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Psalms 85:12-13 NASB

Indeed, the Lord will give what is good, And our land will yield its produce. 13 Righteousness will go before Him And will make His footsteps into a way.

In the earlier part of this chapter the righteousness seems to be the Lord's but in the closing verse it seems to refer to some predecessor

Who is this righteousness?

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    The KJV translates the second half of verse 13 in a different way : Righteousness shall go before him; and shall set us in the way of his steps.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 11, 2019 at 19:27
  • I would invite you to consider my answer on righteousness on another Psalm verse. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/38055/… Maybe it will be of use in answering your question here. Jan 29, 2019 at 4:30
  • What makes you think "Righteousness" is a character, rather than a characteristic? Aug 26, 2022 at 23:00
  • I do not see what the problem is here. Ps 85 is simply a psalm celebrating the LORD's righteouness.
    – Dottard
    Oct 4, 2022 at 21:34

7 Answers 7

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This is a beautifully poetic Psalm, dealing with the Lord God restoring his people. Various aspects of God are listed; his salvation, his mercy, his truth, his peace and his righteousness. We do not read those things and think "Who is meant by peace? Who is meant by salvation?" and so on. Why then should we ask, "Who is righteousness?"

When it comes to the bit that speaks of righteousness going before God (vs. 13), the sentence ends, "and [he] shall set us in the way of his steps" (KJV). Just as it is God's steps at the end, so it is God's righteousness at the start. The picture is of God stepping out, his righteousness blazing the way before him. After all, he is called Jehovah Tsidkenu - the Lord our Righteousness. Then his people are set in those divine steps. They follow in his footsteps. His steps cause the earth to shake and the mountains to burn, but for his people, there is no terror in that when he has saved them in his mercy and in his righteousness. But woe betide the people who try to walk in their own supposed righteousness! Woe betide the people who try to earn salvation by their own works! No. It is either all of the Lord our Righteousness, or there is no righteousness at all. He is Jehovah Tsidkenu - the Lord our Righteousness - Jeremiah 23:6

Only when, by faith, we perceive and believe the demonstration of the righteousness that goes before him at Golgotha shall we know the One whose righteousness it is and only then be able to walk in those steps.

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Based on the context principle of hermeneutic interpretation the answer here necessitates an understanding of what implies salvation, because the following verse necessitates it:

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile (Rom. 3:22)

This is since the Word of the New Testament implies that those who believe immediately become "saved":

Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life (John 5:24)

I.e. those who believe have the Holy Spirit. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is the Eternal Life, the "salvation", as visibile from:

...The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life (John 6:63)

(I.e. those who receive and maintain the Spirit in them are saved: they have "eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life" (John 5:24)).

The allusion to righteousness being the Spirit can also be seem from an Old Testament verse Jeremiah 23:6. YLT, a literal translation from the Hebrew text as regards the Old Testament has it as follows:

"In his days is Judah saved, and Israel dwelleth confidently, And this his name that Jehovah proclaimeth him, `Our Righteousness.'".*

So, because of Rom. 3:22 and John 5:24 we can see how faith brings righteousness, and how this righteousness is the Holy Spirit of the Trinity -- the God Person to "go before" the folks described in Psalm 85.

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  • This says something about the concept of righteousness in the NT (although the link to John 5:24 is a bit loose), but Ps 85 was written centuries earlier. It would be good to have an interpretation in the context of its original reception community.
    – user2672
    Jan 27, 2019 at 10:29
  • I would disagree. I mean the notion of the Trinity is found in the Old Testament as well: "The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground" (Genesis 18:1-2).
    – Dmitri
    Jan 28, 2019 at 18:42
  • If your answer can be supported by OT/HB material, please edit it to do so! Those texts will be much closer to the psalm than Romans and John. But while the Christian interpretation of Genesis 18 says the trinity is alluded to there, this is of course not enough to claim that "Righteousness" is one of its three elements. You'll need a little more than that, I think.
    – user2672
    Jan 28, 2019 at 18:46
  • There are other interpretation principles than historical-grammatical, like the context principle: "God gives light upon a subject through either near or remote passages bearing upon the same subject". Your problem seems to lie in that the righteousness of Psalms 85:13 is not necessarly the same as the "spirit"/"life" that is giving through the act of believing. But a verse of the Old Testament Jeremiah 23:6 YLT (I specifically picked a literal translation) clearly proves the connection.
    – Dmitri
    Jan 29, 2019 at 4:08
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Some English Bible translation did not give "Him" an upper case, just "him", which give the interpretation of this verse a lot more variety.

In general, Psalm 85 was dated on the return of the exile, a prayer poem during congregation, asking for God's abounding love and forgiveness to restore the nation.

