Before the Law was given to Moses, the Bible records the lives of a few righteous men. They were Enoch, Noah, Job and Abraham. In this article, I will focus on just three of them since little to nothing is disclosed to us about Enoch.
Noah was considered a righteous man because he heard God’s voice and obeyed. God warned him of an impending flood and instructed him to build an ark according to a set of divine specification. At the risk of looking foolish to his neighbors, Noah did as he was told. His obedience saved his family from certain death.
Abraham was considered righteous for a similar reason. He believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abraham’s faith and obedience resulted in the formation of God’s chosen people, the children of Israel.
Job, who lived before Abraham, was also a righteous man. His life illustrates for us what a righteous or just-living person looks like:
Job 29:12-17 AMP
Because I delivered the poor who cried, the fatherless and him who had none to help him. The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me or clothed itself with me; my justice was like a robe and a turban or a diadem or a crown! I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. I was a father to the poor and needy; the cause of him I did not know I searched out. And I broke the jaws or the big teeth of the unrighteous and plucked the prey out of his teeth.
Job 31:13-28 AMP
If I have despised and rejected the cause of my manservant or my maidservant when they contended or brought a complaint against me, What then shall I do when God rises up [to judge]? When He visits [to inquire of me], what shall I answer Him? Did not He Who made me in the womb make [my servant]? And did not One fashion us both in the womb? If I have withheld from the poor and needy what they desired, or have caused the eyes of the widow to look in vain [for relief], Or have eaten my morsel alone and have not shared it with the fatherless– No, but from my youth [the fatherless] grew up with me as a father, and I have been [the widow’s] guide from my mother’s womb– If I have seen anyone perish for want of clothing, or any poor person without covering, If his loins have not blessed me [for clothing them], and if he was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep, If I have lifted my hand against the fatherless when I saw [that the judges would be favorable and be] my help at the [council] gate, Then let my shoulder fall away from my shoulder blade, and my arm be broken from its socket. For calamity from God was a terror to me, and because of His majesty I could not endure [to face Him] and could do nothing. If I have made gold my trust and hope or have said to fine gold, You are my confidence, If I rejoiced because my wealth was great and because my [powerful] hand [alone] had gotten much, If I beheld [as an object of worship] the sunlight when it shone or the moon walking in its brightness, And my heart has been secretly enticed by them or my mouth has kissed my hand [in homage to them], This also would have been [a heinous and principal] iniquity to demand the judges’ action and punishment, for I would have denied and been false to the God Who is above.
The kind of righteousness Job’s life illustrates for us is not a personal or private righteousness, one consisting of moral purity and spirituality alone. But one of right living in relation with others. His children, on the other hand, partied frequently; indulging in self-centered delights. Instinctively, Job felt that their lives had displeased God and so made a sacrifice daily on their behalf.
Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke concludes that in the Old Testament “the righteous…are willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community; the wicked are willing the disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.” [Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 2004), p.96] Job was a case in point.
From Jesus we learn that on Judgment Day all men will be judged on the basis of what they have done (not believed, thought, said or prayed). He will separate the goats (the unrighteous) from the sheep (the righteous). The sheep are blessed and will inherit the kingdom. Surprised, they will ask the Lord, “What have we done to deserve this?” And Jesus replies, “For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25:35, 36 NLT) The righteous do not think about doing good. They do it naturally. They do not do it for the reward. They do it because they have been touched by the grace of God.
The Pharisees must not have encountered the grace of God. They had a brand of righteousness that was based on ritualistic compliance and dutiful obedience (not that obedience is unimportant). They were sincere, but they were sincerely wrong. Hence, Jesus gives his hearers, “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 ASV). If not the Pharisees’, whose righteousness should the people emulate? Noah’s, Abraham’s, and Job’s, of course.