READ : Proverbs 14:34
Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.
Proverbs 14:34, RSV
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” Here is God’s reminder to us that nations, like persons, have both their glory and their shame.
It’s desperately hard for a nation, a sovereign state, to view itself objectively. Our powers of self-deception are vast and strange — most of all in groups. Every government in the world, every organized group of people could well wish with Robert Burns, “Would to God the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”
I’ve been grateful for the privilege of traveling from time to time in other countries. Among the benefits we gain from that is a clearer sense of our own identity. When we read about ourselves in the newspapers of other lands or hear about ourselves from their citizens, we learn a great deal about who we are, about our character and conduct. We begin to “see ourselves as others see us.”
It would be supremely helpful if the various nations of the world could come to see themselves from God’s perspective. If we could have His evaluation of our national life, then we could see ourselves as we truly are. And, in that revealing light, we might be surprised.
WHAT ISN’T GLORIOUS
Nations, like individuals, sometimes imagine themselves to be glorious when they are not. Hear this word from Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord, `Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the mighty man glory in his might; let not the rich man glory in his riches, but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.”
Nations, too, are prone to glory in their wisdom. Perhaps we have an excellent educational system. Perhaps we are shrewd bargainers in international trade. Perhaps we are possessed of technological research unrivaled among the nations. Or perhaps we have been blessed with the light of God’s Word, given grace to know the truth and to realize what is genuinely important. This, according to God, is nothing to glory in. Smarter isn’t necessarily better. Such advantages make us more responsible for what we do but not superior to others, not glorious in God’s eyes.
“Let not the mighty man glory in his might.” How prone nations are to do that very thing! Those with vast weapon arsenals are referred to as super-powers. Huge military capacity is accorded awe and respect. The race for power is unending because winning it is seen by many to be a nation’s glory. Few would deny the need for a strong defense in a world of warring nations but the accumulation of enormous killing power is hardly a people’s glory, especially if that is viewed as their ultimate security. The Scriptures expose again and again the folly of trusting in chariots and horses — the ancient equivalents of aircraft carriers and missile launchers.
Wealth is not our glory either, though it sometimes seems to be. Israel often looked back to Solomon’s time as her glory days. Solomon was the wisest of men. The country dwelt secure in military might. But what most awakened the admiration of the surrounding world was the opulence of his kingdom.
Apparently, however, God saw nothing glorious about this gilded reign. Goldsmith’s grim words perhaps express better heaven’s perspective:
Ill fares the land,
to hastening ills a prey
where wealth accumulates
and men decay.
If it is no glory for a people to have wisdom, power and wealth, neither is it a shame for them to be poor, weak, under-developed, or regarded as inferior. With the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, the poor have good news preached to them. God’s almighty power is perfected in the lives of the weak. Those of low degree are exalted. And yet poverty, weakness, and ignorance are certainly not glorious in themselves either.
THE TRUE GLORY
In God’s eyes it is righteousness that exalts a nation. Let’s think about what that means. Righteousness for a people starts with integrity in its national leadership. In the political campaign now moving forward in the USA, the issue of a candidate’s character has come into sharp focus. Some have argued that a man’s personal habits have no bearing on his qualifications for public office, but the vast majority of the voters have expressed a different mind. We do not require that our political leaders be paragons of virtue but we recognize that there can be no ultimate divorce between private and public life. Can a man who consistently deceives his wife be trusted to keep his promises to those whom he serves? Can someone with a long record of defrauding the government be expected to act consistently for its best interests?
The Old Testament slogan was, “Like people, like priest.” In other words, people moved toward the moral level of their leadership. In the light of that, the cheating, greed, and treachery of national leaders is no trifle. It is the shame of a whole people. There is no substitute for integrity as a qualification for holding high office.
Righteousness also means even-handed justice in the courts. Listen to this divine indictment of an ancient people’s judicial system: “God has taken his place in the divine council. In the midst of the gods he holds judgment. How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” To condemn the righteous or to justify the wicked are both abominable to the Lord. On the other hand, it is a nation’s glory when members of a minority group are treated as fairly as those of the ruling class, glory when prominent people are dealt with as severely as common folk if guilty of the same crimes, glory when defendants without influence are well represented.
