New Testament theology begins in the Old, where God is revealed as the heavenly sovereign who faithfully loves his people and his earthly realm. So when the OT uses phrases that are crucial to Christian theology, they’re the seeds of what God was planting. The OT provides another dimension of insight into what those phrases mean for us.
Four of those phrases turn up on the lips of the messiah in Psalm 145. We’ve seen how the Davidic king announced the kingdom of God (145:1–8) and extended it beyond Israel to all people (145:9–16). Then he makes four statements about the character of God, statements that brilliantly illuminate the theology (words about God) in the Gospels and apostolic letters:
- the righteousness of God (verse 17)
- calling on the Lord in truth (verse 18)
- salvation (verse 19)
- judgement (verse 20).
This Psalm is not quoted in the NT, but the messianic voice provides background for the hope these keywords hold as we read them in the NT.
Open Psalm 145:17-21.
145:17 The Lord is righteous in all his ways and faithful in all he does. (NIV)
You may be aware of the argument over what the righteousness of God means in Romans 1:17 and 3:5, 20-25. We won’t solve that dispute with one blog post, but we might clarify the discussion by highlighting what the phrase already meant.
To say that YHWH is righteous in all his ways is to say that Israel’s heavenly sovereign always does right by his people. The parallel phrase is that the covenant God is faithful in all he does. The righteousness of God is his unfailing commitment to the people in his care. In this Psalm, that includes Israel and all people, the whole creation under his reign.
That’s congruent with the context. The text is describing the Lord as trustworthy in all he promises his kingdom (verse 13), upholding all who fall (verse 14), providing food in season (verse 15), satisfying the desires of every living thing (verse 16).
That’s how Jesus thought of God’s righteousness too. Some people imagine the righteousness of God requires him to be generous with the righteous and harsh with the wicked, but that’s not what Jesus believed. He said God’s perfect character means God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). God does right by being faithful to everyone. That’s the perfect righteousness of God, and it’s the character he expects his people to reflect too (5:46–48).
The complete revelation of the righteousness of God is revealed in the Son. Though mistreated by the kingdom, he did not back away to save himself. The faithfulness of the Messiah was expressed in giving his life to save his people. It’s on that basis that God calls us to trust the faithful and right leadership of the anointed leader he gave us — the faith that grows out of and relies on God’s faithfulness, the right response to God’s right treatment of us.
Could be worth re-reading Romans 1 and 3 in that light?
145:18 The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
Calling on the name of the Lord became a thing when unjust people threatened to get justice by killing any who wounded them (Genesis 4:23), so the alternative to vengeance is asking God to sort it out: calling on the name of the Lord (4:26). Downtrodden people call for God to rescue them: I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me. Save me, Lord … (Psalm 102:1-2).
Calling on the name of the Lord features in the first apostolic gospel sermon (Acts 2:21). Peter quoted Joel 2:32: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. Joel’s context was Babylon overrunning Jerusalem like a swarm of locusts, and his promise was that when they call on the name of the Lord, On Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance (Joel 2:32).
Because the Lord is righteous in all his ways and faithful in all he does (Psalm 145:17), he returns to the returning exiles who call on him (compare Zechariah 1:4). To call on him in truth is to trust his leadership, to genuinely rely on him as their king.
In Immanuel, God came near. But when he rode into Jerusalem, the authorities did not call on him as their God-anointed king. The crowds did: Hosanna to the son of David is literally a cry for the Davidic king to save them (Matthew 21:9). But the bandits in the temple did not call on him in truth; they treated him as a threat: By what authority are you doing these things? they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” (21:23)
They handed him over to their enemies who were clueless about his true authority:
John 8:37–38 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate (John 18:37-38).
The truth came to light on the third day when God raised him from death and gave all authority to his anointed. Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36).
That Pentecost Sunday was the day his true authority began to spread over the earth, as 3,000 people from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Asia and Africa called God’s messiah their Lord.
So, we add our voices to the messianic declaration of Psalm 145:18: the Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
145:19 He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them.
