"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

A. Introduction to Romans 3:10-18 

Paul’s quotations are taken (out of context) from Psalms, along with one quotation from Isaiah and a phrase apparently from Ecclesiastes. Those from Psalms are either referring to enemies or other wicked of the “sons of men,” none of whom are identified with Israel. The quotation from Isaiah is a confession, by a prophet of Israel, of his own nation’s “rebellion and treachery against the LORD, turning our backs on our God…” (Isaiah 59:13). The cure, repentance, is also given (Isaiah 59:20), along with “my words (laws) which I have put in your mouth…” (Isaiah 59:21; cf. Deut. 30:14). The phrase from Ecclesiastes comes from a larger context (Eccl. 7:15-20) which does not appear to support Paul’s argument. [ I will deal more with the issue of righteousness in the conclusion to Romans 3:10-18 below.]

10 As it has been written, “There is not a righteous man, not one.”

The phrase “there is not a righteous man” is from Eccl. 7:20. The entire verse reads: “Yet there is not [OR is there not?] a righteous man on earth who does good and does not sin.” First, it may be a question, not a statement. Second, the statement does not necessarily deny that a man may be righteous, but only that such a man always does good and never sins. David was an upright and righteous king (2 Sam. 8:15) and David committed sins (2 Sam. 11) and David repented (2 Sam. 12; cf. Psalm 51) in observance of the Torah’s provision for the forgiveness of sins. Also, see Ezekiel chapters 18 and 33 for a lengthy discussion of righteousness, sin, and repentance. Third, the larger context has the writer acknowledging the possibility of a righteous man (Eccl. 7:15; cf. 8:14) and arguing against being overly righteous! Fourth, the phrase “not one” is from another scripture (Ps. 14:3 or 53:3). Fifth, the writer of Ecclesiastes closes the book by saying, “Here is the conclusion of the matter, ‘Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13b-14).

11-12 “There is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God; all turned away [and] together became worthless; there is no one who does good, there is not even one.”

Here Paul uses Psalm 14:2b-3 (also 53:2b-3). In context, while v. 2a refers to “the sons of men” and would seem to make v. 2b-3 a blanket statement (or question?), the passage follows v. 1 which refers to “the fool” and is followed by v. 4 which refers to “evildoers.” These “evildoers” are then contrasted to “my people” (also v. 4) and, in Psalm 14, continues with the statement, “God is present in the company of the righteous” (v. 5). Further, v. 1 makes the same indictment of “the fool” as v.3 makes of “the sons of men.” Both verses have in mind those who do not seek God, which cannot be said of the redeemed “sons of Israel.” The righteous may only be a remnant of Israel, but they are the righteous.

13a “Their throat [is] an open grave, with their tongues they acted deceitfully…”

The quotation from Psalm 5:9b refers to David’s enemies. Psalm 5:8-9 reads, “LORD, lead me in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. For there is no sincerity on their lips; their heart is filled with malice; their throat is an open grave, their tongue deceitful.” And guess what? The psalm closes with a contrast, “For you surely bless the righteous, LORD; you surround him with favor like a shield” (5:12).

13b “…poison of asps under their lips.”

This snippet from Psalm 140:3b once again refers to David’s enemies, who are said to be “evil” and “violent” and “arrogant” men, “the wicked.” Read the entire psalm for context, which closes with, “Surely the righteous will praise your name; the upright will dwell in your presence” (Psalm 140:13).

14 “whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”

Paul takes this phrase from Psalm 10:7a, which has in mind the enemies of the poor (v. 2), the blameless (v. 8), and the helpless (v. 9, such as the fatherless, v. 14). This person also abhors the LORD and has no room for God in his thoughts (vv. 3-4); God’s judgments (laws) are far from him (v. 5). In other words, he is not about observing the Torah, indeed he is ignorant of the Torah.

15-17 “Their feet are swift to shed blood, ruin and misery are in their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.”

The words are from Isaiah 59:7-8 (see comments in the introduction above), which Paul uses to imply a permanent condition of the individual, but in context the words speak of a period of Israel’s rebellion, which Isaiah prophesies will come to an end “to those in Jacob who turn back from sin” (Isaiah 59:20). As God has loved Israel with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3), so he will never rest until “her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her deliverance like a blazing torch” (Isaiah 62:1).

