Proverbs 17:23

A wicked man taketh a gift out of the bosom to pervert the ways of judgment.

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Rulers, judges, and witnesses must have great character. Criminals will offer gifts or payments to buy favors in order to have justice perverted for them. Righteous men are never moved by such offers. But wicked men will take secret gifts from others, and they will overthrow judgment and truth to earn their abominable wages of unrighteousness.

Gifts here are bribes, a payment to corrupt a person and induce him to act in the interest of the giver by altering the law or perverting judgment. By their nature, bribes are very secretive, for their discovery leads to severe punishment for both giver and receiver. So they were hidden in the bosom, under the clothing, for a very private transfer (Pr 21:14).

The wicked man taking the gift is the receiver of the bribe. He takes the gift produced from the payer’s bosom. He is the ruler, judge, or witness that is willing to pervert the ways of judgment for reward. In bribery, the great offence is by the receiver, for the one in authority is held to a much higher standard of integrity than the one under authority.

Fear of fines, imprisonment, or even capital punishment is a strong motive for men to offer money to be delivered. A little money to get out of punishment appears to be a simple solution. But the chief wickedness condemned here, and throughout the Bible, is the evil character of the man who would consider taking such a payment to do wrong.

Taking gifts is an easy way to enhance your living. Men slip you nice amounts of money, motivated by fear or greed, because of your position of influence. You have to do nothing but look the other way or slightly alter your judgment to provide the giver his desire.

Done regularly, such transactions make men rich, with hardly any effort. After all, it is called a gift, because it did not come by labor. And such easy income attracts and affects men (Pr 17:8; 18:16; 19:6). To a wicked and depraved man, this is very easy money.

God condemned bribes. He wrote, “And thou shalt take no gift: for the gift blindeth the wise, and perverteth the words of the righteous” (Ex 23:8). And again, “Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous” (Deut 16:19). Moses’ law also condemned cases of payment to assassinate or allow a man to be executed (Deut 27:25).

The essential character of rulers and judges must include a hatred of covetousness. Jethro told Moses, “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). It would be wonderful if all elected officials and their staffs had to meet this standard.

Even New Testament elders must not have any inclination toward money, for they will be tempted to modify their preaching or judgment to maintain or increase their income (I Tim 3:3,8; Titus 1:7). Ministers without experience or success in business will be especially tempted to compromise doctrine or authority to preserve the favor of the major contributors and their own livelihood. Many pastors have modified their message to maintain or increase a church’s attendance in order to enhance their position and income.

Samuel was a man of great character and faith. He anointed Solomon’s father king of Israel. This noble man served the nation all his life. But here is what the sacred historian wrote of Samuel’s sons, “And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment” (I Sam 8:1-3). The language is a perfect corollary to the proverb. So when he was near death, Samuel asked the nation to swear to him that he had never taken a single bribe in the discharge of his office (I Sam 12:3-5).

It is a wicked nation that has corrupt officials taking bribes. God condemned Israel for it on more than one occasion (Is 1:23; Ezek 22:12). The prophet Micah described a level of corruption that included a general conspiracy for rampant bribery (Micah 7:2-4). But the prophet ended his description with a warning of God’s judgment that was coming.

From the partitioning of Europe after World War II to the local sheriff’s deputy being offered cash to not write a traffic ticket, the warning of this proverb still rings loud and clear. And the bigger the government bureaucracy and more extensive their involvement in private enterprise, the greater the efforts made to buy government favors for gain.

Elected officials are dependent on private campaign contributions, and the temptation is great to pervert judgment for the contribution and the vote. Capitals seethe with lobbyists and others, whose purpose of existence is to push and pull legislators to do them favors. The temptation to compromise is great. For example, a lucrative job for a grandson would be a real family coup, if the senator would merely cast his vote in favor of sugar tariffs.

What would a defense contractor offer to obtain the next contract for his company? What would a doctor be willing to pay to have charges of manslaughter dropped? What might the educational establishment offer a senator’s staffers, if he would vote for a significant increase in their budget? What would a family or friend be willing to pay to have a president or governor pardon a relative in prison? Many more examples could be made.

The temptation for rulers is great. In an immoral or amoral society, the gifts are offered often. Corruption exists at every level. There are many righteous men in high places, and for them you must pray. They face temptations you do not encounter, and you should beseech the LORD to protect them and give them conviction and strength to do justice.

The story of Balaam is a miserable tale of a covetous prophet being offered money to curse Israel. Peter called the prophet mad, labeled his choice as iniquity, and called his bribe the wages of unrighteousness (II Pet 2:15-16). Judas Iscariot followed his sordid example by agreeing to betray our Lord Jesus Christ for the mere payment of thirty pieces of silver, the price of a slave (Matt 26:14-16).

The day is coming in which the omniscient God will make known every secret bribe, for what they hide from men has never been hid from Him (Eccl 12:14; Rom 2:16). They hide their bribes, for they fear the criticism of men more than the terror of the holy God, but the punishment that is coming will far exceed anything man could have done to them.

God will bless the man greatly “that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes” (Is 33:15-16). The man who will not take “reward against the innocent” shall never be moved. He shall dwell in God’s holy hill (Ps 15:1-5). Hear the call God gave to Abraham, “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Gen 17:1).

So righteous was Paul, he would not put up the money Felix required to release him, which would have broken both divine and Roman law (Acts 24:25-27). Given Paul’s many friends, the money could easily have been obtained. But though the object would have been renewed preaching of the gospel, the apostle would not do evil that good might come, and he abstained from all appearance of evil (Rom 3:8: I Thess 5:22).

But the most righteous example of all is the Lord Jesus Christ. The love psalm, which Paul quotes in glorifying the Son of God, says this of Jesus the great King: “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre. Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows” (Ps 45:6-7; Heb 1:8-9). Amen!