Paul’s Use of Scripture in Romans 3 (2)

May 24, 2014

In our earlier look at Paul’s use of Scripture in Romans 3, we focused upon how Psalm 51, from which the apostle quotes in verse 4, determines and shapes our reading of 3.1-8. We also noted that the psalm contains a reference to divine righteousness (Ps 51.14), where it refers to God’s salvific activity. In this post, we move on to the next subsection, and begin our consideration of Romans 3.9-20. What are these passages from which Paul quotes? What do they contribute to our understanding of Paul’s train of thought?

The Catena

3.9. In verse 9, Paul sets up his great catena of quotations, which speak relentlessly of the evil of men. In 3.10-18, he draws on Psalm 14/53, Psalm 5, Psalm 140, Psalm 10, Isaiah 59, and Psalm 36. Thus, five of the six quotations are drawn from the Davidic psalms, in addition to the earlier citation of Psalm 51.

3.10-12. It is not immediately clear where Paul is drawing from in his opening salvo in 3.10: “None is righteous, no, not one.” It bears some resemblance to Ecclesiastes 7.20, which shares the righteous language employed here, but the form of the verse is rather different. It therefore seems more likely that Rom 3.10 is Paul’s version of Psalm 14.1b (“there is none who does good”), particularly since he continues on (in vv 11-12) from here to quote from the verses immediately following (Ps 14.2-3). Interestingly, however, rather than using the LXX’s terminology of “doing good” (chrestoteta in Psalm 14.1; agathon in the parallel in Psalm 53), in keeping with his theme, Paul deploys righteous.

What is the overall context of Psalm 14/53? In these parallel psalms, David’s complaint is against “the children of man,” but contrary to what we may expect, this is not a universalization. These wicked ones are set over against “my people,” whom the wicked devour like bread (14.4). Yet these wicked “are in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous” (14.5; cf the contrast between the terrified wicked and “you” in 53.5). In Psalm 53, the judgment against the wicked is that God puts them to shame, for He has rejected them (53.5; note the “shame” themes of Romans, e.g. 9.33, 10.11, both drawing on Is 28.16). The psalm continues by making a plea that Yahweh would bring salvation for Israel (14.7; 53.6). Quite unexpectedly, then, David has a group of people identified as the righteous, and he anticipates divine salvation on their behalf.

3.13. In Rom 3.13a-b (“their throat is an open grave; their tongues speak deceit”), Paul is quoting from Psalm 5.9 (5.10 LXX). Here again we find divine righteousness in the immediate context: “Lead me, Yahweh, in Your righteousness because of my enemies; make Your way straight before my face” (Ps 5.8). Here God’s righteousness is appealed to as David’s defense against his enemies. David contrasts himself to the wicked; unlike the boastful who will not stand before Yahweh (5.5), and the liars whom He will destroy (5.6), David says confidently that “through the abundance of Your mercy (Heb chesed),” he will enter God’s house (5.7). Regarding the wicked of whom Paul speaks in Romans (from Ps 5.9), David calls upon God to make them bear their guilt; that He would cast them out for their transgression and rebellion against God (5.10). In contrast, “let all who take refuge in You rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread Your protection over them, that those who love Your name may exult in You” (5.11 ESV). And once again, David is unafraid to identify such favoured ones as “righteous”: “For You bless the righteous, Yahweh; You surround him with favour as with a shield” (5.12).

The rest of the verse, Romans 3.13c (“the poison of asps is under their lips”) is a quotation of Psalm 140.3 (139.4 LXX). In this psalm, too, David makes a clear distinction between himself and evil men (“Deliver me, Yahweh, from evil men,” verse 1), and the contrast again culminates in his identification of Yahweh’s afflicted ones as “the righteous”: “I know that Yahweh will execute the judgment of the afflicted, the justice of the needy. Surely the righteous shall praise Your name; the upright shall dwell [or sit] in Your presence” (140.13). It is to be noted that whereas Psalm 5.12 speaks of the righteous in the singular, in this case David employs the plural.

3.14. “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” is a quotation from Psalm 10.7 (9.28 LXX). It is of special interest that the Septuagint treats Psalms 9 and 10 as a single psalm, as the versification reflects. In Ps 9.4, David confesses that Yahweh has maintained David’s just cause and gave righteous judgment from His throne. Indeed, Yahweh judges the world with righteousness (9.8; cf Rom 3.5-6!). This righteous judgment is reflected in Yahweh’s giving Himself as a fortress for the oppressed (9.9); because Yahweh does not forget the cry of the afflicted, David is confident to entreat Yahweh for grace and salvation (9.12-14). Thus the theme of divine righteousness returns here in connection with Yahweh’s justice, whereby He will relieve and save the afflicted, those who know His name and trust in Him (9.10), but brings the wicked to everlasting ruin and blots out their name (9.5-6). He is the helper of the fatherless (10.14), but can be called upon to call to account the wicked (10.15); those who overrun His land and afflict His people will perish and strike terror no more (10.16-18).

3.15-17. “Their feet are swift to pour out blood” in verse 15 breaks the chain of Psalm quotations; it is a somewhat abbreviated rendering of Isaiah 59.7a (“their feet run upon wickedness, swift to pour out blood”). Verses 16-17 is a quotation from Isaiah 59.7b-8a: “Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know” (ESV). The theme of bloodguiltiness, raised in Psalm 51, is again in the context here: “your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity” (Is 59.3). The despairing assessment is that justice is far away, “and righteousness does not overtake us” (59.9).