Those who fear him rely on him for what they desire. In this postexilic context, they’re calling on the Lord to save them.
The language of God saving his people begins with the Red Sea rescue. That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians (Exodus 14:30), and they declared, He has become my salvation (15:2).
After the exile, they needed God to save them from foreign rule again. The messianic voice in Psalm 145 declares that God would save his people from serving foreign powers, restoring them to his reign.
When the messiah finally came to save his people, he told them his reign would deliver blessing for those who hunger and thirst for right to be done; they will be filled (Matthew 5:6). Isn’t that the hope in Psalm 145:19?
Luke is especially good at providing this OT background for what salvation means:
- He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, … salvation from our enemies (Zechariah, in Luke 1:69, 71).
- My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel (Simeon, in Luke 2:30–32).
- All people will see God’s salvation (Isaiah, in Luke 3:6).
- Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved (Peter, in Acts 4:12).
- Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. … This is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles [nations], that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’ (Paul, in Acts 13:26, 47).
That’s salvation in the epistles too. God’s good news is that he has raised up his Son to reign, calling the nations to obedient trust in his kingship (Romans 1:1–5). That’s the multi-ethnic salvation that rises from trusting the righteousness of God (1:16–17).
145:20 The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
If this verse was not in Psalm 145, we might get the impression that everyone will be saved as a result of God’s reign being restored in the Davidic king and extended to all.
Yet, not everyone is rescued to enjoy his reign. His regal oversight extends to all who love him. To love God is to recognize his authority, to trust him and live under his leadership. Those who refuse his leadership (the wicked) cannot participate in his life, so they end up destroyed.
I wonder whether the original audience realized God’s judgement was not based on ethnicity. The Lord’s sovereignty extends to all. His providence extends to all. He is right in his management of all. His is faithful in all he does. He is near to all who genuinely call on him. But he does not rescue those who have no respect for his leadership, who act for themselves instead.
Jesus told a story about a king sorting out his kingdom. His animals thought they knew the difference between a sheep and a goat. They were shocked to learn his judgement is not based on bloodlines, but how the creatures treat each other. The evidence for those who love him is how we love each other. What the king cares about most is the people in his care. Those who only care about themselves cannot participate in his everlasting reign (Matthew 25:31-46).
Despite many attempts by Jewish leaders and church hierarchies across centuries and continents, God never called us to judge each other. We’re behaving wickedly when we take God’s power into our hands. We’re likely to uproot the wheat with the weeds (Matthew 13:29).
What he has called us to do is to love each other as he loves us. That’s how all people will see we’re following him (John 13:35). That’s how Christ’s kingship calls the nations to obedience.
How enlightening it is to hear the gospel in this Psalm, the New Testament’s message of the faithful heavenly Father restoring this management of the earthly realm in his messiah.
The last word belongs to the Davidic king. This is how he’s leading us:
145:21 My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.
What others are saying
Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1961), 1:239–246:
One expression of Yahweh’s covenant love is his righteousness. Just as the ḥesed [faithful love] which God desires from man includes the practice of righteousness — for a correct attitude toward the rights of others is at any rate one important aspect of willingness to take one’s part in community so God shows his favour by doing justice and righteousness. …
It was, however, Deutero-Isaiah who first elevated the concept of God’s righteousness to the status of the key to the understanding of the whole divine work of salvation …
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013):
The ‘gospel’ of the ‘son of God’ provides the apocalyptic unveiling of the divine justice, through which salvation comes to all who believe ([Romans] 1:16–17); this results in ‘peace’ (5:1), and in the ultimate new world when the whole creation will be set free from its slavery to corruption (8:19–21). (p.1301)
Romans 3:21–4:25, one of the great passages in this, the greatest of all letters, is founded on the same belief that Paul announced proleptically in 1:16–17: that in ‘the gospel’, that is, the message about Jesus the Messiah and his death and resurrection as the fulfilment of God’s scriptural promises, ‘God’s righteousness’ is revealed. (p.995)