Proverbs and Politics
A New York columnist, Anthony Lewis, analyzed the 1980 election and concluded that the primary issue in the campaign was not inflation, or foreign policy or unemployment, but the role of religion in American politics. Dr. Haddon Robinson, president of the Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver has written,
Fundamentalists who preached during the sixties that God and Caesar were to be kept apart, have had a turn of mind about what the Bible teaches. Political involvement now smacks of a religious crusade. While professing that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal,” Christians do a creditable job of capturing the media, lobbying, selecting candidates, supporting constitutional amendments.31
Dr. Robinson goes on to warn us that we may be baptizing political philosophies into the faith unconverted.
The fact is that there has probably been no time in the recent history of our nation when evangelical Christians have been as interested and involved in the political process. At the same time there has been growing pressure on the part of many unbelievers to keep Christians out of politics, under the banner of “separation of church and state.”
While the Book of Proverbs is often consulted by Christians for words of wisdom on various matters, few tend to turn there for guidance concerning our political involvement. I believe there is good reason, however, why Proverbs is especially pertinent to the subject of politics.
Dr. Bruce Waltke, formerly head of the Old Testament department of Dallas Theological Seminary, taught the Book of Proverbs to his three children. His approach was that this book, written mostly by king Solomon, was intended to prepare his son to rule in his place over Israel. Proverbs, then, was written to princes. Here was a king not only instructing his “son” about wisdom in general, but also about wisdom as it related to governing a nation. If Christians are to “reign with Christ” (2 Tim. 2:12), should we not also prepare ourselves to reign in a righteous way?
Americans need not wait until the “sweet bye and bye” to reign, however. In the days of David and Solomon authority to govern Israel was highly centralized, and it was virtually the king alone who determined the course of the nation, established the standards for men’s conduct, and saw to it that the law was enforced. Such is the case today in many parts of the world. In America, however, government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” If in Proverbs (and the New Testament as well, cf. Rom. 13:1-7) the king was responsible before God to punish evildoers and to reward the righteous, it is every American who bears this responsibility in our nation. Our government is representative and so we elect officials who act in our behalf. While some Christians may be called of God to run for political office, we all have the right and the responsibility to help elect those who will govern righteously. When our officials fail to keep this trust we have an obligation to seek to change their minds or to work to replace them. Since it is we, then, who are responsible to rule, let us look carefully at the teaching of Proverbs on the relationship between righteousness and ruling.
Good Government is Godly Government
Good government is also a godly government according to Proverbs. Three principles which outline the relationship between godliness and government in the Book of Proverbs. Let us briefly consider them.
1. RIGHTEOUSNESS IN GOVERNMENT IS FOR THE GOOD OF THE GOVERNED.
There are those who think that a government which seeks to uphold righteousness is only out to make life miserable for them. The Moral Majority, for example, is viewed as a group of Christian kill-joys who are out to make life as miserable for others as they have made it for themselves. Proverbs assumes that the purpose of government is to promote righteousness and that righteousness is for the good of the people.
When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, And when the wicked perish, there is glad shouting. By the blessing of the righteous a city is exalted, But by the mouth of the wicked it is torn down (11:10-11).
Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a disgrace to any people (14:34).
When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, But when a wicked man rules, people groan (29:2).
The point of these Proverbs is that righteousness is not only right, it is best. When righteousness is preserved and promoted by government, the people are blessed. When government fails to achieve its intended purpose, the people suffer.
2. RIGHTEOUSNESS IN GOVERNMENT IS FOR THE GOOD OF THE GOVERNMENT.
Since the purpose of government is to uphold righteousness, God requires rulers to be righteous (cf. 16:2).When those who govern are righteous, their administration will be successful and stable.
Loyalty and truth preserve the king, And he upholds his throne by righteousness (20:28).
By the transgression of a land many are its princes, But by a man of understanding and knowledge, so it endures (28:2).
A leader who is a great oppressor lacks understanding, But he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days (28:16).
If a ruler pays attention to falsehood, All his ministers become wicked (29:12).
If the king judges the poor with truth, His throne will be established forever (29:14).
3. GOOD GOVERNMENT IS DEPENDENT UPON DIVINE ENABLEMENT.
Government deals with matters which are humanly impossible to produce. Righteousness, justice and equity are all God-given. A government which would promote righteousness must seek divine enablement.
For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding. He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk in integrity, Guarding the paths of justice, And He preserves the way of His godly ones. Then you will discern righteousness and justice And equity and every good course (2:6-9).
‘By me kings reign, And rulers decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, All who judge rightly” (8:15-16).
Evil men do not understand justice, But those who seek the Lord understand all things (28:5).
