Christianity and Politics IV: God and Politics in Proverbs
Yoram Hazony has risen to prominence as a political philosopher and commentator. My first encounter with him, however, was through his book God and Politics in Esther, which is a fascinating reading of the biblical book of Esther. Most Christian interpretations of Esther (that I am familiar with anyway) would see the central theme of the book as God’s hidden providence: God’s name does not appear, and yet the circumstances that lead to Esther’s triumph over the enemies of God’s people are nothing short of miraculous.
Hazony, however, takes a very different approach. He contends that Esther seems
to bypass issues of theology and religious observance to cope with the more burning issue of the actual physical survival of the Jews. For this reason, the book of Esther deals first and foremost with the problem of a Jewish politics in exile: how the Jews, deprived of every sovereign institution of power, may nevertheless participate in, and in the last resort make use of, the authority of an alien government to ensure their own vital interests, and in this case their lives. Esther offers its readers a choice between two antithetical conditions – the one being a nightmare of impotence . . . and the other, in which Mordechai the Jew rises to a position of great power with the ability to act in defense of the Jews . . . The nature of this utterly political choice – and how it is to be made in practice – is the principal concern and teaching of the book of Esther. (p. 3)
I think the hidden providence of God is a more important theme in Esther than Hazony does. However, his approach to the book sparked my interest and got me wondering what it might look like to study other books of the Bible to see what could be gleaned from them regarding political action.
In this article, I will focus on Proverbs. I do this because Proverbs often explicitly addresses what we would today call politics: many of its aphorisms are unambiguously about what governing officials should be like and how they must rule. In doing so it addresses politics at its most basic and fundamental level.
This may initially strike readers as a strange thing to say. More often than not Proverbs is read by Christians as a series of isolated wisdom statements meant to illuminate the path of their own personal piety. The book is read, in other words, individualistically.
The opening verses of the book (1:1–2), however, point us in a very different direction:
The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity . . . .
Two things stand out: Proverbs is written by a political officer (the king) and is about much more than personal piety: it is about wise governance, righteousness, justice, and equity. These are the fundamental issues of government, thus, of politics. This is not to say that Proverbs isn’t relevant for one’s personal spirituality; it certainly is, but its opening framing points in a different direction, the direction of political order.
This focus is consistent throughout the book (a few examples will suffice):
Proverbs 16:12: “It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness.”
Proverbs 25:2: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”
Proverbs 29:12: “If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked.”
These are the central realities of statecraft: how kings are to rule and the consequences that follow if they rule either well or badly.
In this article I will focus on four unique ways in which Proverbs provides wisdom for political rule: 1) the way in which good government–contrary to the liberal dream of moral neutrality–is wise government, 2) the nature of true social justice, 3) the nature of a virtuous, healthy nation and what is necessary to maintain it, and 4) the necessary moral competency of rulers at all levels of government.
Good Government is Wise Government
John Stuart Mill famously built his theory of liberal political order on the notion that the state should stay out of the business of arbitrating competing moral visions: “Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest” (On Liberty [Hackett, 1978], p. 12). What “gains the most” for mankind should be the sole business of the state, ensuring that no moral or religious system be imposed on anyone who does not adhere to it personally. Many, if not most, people living in democratic states today would agree, or at least claim to agree. “At the heart of liberty,” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The state, we are told, is to stay out of moral matters. Those are for the individual to decide in whatever way the zer/ze/zim decides. I’m under no illusion that tolerant liberals are indeed as tolerant as they claim to be (“bake the cake, bigot”), but governmental tolerance of any and every morality is what most claim they support.
Proverbs will have none of that. Good government, Proverbs 8:15–16, says, is founded on true wisdom: “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly.” There is no such thing as a morally neutral government. A ruler either rules wisely, which will lead to just laws, or he rules unwisely, which leads to the flourishing of wickedness and injustice.
Rulers, Proverbs 20:8 tells us, are obligated to rule in favor of what is just and true: “A king who sits on the throne of judgment winnows all evil with his eyes.” The apostle Paul agrees (Romans 13:4): “For [the governing authority] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” “A wise king winnows the wicked and drives the wheel over them” (Proverbs 20:26). The civil magistrate who would fain neutrality regarding good and evil is the epitome of foolishness and wickedness. A ruler is to bring down the wicked. The opposite is not blessed neutrality, but societal devastation and destruction: “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people. A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor, but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days” (Proverbs 28:15–16); “By justice a king builds up the land, but he who exacts gifts tears it down” (Proverbs 29:4).
Proverbs also explicates the nature of true justice as instituted by the state, and often explains the societal consequences that follow from true justice, or its lack.
At its most basic level, the magistrate is to condemn the wicked and vindicate (justify) the one who is in the right. Getting this backward is a perennial temptation since it is often personally advantageous to reward allies even when they have done wrong. But such is evil: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 17:15; cf. Deut 25:1–2; etc.). Statues of lady justice with a blindfold over her eyes are thoroughly biblical. Proverbs 24:23b–25 is a good example of this: “Partiality in judging is not good. Whoever says to the wicked, ‘You are in the right,’ will be cursed by peoples, abhorred by nations, but those who rebuke the wicked will have delight, and a good blessing will come upon them.” Impartiality, treating all disputants strictly according to fact, was a matter of state justice: in Israel, there was a king and various judges tasked with implementing justice. While governmental structure (democracy, aristocracy, etc.) is not set in stone, the mandate for the state to punish evil is.
Another fundamental principle of true justice is that it is punitive. Although reading Proverbs exclusively for its personal spiritual applications might obscure this (thinking Proverbs to apply only to the raising of children, for example), it is a common theme in the book that discipline must punish: “On the lips of him who has understanding, wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks sense” (Proverbs 10:13).
