Righteousness in Psalm 17

Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry!

    Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit!

From your presence let my vindication come!

    Let your eyes behold the right!

You have tried my heart, you have visited me by night,

    you have tested me, and you will find nothing;

    I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress.

With regard to the works of man, by the word of your lips

    I have avoided the ways of the violent.

My steps have held fast to your paths;

    my feet have not slipped.

I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;

    incline your ear to me; hear my words.

Wondrously show your steadfast love,

    O Savior of those who seek refuge

    from their adversaries at your right hand.

Keep me as the apple of your eye;

    hide me in the shadow of your wings,

from the wicked who do me violence,

    my deadly enemies who surround me.

They close their hearts to pity;

    with their mouths they speak arrogantly.

They have now surrounded our steps;

    they set their eyes to cast us to the ground.

He is like a lion eager to tear,

    as a young lion lurking in ambush.

Arise, O Lord! Confront him, subdue him!

    Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword,

from men by your hand, O Lord,

    from men of the world whose portion is in this life.

You fill their womb with treasure;

    they are satisfied with children,

    and they leave their abundance to their infants.

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;

    when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.


This week will not be a normal meditation on the psalm. The message of Psalm 17 is familiar to us by now, for we have often heard David crying out to God for deliverance. We have often seen him surrounded by deadly enemies, arrogant men full of violence.

We have not yet considered an appeal like what we find just a few lines in: “I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress. …I have avoided the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.” David appeals to God on the basis of his own righteousness, and this leads us to our question for this week.

At first, the psalm might seem at odds with the NT message about righteousness. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2.8-9; cf. Rom 3.10-28). How can David appeal to his own righteousness when Paul asserts that there is none righteous and that God saves by grace alone?

We must take care not to fall into the Lutheran false teachings of sola gratia (“by grace alone”) and sola fide (“by faith alone”). Entry into the kingdom is laborious, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7.14), and the Lord will indeed be concerned with our works at the Judgment: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’” (Matt 7.21).

We are still left with an apparent tension in the Scriptures regarding the appeal of our own righteousness. This problem occurs when we reduce the Faith down to a purely individual relationship with God. But it is not, and it never has been. David appeals to the same thing that we do: membership in God’s covenant people.

Covenant blessings are a free gift from God, a promise that He has made to all those who belong to His covenant people. “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3.29). But belonging to the covenant people depends on righteousness: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6.9-10).

Let us pursue righteousness and appeal to it as David did, calling on the name of the Lord to save us from trials and from sins.