Wisdom Rules: Proverbs on Politics
Today is one of our last stops in the book of Proverbs, which we’ve been working through over the summer. Typically we preach through a book just the way it’s written, but with Proverbs it’s quite hard to do that. So what we did was group together all of the Proverbs that speak to a certain issue, and take up all of those Proverbs together in each message.
It was actually over two years ago we started to lay this series out, and we thought we had it figured out, but as we worked through the passages this past spring, there was a group of proverbs that we hadn’t counted on: proverbs that had to do with the king, and the king’s authority, and the relationship of the king with the people. And as we saw these Proverbs pile up, it became pretty clear that we were going to need to preach a message on them.
And I’ll be honest: I didn’t really want to do this. Because I knew that a message on this topic would inevitably lead into a discussion on our relationship with our governmental authorities today. And honestly, after talking and writing about this topic so much in the past two and a half years, I wouldn’t have chosen to come back to it again today.
But God leads His people through His word. We believe that as we preach through books of the Bible, refusing to ignore the tough parts, God leads and directs us to hear from Him what we need to hear.
And interestingly, this past week I had more than one conversation which reminded me that this is an important topic. Christians are not done figuring out how to honour God and relate to our government. So here we are today, and I trust that God is going to use these passages today to do His work in us whether we think we need it or not.
So what you can see, from your handout, is that there’s two main sections to the message. The first part considers four truths that Proverbs teaches about the king and his authority. The second asks, “What about us?”
A. WHAT PROVERBS TEACHES ABOUT THE KING
1. Kingly Authority is Good
And so, diving in, the first truth that Proverbs teaches about the king and his authority is that kingly authority is good. We can flip it around and put it this way: the king in Israel had power and authority over his people, and Proverbs doesn’t see that as a bad thing.
“In a multitude of people is the glory of a king, but without people a prince is ruined,” says Proverbs 14:28, and that’s just what it says. It doesn’t say, “in a multitude of people is the glory of a king, and that selfish guy should give them all the right to vote.” Nope. Proverbs doesn’t teach that. Proverbs sees a king ruling over many people and says, “there you go.” It treats kingly authority as a normal and even a good thing.
Look at 30:29-31: “Three things are stately in their tread; four are stately in their stride: the lion, which is mightiest among beasts and does not turn back before any; the strutting rooster, the he-goat, and a king whose army is with him.” The lion, the rooster, and the he-goat are stately and powerful, and so is a king with his army.
This isn’t a criticism. It’s not saying, “Look at that king, strutting like a rooster.” It’s just stating a truth—that when a king has his army with him, he’s like a lion or a rooster or a he-goat, all creatures God made to be stately.
A king’s authority is not inherently bad. In fact, it’s good.
2. God Has Established the King’s Authority
And that’s because, second, God has established the king’s authority. “Steadfast love and faithfulness preserve the king, and by steadfast love his throne is upheld” Proverbs 20:28. In the Bible, who are steadfast love and faithfulness connected to? God. God is the one preserving the king and upholding the king’s throne, his seat of authority.
Now, we must remember this is coming in the context of the covenant God made with David, when God promised David, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” (2 Samuel 7:12–13).
God promised to establish the Davidic throne. But the Bible goes beyond that. Romans 13:1 says that “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” God is the author and establisher of all authority. That applied in a special way to Israel’s king, and it applies in a general way to all authorities.
3. The King Is to Punish Evil and Reward Good
The third truth in Proverbs speaks to the king’s job or mission or responsibility. He was to punish evil and reward good. And several proverbs speak to this reality.
- “A servant who deals wisely has the king’s favor, but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully.” (Proverbs 14:35)
- “A king’s wrath is a messenger of death, and a wise man will appease it.” (Proverbs 16:14).
- “A king’s wrath is like the growling of a lion, but his favor is like dew on the grass.” (Proverbs 19:12).
- “The terror of a king is like the growling of a lion; whoever provokes him to anger forfeits his life.” (Proverbs 20:2).
- “A king who sits on the throne of judgment winnows all evil with his eyes.” (Proverbs 20:8).
- “A wise king winnows the wicked and drives the wheel over them.” (Proverbs 20:26).
This is one of the main purposes for a king. This is what he was for: to be God’s agent in punishing the wicked, and in showing favour and reward to those who did what was right.
