Let Me Die the Death of the Upright


This Psalm introduces the theme that, in many ways, defines the purpose of the entire book. This book portrays the ways of a godly person and the multitude of means by which God calls, forgives, justifies, sanctifies, protects, challenges, and preserves the one that he blesses with saving grace—“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1). “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (Psalm 34:22). Conversely, it lays out a multitude of ways in which the ungodly seek to avoid, misrepresent, and oppose godliness on their course to eternal destruction—“Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated” (Psalm 36:1). “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no god.’ They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is no one who does good” (Psalm 53:1) “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies” (Psalm 58:3).


I. The Traits of a Righteous Man – Verse 1-3: Blessed is a person who conducts himself in the manner described in the first three verses. The implication of blessedness is that he has been given something out of the bounty of another; he has been the recipient of particular mercies. His life therefore, manifests a richness that is the outflow of the good things he has been given. Similarly, David exclaims, “Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple!” (Psalm 65:4).

A. What he doesn’t do – In a fallen world with sons of Adam involved in his condemnation and corruption, God first shows the danger of their condition and the points at which repentance is a constituent aspect of true faith. Paul admonished Timothy that faithful pastoral ministry involved a readiness to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort.” The call of God to Jeremiah was “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow” and then “to build and to plant” Jeremiah 1:10).

  1. He does not walk in the “counsel of the wicked.” He has learned to seek his counsel wisely. He has become wary of those whose values are governed by prestige, pleasure, and position in this life. He/she seeks counsel from those who have learned that “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). Spurgeon noted, “It is a rich sign of inward grace when the outward walk is changed, and when ungodliness if put far from our actions.”
  2. Should a person make it his practice to seek counsel of the ungodly, soon he will find that he is convinced of that way and will take his position as one who minimizes the supernatural in favor of a naturalistic view of reality, will reject cognizance of moral absolutes in favor of relativism, will seek the glory of either himself or of some expanded worldly concern as that which drives his life, and will press any issues of the inevitably coming judgment out of his consciousness. He now, with worldly confidence, “stands in the way of sinners.”
  3. The rejection of godly counsel combined with settled confidence in worldly values leads one to be an advisor to others in that way of viewing life. As a master of walking the way without God, this person eventually takes his place as one who has a spirit of condescension toward those who express dependence on God and his word. He/she knows better, emerges as a counselor of worldly knowledge and values and “sits in the seat of scoffers.”
  4. How blessed is the one who, by grace, has avoided this deadly progression of spiritual decline and the path to eternal death. How blessed is the one of whom it is said, “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb” (Psalm 37:1, 2).

B. What He does – He takes a course for life that will surely train him to avoid the sad life of godlessness. This person has been rescued from that sure course of destruction described by Paul: “For we ourselves once were foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). Grace has appeared and lifted him to a way of spiritual light and life.

  1. “His delight is in the law of the Lord.” He has been blessed with a true sense of the glory, safety, and beauty of God’s commandments. He concurs with the man in Romans 7:22 who delights “in the law of God in my inner being.” He has seen that the “law is holy [the entirety of the moral law], and the commandment [the specific commandment, “Thou shalt not covet”] is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12).
  • The Law for the inhabitants of Judah was composed of the civil law, the ceremonial law, and the moral law.
    • There are connections that tie these three aspects together, and reflection on the law often brings them into a singular witness to the holiness of God. Isaiah 1 is based on the idea that civil law included moral duties such as caring for widows and orphans (Isaiah 1:17, 23). In continuing the ceremonial law of sacrifices and certain elements of worship (Isaiah 1:11-15) while ignoring the moral law (Isaiah 1:16), Judah made itself liable to a jarring display of divine wrath. Malachi 1 concerns the flippant attitude that Judah had toward the sacrifices of the ceremonial law, reflecting an attitude that insulted the infinite holiness of God (Malachi 1:14).
    • When Israel as a nation gave way to the church as the peculiar people (Titus 2:11-14) its law as civil law no longer applied. When Christ died and rose again and ascended to his mediatorial reign, the ceremonial law ceased to have relevance (Hebrews 10:1-14). The moral law, distributed into the two tables of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-11; 20:12-17) is distilled into two great commandments (Matthew 22:35-40; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8; Matthew 19:17-19). The Ten, as expressed in the Two, had abiding relevance as manifesting the way in which divine holiness, righteousness, and sovereign prerogative is expressed in the actions and heart attitudes of the divine image-bearers (James 2:8-11). Precisely for violations of moral law Christ died as a ransom and became a curse for us (Ephesians 5:1-6; Galatians 3:10-14).
  • The law has brought him under its strength and shown him his sinfulness. By the law he has been brought to a sense of the need for mercy. “Sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (Romans 7:13).
  • He has been shown that when God saves, he will do so on principles of righteousness. The law condemns, God will by no means clear the guilty, so forgiveness and justification come through special provisions of both justice and grace to clear the guilty and give them eternal life (Romans 3:21-26).
  • His delight in the law arises from the picture of God’s beauty given in these holy requirements and unaltering standards of righteousness. It magnifies the wisdom of God in that he remains unalterably holy and just and yet can be forgiving of trespasses.
  1. He meditates on the law. In it one finds the pathway to righteousness, holiness and life. In it one sees more clearly the glory and beauty of God’s holiness. This is particularly enhanced for the New Testament believer through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Through his absorbing of the teaching of the divine wisdom present in the law, his counsel no longer is as a scoffer but, “The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice. The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip” (Psalm 37:30, 31).

