What is “Good”? (Teth)

65You have dealt well with your servant, O LORD, according to your word.

66Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments.

67Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep [obey] your word.

68You are good, and do good; teach me your statutes.

69The insolent smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts;

70their heart is unfeeling like fat, but I delight in your law.

71It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.

72The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Ps 119 ESV)

What is “good”?

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle attempted to answer this human question.

Aristotle was dissatisfied with haze and smoke.  He wanted workable definitions that were universally true, not just for the one but for the many (i.e., universal).

He decided that the things that make for what he called “well being” (eu zên, translated into English as ‘happiness’) were not the good in themselves. Simply being well and doing well was the highest good.  

Wealth, health, and kindness, for example, only lead to or contribute to that highest good; but the constituents are not the end goal.  The highest good had to be “desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake” (quote, Kraut; see also, Aristotle).

Our highlighted verses in Teth states that God “does well” or “has done well”; in other translations ‘well’ is interchangeable with ‘good’, e.g., “(You) do good…”, “You have done many good things…”, “You are good…”

‘Good’ and ‘well’ are values that demand a standard.  Who gets to determine for the rest of us what is ‘good’ or ‘not good/bad’? How do we as created (or ‘evolved’) human beings determine these qualities with all the various hues in between? 

And for that matter, why do we even seek to place value on anything, especially if your answer to the first question is that “all things are relative” (i.e., that there is no authority or standard)?

Every time we use an adjective, we provide more than descriptions of what we observe with our eyes.  We are giving value to something on some sort of sliding scale.  When we use terms like ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’, or ‘just’ or ‘unjust’, or even ‘pretty’ vs. ‘ugly’, we are saying something that demands a standard to even make sense of it. 

Without a standard, what is the use of even talking about fairness?  Justice?  Beauty?  Goodness? 

Certainly, we realize that as humans we cannot be or determine a standard for any concept that is outside or beyond our own humanness.  Mortal, fallible humans can not have created that standard on our own. 

Some say, “Whatever causes humans to flourish is what is good.” 

But there we have a problem.  What does it mean to ‘flourish’? Why is flourishing good?  One might ask, “Why is life (accepted definition for “flourishing”) good and death (not flourishing, by antithesis) bad?” 

We must define our terms before we can communicate well.

We have many differences (we are all fallible and disagree) and similarities (we generally agree on key moral standards and interpretation of human behavior such as smiles, or knitted brows, or tears).

Where do we find foundation for evaluating human interaction and communication that accounts for these smiliarities and differences? 

Moving beyond

As a hint, Aristotle uses another term for the ethical “good”:  eudaimon

This is formed from two parts: eu (“well”) and daimon (“divinity” or “spirit”) (Kraut).  Though Aristotle didn’t draw attention to the etymological definition of what he saw as “happiness”  (eu daimon being interchangeable with eu zên) (Kraut), the concept is present in the Greek language. Something immaterial and super-natural must be included in the explanation of the value of ‘good’.  ‘Good’ is an agreement with a purpose which is outside of man called ‘spirit’.  

Scripture can take us further here!

God is good (Luke 18:19; Matt 19:17; Ps 34:8).  God is creator of all the material world and of the human race, and therefore outside of each and superior to each.  If He is good, and He created the world and all that is in it, including humans, then we should expect to find that goodness imparted in some way into His creation, for if He is good, then His purpose is good, and His actions are good (Ps 119:68).  Anything, then, that crosses purpose with that good would be anti-good, and to be avoided or denied as ‘bad’ or harmful to the good. 

Goodness is indeed imparted to creation. According to scripture:  God created . . . and it was good (English Standard Version, Genesis 1:1-3, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25).  God made man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. .. . . and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Genesis 1:27-31 ESV).  

The Antithesis of Good

Our first verse in Teth—’well’ and ‘good’ being interchangeable in different bible translations—appeals to God’s Word. God has promised that He will do ‘good’ for those who follow Him (His ‘servants’), and He has fulfilled that within the experience of the psalmist. 

The psalmist builds his argument (vv 66-72) on this primary foundation. He turns God’s own words and past actions into a statement of faith for the present and hope for the future.

But what has happened that the psalmist should need to pray for good that was already inherent in creation?  Something has happened to this inherent good. 

Genesis 3 narrates the entrance of evil into God’s creation.  There is admittedly much we cannot understand about this, and that would be expected if God Himself is teaching His creation.  The teacher understands more of the details than the student, and the student is given what is profitable at the time.  I don’t tell my toddler all the facts relating to the dangers of sticking her fingers into the electrical socket, I simply teach her not to do it and that it is “bad” and harmful.  She will understand more as she, and our relationship together, matures. 