Once again, this applied in a special way to Israel’s king. Deuteronomy 17 instructed Israel’s king to write for himself a copy of the law that he might “read in it all the days of his life” (Deuteronomy 17:19). He had a divinely revealed standard by which to judge the wicked and reward the righteous.
But this truth goes beyond just Israel’s king. Listen to what the Apostle Paul said about these same truths hundred of years later: “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:2–4).
Paul wrote these words when a pagan dictator ruled over all of the known world. But even then he could acknowledge that this pagan dictator was God’s agent, whether he knew it or not, and that punishing wickedness and approving good was a major part of his commission.
4. The King Should Be Righteous and Wise
The fourth truth we see this morning is that the king himself should be righteous and wise. And this truth is baked right into the book of Proverbs itself. Think of who much of Proverbs came from: Solomon. And who was it written to? His son.
In other words, as someone recently pointed out to me, we could look at the whole book of Proverbs as a training manual for a future king. And so everything it says about wisdom and words and women and work and wine is all designed to prepare his son to be fit to rule.
But it goes beyond that. Proverbs specifically tells us how important it is for a king to be righteous. “It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness” says 16:12.
Righteousness is what gave the king stability and established his rule over his people. And therefore, if he was to do evil, this would be an abomination—one of the worst things imaginable.
“When a land transgresses, it has many rulers, but with a man of understanding and knowledge, its stability will long continue” says 28:2. It is good for a king to be understanding and knowledgeable, for by this kind of a king, stability comes to the land.
Conversely, “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people” says 28:15. It’s not hard to imagine something worse than being alone and defenceless in front of a charging bear or a roaring lion. That’s what its like when a ruler is wicked and the people are defenceless.
Which is why 29:2 can say, “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.” And, as a final reminder, 29:12 tells us that “If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked.” Taken together, these Proverbs all speak to the importance of a righteous king, and the painful danger of a wicked one.
So, there we have four basic truths from Proverbs about the authority of the king. Kingly authority was good, and was established by God. The king’s job was to punish evil and reward righteousness, and therefore the king himself needed to be wise and godly. Hence, the book of Proverbs.
B. SO WHAT ABOUT US?
1. Jesus is Our Real King
So what about us? We’re in a totally different place and time in history, in a different part of the plan of redemption, with a different government structure over us, and different political understandings, and we might conclude that today’s passage has very little to say to us. Back then they had a king, and wasn’t that cute, but this means very little to us, right?
Thinking that way would be a major mistake. It would be to misunderstand the entire storyline of the Bible.
See, God had promised David a royal son who would reign forever. Solomon only partially fulfilled those promises. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, certainly didn’t. The promise of the royal son was unfulfilled until Jesus Christ.
That’s what “Christ” means. It’s not His last name; it means “Anointed One.” The promised king.
And all of the prophecies point to the Christ being a real king. Jesus’ disciples weren’t all that mistaken when they thought he was going to ride into Jerusalem and kick out His enemies and rule on a throne. Jesus is going to do those kinds of things someday soon.
Jesus’ disciples were mixed up on the timing. And they missed all the Scripture about the king suffering first, and rising from the dead, and bringing salvation to the Gentiles. But they didn’t misunderstand that He was a king, a real king, a political king, who had supreme authority not just over the lives of His disciples but over every other throne on planet earth.
Herod was right to be scared about the news of this new king. He rightly perceived the threat that Jesus would be to his power. The Pharisees and Sadducees were right to see Jesus as a threat to their political power. That’s one of the major reasons they crucified Him. And sure enough, Jesus took away their power, didn’t he? They were right to fear Him.
The Romans were not mistaken when they perceived Jesus to be a major threat to their political power structure. Remember the words spoken in Acts 17:6-8? “‘These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.’ And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things.”
They were right, on one level at least. Jesus had claimed authority over the lives of his followers and over all all the earth. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). That means Caesar is not the highest authority anymore. Jesus is. And Christians were to go and teach others to obey all that Christ, not Caesar, had commanded them.
Even the claim “Jesus is Lord” was a political statement. The Roman slogan was “Caesar is Lord.” And the Christians were basically saying, “No, he isn’t. Jesus is.” And sure enough, the rule of Jesus did turn the world upside down and rewrite the story on the Roman Empire and here we are today, worshipping Jesus and not Caesar.
