Israel’s kings had a hand in the composition of the Book of Proverbs (Prov. 1:1; 25:1). It is not surprising, then, that some of the sayings in Proverbs relate specifically to rulers.
Some verses in Proverbs tell us that attributes such as wisdom, justice and integrity are what should distinguish a good leader. In Proverbs 8 Lady Wisdom (wisdom personified) states: ‘By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me rulers rule, and nobles, all who govern rightly’ (8:15-16). Other verses develop this theme: ‘It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness’ (16:12; cf. 20:28). But at least one verse reflects an apparently more cynical view: ‘Many seek the favour of a ruler, but it is from the LORD that one gets justice’ (29:26).
Proverbs also speaks about people, those whom rulers govern. One verse makes the simple point that a ruler needs a people (14:28): ‘The glory of a king is a multitude of people; without people a prince is ruined.’ But equally, a people needs a good ruler (28:2): ‘When a land rebels it has many rulers; but with an intelligent ruler there is lasting order.’
Interestingly, while Proverbs 28 and 29 contain some sayings specifically relating to leaders, they contain many more relating to the character of the people, e.g., 28:4: ‘Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law struggle against them.’ See also: 28:5-10, 24-28; 29:6-10. Citizens as well as rulers are responsible for the moral character of a nation.
Proverbs also focuses on those who advise and serve rulers. Some verses depict rulers as seeking out people of skill, integrity and honourable speech: ‘A servant who deals wisely has the king’s favour, but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully’ (14:35; cf. 16:13; 22:11, 29). Other sayings note that a leader may be led astray by the wrong sort of advice: ‘If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked’ (29:12; cf. 25:4-5).
A leader should administer justice, punishing the wicked: ‘A king who sits on the throne of judgment winnows all evil with his eyes’ (20:8). Most telling of all are the ‘words of King Lemuel’ (31:1-9), which tell rulers not to focus on the side-benefits of power (concubines and strong drink), but to take seriously the responsibilities of their position: ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy’ (vv. 8-9). Conversely, Proverbs uses telling images to describe the harm done by an unjust ruler: such a person is ‘a beating rain that leaves no food’ (28:3) and ‘a roaring lion or a charging bear’ (28:15; cf. 29:4)
For Proverbs, then, a ruler is an awe-inspiring figure, not lightly to be approached (19:12): ‘A king’s anger is like the growling of a lion, but his favour is like dew on the grass.’ And yet there are times when one needs to confront a leader or an official for the sake of justice, whatever the personal cost (25:26): ‘Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain are the righteous who give way before the wicked.’ If one speaks skilfully and tactfully, the result may be positive (25:14): ‘With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue can break bones.’
To return to the questions posed earlier: how should we view our rulers and their officials? Surely, as people who can do a great deal of good or harm, depending on how they exercise their power. At the very least, we should pray for them (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
What if our leaders fail to carry out their responsibilities? One response is to vote them out of power. (I write two weeks after the Malaysian general elections.) But what about the years between general elections? Sometimes Christians, whether church leaders or not, may feel themselves called to challenge the governing authorities.
This is not a task for the raw and inexperienced. Those who come before a ruler or official on behalf of others must exhibit many of the virtues and attributes commended throughout Proverbs: they must be people of integrity, who feel a deep concern for the underprivileged; wise and shrewd, knowing how to avoid giving unnecessary offence; able to speak persuasively, knowing how to present a case and how not to be provoked in debate, able to sense when to speak and when to fall silent.
Such men and women may, in God’s providence, be a wholesome influence in the life of the nation. They may bring about significant good for their fellow citizens, particularly the most needy. In this way they may provide a powerful witness to the gospel. Is that not an area where we should long to see the church taking a lead?
I end with a general point: it is high time we studied Proverbs more seriously, because it remains a highly contemporary book, full of practical wisdom that can guide us in our Christian discipleship.
Dr Philip Satterthwaite has been Principal of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) since 2011. He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.