The chapter gradually shifts from this bleak perspective to that once again recurring theme of divine righteousness: “Yahweh saw it, and it was evil in His eye that there was no judgment. And He saw that there was no man, and He was appalled that no one interceded; then His own arm saved for Him, and His righteousness supported Him” (Is 59.15b-16). Once again divine righteousness entails salvation for Yahweh’s people and destruction of His enemies; as 59.17 adds, “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped Himself in zeal as a cloak” (ESV). This preparation results in repayment of His adversaries according to their deeds (59.18), and the arrival of the Redeemer “to those in Jacob who turn from transgression” (59.20), culminating in the new covenant promise of 59.21: “And I, this is my covenant with them… My Spirit that is upon you, and My words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, or from the mouth of your seed, or from the mouth of the seed of your seed… from now until forever.”

3.18. At the close of his great catena, Paul returns again to the Davidic psalms: “There is no fear of God before their eyes,” taken from Ps 36.1 (35.1 LXX). As in several other of the psalms cited by Paul, here again the wicked flatter themselves that their evil will not become known nor judged (36.2). But once again the violence of the wicked (implicitly, against the righteous) is set over against Yahweh’s chesed, His covenant mercy, which extends to the heavens (36.5); this chesed is parallel to – yet again – the divine righteousness: “Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; Your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast You save, Yahweh” (36.6). David continues to celebrate God’s chesed which brings refuge, abundance, delight, life and light (36.7-9), and again parallels chesed and divine righteousness in 36.10, beseeching Yahweh: “Draw [out] Your chesed to those who know You, and Your righteousness to the upright of heart.”


Upon considering the sundry texts of Paul’s great catena, I would like to make several observations in conclusion.

  1. Five out of the six texts from which Paul quotes are Davidic psalms. The universal context in these psalms has to do with the wicked persecuting the righteous. The righteous are invariably centered around David, the Lord’s anointed. Given the Christ-centered reading we drew from Romans 3.1-8, this should not be surprising. The point at issue in Paul’s charge against his contemporaries is that they have disbelieved the Anointed (= Messiah, Christ) and become guilty of His blood. We could put it thus: Israel has treated the Greater David, Yahweh’s Servant, in the way that David himself treated Uriah, his faithful servant.
  2. The Christological aspect to Paul’s use of these texts must be understood properly. For it would be incorrect to assume that “the righteous” simply is to be referred to Jesus, and that all others are “the wicked.” The psalms, in particular, are not susceptible to a reading which simply places all imperfect men under wrath. They presuppose, and indeed articulate clearly, a juxtaposition of two real groups of people, the righteous and the wicked. And as we saw in the case of Psalm 140, “the righteous” are plural. We may say they are defined as such by their relationship to God and to David – but “David” is not the sole righteous one. If we are to take this context seriously, we must revisit the assumption that Paul’s goal with the catena is simply to say everybody everywhere is only wicked. (In truth, we have no choice on that score; after all, as Paul continues to develop his argument, he will make clear throughout Romans that there is a people who is indeed righteous, not under Sin.)
  3. The righteousness of God is a constant among these texts. Only Psalm 14/53 does not mention divine righteousness in so many words. Psalm 9/10 speaks of Yahweh judging in righteousness, while the other passages speak directly of “Your righteousness” or “His righteousness.” This righteousness is not an abstract revelation of “holiness.” Rather, it is thoroughgoingly covenantal, along the lines of the Abrahamic promises: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one cursing you I will curse” (Gen 12.3); “I will be Your shield” (Gen 15.1). God’s righteousness is therefore revealed to His afflicted people in the form of deliverance and salvation toward them, and vengeance upon their enemies, who are (by that very fact) also His enemies. Thus, the justice involved in “the righteousness of God” is not about punishment for imperfection; it centers upon faithfulness to God’s covenantal self-description.In my judgment, this conception of the divine righteousness is thoroughly decisive when it comes to determing the manner in which Paul is using the phrase “the righteousness of God” in Romans 3. It is scarcely conceivable that Paul quoted four passages speaking directly of divine righteousness (and a fifth which speaks of God judging in righteousness), and that his own references to divine righteousness carry a different meaning. Nor will it do to object that the precise phrase “the righteousness of God” does not appear in these texts. After all, as these are mostly psalms, they are marked by the second person appropriate to prayer (“Your righteousness”). And in any case, the Isaiah passage’s use of “His righteousness” is identical to Paul’s own “His righteousness” in Rom 3.26.

    The necessary implication of this is that Paul’s “righteousness of God” phraseology in Romans does not refer to a righteousness which God “imputes” to the believer. It refers to God’s actions as a judge who is covenantally bound to save a people and to judge those who oppose them. It refers to God’s faithfulness and truth (cf Rom 3.3, 4) in action.

    Of course, this does not determine what Paul means elsewhere by the somewhat different phrase “righteousness from God.” Nor does the phrase itself decide the issue of what sort of saving action God takes in demonstrating His righteousness, and I will say that I believe that in the event what God does is indeed something like what is generally called imputation. Later in the chapter, however, Paul does take us partway to understanding the nature of this saving action: the liberation in Christ Jesus involves His being set forth as a “propitiation by His blood” (3.25 ESV). But, Lord willing, we will have opportunity to discuss the meaning of that at another time.

Go to Part 3.

[Note: This article was previously published on the now-defunct Biblical Horizons blog.]