C. What He is like

  1. A principle of holiness has been implanted in his affections by the Holy Spirit, so that he has a constant source of fruitfulness. “He is like a tree planted by streams of water.”
  2. The Spirit has indwelt him so that ‘out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). Though the flesh still has a set of desires that consistently give conflict to the new nature, nevertheless, the Spirit will produce those fruits in life that are consistent with the spirituality of the law without being under its condemnation (Galatians 5:16-24).
  3. The changed heart and the Spirit’s indwelling giving persistent strength and infusing principles of holiness means that the true believer will certainly persevere. “Its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”


II. How the Wicked Fall Short of True Life

A. “The wicked are no so.” They do not maintain any of these distinguishing traits of the righteous. Fruits of holiness are foreign both to their desires and to their actions. They might be fit citizens of society and avoid harm to neighbor and social scandal or the breaking of civil law, but the idea of delight in divine truth is outside the parameters of their consciousness.

B. They are not stable and planted in ways of divine wisdom and truth but detached with no place to stand.

  1. They are like chaff. The righteous have roots deeply embedded in the soil of grace consistently fed by the river of revealed truth. The wicked are detached from the source of life, shaken out of substance of nutritious grain, thrown to the wind. David continued this image in Psalm 37:20: “But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.”
  1. When they face judgment, they will not stand before the holy standard and infinite knowledge of God. At that time, every mouth that is still under the condemnation of the law will be stopped, and their guilt before God will be clearly seen (Romans 3:19). They will find no hope in any supposed righteousness of their own but only find themselves convinced by that law they have ignored as sinners.
  1. They will see the difference between themselves and the righteous. “nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous”—The fruit of grace in the lives of those whom God has chosen, who are blanketed in the righteousness of Christ, and whose affections, transformed by the Holy Spirit, now have full manifestation of holy love to God will be obvious. Just as plain will be the morally and spiritually destitute state of those who have been given the reigns of their own lives to do just as their hearts prompted them. “As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away; as wax melts before fire, so the wicked shall perish before God! But the righteous shall be glad; they shall exult before God; they shall be jubilant with joy!” (Psalm 68:2, 3).


III. A Final view of the distinction between the righteous and the wicked. This distinction, as before noted, constitutes one of the major themes of Psalms.

A. The Righteous – “”Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12c). “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head” (Psalm 3:3). “Lead me O Lord in you righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. . . . But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy” (Psalm 5:8, 11).

  1. “The Lord knows the way of the righteous.” The word “know” carries the meaning of love with holy purpose. It is sometimes used in human relations to convey the concept of the intimacy of the sexual relationship. “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Genesis 4:1).
  2. It involves a sovereign decree of setting apart a person for the pleasure of God in performing a specific task or to bestow specific blessings. God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I know you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

B. The Wicked – “He will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury” (Psalm 2:5). “You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evil doers” (Psalm 5:4, 5).

  1. God will “inflict; vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
  2. Note also, that the text says, “The way of the wicked will perish.” Their intent to find pleasure without reference to the glory of God and apart from loving God first and foremost will be shown to be an utter failure. Their “way” of seeking personal significance will be gone. They will find that it has accomplished nothing of what they anticipated by their dismissal of the divine claim on their lives and his call for righteousness. Their way will perish and will be seen no more.
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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