Fox Byte 5776 #1: When Good is Not Enough
The Barking Fox just completed the annual Torah Cycle and is ready to embark on another year of Bible commentary. Rather than embark on another systematic journey through the Torah and Haftarah, in this Hebrew year 5776 Fox Bytes will focus on selected books and topics, starting with the book of Job.
A sad commentary on human nature is that people who stand for what is right rarely are the people with whom one would prefer to be seen in public. We may honor such saintly persons as Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, or William Wilberforce, but we do not want to be close friends with them – or at least not let such relationships be known. Our preference is to hang out with “good old boys”, friends who like the things we like, sympathize with our problems, and make us feel better about ourselves without actually causing us to change. That, of course, is the problem with those saintly people: they uphold high standards of right living which make us feel uncomfortable. It does not matter how blessed they appear to be, or the peace they seem to enjoy in any situation, or that they give the authorities no cause for alarm. The truth is that they are righteous, and their righteousness interferes with our desire to live comfortably and indulge whatever pleasure seems good.
Shakespeare understood this fact of human nature. He made use of it in his masterful manipulation of the Roman public through Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar. Caesar’s assassins justify their murderous act by saying the great man was ambitious and that his ambition would have been the death of Roman freedom. Antony seems to agree, saying “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”, a statement that indicates whatever good Caesar would have done has died with him. Then he turns the tables, calling the assassins honorable men – good men whom the good citizens of Rome should trust, and with whom they should be glad to associate. Yet their honorable good pales in comparison to Caesar’s selfless ambition: an ambition that enriched Rome through his military service, that wept for Rome’s poor, and that refused a kingly crown thrice offered. In other words, any honor that may have accrued to Caesar’s assassins was as nothing compared to the great man’s righteousness in life and legacy in death.
We learn through Shakespeare’s theatrical Marc Antony a truth written centuries earlier to a real Roman audience by a man who also understood something about human nature:
For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. (Romans 5:7 NASB)
The Apostle Paul writes in the context of Messiah Yeshua’s atoning death for those who were so far from righteousness and from the God Who defines it that they have no idea of their perilous state. They may be good people who are fun to be around, and perhaps nice to the point of sacrificially giving of themselves, but they are not righteous by God’s standards. One might be willing to die for such people. They are, after all, “normal” people, however flawed. They include the kind-hearted prostitute and the gangster who honors his fellows. It is easy to see how such “good” people might not qualify as righteous. It is more difficult in the case of the mother who never takes time for herself because she is always doing something for her children, her spouse, and others. That may be commendable, but is she doing it for love, or for attention as a self-serving martyr? If the latter, her seemingly good ministrations are little more than veiled efforts at manipulation and control. So also is the case of the hard-working father who comes home night after night exhausted by a lengthy day of labor, too tired to pay attention to his wife and children either on that day or on his days off. He provides for their physical needs, but is his drive for economic independence motivated by righteousness, or by a desire to control his environment and the people in it? When his children are grown, will they live the blessed lives of godly men and women, or will they be bitter and angry at authority figures, and especially men because they never experienced the true love of a father?
Whether we realize it or not, there is a vast difference between a good person and a righteous person. The good person, no matter how good, can never measure up to the standards Almighty God established long before He created mankind. That is why Paul’s statement in Romans 5 echoes something Yeshua Himself said: that He had not come to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance (Luke 5:31-32). The righteous already have a place in the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore do not need “saving”. They are, in a very real sense, “other worldly”, living by a different set of standards than those followed by “normal” people. That is why no one would bother to die for them, and also why there is no need for anyone to do so. They have already died to self and married themselves to the One Who gave them life in the first place. That is a good thing; all humans must die once, but only the righteous get to escape the second death which brings eternal separation from the Creator (Job 19:25-26; Psalm 17:15; Hebrews 9:27-28; Revelation 20:1-15).
But who are these righteous people? How do we join them in their righteous state? This is where the testimony of Scripture is indispensable. Righteousness is not something a person can earn. It comes by faith – by believing God, trusting that His ways are right and that He will make us right (Psalm 51; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:21-31, 6:23). The works of righteousness follow this initial act of faith as we do what God says. This should not be a strange thing. The fact is, we are enemies of God because we have rebelled against Him. That was the error of our first ancestors, and we have all inherited that tendency to rebel.
