We come now to see what Proverbs teaches about the civil magistrate. Throughout this short post, I will be using the terms king and prince, but this is merely a reflection of the language of Proverbs. The principles contained here certainly apply to magistrates in all civil orders, including governors, members of parliaments, congressmen, and presidents.
Throughout Proverbs, every reader is exhorted to seek out the wisdom which is pertinent to his station and duties. The same holds true for the prince and ruler. Wisdom speaks this way — “By me kings reign, and rulers decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, all the judges of the earth“ (8:15-16). A prince is to love righteousness. “Righteous lips are the delight of kings, and they love him who speaks what is right“ (16:13). A king is called to be wise and upright. Character matters. But are there not many princes who have not had this character? We must understand polity biblically (28:2).
What are the temptations and sins of princes? Proverbs never assumes that “the king can do no wrong“ Far from it. He can sin through:
1. Listening to flattery: “Many entreat the favor of the nobility, and every man is a friend to one who gives gifts“ (19:6). When you are in a position of influence and power, people cluster around. This is where lobbyists and junkets come from.
2. Listening to lies: “If a ruler pays attention to lies, all his servants become wicked“ (29:12). In other words, if a prince listens to lies, over time, his staff will consist of people who are being paid to dig up lies, so that their boss can listen to them. When a congressman listens to lies, his staff becomes corrupt.
3. Lying himself: “Excellent speech is not becoming to a fool, much less lying lips to a prince“ (17:7). When a leader lies, he is doing something that is unbecoming to his station. The fact that politicians have a reputation for pandering and lying means that they do not have an appropriate sense of their station and calling.
4. Self-indulgence: “Do not give your strength to women, nor your ways to that which destroys kings. It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes intoxicating drink; lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the justice of all the afflicted“ (25:5). Personal character choices are not unrelated to how a man treats the people. A man who will cheat on his wife will cheat on anything. A man who will betray that confidence is a man not to entrusted with anything.
5. Oppression of the poor: “Like a roaring lion and a charging bear is a wicked ruler over poor people“ (28:15). The poverty of the people does not keep a man from skimming enough from everyone to overload his capacity for pleasure. What happens when you take a dime from 300 million people, and each of them only had two dimes to begin with? Their grinding poverty will not prevent self-indulgence at the top at all. In fact, many ninth-rate nations are known for this.
6. Covetousness: “A ruler who lacks understanding is a great oppressor, but he who hates covetousness will prolong his days“ (28:16; cf. 29:4). Covetousness in rulers is a great trouble. The one who avoids it does well. The one who does not, who “lacks understanding” becomes a great oppressor. Of course, in these days of progressive and enlightened government, the covetousness that pillages the poor has to be exercised in the name of compassion.
But avoiding sin is not enough to establish the strength of a throne. How is godly rule established and preserved? The Bible teaches that when the prince does what is righteous now, his throne is protected in the future. Pragmatists — practitioners of realpolitik – have argued that the exigencies of the moment require this compromise now, and we can always come back to a righteous standard later. This represents a high degree of folly.
1. The ruler must be a man who refrains from wickedness himself: “It is an abomination for kings to commit wickedness, for a throne is established by righteousness“ (16:12). This is a recap of what has already been said, but more is needed than to just stay away from wickedness. A throne is established by the presence of righteousness. A prince is required by God to be a righteous man.
2. The prince must be a merciful man: “Mercy and truth preserve the king, and by lovingkindness he upholds his throne“ (20:28). An important part of the magistrate’s duty is the administration of justice and judgment, but the Bible also teaches that mercy triumphs over judgment. When a magistrate does not levy the maximum penalty (and he does this in wisdom), this preserves the king. It is not ethical compromise.
3. The ruler must be a man who hates evil and judges it: “A king who sits on the throne of judgment scatters all evil with his eyes“ (20:8; cf. v. 26). At the same time, while mercy is often appropriate, it is not a universal law. When consequences do not fall upon the wicked, their hearts fill up with mischief.
4. He must be intolerant of wicked counselors: “Take away the dross from silver, and it will go to the silversmith for jewelry. Take away the wicked from before the king, and his throne will be established in righteousness“ (25:4-5). This means the president must keep the cabinet clean of all corruption. Now wicked counselors might be shrewd enough (as Joab was for David), but the end result is still bad.
5. The prince must judge the poor faithfully: “The king who judges the poor with truth, his throne will be established forever“ (29:14). As we learn elsewhere, he must not show partiality in any direction (Lev. 19:15). But the magistrate who defends the poor is exercising his authority the way God wants it exercised, for they cannot afford any other defenders.
As Christians, what should our demeanor be before the prince? The Christian citizen must not be one who curries favor (25:6). If you are summoned, go, but do not connive or flatter. Work hard at your calling before God (22:29). The Christian must never be revolutionary. “My son, fear the Lord and the king; do not associate with those given to change“ (24:21). The Christian citizen must also cultivate a love for heart purity. But notice that this love, biblically defined, does not necessarily take one out of public life (22:11).
What happens when God blesses the prince? As we have seen, when a prince honors God, in his personal and public person, the throne is established by God. God’s blessing is described in other ways as well. “In a multitude of people is a king’s honor, but in the lack of people is the downfall of a prince“ (14:28). God also gives honor and glory in the dignity of the king’s ability and station. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter. As the heavens for height and the earth for depth, so the heart of kings is unsearchable“ (25:2-3; cf. 19:10).