God’s Word for You
Proverbs 28:2-3 Governments
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, June 19, 2020
2 When a land is rebellious it has many rulers;
but an intelligent man can prolong what is right.
Some translations struggle with the second line of this verse. The word ken often means “thus” or “so,” but it has a second meaning as an adverb, “rightly,” or an adjective, “what is right” (see Genesis 42:11; Exodus 10:29; 1 Samuel 23:17). I have tried to stay as close as possible to the Hebrew text.
The Bible does not touch the subject of civil government very much, except with advice for a ruler or the poor examples of ungodly rulers in the historical portions of the Scriptures. This chapter mostly fits into the first category, and it contains a warning for nations like ours where the people have a say in who their rulers will be.
First, we must point out that the power of any government originates with God, “for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). God is the one “who sets up kings and deposes them” (Daniel 2:21) and who says: “By my great power I made the earth, the people and the animals that are on it. I give it to whomever I please. Now I will give all these lands to my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. I will even make the wild animals serve him” (Jeremiah 27:5-6).
Second, the form of secular, civil government is chosen and shaped by man. Most of the governments that are demonstrated in the Bible are either forms of monarchies with kings or chiefs or Caesar, and the forms are not condemned even though many individual monarchs and leaders are. God even comforted the people of Judah as they were taken into exile by saying, “Serve the king of Babylon, and live” (Jeremiah 27:17). Our modern method of choosing leaders by vote is not demonstrated in the Bible, but neither is it condemned. The only vote I am aware of in the Bible is the one mentioned by Paul from his days as a Pharisee, when he said, “With authority from the chief priests I locked away many of the saints in prison, and I cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death” (Acts 26:10).
A country can either become rebellious because it has too many rulers (that is, an uncoordinated government), or else a rebellion can fail because it does not have a clear leader. We have seen the first instance recently in the Covid-19 crisis, where the guidelines of the national government and local governments did not match and were sometimes contradictory. The result has made some people and even some churches appear to be in violation of ‘rules,’ but the real problem has been which set of rules was being followed.
3 A ruler who oppresses the poor
is a driving rain that leaves no crops.
The subject of this verse is “a hero, a leader” (Hebrew gabor rash). The Hebrew for “leader” here is an abbreviated form of rosh “head,” but in this form, rash, it could be understood as “poor.” This doesn’t affect the verse or the doctrine being presented, but it seems a little like Solomon is tossing some wordplay at us; the “ruler” who oppresses the poor is himself a poor man, but not a man to be pitied so much as replaced.
The purpose of the civil government is to promote and ensure outward peace and security, “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:2). A government must take care in the way it promotes peace within its borders. A government that uses its military forces to keep the peace at home makes its own citizens into the enemy that the army fights against. The government has the right to demand tribute or taxes. Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21), and Paul added, “If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue” (Romans 13:7). A citizen does not have the right to withhold paying taxes because he thinks the government might do something evil with his money. The Holy Spirit does not permit us to withhold our taxes because Nero or Caligula might be wicked men, but he tells us to pay what we owe.
A ruler who tries to maintain his extravagances by overtaxing the poor will find that they soon have nothing left. This will either bring about the end of their lives, or his. In our Confession, we maintain that “The Gospel does not destroy the state or the family but rather approves them, and commands us to obey them as divine ordinances not only from fear or judgment but also ‘for the sake of conscience’ (Romans 13:5)” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XVI,5). But a ruler must not destroy what he or she has pledged to preserve.
Church and State should be kept separate in one sense: the State cannot dictate what the Church teaches or believes, and the Church cannot dictate how the State will be formed or how it will carry out its function. Yet both Church and State must also understand that they are not independent of one another. A Church without a State has no protection from the other governments of the world, many of which will oppress or destroy its people. A State without a Church will also find itself without any blessing from God, and with no interior reason to be maintained by God. America, for example, is a human experiment, not a divine ordinance. If having an America serves God’s purpose for a while, the way having a Rome once served his purpose, then our nation will be preserved. But if American churches abandon the cross and become nothing but pious-seeming buildings devoid of true faith in God, what would keep God from using some other nation for his purposes and abandoning the American continent and islands to become overgrown with weeds like any vacant lot?
Pray that God will give us good civil leaders but pray for the success of the gospel. Having a good government is just one blessing God gives, like good weather or a good harvest. Pray for the success of the gospel, because that’s the true harvest. That’s the real success.
Pastor Timothy Smith