RPM, Volume 16, Number 36, August 31 to September 6, 2014

Righteous Rule

Proverbs 16:10-15

By D. Marion Clark


We are taking a summer break from 1 Corinthians and returning to Proverbs. I don't know about you, but I could use a break after sermons on church discipline, Christian conflict, homosexuality, and sexual immorality. I'm not quite ready to move into adultery and divorce, which awaits us in chapter seven. We will stay in chapter sixteen of Proverbs, due to my slow preaching pace and a few topical messages planned as well. Let's turn to our text now.


To understand these proverbs about kings, we need to review the concept of a king in Israel, as well as in her ancient neighbors. For the neighboring countries, such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, the king was either regarded as a god incarnate or as a man (or woman) made divine, i.e. raised to the status of being a semi-god. He, by virtue of his office, represented divine authority. Thus, we read of Nebuchadnezzar making an image for everyone to worship. Either the image represents him, or he, acting as the divine representative, establishes what the people are to worship. Darius signs a law that everyone is to pray only to him for thirty days.

This divine status authenticated the absolute power he wielded. His word was law. The book of Esther presents an example of this. King Ahasuerus signs a law that would wipe out the Jewish race. They have done no wrong; he is persuaded by his advisor Haman who has a grudge against one Jew. There can be no debate with him; indeed, once he signs the law, not even he can change it? Why? Is the law above the king? It is not so much that the law is above the king, but that the king speaks the law. For him to take back what he has made law would be tantamount to saying that he is a mere mortal who makes mistakes and who ought to be under the law.

This is the status and power of the ancient kings. What was it to be a king of Israel? Deuteronomy 17:14-20 gives the laws that bind the king. He could not be a foreigner. He could not acquire many horses; i.e., he could not build a large army and one that uses the military tactics of its neighbors who rely on strength rather than God. He was not to acquire many wives nor a great amount of wealth. Then it reads as follows:

18 And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

Far from being divine or semi-divine, the king was to understand that he was no higher than his fellow Israelites, that he was subject to God's law, and that the success of his reign depended not on strength of army or political shrewdness, but on obedience to the law. Some kings did a good job of serving with righteousness, such as David, Hezekiah, and Josiah; others were terrible, such as Jehoram, Ahaz, and Amon. Both good and bad were held accountable by God, and prophets were sent to correct them. Even David was rebuked by the prophet Nathan.

Thus, there was a standard as defined by God's law for the king to adhere to and to enforce in the land. But there was also the sense of the king having a special status. Though not divine, he was regarded as "the anointed one" of God, placed in his position by the Lord. One might refer to him as the standard bearer for God. In God's name he was to carry out justice and protect God's people. Whereas our president is seen as a representative of the people, and who derives his authority from the people, the king received his mandate and his authority from God, the real King of Israel. Furthermore, after King David, there was the understanding that some day the Messiah would come from the royal line of David. Each king was the potential "Anointed One," i.e., the Messiah.

10 An oracle is on the lips of a king;
his mouth does not sin in judgment.

To understand the proverb, recall what we have learned about Israel's king. Though he does not possess the status of being divine, he is given the responsibility to act on behalf of the Lord. Thus, when he speaks, he ought to be speaking as a trustworthy representative of Yahweh, Israel's true king. He ought to speak as though speaking an oracle, i.e., a divine word. All the more reason, then, that he should not speak forth wrong judgments that transgress God's law.

11 A just balance and scales are the LORD's;
all the weights in the bag are his work.

This proverb is concerned with fairness, specifically in the area of commerce and trade. To say that the balance and scales and the weights belong to the Lord means that God exercises authority over business. Using honest weights and measures is not merely a matter of obeying the civil laws, but of being accountable to God. This matter of dealing justly with others in business is evidently very important to God. Consider these other verses:

13 You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small. 15 A full and fair weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 25:13-16).

A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is his delight (Proverbs 11:1).

Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the LORD (Proverbs 10:20).

We are quick to refer to homosexuality and sexual immorality being an abomination. Three times we are told that cheating a person in a transaction is an abomination. I am reminded of a statement by Jesus about the way we measure things. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you (Matthew 7:2).

12 It is an abomination to kings to do evil,
for the throne is established by righteousness.
13 Righteous lips are the delight of a king,
and he loves him who speaks what is right.

These two proverbs complement one another. Speaking of abomination, for kings to use their authority to commit evil is an abomination to the Lord. What is so bad about a wicked king is not merely that he is capable of doing real damage, but that the very purpose for being entrusted with his authority is to promote justice. It is bad enough for anyone to do evil, but for a person invested with authority to do good to abuse that same authority to do evil is all the more a travesty of justice. That's why we are so bothered to hear of corrupt officials.

Note the phrase, for the throne is established by righteousness. Perhaps the greatest motivation behind wickedness is to gain and maintain power. If that is one's concern, then all the more reason to maintain righteousness. Why? Because it is God who raises and removes rulers, and what matters to God is not the strength of a king, but his righteousness and his love for his people. Consider these other proverbs:

Steadfast love and faithfulness preserve the king, and by steadfast love his throne is upheld (20:28).

Take away the wicked from the presence of the king, and his throne will be established in righteousness (25:5).

This latter proverb speaks in a negative way what verse 12 says positively. A king is as strong as the counselors around him. Wicked counselors will corrupt him and bring him down, but those who speak true words and give righteous counsel will uplift him. Those are the counselors that a righteous king values. As Proverbs 22:11 observes: He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend (22:11).

Our last two proverbs highlight the power of the king.

14 A king's wrath is a messenger of death,
and a wise man will appease it.
15 In the light of a king's face there is life,
and his favor is like the clouds that bring the spring rain.

Go back to the story of Esther, the wife of the Persian king, Ahaseurus. To save her people, she needed to speak to the king. It seems a simple matter, but she presents the reality:

All the king's servants and the people of the king's provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days (Esther 4:11).

Whatever, we think of the reasonableness or unreasonableness of this law, it reflects the reality of ancient royal life. Don't anger the king! Even the kings of Israel, subject to the laws of God, were to be feared for their anger. This is what made giving counsel to the king such a precarious livelihood. To speak the truth might bring the king's wrath. What then to do? Use wisdom to give both wise and winsome counsel. That is what Esther did to win over her husband-king.

We've talked about this before and will again when we come to verses 20-24. If all you care about when speaking to anyone is getting your say in, then say what you will. But if you desire to actually be persuasive, then you will be careful with how you speak. It is a wise person who appeases a king's, or anyone's, anger, in order to obtain a peaceful and righteous end. A wise person seeks to be a peacemaker as well as a truth-teller.

When a king, on the other hand, shows favor and happiness, then it is like receiving new life. 15 In the light of a king's face there is life, and his favor is like the clouds that bring the spring rain. That is what Esther received when the king extended his scepter and spoke kind words to her. But what is really at the heart of the proverb is not so much that the king is in a good mood, but that he is acting as a true righteous king. Israel's greatest king, David, spoke of this:

The God of Israel has spoken;
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
When one rules justly over men
ruling in the fear of God,
he dawns on them like the morning light,
like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,
like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth
(2 Samuel 23:3-4).

The light of the king's face shines out of a character who is just, who shows the mercy, the faithfulness, and the generosity of his Lord. What is more refreshing, especially after the rule of a tyrant, than the rule of one who is just and good?