The sentence "Righteousness will go before him", a similar verse is found in Isaiah 58:8. For clarity, let me quote Isaiah 58:6-9a (NIV) completely.

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If we didn't overthinking that it was a Messianic poem, and believe that it was a poem of repentant. Then the answer is;

The one who repent was the Righteousness. His righteousness will walk in front of his footstep, paving the way he should go. The Lord will be his rear guard, whenever he cries for help, the Lord will answer, "Here am I ".

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Translation

The text is ambiguous. The MT has:

צֶ֭דֶק לְפָנָ֣יו יְהַלֵּ֑ךְ וְיָשֵׂ֖ם לְדֶ֣רֶךְ פְּעָמָֽיו׃

ṣeḏeq ləp̄ānāyw yəhallēḵ wəyāśēm ləḏereḵ pəʿāmāyw

A word-for word translation is:

righteousness | before/with him | [he/it will go] | and he/it will make | to/for way (ləḏereḵ)| his steps.

The first ambiguity is the referent. Does "he" and "his steps" refer to him (masculine) or righteousness (common)? Most modern translations think it is him (but see below).

The second ambiguity is that the semantic range of śēm can include both the concepts of "make" as well "put/set".

meanings of shem

And either will work here, as the preposition "l" modifying "way/road/manner" can mean "to/for" but also mean "in/towards/until".

So we have some options for interpreting the final clause:

Option 1:

śēm = put/set. Then pick "l" = on/in

".. will set his steps in the way"

Option 2:

Or you can pick śēm = make, and then "l" can be be "into":

".. will make his steps into a way"

Option 3:

".. will make [Righteousness'] steps into a way"

Note that if we interpret the referent as him, then this causes awkwardness in the first clause:

Righteousness will go before him.

Because if the righteousness is going before him, then how can it be setting his footsteps on the way or making a way for his footsteps, which suggests that righteousness is accompanying him.

The KJV tries to solve this problem by assuming that the referent of the second clause is us, so the righteousness goes before him, then sets our footsteps in his way:

Psalm 85:13 (KJV 1900)

Righteousness shall go before him;
And shall set us in the way of his steps.

But note that the KJV leaves this italicized.

The Geneva Bible has a clever interpretation:

Psalm 85:13 (Geneva)

Righteousnes shal go before him, and shal set her steps in the waie.

Ignoring the gender of "her", the point is that Geneva assumes the referent of steps is not him, but righteousness. In this way, Righteousness is going before him, guiding him by Righteousness' footsteps.

Whereas the other modern protestant Bibles assume that righteousness is both going before him and going with him and that rather than guiding (setting) his feet, the righteousness is causing his footsteps to make a way:

Psalm 85:13 (ESV)

 Righteousness will go before him 
 and make his footsteps a way.

Psalm 85:13 (NASB95)

 Righteousness will go before Him
 And will make His footsteps into a way.

This interpretation still causes some difficulties to the reader, as it's not clear what's going on. But leaving ambiguities untranslated is a valid translation option.

Whereas the NRSV does a little violence to the text, moving the preposition "l" from "way/path" to "steps" (which the MT does not have), but it creates a more readable verse.

NRSV:

 Righteousness will go before him
 And will make a path for his steps.

There are several other emendations, which I wont cover.

Here is Tate's discussion in Word Biblical Commentary1:

The meaning of this colon is not clear. To what or to whom does the suffix on “his steps” refer? Will “Righteousness” set a way for the steps of Yahweh? Or does the suffix refer to “Righteousness” itself (“and he will put its steps to/on a way”)? Or should something like the sense of שׁים לב (e.g., Job 4:20) with the idea of “set the heart to” = “pay attention/regards/heed” be understood (as in Delitzsch, III, 12; cf. Gunkel, 375) with the meaning: “Righteousness shall go before … and attend unto the way of his (Yahweh’s) steps.” Delitzsch argues, though he does not prefer it, that the לדרך פעמי can be understood as a construct relationship: “(Righteousness) will set (his footsteps) to the footsteps of him (Yahweh),” understanding the “his steps” as doing double duty, meaning that Righteousness both goes before Yahweh like a herald in 10a and follows closely in his footsteps in 10b. Emendation is common of course. Kraus (II, 754) suggests instead of וישׁם either וישׁר, “straightness/ rightness,” or ושׁלום, “peace/well-being”: Righteousness goes before him / and well-being follows in his tracks” (see also Jacquet, II, 632, 637, and others). Dahood (II, 290) prefers to read the lamedh on “way” as emphatic, vocalize the דרך (“way”) as a qal participle, and derive the ישׁם from the Ugaritic root ysm (Aramaic wsm), “pleasant/beautiful,” yielding “beauty,” and thus: “beauty will indeed tread in his steps.” I prefer to read “Righteousness” as the subject of ישׁם, with the verb used either in the sense of (1) determine/fix a way or (2) make/prepare a way, with דרך as construct with פעמיו (“his steps”): “the (way) of his steps” = “the way for his steps.” The construction may mean that Righteousness, like the herald of a king, will prepare the way for the king or else will determine or set the way the king will go. Gunkel (374, 375), who prefers to read ושׁלום or וישׁר, thinks the figure is that of a king who has heralds going before and footmen who trail behind: Righteousness is the forerunner and Peace/ Rightness follows behind. The emendations are unnecessary, but the idea of a herald going before a king is probably correct.

