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In the Psalms, there are several places where David portrays himself as righteous and blameless. For example, Psalm 26:

1Vindicate me, O Lord,
for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
2Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
test my heart and my mind. (Psalm 26:1-2, ESV)

and Psalm 18:

20The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
21For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
22For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
23I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
24So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. (Psalm 18:20-24, ESV)

In other places, David acknowledges that no one is righteous. For example, Psalm 53:

2God looks down from heaven
on the children of man
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
3They have all fallen away;
together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one. (Psalm 53:2-3, ESV)

and Psalm 143:

2Enter not into judgment with your servant,
for no one living is righteous before you. (Psalm 143:2, ESV)

How are these passages to be understood together? What is meant by "righteous" or "blameless," and what is David saying about himself and the human condition?

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Well, the obvious answer is that they aren't all written by David... – lonesomeday Oct 18 '11 at 17:53
@lonesomeday: The headings of the four psalms I mentioned attribute them to David. – jrdioko Oct 18 '11 at 18:01
That's as may be, but it doesn't actually demonstrate that he wrote them... – lonesomeday Oct 18 '11 at 18:05
up vote 4 down vote accepted

All Psalms are poetry, which demands a different set of rules than we normally use for hermeneutics. Most of the Psalms attributed to David are additionally prayers to God. (We see an example of how a psalm was used in prayer during that time period in 1st Samuel 2:1-11.) Psalms appeal to emotion as well as reason. So we need to use somewhat specialized tools to interpret them.

David wears his heart on his sleeve when he prays to God. He pleads with God in a very raw and sometimes undignified way. When he wants to see justice done, he shamelessly emphasizes his own righteousness. When he wants to receive mercy, he shifts into a humble attitude. If you've ever deeply struggled with God, you probably recognize the emotions David is going through.

Further, it seems like David is using a sort of relativistic view of righteousness. Before God, none measure up, but compared to other men, David is righteous. (This observation is based solely on the Psalms listed above and my impression from reading Psalms over many years. I am open to correction.)

Concerning the authorship question: I don't see that it makes much difference if the Psalms attributed to David were written by the man or if they are pseudepigraphical. By the time the Psalms were collected, it must have been possible to view David as both a man who claimed to be righteous and claimed that none are righteous in his Psalms. Likely the compilers of Psalms had reasons similar to what I sketched above to reconcile the thoughts.

John Piper did a short sermon series on Psalms that I find very helpful. The first sermon on Psalm 1 is well worth a read or listen. Directly related to this question are his sermons on Psalms 51, 69, and 103. A word of warning: Dr. Piper explicitly reads Christ into the Old Testament following the ancient Christian tradition.

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