While there may be wisdom in separating certain religious functions from political office, there is no way that we can separate righteousness from political office. If the purpose of government is to promote righteousness and to punish evil, how can we avoid defining righteousness and defending it as a part of our political obligation before God?
of a Righteous Ruler
The outworking of righteousness in government is not left in vague and academic terms. Proverbs spells out what a godly government will do.
1. THE RIGHTEOUS RULER IS CHARACTERIZED BY EOUITY ANP IMPARTIALITY.
Those in positions of power sometimes thwart justice by showing deference to certain individuals in the community. Proverbs condemns such partiality and insists upon justice and equity.
A wicked man receives a bribe from the bosom To pervert the ways of justice (17:23).
To show partiality to the wicked is not good, Nor to thrust aside the righteous in judgment (18:5).
These also are sayings of the wise. To show partiality in judgment is not good. He who says to the wicked, “You are righteous,” Peoples will curse him, nations will abhor him; But to those who rebuke the wicked will be delight, And good blessing will come upon them (24:23-25).
It is not for kings, 0 Lemuel, It is not for kings to drink wine, Or for rulers to desire strong drink. Lest they drink and forget what is decreed, And pervert the rights of all the afflicted (31:4-5).
2. THE RIGHTEOUS RULER IS CONCERNED FOR THE RIGHTS OF THE POOR, THE AFFLICIED, AND THE HELPLESS.
It is possible for the king to abuse his power and to take advantage of the helpless. Ahab and Jezebel, for example, murdered Naboth in order to obtain his field (1 Kings 21).Proverbs recognizes this as one of the dangers facing those in power and urges those who reign not to abuse their power, but to use it to protect the powerless.
A leader who is a great oppressor lacks understanding, But he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days (28:16).
If a king judges the poor with truth, His throne will be established forever (29:14).
Open your mouth for the dumb, For the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy (31:8-9).
3. THE RIGHTEOUS RULER IS A SEEKER OF TRIUTH.
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter (25:2).
Evil men do not understand justice, But those who seek the Lord understand all things (28:5).
4. THE RIGHTEOUS RULER SEEKS TO EXPOSE EVILDOERS, TO PUNISH THEM, AND TO PROTECT OTHERS FROM THEIR CRIME.
Righteousness is often evidenced by one’s response to wickedness. The righteous ruler will not tolerate sin. He will not practice wickedness, nor will he tolerate its practice or presence. He seeks it out and deals with it.
A king who sits on the throne of justice Disperses all evil with his eyes (20:8).
But to those who rebuke the wicked will be delight, And a good blessing will come upon them (24:25).
Take away the wicked from before the king, And his throne will be established in righteousness (25:5).
Like a trampled spring and a polluted well Is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked (25:26).
Principles of Punishment in Proverbs
There are very clear principles in Proverbs which should govern the punishment of the wicked. Because of great disagreement over issues such as capital punishment I feel it is necessary for us to carefully consider them.
1. BEING HARD ON A CRIMINAL IS BENEFICIAL TO HIM.
No one should enjoy watching others suffer, nor should we delight in taking part in their punishment. Many think that the answer to crime is education. Others believe that going easy on the offender will be more effective than severe punishment. Proverbs warns us that if we take a soft position on sin we do a disservice to the criminal by encouraging him to repeat his crime.
A man of great anger shall bear the penalty, For if you rescue him, you will only have to do it again (19:19).
The number of repeat offenses is astronomical in our nation. The reason is that we have not been tough enough on first offenders. Punishment for serious crimes will serve as a warning to offenders. Soft treatment simply asks for more crime. When there is no punishment, crime does pay for the criminal.
2. BEING HARD ON THE CRIMINAL IS BENEFICIAL TO OTHERS.
Proverbs does not teach that severe punishment will always reform the criminal. We know that it will not. But in the case of capital punishment at least it will keep the murderer from doing it again. But capital punishment (as with all severe punishment) does benefit others in that it serves to instruct those who are teachable that crime does not pay.
‘When the scoffer is punished, the naive becomes wise; But when the wise is instructed, he receives knowledge (21:11).
From our previous study of the fool we learned that the scoffer will never learn. Striking the scoffer teaches the scoffer nothing, but it is very instructive to the simple. Capital punishment may not have any impact on the hardened criminal, but it will at least rid society of the murderer. It will also have the beneficial secondary result of serving to instruct those who have no desire to face the same consequences for sin. The punishment of the evildoer, according to Proverbs, is a deterrent to crime. Capital punishment, it seems to me, is especially needed in cases where men will be deterred by nothing but death. And when such scoffers are dealt with, the simple will learn a valuable lesson.
3. THE SEVERE TREATMENT OF THOSE GUILTY OF MURDER IS OUR DUTY. We do not have any option as to how to handle murderers. Severe punishment is our duty. We must be harsh with them.
A man who is laden with the guilt of human blood Will be a fugitive until death; let no one support him (28:17).