Equity is yet another central concept of justice in Proverbs. Although the word equity has been badly abused in modern political discourse as a pretext for attempting to equalize wealth distribution along communistic lines it is an important biblical concept: “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight” (Proverbs 11:1). Equity means strict fairness in matters of justice, not a “preferential option for the poor,” not letting the rich and powerful off the hook, not allowing criminals from “underprivileged communities” to receive more lenient sentences, and so on. When true biblical equity prevails both the rich and poor, powerful and powerless, receive their legal due, nothing less, nothing more: “Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty” (Proverbs 22:26). Equity should be reclaimed as a legitimate and important concept, just like social justice: nearly all justice is social in that it pertains to human relationships, although there are acts of injustice toward oneself (suicide) or toward God (atheism).
In defining true justice as impartiality and equity, and in attaching punitive sanctions to lawbreaking, Proverbs once again proves the lie in contemporary liberal thinking, that law and state action can be neutral regarding right and wrong.
A Virtuous Nation, if You Can Keep it
What does a virtuous society look like? It is one in which law-abiding, virtuous citizens prosper. It is one in which lawless wickedness is shamed and pushed out of sight of respectable society, where the people have been formed by law and custom to scorn such evils:
Proverbs 11:10–11: “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness. By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown.”
Proverbs 21:15: “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.”
The apostle Paul speaks to something very similar in Romans 1:32: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” I had long puzzled over this text. On the surface, it appears as if Paul is saying it is worse to approve of a sin than to engage in it. The New Testament commentator Charles Cranfield helped me see that this is not at all what Paul means. What Paul is conveying in writing about “giving approval” is this: “[T]here is also the fact that those who condone and applaud the various actions of others are actually making a deliberate contribution to the setting up of a public opinion favourable to vice, and so to the corruption of an indefinite number of other people” (C.E.B. Cranfield, Commentary on Romans, II.135). Many who would engage in evil and criminal acts (initially at least) try to hide them from public view. There is a healthy sense of societal shame about such deeds which keeps them underground. But when people begin to approve of evil it increasingly fosters an environment in which such evil grows, perhaps even to the point of infecting an entire society and bringing its downfall. Approving of evil, then, is far worse than individual, hidden acts of the same evil. Such approval encourages others to do likewise, whereas social pressure would have previously kept such evil in check. This is what Proverbs is getting at regarding the blessings of a society or nation that rejoices when evil is punished and when righteousness abounds.
Many more such texts could be quoted, but I’ll simply list a few:
Proverbs 28:4: “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive against them.”
Proverbs 29:16: “When the wicked increase, transgression increases, but the righteous will look upon their downfall.”
Proverbs 14:34: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”
Punishing evil and rewarding good cannot itself convert dead sinners, but it can have a significant impact on those subject to it: “When a scoffer is punished, the simple becomes wise; when a wise man is instructed, he gains knowledge” (Proverbs 21:11). This is true of children in Christian families, but it is also true of citizens in a commonwealth. The law teaches and moves a people along toward wisdom and virtue: “The citizen must indeed be happy and good, and the legislator will seek to make him so” (Plato, Laws, V.742e).
The opposite is, of course, also true: while righteousness uplifts a nation, wickedness subverts it: “When the righteous triumph, there is great glory, but when the wicked rise, people hide themselves” (Proverbs 28:12). New York City’s infamous “broken windows” policing was thoroughly in line with the teaching of Proverbs: even the smallest of crimes was punished because it was recognized that crime unpunished will spiral out of control, eventually engulfing an entire community, with the result that normal people would have nowhere to go to find safety (apart from moving altogether). This is why Christians must fight the “cultural war,” which is ultimately nothing other than pursuing justice. It is not because we are power-hungry political idolaters, but because to fail to do so is harmful to Christians and our non-Christian neighbors (we are called to love them after all).
It is not enough to have just laws. A nation must also have just rulers, and not just at the very top: “For this reason God requires men for the administration of a commonwealth who excel in the practice and experience of things.” (Johannes Althusius, Politica 21.9). This, in fact, is far more important than the precise political form a nation’s government takes:
Proverbs 11:14: “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
Proverbs 13:17: “A wicked messenger falls into trouble, but a faithful envoy brings healing.”
Proverbs 14:35: “A servant who deals wisely has the king’s favor, but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully.”
Proverbs 15:22: “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”
Proverbs 25:5: “Take away the wicked from the presence of the king, and his throne will be established in righteousness.”
In all of these texts (and others like them) we see a simple, yet profound truth: just laws are not enough. There must also be just men to implement them (see also Exodus 18:21; Deuteronomy 1:13–15; Numbers 11:16). How many good rulers have been brought down through the machinations of corrupt subordinates?
None of the principles of a just political order seen in Proverbs appear to be merely restricted to Israel’s unique, theocratic existence as a nation under the unique covenantal authority of the law of Moses. Certainly Proverbs is addressed to Israel’s king, but just like all of the non-political proverbs in the book, the ones having to do with political order are timelessly worded.
That said, Proverbs by no means provides us with a comprehensive understanding of Christian political action. What it does do is explicate some of the most important principles of a just political order.
It also reveals how utterly false is the notion that a political system can be neutral with regard to basic questions of morality: good government requires wisdom, it requires the punishing of evil and safeguarding of good (and the ability to understand what is evil or good), it requires equitable, impartial implementation of justice, and it requires morally upright leaders at all levels of government who understand their mandate to see justice enforced within their spheres of authority. Despite the rhetoric of the last sixty years or so none of this is at odds with the U.S. Constitution, nor with America’s legal and political past, though many today are doing all they can to obscure this fact. But that is for another essay.
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