The way of righteousness, the Sermon's narrow way
Concerning the God of salvation, the Psalms tell us that “Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps” (Ps 85:13 NIV84). Similarly, Proverbs portrays a personification of divine wisdom announcing, “I walk in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of justice” (Pr 8:20 WEB). So, John the Baptist's task, of preparing a way, was concerned with creating a path on which God could walk into his life and that of his community, a way of righteousness in the hearts of men and women that would lead to their salvation.
In Hebrew culture, physical pathways found metaphorical use when applied to the spiritual realm and a person’s attitude defined which of two alternate ways they would follow (Gordon and Opperwall 1986, 1032-3). Thus a Biblical proverb states, “In the way of righteousness is life; in its path there is no death” (Pr 12:28 WEB). Another suggests that God “lays up sound wisdom for the upright ... that he may guard the paths of justice, and preserve the way of his saints” (Pr 2:7-8 WEB).
The Bible teaches that one does not simply stumble onto the way of life, but that it has to be learned. Hence we find a prayer of David petitioning God to “Teach me Your way, O Lord; I will walk in Your truth” (Ps 86:11a NKJV).
In the book of Proverbs a father addresses his son, saying “I have taught you in the way of wisdom. I have led you in straight paths” (Pr 4:11 WEB). In the same book the writer envisages the personification of divine wisdom announcing, “I walk in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of justice” (Pr 8:20 WEB). Repeatedly the straight and level path of righteousness is contrasted with the crooked and rough path of wickedness as its text provides counsel concerning the attitudes of a man’s heart.
Beginning when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses at Sinai, then led Israel through barren places, the Bible portrays the wilderness as a place of new beginnings, where righteousness is established and the people are led in the way God wants them to go. This physical guidance for the Israelites’ trek provided a powerful metaphor for later believers who sought daily to follow their God. Hence, we find passages such as Psalm 107:4-7, which speaks of God’s people wandering in the wilderness until God provided a straight way for them, enabling them to find a city (by implication Jerusalem, the spiritual city their ancestor Abraham had sought).
It is within the prophecy of Isaiah that the Way features most forthrightly. For that prophet declares “The wilderness and the dry land will be glad, The desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose.” (Isa 35:1 WEB) and then he promises “A highway will be there, a road, and it will be called The Holy Way. The unclean shall not pass over it, but it will be for those who walk in the Way. Wicked fools will not go there” (Isa 35:8 WEB). Just as Psalm 85 speaks of righteousness going before God and preparing the way for his steps (Ps 85:13), so Isaiah envisages ‘The voice of one who calls out, “Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness! Make a level highway in the desert for our God.”’ (Isa 40:3 HNV). Then later God reiterates “Behold, I will do a new thing. It springs forth now. Don’t you know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert” (Isa 43:19 WEB). Isaiah makes clear that this was not a physical pathway, but a way of the heart (cf. Isa 57:14-19). Yet it would lead God’s people to build a city (Isa 45:3) and be the means by which God enabled people to return to that place of blessing (cf. Isa 62:10-12).
It was this same Way about which the prophet Malachi spoke when he announced “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me; and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, behold, he comes!” (Mal 3:1 KJV).
In the later centuries B.C.E., those who joined the Qumran community, in separating themselves from the wicked, believed that they were thereby going into the wilderness to prepare the way spoken of by Isaiah (Hollerbach 1992, 3:892). The idea, of a righteous path, was also firmly entrenched in other strands of Judaism, allowing the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.-50C.E.) to expound upon it in the guise of the “Royal Road” of piety (Unchangeable 162 [Yonge]). For Philo, this road lay along the mid point between pairs of opposite errors, e.g. excess and deficiency, stinginess and extravagant prodigality (Unchangeable 162-3). As such, it was “easily travelled, and level, and plain” (Unchangeable 165 [Yonge]), but to deviate to either side was folly. Philo therefore counselled “let us desire and pray to be able to proceed straight along the middle of the road” (Unchangeable 164 [Yonge]). Elsewhere, Philo speaks of how Abraham walked such a road: “he is assigned to the one only God, whose minister he becomes, and so makes the path of his whole life straight, using in real truth the royal road, the road of the only king who governs all things, turning aside and deviating neither to the left hand nor to the right” (Giants 64 [Yonge]).
Isaiah’s way came to the fore again as both John the Baptist and Jesus began to explain John's role in terms of it (Matt 3:3). Jesus explained that John came to the Judeans in “the way of righteousness” (Matt 21:32) and he himself contrasted the ways of righteousness and evil in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:13-14). That the way of righteousness remained significant into the early years of the Church may be seen by the way that Luke refers to it as ‘the Way’ on several occasions (Acts 9:2, 19:9, 23, 22:4, 24:14, 22). Furthermore, in 2 Peter we find reference to Christian practice as “the way of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:21).