18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Paul leaves out the beginning of Psalm 36:1, where David says of the “transgression of the wicked” that “there is no fear of God in their eyes.” Paul implies all are wicked and have no fear of God; David says the wicked, in contrast to the righteous, have no fear of God. Again, the conclusion of Psalm 36 is instructive, especially v. 10, “Continue your lovingkindness to those who know you, and your righteousness to the upright in heart.”

B. Conclusion to Romans 3:10-18

Paul cites all of these passages to demonstrate “that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Romans 3:9b) and that righteousness cannot be attained by observing the Torah (Romans 3:21). In response, I believe this latter claim may confuse: (a) God’s righteousness (of course unattainable) with his expectation of righteousness for mankind (a practical yet high standard represented by his revelation of the Torah to Israel); and (b) self-righteousness with a righteousness under God’s discipline and teaching. So when Everett Harrison in his commentary on Romans says about Paul,

“He does not turn aside to answer the objection that the [Old Testament] speaks of righteous men and in fact recognizes them as a class over against the wicked or as individuals. From the standpoint of the divine righteousness, they all fall short, as Paul has affirmed…,” 1

he may understand what Paul is thinking but in that case both he and Paul misunderstand God’s relationship to the nation he chose and blessed and called to be holy. Israel did not and does not claim either sinless perfection (God’s righteousness) or even a righteousness of their own: it is God who blesses Israel with righteousness through the gracious gift of the Torah, through commandments which God says are “not too difficult for you or beyond your reach” (Deut. 30:11).

Israel’s attitude toward their pursuit of righteousness is clear from the daily prayers recited by every observant Jew, prayers which in some cases predate Paul’s time. For example, each weekday morning a Jew prays (usually in Hebrew),

“Not upon our merit do we rely in our supplication, but upon Your limitless love. What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness? What is our attainment, our power, our might?…Compared to You, all the mighty are nothing, the famous nonexistent, the wise lack wisdom….But we are Your people, partners to Your covenant, descendants of Your beloved Abraham to whom you made a pledge….We are heirs of Isaac, his son bound upon the altar. We are Your firstborn people, the congregation of Isaac’s son Jacob whom You named Israel and Jeshurun, because of Your love for him and Your delight in him. Therefore it is our duty to thank You and praise You, to glorify and sanctify Your name. How good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage. How blessed are we….” 2

When Israel speaks in this prayer of their heritage, they do not intend glory to themselves but glory to God who chose them out of His love for Israel and faithfulness to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deut. 7:7-8 makes this clear). As in prayer, so in other areas of observance. Israel does not declare itself righteous or trust in their own righteousness obtained by their own human design. Instead, they humbly bow to God’s way and provision for righteousness in the Torah. Another prayer (blessing) they recite illustrates this further,

“Our Father, our King, for the sake of our forefathers who trusted in You and whom You taught laws of life, may You graciously teach us….Show us mercy, instill in our hearts to understand and discern, to listen, learn, teach, safeguard, perform, and fulfill all the teachings of Your Torah with love. Open our eyes to Your Torah, attach our hearts to Your commandments, and unify our hearts to love and fear Your Name. Then we shall never be brought to shame. Trusting in Your great and awesome Name, we will delight and rejoice in Your salvation.” 3 

The best commentary on the way of Torah is found in Psalm 119. Abba Hillel Silver has said of this psalm that it consists of 176 verses “devoted to an exuberant laudation of the Torah.” 4 But not only does Psalm 119 praise the Torah, it also presents the way that God’s “grace” works through the Torah’s commandments to renew, strengthen, enlighten, purify and, yes, save His people Israel. In other words, the Torah is not only beautiful, it is also practical. The fourth stanza (beginning at verse 25) is particularly astounding in what it claims for observance of the Torah: “renew my life according to Your word” (v. 25); “strengthen me according to Your word” (v. 28); “favor me (be gracious to me) through Your Torah” (v. 29); and “I will pursue the way of Your commandments, for You broaden (free) my heart!” (v. 32) Also, we are told that the way of faith (Hebrew=emunah=faithfulness, cf. Genesis 15:6 and Habakkuk. 2:4) is one and the same with the way of Torah, what Paul calls “the works of the Law” (Romans 3:20).

C. Romans 3:19

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it says to those who are under [lit., in] the Law, so that every mouth may be silenced and all the world may come under judgment before God.

