It is characteristic of Hebrew poetry to rhyme (so to speak) thoughts rather than sounds. This is called “Hebrew Parallelism.” To oversimplify: it is the practice of repeating the thought of the first line in the second. Thus, the writer expresses the same thought in different words.
This is very common in the Psalms.
Thus, one line of a poem will often comment on another: expanding or clarifying the meaning.
אַשְׁרֵי שֹׁמְרֵי מִשְׁפָּט עֹשֵׂה צְדָקָה בְכָל־עֵת
“How blessed are those who keep justice,
Who practice righteousness at all times!” (NASB)
Again, the Psalms are pointing us to the Way of Blessedness. Psalm 1 has tipped us off that this is the major theme of the whole book of Psalms. This is not conceived in the typically popular-religion terms of Salvation: where the whole point of faith is just meeting the terms of Eternal Life. This is about living in the realm of present blessing. This is about the life of faith.
And, the parallelism is interesting: modifying and explaining Justice (מִשְׁפָּט) with the concept of Righteousness (צְדָקָה). Or: vice versa.
It’s an interjection, an exclamation: “How blessed are…!” We are not being scolded right now. We are being invited to consider the blessedness of a certain way of life.
אַשְׁרֵי שֹׁמְרֵי מִשְׁפָּט
“How blessed are those who keep justice….”
Thus, the idea of order and peace (ֹשָׁלוֹם) lie behind it. Judgment restores peace. Further down the page Jenni-Westerman says: “The restoration of community order should be understood not only as a one-time act but also as a continuous activity, as a constant preservation of the שָׁלוֹם; thus the meaning ‘to govern, rule’ results….” (G. Liedke, שָׁפַט Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament edited by Ernst Jenni with assistance from Claus Westermann © 1997 by Hendrickson Publishers Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 1.4).
Keeping justice means living in the realm of peace. And, the life of blessing is a life of justice: bringing reconciliation and peace to those who are estranged.
I think the English word “justice” is often a harsh word to me. It suggests condemnation. And, maybe it should. It suggests setting things right in this world regardless of the cost. The advocates of justice can be harsh and strident, always wanting to remake and remold the world according to their own vision of what is fair and balanced and equal. Yet, the more a person thinks about fairness and equality and equity the more complex and demanding and confusing the concept of justice becomes. What is real fairness? Can it ever be achieved?
But, what if there is more here? What if justice is also something more gracious? What if the goal of justice is creating peace, well-being and harmony. The person of faith seeks reconciliation, peace, harmony and fairness. In this way they “keep justice.”
עֹשֵׂה צְדָקָה בְכָל־עֵת
[How blessed are those] Who practice righteousness at all times!”
Here I think we are talking about right relationships.
I’m afraid the concept of “righteousness” in the popular mind is the idea of “conforming to an absolute standard.” In this respect, the Biblical concept (צְדָקָה) is a bit different. While the word certainly does refer to “moral rectitude,” it also often refers to right relationships. It is not abstract, individual righteousness. It is communal. It is achievable. The word is hopeful rather than hopeless.
God saves in God’s righteousness. In fact, in the Psalms especially, “righteousness” is linked to “salvation” or “deliverance” or “vindication.” Psalms 4:1 – “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer.” Psalms 7:17 – “I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High.” Psalms 9:4 – “For you have upheld my right and my cause; you have sat on your throne, judging righteously.” Psalms 18:20 – “The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.” Psalms 35:24 – “Vindicate me in your righteousness, O Lord my God; do not let them gloat over me.” Psalms 35:27,28 – “May those who delight in my vindication shout for joy and gladness; may they always say, ‘The Lord be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant.’ My tongue will speak of your righteousness and of your praises all day long.” Psalms 40:9 – “I proclaim righteousness in the great assembly; I do not seal my lips, as you know, O Lord.” Psalms 65:5 – “You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas….” Psalms 98:9 – “…let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.”
And, the Psalms emphasize that this righteousness is to be lived out “at all times.”
Can we ever hope to live such a life unless we believe that it is possible for us? We need to stop making excuses for sin. Now is the time to determine to live a life of justice and righteousness — seeking always what is best for all people. And, we must depend upon God’s great unfailing generosity and love and grace to enable us to be the people we are called to be: to be bless-able.
I not only ask for Your blessing to rest on my life,
I ask to be made and kept to be
a person whose way of life
You can bless. Amen.