The king by judgment establisheth the land: but he that receiveth gifts overthroweth it.
A nation’s prosperity and security depend on righteous leaders, who prudently make decisions by justice and fairness. A nation’s downfall and ruin is certain, when its leaders are influenced by favors and rewards. Solomon here warned his son against political compromise in the office of king, especially the taking of bribes, lest he be the cause of the nation’s destruction. All leaders should carefully heed this proverb to rule righteously.
Rulers must have exceptional character, or they do not belong in their office. They should be so dedicated to principle that they cannot be bought for any price. Their character must be so strong as to mock any efforts to compromise justice, mercy, or truth. They should be noble far above their peers, with a fearless and committed hatred of evil. They must have one motive at all times – to make all decisions based on righteousness and wisdom.
The fear of the LORD is the only basis for great leadership. Rulers must have an obligation to righteousness far above any duty or desire to men. The fear of man brings a snare (Pr 29:25), and so does the love of gifts (Is 1:23). Neither temptation touches great rulers. They see one singular duty at all times – to rule in such a way as to please God.
Jethro, by God’s inspiration, described such rulers for Moses’ assistants. He laid out their prerequisites this way: “Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (Ex 18:21).
Able men need little assistance from others: they can analyze and make wise decisions themselves. Men fearing God have the highest motive to use their power only for good. Men of truth hate liars and any distortion of the truth. They never put a spin on anything. Men hating covetousness cannot be bought, for they do not love money or reward.
Such men are exceeding rare, with only Jesus Christ being a perfect king (Ps 45:1-7). Though David was a good king, he freely confessed that neither he nor his family had such rulers. He prophesied of Jesus, “The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God” (II Sam 23:3).
And the effect of such a ruler is glorious, as David also wrote, “And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain” (II Sam 23:4). These beautiful similes present the glorious and prosperous image of how a just king benefits a people.
David had watched the compromising and wicked rule of his predecessor, king Saul. He knew firsthand how such a government had shaken the security and hope of the nation. He described it as the foundations being destroyed, the earth and its inhabitants being dissolved, and all the foundations of the earth being out of course (Ps 11:3; 75:3; 82:5). David fully used one Psalm to warn of God’s judgment on corrupt officials (Ps 82:1-8).
It is a shame lobbyists even exist. Their function is to influence legislators to rule in their favor, sometimes by offering gifts or other compensation. It is a shame when presidents pardon criminals as favors to friends or supporters. It is a shame when any conflict of interest influences the decisions of leaders. If a ruler regards or respects persons, rich or poor, he will eventually compromise justice for a piece of bread, or nothing (Pr 28:21).
The lesson applies to all leaders. Righteousness and truth are more important than anything else. Masters must be just and fair dealing with employees (Eph 6:9; Col 3:16). Ministers are forbidden any preferential treatment or partiality in their office (I Tim 5:21), and their integrity should be proven before being put in office (I Tim 3:10). And husbands and fathers should also be fair (Ps 103:13; Mal 2:10-16; Col 3:19-21; I Pet 3:7).
When sound judgment, equity, and truth are exalted in the highest position of authority in a nation – the king or other civil ruler, the righteous example affects the whole nation. Masters, fathers, husbands, and pastors will follow the lead of their chief ruler. Wisdom will prevail in public and private, when a noble example is given from the highest office.
A ruler violating this proverb does not lose his authority, for he is still to be obeyed (Pr 24:21-22; Jer 27:1-17; Matt 22:15-22; 23:1-3; Rom 13:1-7; I Pet 2:13-17). But it is the duty of Christians to pray for rulers, so God will strengthen or overrule their character to be righteous leaders (I Sam 10:1-12; Neh 2:1-6; Esth 4:13-17; Jer 29:1-7; I Tim 2:1-3). They should also look forward to when King Jesus will reveal Himself (I Tim 6:13-16).