If Paul is saying that the quotations of vv. 10-18 are addressed to those “under the Law,” then he speaks the truth. The Torah (which Paul renders in Greek as nomos, “Law”) may be understood to include all the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the oral teachings as they existed in Paul’s time (Midrash and Mishnah). That the Torah speaks to the people Israel for their instruction is of course true. However, of the specific passages Paul quoted, most of them spoke of the enemies of Israel. Otherwise, what Paul says in this verse need not be argued. The problem is with his estimation of what the Torah speaks (teaches).

D. Romans 3:20

Because by works (i.e., observance) of the Law no flesh will be justified before him; for though the Law is the knowledge of sin.

As Everett Harrison points out in his commentary on Romans 5part of this verse is a near quotation of Psalm 143:2, which reads, “Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for before You no one living is justified (i.e., in the right).” First, the previous two psalms both concluded by referring to the “righteous,” so this psalm by itself does not settle the issue. Second, the issue is not that, under the severe judgment of God, anyone would be found righteous. Not only this psalm, but Job chapter 9 is quite clear that no mortal man can approach the righteousness of God (Job 9:2-3), that if God chose to do so, he could justly condemn all mankind. Israel does not argue with God over their righteousness, for as Job complains, “If I justified myself (OR, though I were in the right), my own mouth would condemn me (OR, prove me wrong); if I were blameless, it would prove me crooked.” (Job 9:20) However, Israel does not live under the severe judgment of God, and does not hope to justify themselves before God. Third, to answer David’s concern in this psalm, the Pirke Avot (included in the Talmud, the “oral Torah”) teaches that “the world is judged in mercy.” Such is not God’s putting off judgment to a later time, as Paul argues (Romans 3: 25) 6but God’s everlasting nature that encompasses both wrath and mercy (cf. Habakkuk 3:4, “in wrath remember mercy”). A traditional commentary on this teaching says that even though a man is not perfectly righteous, God “judges him with His attribute of mercy as a righteous man.” The evidence for this claim abounds within Scripture, as enumerated below. [See section E]

Righteousness is a work of God performed in partnership (covenant) with Israel. It is simply wrong to say that righteousness is not obtained through observing the Torah, i.e., following God in the way of Torah. To understand why, we must realize that “the Law” (Greek, nomos) is not a good translation of what Israel understands by the word Torah. If the Torah were only Law, and if God were only the Lawgiver, then Paul might have a point. But the Torah is founded on the compassion, favor, patience, love, faithfulness, and mercy of God, as declared plainly in Exodus 34:6-7. Here God is as a father who has compassion on his children, for he knows us, that we are dust (Psalm 103:13-14). The commandments of the Torah are not only for when we do right, they also tell us the way of forgiveness when we do wrong. This forgiveness is not within our own power, but is the merciful act of God as taught in the Torah. In addition to God as Israel’s compassionate Father who loves and disciplines his children, God is also the great Teacher (Psalm 25!), who shows the way to walk in righteousness and guides Israel in understanding. Indeed, the Torah was designed for sinners, but not to leave them in their sin, as Psalm 25:8 declares, “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore He instructs sinners in His ways.” The result? “Happy is the man You discipline, LORD, the man You instruct in Your Torah” (Psalm 94:12). The way of Torah is an intimate relationship with the Eternal God variously described in the Hebrew Scriptures as parent-child, shepherd-flock, teacher-student, even husband-bride!

When Paul says that through the Torah is the knowledge of sin, what he says is true but incomplete. Not only does Israel come to a knowledge of sin through the Torah, they also find provision for sin (forgiveness and atonement) and power over sin (redemption and discipline). Not only does the way of Torah break down the person under conviction of sin (Psalm 51:17), it also restores them (Psalm 51:18; 51:20) and then vindicates them, as we read in Psalm 37:6, “He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.” Now how do you argue with that?

E. Examples of “righteous” people in the Hebrew Scriptures (note that righteous does not mean sinless):

1. Before Sinai 7

Gen. 5:24 Enoch “walked with God.”