So Jesus is the son of David, the promised ruler of the world. As a reward for His death and resurrection, God has made Him both Lord and Christ and given Him all authority in heaven and on earth. He claims complete allegiance from His followers, and claims their loyalty to the point of death. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Right now, He reigns over the earth from Heaven’s throne, just like Psalm 110 prophesied. His authority on earth is contested, with most of the world’s governments still not acknowledging the rule of Jesus. But that will change someday, someday soon, when Jesus returns and brings heaven’s throne to earth, and “the kingdom of this world” become “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).
And until then, the kingdom is visible in the lives of Jesus’ disciples, Christians, who are called to live their entire lives under the authority of, and in obedience to, King Jesus.
Think of what Paul wrote to the Philippians, citizens as they were of a Roman colony: “But our citizenship is in heaven [not Rome], and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21).
The kingdom is visible in local churches like ours today, which serve as embassies of the kingdom of heaven. Churches are places where we should catch a glimpse of the reign of Jesus and get a foretaste of what it will be like when He reigns forever on the earth.
So, Jesus is the real king. And this means that each of these four truths from Proverbs apply to Him. His authority is good, established by God. He will punish evil and reward those whom He has made righteous. And He is a very righteous king.
As we’ve pointed out again and again throughout the series on Proverbs, Jesus perfectly embodies the wisdom seen here in Proverbs. And that’s no coincidence. He’s the true Son of David, of whom Solomon was only a faint shadow.
2. Jesus Still Expects His People to Submit to Human Authorities (Even When They Are Not Righteous and Wise)
Now there’s a second truth we need to consider as we ask “what about us?” And it’s this: Jesus still expects His people to submit to human authorities.
And you have to understand that first point before you understand this second point. You see, the truth that Jesus is the real king, with authority over all the earth, should make us ask the question: “Well then, do we need to obey any other earthly authority?”
And that is an excellent question. When we really come to terms with the kingship of Jesus, then that’s the question we’ll ask. If Jesus is the king, then why should I care about any lesser authority?
And this is why the New Testament needs to tell us to submit to human authorities. It wouldn’t be obvious otherwise. But now it is obvious to us, because Jesus said we should.
We see this in Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…” (Romans 13:1). There’s 1 Peter 2:13: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” And there’s Titus 3:1: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient…”
We need to be reminded, don’t we? We need to be reminded because, often, the human authorities are not easy to submit to. If they were—if they were only ever making good and wise decisions and treating everybody perfectly, then we wouldn’t need to be told this. Of course we’d submit to them. It would be as easy as breathing.
But it’s not. Back when these passaged were first written, wicked and pagan Roman emperors ruled over the world.
They hadn’t been ruling for very long. Did you know that for almost 500 years, Rome had been a representative democracy, where Roman citizens voted by secret ballot in a system surprisingly similar to the one we have today? IN fact, our modern democracy is based off of the Roman system.
But about 30 years before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus took control and abolished elections and stripped the senate of their power and took complete control as a dictator and an emperor. And still, Christians were told not to fight for democracy, not to march on Rome, but to be submissive. To have an attitude and disposition of submission because that’s what their real King wanted them to have.
Jesus affirmed this truth all the way back in the Sermon on the Mount, where He said that if “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:41).
In the Roman Empire, there was a law that allowed a Roman soldier to force any civilian, at any point, to carry his luggage for a maximum distance of one mile. This law shows up when they forced Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross. It’s the same Greek word used in both passages.
The Jewish people would have hated this law. It was an infringement on their rights and freedoms. It was a constant reminder that they were under the thumb of Rome. And, on top of this, by carrying a load for a soldier, they were actually assisting the enemy. They hated it.
But Jesus said not to resist the one who is evil, and if forced to go one mile, to go two. In other words, assist your oppressor twice as much as what he’s allowed to ask, all without complaining or fighting back.
Submit to the government, even when they are tyrants who treat you unfairly and unjustly.
Do you see that Jesus assumes that His followers are not going to be preoccupied with fighting for their own rights? And, if you go back earlier in the passage, that gets even more clear. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:38–39).
