Proverbs 11: Are the Righteous Delivered by their own Righteousness?

The first nine chapters and last 2 chapters of the book of Proverbs are more or less “outlineable.” The author of those chapters, whether Solomon, Agur, or Lemuel, spends time developing a thought over several verses. Chapters 10-29 are—brace yourself for this stunning theological insight—proverbial in nature. Often there is seemingly no connection at all between consecutive verses. Yet even in the Proverbial chapters there are blocks of material that do dwell on a common theme. In Proverbs 11:4-9, we find one of those blocks.

4 Riches do not profit in the day of wrath,
but righteousness delivers from death.
5 The righteousness of the blameless keeps his way straight,
but the wicked falls by his own wickedness.
6 The righteousness of the upright delivers them,
but the treacherous are taken captive by their lust.
7 When the wicked dies, his hope will perish,
and the expectation of wealth perishes too.
8 The righteous is delivered from trouble,
and the wicked walks into it instead.
9 With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor,
but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.

Verses 4, 6, 8, and 9 all speak of the deliverance of the righteous. (Those literate in Hebrew may want to pursue the fact that in verses 4&6 the noun צדקה is paired with נצל while in verses 8&9 צדּיק is paired with חלץ.) I am interested in these verses because of their adaptability to teaching a salvation based on good works.

This is most apparent in verse 6: “The righteousness of the upright delivers them.” A fair paraphrase of the verse would be, “The good deeds of good people save them.” Verse 4 says basically the same thing: righteousness, good deeds, delivers from death. Verse 9 is similar, but perhaps more appealing to an intellectual. In verse 9 we seem to be told that if a person knows enough, he will be saved: “by knowledge the righteous are delivered.”

So were righteousness (good deeds) and knowledge enough to save a person in the Old Testament economy? Are righteousness and knowledge enough to save a person in the New Testament economy? The perhaps surprising answer is, “Yes.”

And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 1 Corinthians 1:30

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:21

Righteousness and knowledge are exactly how a person is delivered from sin and death—the righteousness and wisdom from God that come from God choosing to reckon Christ’s righteousness to a hopeless sinner. The righteousness of the upright man is not his own, but the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to him by God’s sovereign, righteous declaration. Seen in the light of the New Testament teaching on the imputed righteousness of Christ, Proverbs 11 poses no problem at all to those who believe in salvation by grace alone.

But what about the Old Testament reader of Proverbs 11? Would he have reason to depend on his own good deeds to commend himself to God? No, because even in the Old Testament there is clear teaching about the righteousness that truly saves. The apostle Paul was not the first biblical writer to speak of the blessing that came from union with Christ. In Jeremiah 23:5-6 the prophet looked forward to the coming Redeemer and gives him the name “The LORD is our Righteousness.”

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’ Jeremiah 23:5-6

Several chapters later, the same name is given to those people the coming Redeemer saves:

In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’ Jeremiah 33:15-16

The company of the redeemed is identified wholly with their redeemer. In this shadowy way, the prophet Jeremiah pointed to what has been identified as the heartbeat of Paul’s theology—union with Christ. It is the believer’s union with Christ that provides him all his wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.

So Proverbs 11 is a gospel text. All those who would be saved are called upon to seek the only salvation available: the righteousness of Christ.