Interpretation

The questioner asks "who is Righteousness". First, righteousness is a personification. You can tell that these are personifications from the context:

Psalm 85:10–11 (KJV 1900)

     Mercy and truth are met together;
  Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
     Truth shall spring out of the earth;
  And righteousness shall look down from heaven.

However that does not mean that the role of righteousness might not be filled by someone. In that case, it would be Messiah creating a path - a way -- that reunites YHWH with his people.

Here is Hermeneia's interpretation[2]:

The Korahite redaction purposely set Psalms 84 and 85 one after the other. They are connected by key words and motifs and constitute, above all, a theological–dramatic context of events. In Psalm 84 a praying “I” longs for encounter with the living God and gets underway to meet God. Psalm 85, in its first part, is a petition by a community (“we”), filled with longing for the gift of being revived by God (84:3*: “My heart and my flesh cry out to the living God”; 85:7*: “Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?”). The answer given in 85:9–14* is to be read, on the level of the Psalms’ organization, as also a response to Psalm 84. This is underscored not only by the key words common to both psalms, “glory” (84:12*; 85:10*) and “YHWH gives good things” (84:12*; 85:13*), but still more by the motif of “going, walking” that tensively binds the two psalms: Psalm 84 sketches the picture of people who “go” to the God of Zion (84:8*) and who “walk” the path of their life in integrity (84:12*). Psalm 85 culminates in a picture of an approaching God, accompanied on his way by justice and peace. If we read the two psalms as a redactional context, then, we find here the tension–filled moment when human beings and God approach one another: when that happens, then truly, salvation comes.


1 Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51–100, vol. 20, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998).

[2] Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, ed. Klaus Baltzer, trans. Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 366.

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In the earlier part of this chapter the righteousness seems to be the Lord's

There's no such verse in the chapter. All those concepts like righteousness, peace, truth, salvation are described as abstract objects or concepts. The NASB is definitely wrong in rendering the righteousness as God's possessive when the context talk about the benefits of man's righteousness.

ISV Psalms 85:8-13: “Let me listen to what God, the Lord, says; for the Lord will promise peace to his people, to his holy ones; may they not return to foolishness. Surely, he will soon deliver those who fear him, for his glory will live in our land. Gracious love and truth meet; righteousness and peace kiss. Truth sprouts up from the ground, while righteousness looks down from the sky. The Lord will also provide what is good, and our land will yield its produce. Righteousness will go before him to prepare a path for his steps.”

The figure of speech is the same as someone's goodwill/reputation proceeding him.

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Righteousness paves the way for Gods blessings.

Can be their own righteousness or from someone else.

A foreign righteousness to cover their unrighteousness.

Blessings can be natural or spiritual or both.

psalms 85 : 3 clearly speaks of forgiveness.

psalms 85 : 11 tells us that peace meets righteousness, in other words peace is achieved by righteousness.

The opening of the psalm shows we are dealing with sinners without righteousness but verse 11 promises that peace and righteousness will kiss eachother this clearly point to a future righteousness not of their own that has achieved their peace with God for them now. in other words this is a reference to the future work of Christ that paves the way for the (spiritual)blessings they receive now.

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The last four verse of Ps 85 contain two literary devices:

  1. Personification of abstract ideas

10 Mercy and Truth have joined together; righteousness and peace have kissed.

11 Faithfulness sprouts from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven.

12 The LORD will indeed provide what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

13 Righteousness will go before Him to prepare the way for His steps.

Thus, we have the personification of Mercy, truth, peace, faithfulness and righteousness.

  1. Allusion to 2 Chron 7:14

Ps 85 also appears to be an allusion to 2 Chron 7:14 about the promise that righteous people produce a "healed land", ie, prosperity.

if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

Thus, the idea that "righteousness going before Him/God", apart from being redundant, is a promise that as God's people Israel, righteousness and prosperity will pervade the entire country/land as it did during the time of Israel's righteous kings like David, Solomon and Hezekiah, etc.

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