Rulers, Respect, and Responsibility

10 A divine sentence is in the lips of the king: his mouth transgresseth not in judgment. 11 A just weight and balance are the LORD’S: all the weights of the bag are his work. 12 It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness: for the throne is established by righteousness. 13 Righteous lips are the delight of kings; and they love him that speaketh right. 14 The wrath of a king is as messengers of death: but a wise man will pacify it. 15 In the light of the king’s countenance is life; and his favour is as a cloud of the latter rain.

Who here has ever wanted to be a king? Or queen, or emperor, or president, or any other title you can think of, really, for that matter. I don’t mean any sort of serious intention here, I can’t imagine that anyone has actually taken steps to try to become royalty, but more of a fanciful wish or a dream. We probably all have had that thought. I know I have. Oh, to be king for a day. It sounds so very wonderful. The things you would do, the things you would change. The things you could fix, the problems you could solve.

We don’t have kings so much any more. Not in this part of the world, anyway. Sure, we may still technically have a queen, but to most of us she really isn’t much more than the face on our money. There is no real authority held by our royalty today. In some countries they do actually have hereditary rulers with varying levels of power, but even then there isn’t the same sort of absolute monarchy as used to be the standard. We have checks and balances on our rulers today, and with good reason. Absolute rulers have a tendency to go a little off the rails. Even the moderate amounts of power our rulers have today tend to bring out the worst in people. Perhaps that’s why we much prefer to have elected governments, and when we aren’t happy with how they are governing, we replace them.

My wife and I are doing a study through the book of Proverbs, and not long ago, while looking at this particular chapter, the verses from Proverbs we read to start caught my attention. It’s essentially a brief treatise on kings, their expected behaviour, and the relationship between subjects and sovereigns. There are a number of longer passages in the book of Proverbs that deal with particular topics, but this one, being half a dozen verses in the middle of a chapter, struck me as different, and as something to inspire further study.

We don’t have kings today, but we do have rulers. We have governments of various levels, municipal, provincial, and federal, each with greater degrees of authority. And whether or not you like all, some, or none of our current elected leaders, we all have some sort of relationship with those who have the rule over us. That goes for everyone, but as followers of Christ, our relationship with earthly authority can be, well, a little more complex.

We’ll talk more about that later, but for now, let’s take a moment to talk about how rulers are supposed to behave. Looking at the verses we read from Proverbs 16, how are kings supposed to act? There’s quite a list presented here. It says that a divine sentence is in the lips of the king: his mouth transgresseth not in judgment. That means it is expected for a ruler to pass fair and balanced judgments, not biased or swayed by bribes or persuasion. It says that the throne is established by righteousness, and that it is an abomination for kings to do wickedness. That word that we have as wickedness, it’s not any specific type of wrongdoing, it’s a Hebrew word, Resha (REH-shah) that covers all manner of evil, whether by violence, or civil misbehaviour, or unethical actions. It is offensive to God and to man when rulers do not abide by the rule of law. That is how authority is demonstrated, how it is earned, by being an example of correct and law abiding behaviour. In verse 13 we are told that kings are to delight in righteous lips, they are to love those who speak truth and righteousness, as opposed to those who tell lies and whose speech is offensive. Kings are to be formidable, their wrath is not to be taken lightly, it is as messengers of death. But at the same time, verse 14 tells us that a wise man can pacify the anger of a king. That would mean even though a king may become angry, perhaps even furious and wrathful, he should not be intractable, and beyond the point of reason. And finally, the favour of the king is to be a blessing, like a cloud that brings rain to a dry countryside where it is sorely needed.

That’s a fairly long list, a healthy dosage of responsibility to put on kings and other rulers. Looking over that list, though, I think you would say that all in all, it’s fairly reasonable. Leaders should be fair and balanced, they should uphold the rule of law both in their judgements and in their own behaviours. They should not be corruptible or biased, they should appreciate honesty and frown upon deceit. A good ruler should not be wishy-washy, if something is wrong, or if someone has transgressed against him, or poses a threat, an effective ruler will deal with it, and deal as harshly as is required, but not unreasonably, not with his ears closed to dissenting opinions or to outside wisdom. A good king does not rule in a vacuum, and he should be a blessing to his subjects, not a burden.

