In the last few days I have found myself pondering this verse in the book of Proverbs: ‘When there is moral rot within a nation, its government topples easily. But wise and knowledgeable leaders bring stability’ (Proverbs 28:2 nlt). It seemed particularly striking in the context of the political turmoil currently engulfing Britain and a number of other countries at the moment.
Of course, it is dangerous to apply Old Testament passages to any modern political system. The world has changed: no modern nation is like ancient Israel and I doubt that any politician would be elected in a modern democracy if they promised to ‘rule like King David’. Nevertheless, despite the vast gulf of time and culture between that world and ours, there is much in the wisdom of the Old Testament that is profoundly relevant to 21st-century politics. Let me suggest that this verse has three truths.
The simplest truth first: stability is a good thing. Revolutions may be very exciting but after you’ve taken a country apart it takes a long time to put it back together again. Stability may not make headlines and isn’t the most exciting of political goals but it is a condition that allows law and order to exist and allows everybody to get on with their lives. The Old Testament illustrates the value of stability as it recounts the history of God’s people after Solomon’s death. The northern kingdom, which increasingly drifted away from the worship of one true God, had a turbulent history in which it was ruled by a long string of monarchs whose reigns were almost always brief, brutal and bloodstained.
In contrast the southern kingdom, with a faithfulness to God’s covenant and the line of King David, had much greater stability and peace. In the New Testament we see that Paul – whose experience with Roman rule was far from happy – could write, ‘Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity’ (1 Timothy 2:2 nlt). Stable times of peace are worth seeking.
A second truth concerns the character of those who lead us. This side of heaven a sinful human race will always need people to lead and govern: without leadership we would have tyranny. Yet precisely because the role of leading a nation is a hard task, we must pray that those who rule us are indeed ‘wise and knowledgeable’. In the Bible that phrase does not refer to the possession of a high level of intelligence or an advanced educational qualification (although there’s nothing wrong with either) but more to a humble and reverent attitude of mind that respects God and his law. In a world controlled by the media, it’s not easy for the modest, God-fearing individual to rise to the top but God is perfectly capable of ensuring their promotion. Let’s pray that this would happen more often.
The third point is that the morality of a people affects how they are governed. This seemingly simple truth – the spiritual version of ‘a nation gets the leader it deserves’ – is profoundly important. It’s very tempting in times of instability to look to politicians for the answer, something encouraged by the way that in any crisis there is never a shortage of individuals who, with a minimum of modesty and a maximum of confidence, put themselves forward as those who will deliver the nation from its ills.
Yet history provides very few examples of leaders who have genuinely put everything right. On the contrary, there are many cases where the coming to power of a political leadership has led either to widespread disillusionment or to a dictatorship. The teaching in this proverb and elsewhere in the Bible is that what really determines the fate of nations is not the individual at the top but the people themselves. Politics alone can’t truly fix a nation; God and godliness can.
There’s a fascinating and apparently true story that when Billy Graham visited Camp David in the 1960s, the then US president Lyndon Johnson said to him, ‘Billy, you ought to be president of the United States. If you do run, I’d like to be your campaign manager.’ It was an offer that Billy rejected then, and continued to do so in the years ahead. He felt to seek political office would be to fall far short of his appointed task as evangelist. He also knew the truth of this proverb: the best way of effectively changing a nation is not by changing leaders, but by altering what people believe.
If you are genuinely called by God to be a politician, then I wish you well and I’m very happy to pray for you. But in the meantime, I’m going to stick to my calling of preaching the good news of Jesus. True and lasting change begins at the bottom and not the top.
Revd Canon J.John