Thirty proverbs on power, justice, and politics.
The Book of Proverbs can be a humbling or even humiliating read. For every verse that lulls us into self-satisfaction of our righteousness comes another that aims its arrows at our own hearts too.
That incisive wisdom is particularly sharp when applied to election-year politics and our personal habits of political engagement. It’s uncanny enough to make us wonder whether King Solomon had foreseen cable news and Twitter. With another presidential election already underway, here are 30 proverbs for American politics in 2023.
Proverbs doesn’t often directly address the subject of power, which is especially surprising for writings largely attributed to kings. Its authors envisioned a divinely appointed monarchy, a form of government far afield from our system, in which “many rulers” is not the result of rebellion (as in Proverbs 28:2) but constitutional design.
Yet that’s not to suggest the book has nothing to say of power as it works in our political context—far from it. Proverbs cautions us to be humble about our resources and abilities, to avoid grasping at power, and, if we find it in our hands, to remember it is often fleeting. Power can corrupt those who wield it, so we must take care to wield it justly.
Better a patient person than a warrior,
one with self-control than one who takes a city.
Proverbs 27:1, 24
Do not boast about tomorrow, and a crown is not secure for all generations.
It is not for kings, Lemuel—it is not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.
On tricks and transactions
We tend to think of political debates as arguments about principle and policy: Where are we trying to go? But just as pressing are debates around method: How are we trying to get to that destination? What means are justifiable in pursuit of good ends? What alliances are defensible? What schemes are permissible? What can we trade, and what can we get?
Proverbs takes a dim view of dirty tricks and amoral transactionalism. It insists the ends do not justify the means when the means are wrong. No political win is worth our souls, and our political alliances make a blaring public commentary on our professions of faith. There is an election strategy that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.
The righteous choose their friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.
Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.
On lies and statistics
Much of modern politics and political media is a numbers game, and alas, many of us are not very good at math. (The ease of large-scale polling has created a whole new genre of “facts” that are not always terribly factual.)
More broadly, the sheer quantity of reports, data, and truth claims we encounter daily makes it easier than in other eras to be fooled by lies—and to spread them unwittingly. We have more opportunity than ever to distort the truth and plenty of incentive to do it. But power won by falsehood won’t lead to honest governance. Even well-intended lies corrode.
The Lord detests dishonest scales,
but accurate weights find favor with him.
The Lord detests lying lips,
but he delights in people who are trustworthy.
If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked.
A couple centuries from now, I can imagine a biblical translation committee soberly considering whether the internet slang term troll is the most illuminating translation for several verses in Proverbs that previously used mocker or fool.
Much of Proverbs is devoted to speech and knowledge: how we share and consume information, when to argue and when to ignore, what to believe, when to seek advice, how to be prudent with our words. And its judgment is clear: It is better to keep silent, even on important matters, than to be gullible, foolish, trollish, or cruel. It is often better not to post.
Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults;
whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse.
Sin is not ended by multiplying words,
but the prudent hold their tongues.
A person is praised according to their prudence,
and one with a warped mind is despised.
Last week, one of our three-year-old twins refused to take some minor instruction and toppled his blocks project as a result. This, I observed, was the consequence of his choices. Hours later, at bath, he lost a toy under the sink after ignoring me again. His brother promptly yelled, “It’s the consequence of his choices!”
Proverbs is less gleeful but no less insistent that unscrupulous choices that seem expedient now will have grim consequences later. Ruthless transactions may bring power, but we will have to pay their price. And more generally, Proverbs indicts our reckless and shortsighted society. We must relearn to do things the hard, slow, right way.
Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies have no sense.
Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them.
The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.
On heeding counsel
By now the concept of ideological “silos” is widely familiar. But “diversifying your news feed,” a well-intended attempt to get out of the silo, can make matters worse. As Jeffrey Bilbro observes, “seeing analysis from those we disagree with tends to become an exercise in confirmation bias, reminding us how awful such people are.”
Proverbs diagnoses that as a grave political illness; it repeatedly urges us to seek good counsel from multiple perspectives. Intellectual humility grows from exposure to others’ well-considered opinions, and yelling our ideas online while everyone else yells theirs back is not the same as giving and heeding counsel.
For lack of guidance a nation falls,
but victory is won through many advisers.
The way of fools seems right to them,
but the wise listen to advice.
Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.
On hope misplaced
Though it never envisions elections, Proverbs understands well the temptation of misplaced political hope. It warns against hoping in powerful and wealthy people as well as in our own plans and expectations. What seems solid now may prove an illusion. What seems invincible may be weak. What seems permanent may be very temporary indeed.
Our timebound perspective is inevitably limited. We cannot see all God is doing and will do, nor can we know all God knows. These limits are extra difficult to keep front of mind during America’s long and dramatic election cycles, but that makes it all the more important to remember our hope is only in Christ.
Hopes placed in mortals die with them;
all the promise of their power comes to nothing.
In their hearts humans plan their course,
but the Lord establishes their steps.
Many seek an audience with a ruler,
but it is from the Lord that one gets justice.
On victory and security
Violent and martial metaphors are a standard part of American politics. Jon Stewart’s TheDaily Show was always “eviscerating” some elected official or another. Democrats’ blue line in swing states pictures a frontline in trench warfare, and Republicans love to speak of “retaking our country.”
Proverbs was first heard by people who’d won and lost real battles, and still it teaches that our victory and security are ultimately found in God. If our conception of winning is shaped by Proverbs, it will often be misaligned with conventional political wisdom, especially regarding the treatment of our political enemies.
Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed
than to share plunder with the proud.
There is surely a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off.
Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them.
We are fortunate to live in a country where the state asks for our opinions and sometimes takes them into account. This is a historically rare chance for ordinary people to try to advance what we believe is right and prudent, but of course that does not simply mean advancing our personal interests. It ought to include disinterested pursuit of justice.
Reasonable Christians can disagree about what temporal justice looks like and how we can work toward it in our society. But Proverbs reminds us over and over that God’s demand for justice—a demand that concerns our treatment of the poor, oppressed, and unfairly accused—is exceedingly clear.
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—
the Lord detests them both.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Love may seem out of place in politics, a place of discord and rivalry even at its best, but love belongs in all aspects of our lives if we are followers of Jesus. Proverbs affirms it is better to have love than wealth and power.
But love is not weak, and loving does not always mean losing. It is love, not might, that makes a king’s rule secure, Proverbs says, and a life of love confers favor and stability. Indeed, the core Christian conviction is that God—whose very character is love—defeated sin and death to free us to a life defined by love (1 John 4:8–9; Heb. 2:14–15; Gal. 5:6, 13). That should show up in our politics too.
Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
Then you will win favor and a good name
in the sight of God and man.
Better a small serving of vegetables with love
than a fattened calf with hatred.
Love and faithfulness keep a king safe; through love his throne is made secure.