We can apply these proverbs to our own government leaders. We do not have a king, but we do have a president who bears much power as the leader of the world's most powerful nation. We do not receive his words as coming from a god, but his public statements - even those made off the cuff - carry great weight. It is important that he weighs carefully his words and that he surrounds himself with wise, truthful counselors. This is true for all our leaders - those in Congress, those who sit as judges, and those who bear office in state and local governments. With leadership comes responsibility to use one's office for good; it is a greater crime for a public official to take advantage of the people for his own gain. Officials ought to be held to a higher standard than the public. They should be our models for righteousness. We should be able to look to them respectful of their conduct. It is a travesty for leaders to complain of being held to a higher standard than others. If they cannot carry on their office with integrity and use their position for the good of their people, then they have abused their God-given responsibilities and deserve the title given - an abomination.

Let's apply the proverbs also to ourselves. Most of us have some measure of power and authority. It may be as parents or teachers; we may be over others in the workplace, perhaps a student leader. Some of us may not official leadership, but we still exercise influence over our friends. How conscientious are we to use our authority and influence for good? How well are we using our speech? For example, it is one thing to throw out our opinions about how things ought to be done; it is another as a responsible leader to speak freely. A responsible knows that he is not free to speak his mind because of the hurt he can cause. As we gain authority and power, so grows our power to do good and to do harm.

How well are we listening to wise counsel? Parents, do you seek the counsel of others who will tell you what is true and just? Teachers, do you seek out wise teachers for guidance? For that matter, how good of a job are we doing in giving truthful and wise counsel to those in authority? How pleasant it is to have trustworthy counselors whose motivation is to help the leader carry out his duties well.

We come back to a principle we've talked about before - we need each other. No leader is so wise that he does not need good counselors. No leader is so strong that he does not need friends who help him withstand the temptations and natural corrupting influence of power. Many good leaders have fallen because they tried to stand alone. It is hard to be held to a higher standard; it is impossible to keep such a standard alone.

Finally, we cannot do justice to these proverbs if we do not consider how they are fulfilled in our great king, Jesus Christ. He is the king who is divine. All the words he utters are oracles, divine sentences, and never has he or does he sin in what he says.

He always acts with perfect justice. Never does he deal falsely with anyone. The payment he made for our salvation truly satisfied the scales of a just transaction. We need not fear that his shed blood was not equal to the true value needed for our purchase.

Far from doing evil, our king only does what is good - what pleases God the Father and what is for our welfare. He does not need counsel from us, but he does delight in our good speech. He is pleased when we support one another in his name.

He is also a king who can show wrath, which, when he returns, will be a messenger of death for the wicked. He cannot delight in evil, nor excuse it, and those who reject him will experience his wrath. The first time he came, he came not to judge but to save. The next time he returns, it will be the time for judgment.

But for those who know him, in the light of [this] king's face there is life, and his favor is like the clouds that bring the spring rain. Do you know such favor? Have you experienced the light that brings life?

There are those who have not because they refuse to acknowledge Christ as king. Some outwardly rebel against him; others simply refuse allegiance; indeed, they claim allegiance to no one, except perhaps whoever or whatever has lured their hearts. For whatever reason (the Bible calls it pride), they will not bow the knee. They think they have not bowed the knee to anything. But even secular psychologists know better. Everyone bows to something - it may be money or financial security; it may be entertainment that keeps us from worrying about death; it may be another religion; it may be the idea of independence which keeps us free but in reality keeps us from the help needed to be free in spirit.

But there are those in a more dangerous position, those who acknowledge Christ as king, yet serve him as though he is ruthless. They don't say that, not even to themselves, but they serve him as though he has placed on them a demanding burden. They go to church out of duty; they obey his commands as though his favor depends on how well they keep them. His favor is something they must earn; worse yet, something which is earned by pretending to be good, trying to flatter him with words they do not feel. By going through the motions, they will appease his wrath and at least keep out of trouble.

It is as if they never heard their king say to them:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

To know Jesus Christ as king is to already know his favor. To behold him on his throne is to see the light of his face that has already brought life. For to live in his kingdom is to be brought out of darkness into the light of salvation; it is to be brought out of slavery to sin into the fulfilling service of a gracious king.

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