Rags or Robes

Woe unto them that are wise in thier own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! - Isaiah 5:21

Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! - Isaiah 5:21

    I beheld the transgressors, and was grieved; because they kept not thy word. – Psalm 119:158

Bold statements are common in Psalm 119. You have to pay attention and understand the grounds of those statements. They seem to come dangerously close to self-righteous boasting.

Verse 158 describes how the Psalmist is grieved over transgressors. As I pondered over this verse, I thought of how easily this could be self-righteous contempt. We are likely accustomed to pious despising being described as grief over sinners. So, what makes the Psalmist’s grief here righteous and not contemptuous?

Self-righteous contempt is usually manifested in one of two ways:

  1. Those despised are simply ignored. They are so low, so beneath the pious that no notice is taken of them. No mental energy is expended on them. It is as if they are invisible.
  2. The other way is they are considered and looked upon with contempt. It may be masked as pity or grief, but they are actively despised.

We know the first is not the case because he says, “I beheld the transgressors.” The Psalmist is taking notice and considering them. The result of his consideration is grief, so we must find out if the second case is true here.

The key to understanding the difference is their center. But first we must consider some scriptural examples of self-righteous contempt to discern the difference. Luke provides us several examples in his Gospel.

Self-Righteous Contempt in the Scriptures
Jesus actually told a parable to address this contempt specifically.

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. – Luke 18:9

This verse highlights the center I mentioned previously. Their despising of others centers around their self-righteousness: “Trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” The contempt comes from them viewing themselves as righteous and others as not as righteous as they. A few examples from Luke will illustrate and clarify.

  1. The Pharisee Simon invited Jesus to dinner at his house. Simon did not believe Jesus, but he wanted the chance to see and talk with Him more closely. During the dinner a woman known as a sinner came in and stood behind Jesus. That she was known as a sinner means that she had been a prostitute, an adulteress, or an otherwise openly loose woman. She was held in contempt by most in society.She had brought a box of ointment with here. She stood behind Jesus crying and she began to wash His feet with her tears. She wiped His feet off with her own hair and then anointed them with the expensive ointment.

    Simon watched all this with interest and manifested the second type of contempt.

    Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have know who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner. – Luke 7:39

    In that moment, Simon is despising this woman. He is also despising Jesus for letting her touch Him. This actually reveals the depth of his self-righteousness and contempt. The woman was washing Jesus’ feet, which was an act of humble service. The one washing was humbling herself before the one being washed. This is why Peter objected so strenuously to Jesus washing his feet (John 13:6-8). Simon thought of himself so highly and this woman so lowly compared to him, he did not think her even good enough to humbly wash his feet.

  2. The Pharisees despised Jesus for often receiving sinners and eating with them.

    And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. – Luke 15:2

    They despised those Jesus ate with. They would never lower themselves to eat with ones so obviously beneath them. Again, they projected their contempt onto Jesus for doing what they would not dare to do.

  3. Jesus told a parable about an elder and younger brother. In it, the elder brother manifested the second type of contempt.

    But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou has killed for him the fatted calf. – Luke 15:30

    The elder despised the younger because he was not as righteous as the elder brother. He resented any honor being shown the younger brother because he was not as worthy of it as the elder brother was in his own mind.

  4. In the parable in Luke 18, the Pharisee manifests the self-righteous contempt mentioned in verse 9.

    The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. – Luke 18:11

    He despised the publican who was not as good as he was.

  5. Zacchaeus was one who had become rich through dishonesty, extortion, and theft. He was a tax collector—a chief of tax collectors. He was known and despised and Jesus went into his house.

    And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner. – Luke 19:7

    They despised Zacchaeus and would never have gone to his house. Therefore, they despised Jesus for going to his house.

The Center
Now we come back to the center and the difference between righteous grief and self-righteous contempt. In the examples from Luke, we saw that self-righteousness was central to the manifest contempt. A high esteem of one’s own righteousness and a comparison of others to it where they fail to measure up, is at the center of contempt.

On the other hand, the center of righteous grief is very different. Central to this grief is the honor and glory of God. The grief expressed by the Psalmist is not with respect to himself and where the transgressors are in relation to him. His grief revolves around the dishonoring of God.

Horror hath taken hold upon me because of the wicked that forsake thy law. – Psalm 119:53

Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law. – Psalm 119:136

I beheld the transgressors, and was grieved; because they kept not thy word. – Psalm 119:158

This sort of grief reveals a holy zeal and jealousy of God’s glorious honor. No doubt his grief over his own sin is much the same as it is over the sins of others. Whether we manifest grief or contempt reveals our attitude about righteousness and sin. It reveals whether we want to be clothed in rags or robes.

    But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags – Isaiah 64:6
    And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. – Revelation 7:13-14

About Jeff Short