It is first necessary to point out the obvious fact that while the death penalty was to be carried out on some who committed murder, Proverbs assumes that not all murderers would be executed. The case in point seems to be one of those exceptions. But we are instructed not to ease in any way the consequences of their sin.
Recently there was a special program on TV pertaining to capital punishment. It was occasioned by the execution of a murderer. The outcry was predictable and pathetic. No one spoke up for the rights of the one who was killed. The focus was entirely on the pain inflicted on the criminal. Proverbs teaches us that this pain is deserved and that we dare not seek to reduce it. One man who was found guilty of murder was freed because of “temporary insanity.” As I understand it, this might well be identical with the “great anger” of Proverbs 19:19.In that instance the one who committed a crime in “great anger” was to face the full penalty so the crime would not recur. This seems to be directly applicable to much that is tolerated today in the name of “temporary insanity.”
How to Have Political Influence
It was very distressed to hear a prominent Christian leader say on the radio that if Christians are to gain a hearing we must beat the politicians at their own game. In the context of his statement I understood him to imply that the only way Christians can have an impact on their government is to adopt the methodology of the secular political movements of our day. I find such thinking questionable. Proverbs has much to teach us about finding favor with the king, the equivalent, I believe, to having political influence on those in the government.
1. THOSE WHO HAVE INFLUENCE ON GOVERNMENT ARE THOSE WHO ARE WISE.
The king’s favor is toward a servant who acts wisely, But his anger is toward him who acts shamefully (14:35).
2. THOSE WHO STAND BEFORE KINGS ARE THOSE WHO ARE PROFICIENT AT WHAT THEY DO.
Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men (22:29).
3. THOSE WHO HAVE INFLUENCE ON GOVERNMENT ARE THOSE WHO HAVE LEARNED TO BE TACTFUL, GRACIOUS, AND PATIENT.
Righteous lips are the delight of kings, And he who speaks right is loved (16:13).
He who loves purity of heart And whose speech is gracious, the king is his friend (22:11).
By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, And a soft tongue breaks the bone (25:15).
4. THOSE WHO HAVE INFLUENCE ARE CAREFUL NOT TO ASSOCIATE THEMSELVES WITH RADICALS, WHOSE ONLY DESIRE IS TO BRING ABOUT REVOLUTIONARY CHANGES.
My son, fear the Lord, and the king; Do not associate with those who are given to change; For their calamity will rise suddenly, And who knows the ruin that comes from both of them (24:21-22).
5. THOSE WHO HAVE INFLUENCE DO NOT SEEK THE POWER OR THE PLEASURES OF THOSE THEY SEEK TO INFLUENCE.
When you sit down to dine with a ruler, Consider carefully what is before you; And put a knife to your throat, If you are a man of great appetite. Do not desire his delicacies, For it is deceptive food (23:1-3).
Do not claim honor in the presence of the king, And do not stand in the place of great men; For it is better that it be said to you, “Come up here,” Than that you should be put lower in the presence of the prince, Whom your eyes have seen (25:6-7).
It is my personal opinion that Christians have frequently failed to win a hearing from those who are in places of political power because we have failed to follow these principles. We have often evidenced a lack of wisdom, writing protests by the millions concerning a matter that was factually erroneous. We have often been ignored or overlooked, not because we were Christians, but because we were not competent. And when we have spoken out, our words have not been gracious and appropriate, but stinging and critical, even caustic. We may refer to politicians as liberals, humanists, or bureaucrats. Sometimes it has seemed to those in power that Christian spokesmen were simply seeking to establish their own power base.
Daniel and his three Hebrew companions were very influential in government, even though they were young and political prisoners. They were chosen to hold positions of power because they were skillful and wise (Dan. 1:17,19-20). Likewise, Pharaoh chose Joseph to be second in command in spite of the fact that he was a Hebrew, for whom the Egyptians had little regard (Gen. 43:32; 46:34), because he manifested greater wisdom than any other man in Egypt (Gen. 41:39).
Do we wish to have a hearing? Let us strive to be wise. Let us be so skilled that those in government seek the contribution we can make. And let us be very prudent in the way we speak and act before men in positions of political power. Let us not be disregarded for being foolish, rather than for being Christians.
Let me attempt to sum up the teaching of Proverbs on the subject of politics with a few principles.
1. GODLINESS CANNOT BE SEPARATED FROM GOVERNMENT. The purpose of government is to promote and protect righteousness, and to punish the wicked. While the framers of our constitution were wise to guard against a state church, recent efforts to ban everything related to religious faith from government under the banner of separation of church and state go too far. They go far beyond the Scriptures and even beyond the intent of the framers of the constitution. In order to be good, government must be godly; and it must promote godliness.
