Before Athens clashed with Sparta or Rome defeated Carthage, the quest for geopolitical power dominated international relations as nations vied for control of neighboring regions to gain power over natural resources or strategic economic routes. Since that time similar concerns have dominated the rise of global leaders. While the scale of power has increased significantly—geographically, militarily, and economically, the objectives have shifted only slightly. Political scientists disagree on the best way to anticipate and mitigate these concerns, whether through realist or democratic means, but their ultimate goals share much in common. However, one ancient ruler disagreed entirely with this focus and argued for a very different approach to national greatness. In Proverbs 14:34 Solomon wrote, “Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34). In this he included and perhaps even emphasized “justice,” but in so doing it extends far beyond the judicial system to include the very heart of a people’s interactions, as other proverbs around it indicate. In a democratic age, we have come to see elected officials as the determining factor in our future. In reality, they reflect the righteousness or unrighteousness of the people of that nation. Therefore, the greater work for God’s people in raising any nation to its exalted potential lies in influencing the people to embrace righteousness.
An exalted nation embraces wisdom and rejects foolishness. Politics today seems to reward those who deftly avoid addressing serious topics and looming problems (Prov. 14:6-8). But righteousness demands a focus on building for the future rather than just criticizing the past (Prov. 14:1). But this demands moving beyond opinions and emotions to address fact and reality, especially in terms of right and wrong (Prov. 14:12), rather than believing what is politically convenient (Prov. 14:15-16) and attacking morality and truth simply because the votes lie with immorality and lies (Prov. 14:17-18). In an age of demagoguery, people follow foolishness based on hollow promises more quickly than they will accept the lead of wisdom rooted in hard truths (Prov. 14:24). Unfortunately, foolishness on Election Day leads to fools governing on Inauguration Day (Prov. 14:29, 33). For elected leaders to embrace wisdom and reject foolishness, the people who elect them must do so first.
An exalted nation’s sense of law and order flows from a moral recognition of right and wrong. The legal precedents rooted in spiritual truths have given way in the last few decades to twisted logic and sacrificing sacred truth on the altar of supposed equality. Thus, “those who call evil good, and good evil” (Isa. 5:20) often wear black robes, mocking sin as a fool while trying to appear wise (Prov. 14:9). Turning the law against morality will produce negative long term effects that they do not anticipate, simply due to the inherent nature of the sin they seek not only to protect but to promote (Prov. 14:11, 19). Yet, whatever course they may follow, the righteous focus on mercy and truth (Prov. 14:22). The answer never lies in matching the cruelty or malice of the unrighteous but in trusting God, even if that means we do not live to see a reversal (Prov. 14:32).
An exalted nation promotes a good work ethic. While a nation seeking good should care for those in need, it must also develop a character that encourages individual industry. No people can achieve greatness while avoiding the work necessary to achieve great things. That requires sacrifice and labor on an individual level (Prov. 14:4). But when people no longer connect diligent effort and hard work with success and improvement of circumstances (due to poor public policy or low social mores), activity is reduced to meaningless talk, which does little to feed the economic engine of even a tiny country. For a nation to excel, its people must have the opportunity, the means, and the motivation to excel first (Prov. 14:23).
An exalted nation values honesty and truth in its government and among its citizenry. How sad that truth in politics has reached such a state as to be considered an oxymoron. People have become so cynical that they are surprised by a politician telling the truth rather than disgusted by his failure to do so. Yet, again, this reflects what the people have accepted and have now come to expect—a blistering self-critique that usually goes unnoticed. Out of pride and position, people have placed more importance on protecting their reputation than on protecting their character (Prov. 14:3). Vague wording that communicates little but encourages people to fill in their own desires has become an art form during election cycles, a clever means of proving plausible deniability to the speaker once in office (Prov. 14:5, 25). However, as long as people reward lies and reject truth, politicians will continue to build a fabricated world to appease the masses, maintaining the facade sufficiently enough to get them through the next election.
An exalted nation is filled with people who treat their fellow citizens with respect and dignity. The dramatic polarization of politics in the last generation has created a society set on edge against itself. Neighbors ignore one another. Friends argue on Facebook and sometimes cease being friends. Social media has conditioned people to take extreme opinions and perform outrageous antics as part of an attention-addicted society. This selfishness makes every opinion a dividing line and every person who disagrees an enemy. People have ceased to care what others think or even to contemplate the possibility of their own fallibility. We turn someone’s murder into a political issue. We shame people who hold different views on public health. We lash out at our brethren. In so doing, we miss out on important reminders that we know very little about the heartaches of others (Prov. 14:10, 13). The constant bombardment of others’ seemingly perfect life has led to resentment and depression rather than to happiness and joy (Prov. 14:30). Instead of considering how to help one another, we are deeply suspicious of anyone who needs help—until we are the ones in need (Prov. 14:20-21). In this we lose touch with our own humanity and our deep need for the mercy of God Himself (Prov. 14:31).
An exalted nation recognizes the importance of faith and morality in maintaining a good society. Many Christians have lost sight of this essential principle. For them, the righteousness that exalts a nation remains rooted in the Constitution and Supreme Court instead of in godly living and faithful serving. After all, if we only believe that God is supreme when the people for whom we voted hold office, how strong is our faith? We have turned the Bible’s viewpoint upside down. A nation is not strong because the politicians in office take the right moral views while changing very little about how people live. A nation is exalted when individuals live with reverence for God and understand that convincing others to do the same is the key to national greatness (Prov. 14:2). Unfortunately, our political views sometimes taint our spiritual views, so that we settle for less spiritually if we can get more politically. Friends, a Christian’s contentment should come from the government in heaven—not the government in Washington, D.C. (Prov. 14:14). When this is a strength, we will live confidently for God regardless of who occupies the White House (Prov. 14:26). A good society depends on godly, reverent people who do not depend on any government or politician for their well-being but turn to and depend on God (Prov. 14:27; Jas. 1:17).
An exalted nation establishes a positive connection between those who govern and those who are governed. Numbers surely make a difference in a democracy. They determine not only who governs but also the legitimacy of the one who governs. In a sense, this is true regardless of the form of government (Prov. 14:28). So leaders need the support of the people they lead. But for a nation to function, it also follows that an official has sufficient authority to rule for or against the people he governs (Prov. 14:35). While in the modern age, we assume that the rule of law provides a check on those in power, even in a modified form, this give and take is part of the heart of government. Therefore, the more positive relationship a leader can establish with the people he governs, the easier it will be for him to lead.
In traditional terms, a nation’s situation depends largely on its economic and military health. In the United States, it has become cliche for the president to declare the state of the union strong regardless of the situation. But for just a moment, let us leave aside the economic and geopolitical questions. Instead, let us consider the internal, social, and spiritual issues emphasized above. By any measure, our current society leaves much to be desired. Secularists have successfully divorced spiritual influence from governance. And it shows. America is burning social and spiritual capital of the past faster than it is growing the deficit. That pace is unsustainable, and that is extremely sad. But we should not, then, lose heart, for we, as Christians, belong to a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9-10), and the greater our allegiance grows to that chosen generation and holy priesthood, the better prepared we will be to help people and society regardless of the leaders and the government.