The language about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was not about personal revenge. The right to extract an “eye for an eye” belonged to the Jewish courts, not to individuals. And so Jesus is not so much telling His disciples not to take revenge, as much as he’s telling them not to get preoccupied fighting for their legal rights.
Jesus didn’t fight for His rights. He went to the cross without a fight. And He told His disciples to take up their crosses and follow Him.
And right here and right now is where we see a major conflict between typical western Canadian conservative values and the Kingdom of Heaven. Conservative values says “I’ve got rights, and nobody’s going to take those rights away from me.” Jesus says, “Pick up your government-issued instrument of torture and death and follow me out to die. Because this is actually the path to real life.”
This is challenging, and we might not like this, but this is what King Jesus said, and there’s no way around it.
So, before we move on, let’s review this second point. Even though Jesus is our authority, even though we belong to His kingdom and He is our king and our true political leader, while we’re still here on earth we don’t get all worked up about defending our rights, and we’ll voluntarily submit to human authorities because Jesus has told us to do so.
And that is what the early Christians did. They didn’t march on Rome to try to topple the government, or even to protest the government. They knew that was Jesus’ business. Jesus was going to bring His kingdom and overthrow the kingdoms of the world. And until he did that, Christians did their best to live as good citizens as they focused their lives on making disciples of Jesus.
3. If and When We Need to Disobey the Government, We’ll Do So With Gentleness and Respect
But that’s not quite everything, is it? There were times when the early Christians could not obey human authorities. Because Jesus was their king, when the human authorities told them to do something Jesus told them not to do, they couldn’t obey. Or when they human authorities told them not to do something Jesus told them to do, they couldn’t comply.
If a soldier told you to carry his load for a mile, even if that was unfair and cramped your personal rights and freedoms, you were supposed to do it. But if Caesar himself told you to stop preaching the gospel, you couldn’t obey. When the authorities told you to burn a pinch of incense in worship to the emperor or the Roman gods, you had to refuse.
And Christians did this all the time. This is why so many Christians were martyred in the fist centuries of the church. Not because they were protest warriors or were trying to overthrow the government. But simply because they wouldn’t let the government overthrow their allegiance to Jesus.
And yet—and yet—as they refused to cave in, they did so with gentleness and respect.
Listen to this exchange from Acts 4. Peter and John are before the “rulers and elders and scribes” in Jerusalem, with the high priest presiding. And this group, who had significant authority, called in Peter and John “and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:18–20).
Jesus told Peter and John to preach. They had to obey Him. They could not comply with this order from the Jewish leaders. But look at how they disobeyed. Directly and clearly, but politely and respectfully.
In do doing they followed in the footsteps of disobeyers like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel 3:16-18), who “answered and said to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.’” (Daniel 3:16–18).
Or Daniel, who kept on praying without a fuss, and went to the lion’s den without a fight, and in the morning “said to the king, ‘O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm ’” (Daniel 6:21–22).
Compare those words to some of the stuff you’ve read on Facebook in the last two and a half years. There’s quite a difference, isn’t there?
One more Scripture we’ll consider, from 1 Peter. “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:13–16).
Christians should expect to be treated poorly by the world—and especially so when we refuse to go along with their wickedness. We should not be surprised when human governments try to put the squeeze on our faithfulness to Jesus. But when we know in our hearts that Christ is Lord, we’re able to respond with a gentleness and respect that is supernatural.
When we get defensive and angry and all worked up about matters pertaining to this world, it’s a sign that we’ve lost perspective. But when we remember who our real king is, and that God has made Him both Lord and Christ, that He is reigning right now, and that soon every knee will bow, it allows us to take the world’s punches without hitting back. Even when we need to disobey, we can do so kindly.
And this a helpful perspective for each of us to bring into our week. Maybe your struggle this week isn’t with the government. It probably will be at some point, but maybe this week it’s different. Maybe you’re working through grief, or a navigating a painful relationship, or battling a sinful habit, or wrestling with despair, or fighting anxiety.
What kind of a difference does it make, in whatever situation you’re facing, to remember what you have a king? That you’re not in charge or in control? That safety is found in resting in His loving authority? That even now, He holds all things together and Has promised to come for you and to make all things new?
Press into Jesus. Now. As you read God’s word. And again and again throughout your days with whatever challenges face you.