Yet even now there are at least some things we can determine from God’s communications with us about the entrance of evil. Here are some key points for now: [1]

            * Evil is personal.  Evil entered the garden as an entity (in this case, in the form of a “serpent” and not as a human creature, yet not as a plant or a rock or abstract quality).  Evil is not simply a “force” without personality (Isaiah 14:12; Rev. 12:11; Ephesians 6:11).  The serpent literally spoke, using language to communicate directly and with forethought, which is central to personality. It rationally plotted: it deceived.

            * The Evil one knows God.  The serpent knew what God had said and countered it.  It knew of God, but it did not know God on an intimate, fellowship level, nor did it agree with God (James 2:19; Job 1, 2).  The Evil one has set itself apart from God as ‘anti-God’. 

            * The Evil one targets humans.  The serpent did not speak to or engage itself with plants, animals or material aspects of creation—only the human male and female.  There is something in this that tells us that humans are of far higher value than any of the rest of creation; very important to God, and, thus, very important to the Evil one (1 Peter 5:8-9).

            * The Evil one tempts or “lures” away from the “good” purpose of God.  The serpent used God’s own verbal commands to twist the understanding of them for Eve, and then she copied his tactics with Adam. The intent was to turn the first fruits of human creation away from following God.  This has formed a division or a “war” of loyalties in man. It is a spiritual war, fought in the spiritual realm with effects in our material and spiritual life and world (Ephesians 6:10-12; John 8:44; see also the Temptation of Jesus, Luke 4:1-13).

            * The Evil one is inferior to God.  God cursed the serpent and the curse was enacted. We do not see any ability to retaliate against God on the part of the Evil serpent.  In the curse, we see it described in an inferior position, crawling on its belly and eating the dust of the earth. It appears as created, as the contrast or antithesis to good, which is necessary for choice.  This is a mystery, and yet it is a clear aspect of evil that we must acknowledge:  Evil is not equal to good, but inferior to it, however powerful it may be (Colossians 1:16-17; Revelation 12:3).

            * The Evil one is capable of doing much harm to both mankind and all of creation.  Adam and Eve have their eyes opened to evil now as well as the good. The sorrowful consequence is that they could know good and yet not be able to attain it. That is profoundly and personally familiar to me, and I know I am not alone in this. Pain and toil and unmet desires characterize human life (one might say, our mal zên), and now even creation is affected (e.g., cursed ground, thorns and thistles, sweat and toil).  We understand from Genesis 2:15-17 that the consequences of disobedience to the command concerning the fruit of the garden was death.  Because Death has no place in God’s holy presence, the first ones of humankind were banished from His presence, but with a merciful plan and promise for reconciliation and life—the hope and promise of a Savior (Gen 3:15). 

            * The Evil one is able to cause distance between holy, good God and errant humanity.  There is a chasm now between God and man that cannot be crossed until a Deliverer is given that will bridge the gap (Luke 16:26).  This is provided for in the prophesy of Genesis 3.15, that a “seed” of humanity will be born who will pay the cost of this breech of good and who will restore and reconcile mankind to God.  Until then, obedience in the Old Testament stood in as faith that the promise would surely come. Obedience to God’s commands is how we show whose side we are on: it is our free exercise of choice in loyalty (See NOTE).  

The Humility of Instruction

The psalmist’s world is broken and all is not good after all. He has turned toward God in faith, remembering the ‘good’ that God has already done according to His character and word. 

Rejecting all other options for hope, he chooses God. He relinquishes his own purposes, hopes, desires, and aspirations—the very trajectory of his heart—to his God in the faith that doing so will be for his eu zên or eudaimon, his well-being or highest good.  It is a prayer for restoration of God’s original design in all of life (not just his own) amidst the brokenness of this world.

The truth is, despite what even Christians may claim about the goodness of God, we don’t always functionally believe this.  Doubt enters in through the wiles of the Evil one (Gen. 3:1, 4) and we are no longer sure that obedience will be so good for us.  It will cost us something, won’t it? It runs counter to our idea of good feelings. Instead, we will be discomfited, inconvenienced, embarrassed, limited or restricted from the wideness of our unrestrained desires, persecuted, and possibly even martyred.