2. GODLY PEOPLE SHOULD NOT SHUN THEIR RESPONSIBILITIY AS A PART OF GOVERNMENT. While Proverbs shows a definite relationship between godliness and government, many American evangelicals have tended to equate politics and the American political process with something unclean. I know of godly men and women who have said, “I vote on my knees.” That sounds good, and I do not doubt the sincerity of those who hold the view that the Christian is to stand aloof from government. I do, however, question the biblical basis for such a position. In the Old Testament it was the ideal that godly men should lead in government, men like David and Solomon. In America we who are citizens have the responsibility to take part in the process of electing men and women who will make and enforce the laws of our land. By our very laws Americans are the government. By God’s laws, as reflected in the Book of Proverbs, we are responsible before God to govern in a godly way. Government is an obligation Christians dare not shirk.
I should also add that in this area of life, as in all others, the nature and extent of our involvement is a matter of gift and calling. I believe that God has called certain Christians to devote their lives to direct involvement in government.
Because of the complexity of government, there are some who have been raised up to keep other Christians informed on legislation before congress and areas that need particular prayer and action. But all of us have a part to play, I believe, in the political process. Let us play that part well, to the glory of God and for the good of our fellow man.
3. EVEN THOUGH SOLOMON “WROTE THE BOOK” ON THE SUBJECT OF GODLINESS IN GOVERNMENT HE FAILED TO HEED HIS OWN COUNSEL. We know that most of what was written in Proverbs on the subject of politics (the king) was written by Solomon.
Let us find a word of warning from the record of 1 Kings chapters 11 and 12.In his later years Solomon forsook the law of God, married foreign wives, and built altars to heathen gods on which he offered sacrifices (11:1-8). God had appeared to Solomon twice to warn him of this great evil (11:9-10), and yet Solomon failed to take heed. Solomon’s rule was heavy-handed (12:4), and his son Rehoboam purposed to be even more severe (12:6-15).When Solomon learned that God intended to raise up Jeroboam to lead the ten tribes of Israel, he, much like Saul before him, attempted to put this challenger to death (compare 1 Sam. 18 with 1 Kings 11:40).
I believe there is a lesson to be learned here. Many who have written books on various subjects of the Christian life have later failed to heed their own counsel. Now I hasten to say that their words may have been correct, as were Solomon’s. But it is not enough simply to know the truth; we must practice the truth. Knowledge without obedience is of little value.
4. POLITICAL POWER, LIKE ALL OTHER FORMS OF POWER, IS A MATTER OF STEWARDSHIP AND SERVANTHOOD. Any power may be prostituted to our own advantage. God gives power as a stewardship, and when it is abused, He may take it away, just as he removed power from Solomon in the person of his son, Rehoboam (1 Kings 11:9-11). We have an interesting word of counsel given by Solomon’s elderly and wise advisors to his son, Rehoboam:
Then they spoke to him, saying, “If you will be a servant to this people today, will serve them, grant them their petition, and speak good words to them, then they will be your servants forever” (1 Kings 12:7).
Rehoboam had not learned that leadership is really servanthood, just as our Lord taught His disciples centuries later (cf. Mark 10:35-45).Power, political or otherwise, is given by God so that we may serve others. When we forget this we are in danger of being set aside.
5. GOD IS MORE CONCERNED WITH THE FUNCTION OF GOVERNMENT THAN WITH ITS FORM. Sometimes I have the feeling that we Americans who are evangelicals think that God looks with some kind of special favor on our form of government. Personally, I do not know of any better form of government. I surely would not prefer the governmental structures to which most of the world’s population are subject. But let us learn from Proverbs that while form is important, it is the function of government which is primary. It is possible to have the right form, but the wrong function. Government is to function so that the righteous are rewarded, the evil are punished, and the rights of the helpless are protected. Unfortunately (in my opinion) evangelical Christians have seemingly been more interested in the economic or political philosophy of an administration, while it has been the unsaved who have placed more emphasis on justice and the care of the helpless. Function is more important than form in the Book of Proverbs.
6. THERE IS ONLY ONE IDEAL FORM OF GOVERNMENT--THAT GOVERNMENT WHICH OUR LORD WILL ESTABLISH OVER THE EARTH WHEN HE RETURNS TO RULE IN RIGHTEOUNESS. Proverbs would remind us that whatever form of government we may live under, God is still in control of it and of history.
The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes (21:1).
God is in control, no matter what form a government may take. Whatever the form of government, it will be imperfect, both because it seeks to rule over men who are sinners and because the men who rule are sinful. The only perfect system of government is that which our Lord Himself will establish when He returns to rule over the earth in perfect righteousness. But I must warn you that He is not only coming as Savior, but as Judge of the earth. If you have not yet come to Him by faith, I urge you to submit to the King who is coming soon, Jesus Christ. He died for your sins on the cross of Calvary. By trusting in Him, you may have eternal life, and, indeed, you may reign with Him forever. What a day that will be!