My wife and I attended a funeral last week. It was a gray, cold, windy, trying to rain, funeral kind of day. The funeral was in a national cemetery and as the funeral procession wound its way past row after row of white marble headstones, I saw names of people who had served in WWI and WWII, old headstones showing the effects of 60+ years of weather. I wondered if anybody remembered these people who had served their country so long ago.
The thing that sticks with me, though, was the message of the gentleman conducting the memorial service. I don’t really know anything about him, just that he had been called in at the last moment because the original speaker couldn’t be there.
Part of his message was the 23rd Psalm, one of my favorites and the first Scripture I memorized as a youngster. The thing is, and I don’t know why, he left out a verse –
He leads me in the paths of righteousness, for His name’s sake.
Without that verse, the rest of the Psalm has no meaning, no comfort. Without “righteousness,” there are no “green pastures,” no “still waters,” no cup running over, no “goodness and mercy.”
It’s true, the Psalmist lived under the Old Testament Law, in which there was provision for “righteousness.” In Deuteronomy 6:5, Moses told the people, “Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.” Yet the sad truth is that Israel was never “careful to observe” those commandments; indeed, Moses wasn’t even down Mt. Sinai before the people were engaged in a drunken orgy, Exodus 32.
David himself, the author of Psalm 23, after the sad affair with Bathsheba, confessed his own sinfulness, Psalm 51, in which he said, “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me,” v. 3.
But what about us? We don’t live under that Law, that Covenant. What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks [Gentiles] that they are all under sin, Romans 3:9. No, no, if we’re honest, we have to agree with the assessment of Israel in Isaiah 64:6, all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. The word translated “filthy rags” referred to a cloth a woman might use during her monthly cycle or a leper might use to dress his sores – not a very pretty picture, but expressive of what God thinks of the best we can do, our “righteousnesses,” those things we think so much of and put down on the plus side of the ledger.
This is why the Lord Jesus came to this earth. He came to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He didn’t come just so we can pay lip service to Him at Christmas or Easter; He came to live the life we cannot live, and die the death we cannot die. His life was one of complete obedience to the Father. One time, He asked those who opposed Him, “Which of you convicts Me of sin?” John 8:46. He’s the only One who’s ever been able truthfully to say, “I always do those things which please Him,” that is, the Father, John 8:29. And when He died on the Cross, He wasn’t dying because of His sins, like the two who died with Him; He was dying for the sins of you and me, His people.
The Lord Jesus came as a Substitute and Sacrifice for His people. He lived a perfect, sinless life, satisfying all the provisions of God’s law and died a sacrificial death, satisfying the claims of that broken law. To those who repent of their sins and trust Him alone for salvation, God credits what Jesus did to them. The Psalmist said, He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities, Psalm 103:10. That’s because He dealt with the Lord Jesus “according to our iniquities.” To those who receive Him as Lord and Savior, the Father treats us according to His righteousness. Paul put it like this: God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him, 2 Corinthians 5:21.
That’s the righteousness, the only righteousness, that brings the comfort and blessings of Psalm 23.