God is no deceiver. He has told us that obedience to Him will indeed bring trial and tribulation and all that is included in those concepts (John 16.33; Luke 12:51-53; Matt 5:10; Luke 9:22-24). Sometimes even doing “good” ends up looking to others like something “bad” (Luke 7:33-35; Matthew 12:1-8, 9-14).  How can this be good?  How can suffering be good?

The psalmist doesn’t wait for intellectual satisfaction. He simply asks for help to learn.  In this, he confesses his own ignorance, and so must I.  

This honest confession is the first step of faith. He leads us in this short prayer to remember that the ultimate character of God is good, and that in order for us to know good, we must know God. We must be taught of Him. The psalmist asks God for help in this knowing that then he will come to understand and will increasingly have the wisdom he seeks.



All that the psalmist confesses of his experience in the following passages, which we will look at next, is predicated on this primary foundation

  • God is good. 
  • All God does, ever has done, and ever will do, is good.
  • Evil has entered our world and has distorted, distorts and will continue to distort God’s purposes; yet God is superior to the Evil one and his power and God remains fully in charge, fully good, and fully able and willing to bring eternal victory over Evil, sin, pain, suffering and death.
  • God has promised present good to those who love Him and keep His commandments, allowing us to overcome the temptations of the evil one in this earthly life.
  • God has promised eternal good to those who love Him and keep His commandments, through the promise and historical fulfillment of the Savior of Genesis 3:15 (see NOTE).

            In effect, our psalmist is praying, “Creator Father, You are all good.  Only in you do I find ‘well being’; only in living according to Your spirit will my spirit ever be right and at peace. I have seen by experience that you do good to those who love you and follow after you in obedience to your commands.  Though the way ahead may be hard, teach me your commands and do good to me as you have promised in Your Word, which I have chosen to believe by faith. In the name and character of my Heavenly Father, I pray. Amen.”


Aristotle, Nichoachean Ethics, Book 1. Available online at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.1.i.html

Kraut, Richard, “Aristotle’s Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2022/entries/aristotle-ethics/&gt;.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Verson, ESV.org


[1] There are different names given to the serpent, who is the epitome of evil:  Satan, Lucifer, the Devil.  Those spiritual beings who follow after the “serpent” are called demons, the Dragon, the Beasts, demonic spirits, etc.  For my purposes I have left Evil unnamed but personified, in keeping with the intent of the narrative in Genesis:  Evil = the Serpent personality, the agency and embodiment of evil.

NOTE:  The Difference that Jesus Makes

John 3:16-17 (Photo: iStock, ed. ReadPsalm119.com)

Our psalmist wrote in the Old Testament, long before the coming of the promised Deliverer Jesus Christ. Jesus is God’s good purpose for us. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son . . . .”  Jesus fulfilled the purpose of God: that we should be reconciled to Him by Christ’s sacrifice.  We now have this promise, that in being fully incarnated as all God and all man, in fully dying for our sins as no mere human could ever do, and by being fully resurrected, both body and spirit, He now lives as King of Kings, and yet He interecedes for us before the Father to restore us completely and forever.

That is, if we choose to not only believe this as fact, but to receive Him into our own lives as Lord and Master.  Even Aristotle believed that good is not good if it is merely passive good; good must be acted upon for it to be effective.  In the same way, we must choose with the psalmist to not only ask for instruction but to have a willing heart to follow through on all we are taught in God’s Word, including the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ.

Today, we have the assurance of God’s grace when we fail in doing “good”, because Christ has already paid the price for our broken nature of sin. We are called to daily confess our sins and weakness, and to receive His forgiveness anew, and to continue to follow him from that point forward in the strength and power of that grace.  God’s grace enables us to rise up and move forward from sin, accepted and approved because of Christ’s own obedience.  This is truly GOOD NEWS!


Creator God, and Lord, I live in a broken world and I am like a leaky sieve concerning any good.  I forget: I exhibit good and then I exhibit bad in the next thought, word and deed. I need your grace. And you have offered this in your Word through Jesus Christ’s death and Resurrection, and I believe you.  I trust you.  You have said that we can know you if we truly search for you in your word and ask you to show yourself to us personally. So this is my request: Show yourself to me, and speak to me words of life and healing, knowledge and wisdom. Help me to understand and apply all that I learn from you in my daily life.  In the Name of my Lord Jesus, I pray, Amen.

© May 18, 2022 by http://www.ReadPsalm119.com. Photo: “Japanese Garden”, Smith Gardens, Kauai, HI © 2021 by ReadPsalm119.com

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