What is good government? Here in the UK? In Syria or Iraq or Russia or Ukraine? What does it look like in Israel or Palestine? In Brazil or Bolivia?
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. There is good reason, however, why Proverbs is especially pertinent to the subject of good government.
Commentators suggest 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.
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. 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, in a democracy it is every citizen 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.
1. Good Government is Godly Government
1. RIGHTEOUSNESS IN GOVERNMENT IS FOR THE GOOD OF THE GOVERNED.
Proverbs assumes that the purpose of government is to promote righteousness and that righteousness is for the good of the people (11:10-11; 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 (20:28; 28:2, 16; 29:12; 29:14).
3. GOOD GOVERNMENT IS DEPENDENT UPON GOD’S PROVISION.
Righteousness, justice and equity are all God-given. A government which would promote righteousness must seek divine involvement (2:6-9; 8:15-16; 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?
2. Characteristics of a Righteous Government
1. THE RIGHTEOUS RULER IS CHARACTERISED BY EQUITY AND 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 (17:23; 18:5; 24:23-25; 31:4-5).
2. THE RIGHTEOUS GOVERNMENT IS CONCERNED FOR THE RIGHTS OF THE POOR, THE AFFLICTED, 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 recognises 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 (28:16; 29:14; 31:8-9).
3. RIGHTEOUS GOVERNMENT SEEKS AFTER TRUTH (25:2; 28:5).
4. RIGHTEOUS GOVERMENT 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 (20:8; 24:25; 25:5; 25:26).
3. Principles of Punishment in Proverbs
There are very clear principles in Proverbs which should govern the punishment of the criminal
1. EXERCISING JUSTICE ON A CRIMINAL IS BENEFICIAL TO HIM.
No one should enjoy watching others suffer, nor should we delight in taking part in their punishment. On the other hand, 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 (19:19). When there is no punishment, crime does pay for the criminal.
2. EXERCISING JUSTICE ON A CRIMINAL IS BENEFICIAL TO OTHERS.
Striking the scoffer teaches the scoffer nothing, but it is very instructive to the simple. The treat of punishment may not have any impact on the hardened criminal but it will 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 (21:11).
3. THOSE GUILTY OF MURDER SHOULD RECEIVE A SEVERE PUNISHMENT (28:17).
4. How to Have Political Influence
Proverbs has much to teach us about finding favour with the king, the equivalent to having political influence on those in the government.
1. THOSE WHO HAVE INFLUENCE ON GOVERNMENT ARE THOSE WHO ARE WISE (14:35).
2. THOSE WHO STAND BEFORE GOVERNMENT ARE THOSE WHO ARE PROFICIENT AT WHAT THEY DO (22:29).
3. THOSE WHO HAVE INFLUENCE ON GOVERNMENT ARE THOSE WHO HAVE LEARNED TO BE TACTFUL, GRACIOUS, AND PATIENT (16:13; 22:11; 25:15).
4. THOSE WHO HAVE INFLUENCE DO NOT SEEK THE POWER OR THE PLEASURES OF THOSE THEY SEEK TO INFLUENCE (23:1-3; 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.
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 skilful 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.
4. A few principles of good government.
1. GODLINESS CANNOT BE SEPARATED FROM GOVERNMENT.
The purpose of government is to promote and protect righteousness, and to punish the wicked. 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.
In the Old Testament it was the ideal that godly men should lead in government, men like David and Solomon. We are responsible before God to be govern in a godly way. Government is an obligation Christians dare not shirk. The nature and extent of our involvement is a matter of gift and calling. God has called certain Christians to devote their lives to direct involvement in government.
3. SOLOMON FAILED TO HEED HIS OWN COUNSEL.
A word of warning from 1 Kings 11 and 12.In his later years Solomon ignored 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 was even more severe (12:6-15).
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. 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.
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 (1 Kings 12:7). Rehoboam had not learned that leadership is really servanthood, just as Jesus taught His disciples centuries later (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.
We often think that God looks with some kind of special favour on our form of government. 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.
6. THERE IS ONLY ONE IDEAL FORM OF GOVERNMENT
Proverbs reminds us that whatever form of government we may live under, God is still in control of it and of history (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.