Like I said, it’s a solid list, but it’s not unreasonable. If I were picking a ruler, those are all traits I would want to see. If anything is lacking from that list, then those would be shortcomings. There’s nothing on there which I would describe as “not really necessary.” Can’t imagine being in a situation where any reasonable person says “A king who doesn’t care about the rule of law, eh, we can work with that,” or “I wish the government took more and gave less back.”

While Proverbs 16 gives us a solid and balanced list of kingly attributes, we don’t necessarily see one hundred percent compliance to that list in our leaders today, do we? I’m being facetious, of course. I’m not sure that we see even ten or twenty percent all that often. If we have a government that can effectively and consistently cover even a quarter of the items on that list, then we’re generally over the moon. People have campaigned and won elections on just one of those items, such as rooting out bias and corruption, or on maintaining and improving the rule of law. Things that really should be the default starting point for good leadership have become lofty ideals to strive towards.

We look at the people who run our government, and the people who would like to run it, or we look at the people running for the office of president in our neighbour to the south, and we have little choice but to shake our heads. We don’t have kings today, and I’m glad of that. I’ve not seen anyone running for public office in recent memory, or quite frankly, ever, who made me think “I want that guy to be an absolute monarch, vested with the power of life and death. I trust that he’ll do an excellent job, and the authority will never go to his head or anything like that.”

Our leaders are flawed. Of that there is no question. It really shouldn’t be all that surprising, given that our leaders are human beings, and human beings are flawed. And so as a flawed electorate, we elect flawed leaders from flawed candidates. We hopefully recognize that we are going to have less than ideal leaders, and so our system, for all its inefficiencies, has a mechanism to remove and replace the rulers every four years or so. To quote Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Our government is not perfect, or even really all that good, and if we are being honest, it never will be, not while it is run by earthly standards. How, then, are we to relate to it? How are we to respond to those who have the rule over us? We see in the world around us no shortage of complaints about government, running the gamut from general apathy to passive disapproval to straight-up outrage. You don’t have to look hard to find each of those. Maybe you can see yourself fitting into one of those categories.

How are we, as believers, as followers of Christ, supposed to behave towards our own government? Especially when our leaders are generally opposed to God, or perhaps even vehemently so? If you turn to Psalm 2, we can see an example of this sort of behaviour, and how God responds to it.

1 Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, 3 Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. 4 He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. 5 Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure. 6 Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. 7 I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. 8 Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. 9 Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. 10 Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.

I’m sad to say that we live in a world that largely abides by verses 1, 2, and 3, instead of 10, 11, and 12. It is all too often when we see our leaders ignoring what scripture teaches, when they aren’t simply oblivious to it, or specifically going out of their way to directly undermine and oppose God’s teachings and His people. There is no need to elaborate on current government polices to do with such things as abortion, or euthanasia, or gay marriage, to mention a few current concerns. We continually see things getting further and further away from what we know to be true, what anyone with even a lick of sense can tell from reading the Bible. No one who has actually looked up what the Bible teaches on the topic of marriage, and of killing the innocent, can honestly believe that our government is seeking to serve and follow God and to abide by His laws. It’s not only our government, but governments around the world are no better, and it many cases are far, far worse.

It’s not limited to governments at large, but it extends to individuals in positions of leadership. It’s not long ago that the leader of a federal political party in this country publically described evangelical Christians as having values that are un-Canadian. That was specifically on the matter of referring to homosexuality as sinful. Apparently, I’m un-Canadian, because I say that there are a lot of behaviours which may be legal, common, and socially acceptable in our country, but which the Bible teaches are sinful. Guess that makes me un-Canadian to say this, if some elected leaders have their say-so about it.

As goes the king, so goes the nation, to state a cliché I’ve heard more than once. Like many such sayings, it has a fair dose of truth. The leadership at the top sets the tone for everyone who is looking up. We see this on much smaller scales, we see it in our workplaces, we see it on sports teams, we see this in our families. When we are talking about the leader of an entire country, the effect is all the more wide reaching, for good or for ill.

I say this in the context of living in a country where we are able to speak out against the government without fear of reprisal. Some may consider my values to be un-Canadian, but they aren’t proposing to fine me, threaten me, or throw me in jail because of this.  In much of the world, that is not the case. There are governments that specifically target those who would follow God, and there are governments which turn a blind eye when people rise up and oppress Christians, or for that matter, oppress any particular group. There is a lot of oppression happening in a lot of places to a lot of people, and that is all contrary to how rulers should behave.