Righteousness means also an active concern for the poor and deprived. I had a memorable conversation not long ago with the leader of a large industrial enterprise. He said that the test of leadership in any company is the way it treats people on the bottom rung of its corporate ladder. Isn’t that true for nations as well? God is presented in the Scriptures as the exalted one whose glory is above the heavens and who looks far down upon the earth. Yet He “raises the poor from the dust” and “lifts the needy from the ash heap… He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.” God is the vindicator of the fatherless and the widow, the Redeemer of those who have no human defense. A nation’s honor lies along the same path. We learn its character not by how it treats its billionaires but by how it cares for the neediest of its citizens. Does a nation nourish the growth and dignity of all its people? Does it labor to create a wholesome environment for every man and woman, boy and girl within its borders? Does it embody God’s concern for the despised and dispossessed?
Righteousness has a Godward aspect as well. It means a grateful recognition of our dependance upon the Lord. A nation’s greatest temptation is to play God, to claim an absolute loyalty, to assert itself as totally independent. We take ourselves all too seriously. We act as though we were totally sovereign. “This has become our world,” we boast, “and we must make of it what we will.”
Nations live with the illusion of absolute power. That’s what Egypt’s Pharaoh did in the days of Moses. He was caught up with the idea that he had unlimited authority and could use it freely over the affairs of men. He believed in the religious myths that undergirded his reign. He assumed that he had a divine role to play, and then worked out its political implications. Like many other rulers he embraced the idea that he could exercise a final control over history. Pharaoh’s philosophy could be summed up in his defiant question, “Who is the Lord that I should obey Him?”
Think of the Roman government in New Testament times. From one standpoint, Paul could commend it because it maintained social order and sought to administer some degree of justice. But later, when it made religious claims, when it assumed an absolute authority over the consciences of its people, it became a tyranny to be resisted. Political orders always become corrupt when their power is exercised for its own sake, without proper checks. Power is only protected from abuse when exercised under principles and values beyond itself.
In spite of their claims, national leaders have no power to create final solutions in this world. The belief that they can is perilous presumption. Politics in the biblical order is a trust and a stewardship to be exercised responsibly under God. A righteous nation recognizes God’s lordship over history. Thus its political order is more limited than others, more open to change, more ready to accept a relative role. It doesn’t pretend to have ultimate authority.
What is a reproach to a people? Sin, the Scriptures say, only sin. We have nothing to be ashamed of but moral evil. It is shame for us when our leaders are corrupt and self serving, when our judges can be bought or intimidated, when the rich among us get richer while our poor get poorer, when we imagine ourselves to be lords over our own destiny. The greatest reproach upon our national life is for us to forget God, to despise His authority, and to act as though all His gifts are ours by right.
THE MESSAGE FOR US
What does all this mean for you and me? It’s possible to view the life of our government, wherever we live, as an abstraction “out there” which has nothing to do with us personally. But then we miss the point of what God is seeking to say to us. Every citizen in every nation is part of the cure or part of the problem, part of the glory or part of the shame. Look today at your attitude toward your nation, at the quality of your patriotism. Do you regard your country as always right because it is your country or is there some higher norm by which it is measured? Do you glory in its technology, its resources, its military hardware? Or do you recognize that righteousness is what counts most? Are you ashamed of its being weak, under-developed, little thought of by the great powers, or are you rather ashamed of the evils which mar its life and deprive its people?
You may say that what you think doesn’t make much difference. But don’t be too sure of that. One of the great biblical themes is that of the remnant, a group in the midst of a larger social or political body that remains true to God in the midst of prevailing unfaithfulness. Again and again, such remnants have acted as preserving salt in the midst of corruption, as light shining in the darkness. You can be a person like that, part of a saving remnant in your nation.
The secret of playing that role lies in your relationship to God. If you will confess the sin, both national and personal, that is our true reproach and trust in God’s saving mercy in Christ, you can be forgiven. If you will submit yourself to His lordship, if you will crown Christ as the only Master of your conscience, you can experience the power of His Spirit enabling you more and more to live an upright life. Whatever is going on in your nation, you can make a significant difference. A devoted band of citizens can be God’s instrument in turning back a nation’s reproach and giving it a glory worth the name. May that be true for you and me! Amen.
PRAYER: Father, we pray for the nations to which we belong. May upright living exalt them and moral evil not be their reproach. Oh, grant us forgiveness and strength and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord to live in your fear. Amen.