Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.
Proverbs 14:34 (ESV)
George Washington often promoted the idea that America’s success depended upon her religion. He made the case in his famous Farewell Address in 1796, and he argued the same point several years earlier when he spoke to the synod of the Dutch Reformed Church: “You, Gentlemen, act the part of pious Christians and good citizens by your prayers and exertions to preserve that harmony and good will towards men, which must be the basis of every political establishment.”1 Politicians and clergy alike saw an indelible connection between personal righteousness and civic prosperity.
When Solomon, himself a king, wrote the book of Proverbs, he promised his words would be a source of instruction for wisdom, righteousness, justice, and equity (Proverbs 1:3). Often, that righteousness deals very practically with personal character issues such as sexual restraint (Proverbs 5:3) and a robust work ethic (Proverbs 10:3-5), but at other times the wisdom transcends private morality and touches on the public welfare. Thus, in Proverbs 14:28, Solomon wrote, “In a multitude of people is the glory of a king, but without people a prince is ruined.” It may be hard to apply this text in a contemporary small group unless one understands God is not simply concerned with individuals but with nations, their leadership, their prosperity, even their holiness.
The prince of Israel ought not to be quick to anger lest folly reign (Proverbs 14:29). God cares about social justice in the kingdom, for oppressing the poor is equivalent to insulting the Creator (Proverbs 14:31). Wicked kings cannot expect to last forever (Proverbs 14:32). Moreover, wisdom marks those kings who fear the Lord (Proverbs 14:33, c.f. Proverbs 1:7). Then, in verse 34, Solomon turned the table. It is not simply the kings who are to be slow to anger, content, just, generous, and wise. No, “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” In other words, the citizens themselves are to reflect the character of God. Should they choose lives of vice, the nation will suffer. In the meantime, those “servants” or citizens who live well will enjoy the favor of the king, while those who rebel will feel his wrath (Proverbs 14:35).
Proverbs 14:34 transcends ancient Israel and applies to any nation. Today, there is no theocracy, but this piece of wisdom still stands. Printed outside the governor’s office in the Oregon state capitol are words that reflect the ancient wisdom of Proverbs: “In the souls of its citizens will be found the likeness of the state which if they be unjust and tyrannical then will it reflect their vice but if they be lovers of righteousness confident in their liberties so will it be clean in justice, bold in freedom.” Solomonic wisdom inspired these words. Few people talk like this today. More importantly, who thinks like this?
Private sin has public consequences. No matter what one’s opinion about the height and width of the wall of separation between church and state, the nation benefits from local churches encouraging her members to faithfully follow Christ. Countries need Christians who know how to make righteousness a reality.
1 George Washington, “Religious Opinions and Habits of Washington,” in The Writings of George Washington (Boston: American Stationers’ Company, 1837), 405.