How are we to respond to government that doesn’t follow God’s laws? We may not have to deal with strong persecution, but we still have leaders, good or bad, that we have to deal with. Thankfully, we have some instruction in the Bible to help us in this. Let’s turn to 1 Peter, we’ll read some verses from chapter 2. Starting at verse 13 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; 14 Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. 15 For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: 16 As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. 17 Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.

Turn further to the book of Romans, chapter 13, for another reading. 1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

This is a summary of how we are to conduct ourselves in relation to government. We are to submit to our governments, to their rules and to the laws of the land. We are to pay our taxes, as much as we may feel that the government is going to waste most of the money it brings in. We are to honour those who are in positions of authority above us. In 1 Peter it says to honour the king, immediately after we are told to fear God. In Romans the instruction is to honour those to whom honour is due.

The word used for honour in both passages is connected with the idea of value. We are to consider and treat our elected officials as being of value, and we are to appreciate what they do, or at least what they are trying to do, and the effort they are putting out. While we may not find that they are doing a terribly good job, or that we like their policies, the passage does not say to honour the king if he’s doing a good job. We are to honour the king, and honour those to whom honour is due. We don’t have a king, but the instruction is further carried down to governors, as being the more local representative of larger authority. You can’t legitimately argue that because we don’t have a king, we don’t need to honour our officials. And you can’t argue that honour is contingent upon deserving behaviour. Romans 13 says to honour those to whom honour is due. It doesn’t say “if they are doing a good job, then you honour them. But if they aren’t doing a good job, you’re off the hook.” There is no disclaimer of that type.

If there were such a disclaimer, then we would never have to honour any rulers. It wouldn’t take much to find fault with any leader we have ever had. Remember the list of kingly behaviours we looked at earlier? It’s an entirely reasonable list, but not one that we see actually accomplished, not without some shortcomings. Even if we look at the greatest rulers in human history we see them all fall short. Even David, a man after God’s own heart, couldn’t score full marks on that test. God would not ask us to honour those in authority over us and then immediately provide us with an excuse not to do so.

What if our rulers are really, really terrible?  What if they are wicked, corrupt, and entirely vile individuals? What if their behaviour is reprehensible? Surely God does not expect us to honour such rulers? Let’s use a hypothetical example of an evil ruler. Imagine a man who came to power while still in his teens after the suspicious death of his adoptive father. Over the next several years, he poisoned his stepbrother, had his mother, his mentor, his ex-wife, and many others close to him executed, as well as plenty of potential rivals. He was an adulterer who carried on affairs with his friend’s wives, and he was a violent man, he kicked one of his wives to death, while she was pregnant. And this hypothetical ruler was not only terrible on a personal level, he also was a poor ruler. He was a liar, h promised to give more power to the senate, but actually took power away from them. During his reign he oversaw expensive projects, some of which were never completed and proved to be a great waste of money. He also was blamed for either causing, or at least profiting from a massive fire that destroyed much of his capital. Also, he instigated the persecution of Christians, having many of them put to death in all manner of terrible ways.

Does that sound like a man God would want us to honour? Or does that sound too over the top, the sort of person I just made up to be an example of the worst possible monarch? Thing is, I didn’t make that description up, it’s not hypothetical at all. It’s historical. If anything, I cut out some of the worst parts, because the ruler I just described was the Roman emperor Nero. Every single thing I just listed was ascribed to him by Roman historians, and that was not even half of it. Nero was a truly offensive and evil man. When he died at age 30, there was chaos and disorder, his reign had made things worse all around.

Why did I describe Nero as my hypothetical too-bad-to-honour monarch? Because when the book of Romans and the book of 1 Peter were written, Nero was the emperor. His face would have been on the coins being minted. His seal would have been on official government edicts. Governors appointed would have been his governors. The king who Paul and Peter instructed the believers to honour, that king was Nero.

I don’t know how you feel about our premier, or our prime minister, or even the President of the United States, of perhaps one of the, shall we say more flamboyant, candidates running for president, but none of them are Nero. We may disapprove of them, but none of them on their worst day even comes close to Nero, or really, to any number of Roman emperors, who were frankly a violent, debauched, and depraved lot. If the early believers were instructed to honour such rulers, how can we possibly have an excuse when it comes to honouring our own?