Gen. 6:9, 7:1 Noah “was righteous and blameless”

Gen. 15:6 Abraham (cf. Gen. 17:1 “walk before me and be blameless”)

Gen. 18-19 Lot (implied)

Gen. 37-50 Joseph (never stated as such, but implied by comparison to most other characters in Genesis)


While chronologically these people are “before” the Law, they are given as examples for those who stand at Sinai and receive the Torah of Moses, and are themselves both faithful and obedient to God’s commandments (see Gen. 26:5), which appear as early as Gen. 1:28. Genesis is indeed part of the Torah for that very reason: precepts of the Torah such as the Sabbath day, the institution of family, the value of life, the tithe (Abraham, Jacob), circumcision (sign of the “everlasting covenant” with Israel), burnt offerings (Abel, Noah), the blessing of God on Israel, etc., are all present before Sinai. Genesis was written in the light of the Torah revealed at Sinai and on behalf of the holy nation formed there. So to say that these people were not “under the Law” is a half-truth.

[I realize that Paul deals with Abraham and the verse cited with his name at length in Romans chapter 4. See my discussion of the same chapter.]

2. “Under the Law”

Num. 12:7 Moses “faithful in all my house”

2 Sam. 8:15 David “did what was just and right” (cf. 2 Sam. 22:21-25, 23:3); indeed, he became the standard of righteousness to which all other kings were compared

1 Kings 22:43 Asa (cf. 15:11) and Jehoshapat “did what was right”

2 Kings 15:3, 34 Amaziah, Azariah, Uzziah, and Jotham “did what was right”

2 Kings 18:3 Hezekiah; cf. 20:3 “I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good” (apparently God agreed v. 5)

2 Kings 22:2 Josiah “did what was right”

Ezra 7:10 Ezra “devoted himself to the study and observance of the Torah”

Neh. 1, 5, 13 Nehemiah an example of repentance and righteous deeds

Est. 2, 6, 10 Mordecai “worked for the good of his people” (10:3)

Hagg. 2, Zech. 4 Zerubbabel the Lord’s chosen and anointed

3. Additional references to the righteous “under the Law,” who apparently obtain their righteousness through observance of the Torah:

Psalm 1:5-6, 5:12, 7:9-11, 11:3-7, 14:5, 31:18, 32:11, 33:1, 34:15-21, 37:12-39, 52:6, 55:22, 58:10-11, 64:10, 68:3, 69:28, 72:7, 75:10, 92:12, 94:21, 97:11-12, 107:42, 112:4-6, 118:15-20, 125:3-4, 140:13, 141:5, 142:7, 146:8.

Prov. 2:7, 2:20, 3:32-33, 4:18, 9:9, 10:3-11, 10:16, 10:20-21, 10:24-32, 11:8-10, 11:21-23, 11:28-31, 12:3-7, 12:10-13, 12:21, 12:26, 13:5-9, 13:21-25, 14:9, 14:19, 14:32, 15:6, 15:19, 15:28-29, 17:15, 17:26, 18:5, 18:10, 20:7, 21:12-18, 21:26, 23:24, 24:15-16, 25:26, 28:1, 28:10-12, 28:28, 29:2, 29:6-10, 29:16, 29:27.

Eccl. 3:17, 7:15-20, 8:14, 9:1-2

Isaiah 3:10, 26:2-7, 53:11, 57:1

Jer. 20:12

Ezek. 3:20-21, 13:22, 18:5-9, 18:19-22, 33:12-16

Hosea 14:9

Amos 2:6, 5:12

Hab. 1:4, 2:4

Mal. 3:18

See also the numerous references to the “upright” and the “faithful.”


1 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976) , vol. 10, p. 39.

2 Siddur Sim Shalom, ed. Jules Harlow (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1985), p. 15. This prayer was written by Rabbi Yochanan, one of the early authors of the Talmud (Palestinian), about 200 years after Paul’s writing of Romans; see Yoma 87b.

3 Adapted from Siddur Sim Shalom, p. 99, by comparison with Artscroll Siddur, p. 89. These words from the prayer Ahavah Rabbah predate Paul by at least 350 years.

4 Abba Hillel Silver, Where Judaism Differs (New York: Macmillan, 1956, 1987), p. 104.

5 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 40.

6 Compare the NIV translation of Romans 3:25b, “in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished,” with Exodus 34:7b, also NIV, “yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…” Where in the Hebrew Scriptures can one find Paul’s doctrine of forbearance (until the coming of Jesus Christ)?

7 In addition to these which have ties to the nation Israel, there are models of the “righteous Gentile” in Abimelech (Gen. 20: 4-7) and Jethro (Exod. 18:12f). Another example, which does not fit neatly in the scheme, is Job “blameless and upright” (Job 1:1, cf. 2:3).


© 2001 Charles F. Hudson

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