We are in a state no different from that of a prince or princess who has plotted to overthrow their king. Such rebellion is worthy of death, but the king chooses instead the path of mercy and offers pardon to the offender. Should the prince or princess accept this offer they will be reconciled to the king. That is the first step, the step of faith that the king actually means what he says and that he will do it, not only by staying the sentence of execution, but by reinstating the former rebel to his good graces. The next step, and every step after that, is for this former rebel to become the most loyal subject in the kingdom by doing the king’s bidding according to his commandments. Such loyalty brings great reward, but that kind of reward is not available to the condemned criminal. Neither is it available to the former rebel who chooses to remain aloof from the king and do as he or she pleases without regard to the king’s commandments. Even if that person has pledged loyalty to the king, there is no proof of any loyalty. That is precisely what the Apostle James means when he writes:
But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:18-26 NASB)
Some years later Paul ratified James’ words by this statement:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10 NASB, emphasis added)
So we are to do good works after all. That is the purpose of our existence. If they are the works God Himself created us to do, and if He is the Righteous God, then these works must be righteous. Thus we conclude that by faith we are reconciled to our King so that we may put on the mantle of His righteousness and that we may do righteous deeds in His Name.
Which brings us to a fundamental question: What is righteousness? Perhaps Ezekiel can help. He writes something instructive about three righteous men:
Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Son of man, if a country sins against Me by committing unfaithfulness, and I stretch out My hand against it, destroy its supply of bread, send famine against it and cut off from it both man and beast, even though these three men, Noah, Daniel and Job were in its midst, by their own righteousness they could only deliver themselves,” declares the Lord God. “If I were to cause wild beasts to pass through the land and they depopulated it, and it became desolate so that no one would pass through it because of the beasts, though these three men were in its midst, as I live,” declares the Lord God, “they could not deliver either their sons or their daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the country would be desolate. Or if I should bring a sword on that country and say, ‘Let the sword pass through the country and cut off man and beast from it,’ even though these three men were in its midst, as I live,” declares the Lord God, “they could not deliver either their sons or their daughters, but they alone would be delivered. Or if I should send a plague against that country and pour out My wrath in blood on it to cut off man and beast from it, even though Noah, Daniel and Job were in its midst, as I live,” declares the Lord God, “they could not deliver either their son or their daughter. They would deliver only themselves by their righteousness.” (Ezekiel 14:12-20 NASB, emphasis added)
These three heroes of faith teach us about righteousness. The first thing they teach us is that righteousness is not transferable from one human being to another; everyone gets to stand before YHVH for himself or herself. The second they teach is that righteousness has something to do with trials and tribulations and judgment. Noah, Daniel, and Job all escaped judgment against the world around them. For Noah it was literally the world. He alone found grace with God, presumably in the same way his descendant Abraham did: he believed God’s promise of salvation and acted accordingly, and in that way he found grace in the eyes of God (Genesis 6:8). We may infer that Noah’s wife, his sons, and their wives also believed YHVH and similarly found grace in His eyes. They alone among the entire population of the earth survived the Great Flood. Multitudes of good people died in that Flood, but by their unbelief they walked away from the righteousness of YHVH. They preferred instead to eat, drink, marry, and be given in marriage, enjoying the fleeting pleasures of the flesh rather than the eternal joy of YHVH’s life (Matthew 24:38-39).
Daniel’s world was the world of Ezekiel himself. Both of them saw Judah fall under the dominion of Babylon. Both witnessed the rebellion of kings Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, and both saw the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of YHVH. Daniel lost everything: his family, his homeland, his royal status as a son of David, his language, and even his manhood. He became a eunuch in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar, just as Isaiah had prophesied over a century earlier (Isaiah 39:5-7; Daniel 1:1-21). And yet this young man refused to turn his back on the God Who had inflicted judgment on His people. It defies logic why Daniel would do so, and yet he did. His uncompromising righteousness in the face of such loss and throughout a lifetime of service to pagan kings made him a “man greatly beloved” by YHVH (Daniel 10:10-11, 18-19). Yet it is not so hard to understand when we realize that Daniel believed this promise:
For thus says the Lord, “To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, to them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:4-5 NASB)
That is a resurrection promise; a promise of life anew even after enduring the worst this world can throw at a person. Daniel, like Abraham and Noah, believed God, and for him also it was counted as righteousness. His belief translated into action over the course of his 90 years on this earth, a life of great hardship and loss punctuated by some of the most profound revelations of YHVH’s works from extending to the very end of time.
Then there is Job. What can we learn from this man? He was not even an Israelite, having lived before there was an Israel. We know he was a good man whose righteous life received notice both in heaven and in hell. And we know he suffered for the inexplicable reason that he was indeed righteous. Why would such a thing happen?
That is what we shall strive to understand over the next several weeks. If we learn from Noah how to appropriate the righteousness of YHVH, and if we learn from Daniel about the rewards of that righteous, then from Job we learn how to live out that righteousness in the face of grinding pain and opposition day by day.