We aren’t given excuses, but we are given an explanation of why we are to be subject to our government. There are two primary reasons in given the passages we read. First is that our behaviour, as orderly citizens, as upholders of truthful, honest, law-abiding conduct, will give the world around us no cause to look at us as wicked. In 1 Peter 2:15 it says that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. The world will already find cause to hate us if we stand with Christ, it hated Him, and so it will likewise be opposed to those who follow Him. There is no reason to give the world any additional ammunition, any excuse to justify their stance in opposition to Christ. If we do not follow the laws of the land, then we provide ample reason for the world to disrespect us and more seriously, to discredit and ignore any message we may bring.

Not only is it the world looking at us, but those of us who are parents, our children look to us, they look to our example. If we do not honour the authority of human government, we set a terrible precedent. If we demonstrate disdain for our elected representatives, if we disregard the laws of the land, then we should not expect our children to respect law and order either. If we show contempt for the authority that has been placed over us, our children will do the same for the authority placed over them. That includes our authority, the law of the land, as well as God’s authority. We have a serious responsibility that we must not neglect.

Secondly, by following the laws of the land, by being subject to earthly authority, we reaffirm the divine order. The people who are in charge, God has allowed them to be in charge, for however long that may be. God does not condone evil behaviour or disorderly rule, but He does allow leaders, good and not so good, to rule over people. It says in Romans 13:4 that the ruler is a minister of God, established to us for our good. That might be hard to wrap your head around, and I imagine if you told politicians that they were actually ministers of God they might react in all sorts of ways, disagreement, disbelief, and confusion being high on the list. But all earthly authority extends from God. How that authority is used, or abused, can vary widely, but we should be respectful of it. To dishonour it is to dishonour God’s established order, and would further undermine any message of the gospel we might bring. We cannot expect the people around us to respect heavenly authority if we don’t respect worldly authority, that would be hypocritical and unreasonable. If our behaviour is orderly and law-abiding, if we do well, then we should have nothing to fear from our government.

What if we do have something to fear from our government, even if we are orderly, good citizens? What then? That’s a problem that the early believers faced in many cases, and a problem that many believers around the world face today. What do we do when earthly authority tells us not to follow God, when it tells us we are not allowed to do that?

In the book of Acts, we see on many occasions where exactly that happened. In Acts chapter 5, no need to turn there, the disciples were ordered not to teach in the name of Jesus Christ, and they promptly ignored that order. They went to the temple and preached the gospel of Christ. When the religious authorities angrily questioned them on this, their answer was “We ought to obey God rather than man.” They did indeed obey God, despite the objection of their government. They, and many, many others since that time, have paid dearly for that decision. We ought to obey God rather than man, it is true. Man, however, does not always agree, and the price of obeying God can be exceedingly high.

Many different authorities, from the Jewish establishment and the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, to Saudi Arabia and North Korea today, have persecuted, and continue to persecute the church. In all those countries, in all those hostile political climates, the church has continued to exist, to thrive, even, in the face of persecution.

This is not a sermon on the topic of persecution, although that is an excellent topic for another day. Inevitably, when discussing the relationship between rulers and believers, persecution does come up, because for all the protests we hear about the separation of church and state, and how the state needs to be protected from religious influence, in reality it is the state which very often treads down those who would follow Christ, those who would obey God rather than man.

Our government today, for all its flaws, allows tremendous freedom of belief. That has been the case for the history of this nation, and continues for the time being, but we cannot always be so certain it will remain that way. We should be thankful for the government we have, for the freedom and safety we enjoy.

After all, there is a long history of how governments have mistreated God’s people, both the church as well as the Jewish people. I’m reminded of a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. If you are not familiar with that, it’s a play and later a movie about a Jewish community in 19th century Russia. There is a moment in that when someone asks the rabbi if there is a proper blessing for the Czar. A blessing for the Czar? The rabbi replies with “May God bless and keep the czar. . . far away from us.”

It’s played for laughs, but there is a kernel of truth there. We are most fortunate when the human authority keeps its distance from us, when it leaves us largely alone. We should be mindful to pray for those in authority over us, to honour them, even when they are not particularly honourable.

In Matthew chapter 5, verse 44, which is from the sermon on the mount, Christ said to love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. If we are to love, bless, and pray for those who mistreat us, should we not pray for those in authority over us, before they persecute us?

We know that we do not and will not have perfect government, not while sinful people administer it. But our prayers can and do make a difference. Our respect and honour for our rulers sets an excellent example, and provides furtherance to the gospel of Christ. And should the day come when our government changes its stance toward us, and when it comes to the point of needing to decide between obeying God and obeying man, our choice may not be easy, but it should be clear.