov. 8. 8, 9. In previous generations, much of our legal, moral and educational framework was based upon the scriptures. It is a sad reflection that in our present day the word of God has been marginalized to such an extent that there are no longer clear and accepted standards of right and wrong. Decisions which affect behaviour, discipline and order in society, are made subjectively, based only upon the opinions of unregenerate men and women.
Just as righteousness is the fundamental nature of deity, so unrighteousness is the natural characteristic of fallen man, Rom. 3. 10-12. When the Lord Jesus said to the Pharisees that He ‘came not to call the righteous’, Mark 2. 17, it was plainly true, there were none! This was His perceptive challenge to their conscience. He did come, however, to call ‘sinners to repentance’, and all come under that heading. Yet such is the nature of man, in seeking to improve himself while leaving God out of the equation, that the pathway of history is littered with his vain attempts at self-righteousness.
The basic concept, which seems to elude man’s understanding, is that righteousness is absolute. There cannot be degrees of righteousness, though we naturally try to compare ourselves with others while conveniently forgetting that ‘all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags’, Isa. 64. 6. Two examples from Old Testament history will serve to illustrate this. In Genesis chapter 38 verse 26, Judah compares his own actions with those of Tamar, and declares her to be ‘more righteous than I’. In fact, the behaviour of both Jacob and Tamar in the previous verses leaves much to be desired! Neither could claim to have acted righteously. Again, in 1 Samuel chapter 24 verse 17, Saul, on realizing that he could have died in the cave at the hand of David, makes a pathetic plea for his own self-preservation by declaring ‘thou art more righteous than I’, as though his actions had some merit! He then shows how righteous he really was by continuing to pursue David!
When we considered the wise man in the book of Proverbs, we noticed that he was invariably seen in contrast to the foolish man. In the same way, the righteous man is consistently contrasted with the wicked. The first Psalm is an excellent illustration of this principle, which has its practical outworking in the Proverbs. As early as chapter 2, the righteous man acknowledges that wisdom from the Lord acts as a shield for his protection, v. 7, and a clear guide for his pathway through life, vv. 8-12. The alternative route is a way of ‘darkness’, v. 13, chosen by those who ‘rejoice to do evil’, v. 14. In this way, we are taken through the book, noting the walk and the words of the righteous man, and the corresponding behaviour of the wicked.
As the wise precepts are set out, we notice that every action, every word, and every facet of behaviour issues in a particular result, whether for good or ill. Those of the righteous man invariably bring blessing, prosperity and well-being. The wicked man’s behaviour results in failure, poverty and ultimately destruction. This leads us to believe that the principles of life, as seen in Proverbs, have not only time but also eternity in mind. Men do not always see the full measure of their actions in this life. There are times when the wicked seem to flourish, while the pathway of the righteous is fraught with difficulties and sorrows. We know, however, that, for the believer, treasure laid up in heaven will bring a just and eternal reward, whereas all unrighteousness will receive its appropriate recompense.
In the central section of the book, chapters 10-19, there is much practical truth which can be applied, and many warnings of pitfalls to be avoided. We need to remember that the people who first read these writings were under a covenant of law, given and accepted at Sinai. To live righteously before God, however, needed more than just an external ceremonial and legal observance. It required faith in God. The patriarch Abraham, who lived before the law, ‘believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness’, Rom. 4. 3; Gal. 3. 6. Zacharias and Elisabeth ‘were both righteous before God’, Luke 1. 6, keeping the law, v. 6, yet praying in faith, v. 13. The unconverted Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, lived in respect of ‘the righteousness which is in the law, blameless’, Phil 3. 6. Yet without faith he could not please God, but would be placed alongside his fellow countrymen, ‘going about to establish their own righteousness’, Rom. 10. 3.
For the believer in the Lord Jesus, He ‘is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption’, 1 Cor. 1. 30. We can never work for our blessings in Christ, but through faith in Him those blessings are ours, and we are enabled to live a life which is pleasing to God. The righteous man in the book of Proverbs exemplifies that life.
Let us then examine just a few of those features that mark the righteous man. In chapter 10, he is also known as the upright or the just man. The first thing we note is his own assurance of life, he is ‘delivered from death’, vv. 2, 16, 25. His knowledge of this gives him confidence to make known to others the way of life, v. 17. We are reminded of David, who desired to appreciate again ‘the joy of thy salvation’. Then, said he, ‘will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee’, Ps. 51. 12, 13. Maybe our gospel testimony would be more effective if we really lived in the appreciation and assurance of our salvation.
We also notice that the righteous man is certain his pathway will end in blessing, even though there are difficult times, 10. 25. What an encouragement to believers, troubled by circumstances, downcast and sad, to know that ‘the blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it’, v. 22; note also vv. 28, 29. These verses, and many others in these chapters, will also provide strength and comfort to a beleaguered remnant in tribulation days.
In chapter 11, we are given an insight into the way in which the righteous man goes about his daily work; a clear lesson for every believer engaged in employment. He is marked by honesty, v. 3, and a desire to do what is right, vv. 5, 6. He avoids situations which may cause trouble, v. 8, and earns his wages justly and conscientiously, v. 1. As believers, we are not immune from the trials that may come with redundancy. We should not, however, find ourselves unemployed because of dishonesty or poor workmanship.
The secret of living a righteous life is found in chapter 12. We read of ‘the root of the righteous’, vv. 3, 12, and ‘the house of the righteous’, v. 7. The root of a plant is its life source, and the strength of a house is its foundations. The believer has been born from above, our life source is found in God through the Lord Jesus. We also belong to that glorious edifice, ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone’, Eph. 2. 20. What greater incentive do we need to determine that we will live ‘the rest of [our] time’, 1 Pet. 4. 2, walking the narrow homeward path, living out the example of the righteous man!
There is much more for the interested believer to glean from this particular character but, reluctantly, we must leave him for a while and learn lessons from others whose actions are weighed in the book of Proverbs.