Summary: These proverbs teach how rulers of every sphere of life ought to carry out their responsibility.
We are taking a summer break from 1 Corinthians and returning to Proverbs. I don’t know about you, but I could use a break after sermons on church discipline, Christian conflict, homosexuality, and sexual immorality. I’m not quite ready to move into adultery and divorce, which awaits us in chapter seven. We will stay in chapter sixteen of Proverbs, due to my slow preaching pace and a few topical messages planned as well. Let’s turn to our text now.
To understand these proverbs about kings, we need to review the concept of a king in Israel, as well as in her ancient neighbors. For the neighboring countries, such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, the king was either regarded as a god incarnate or as a man (or woman) made divine, i.e. raised to the status of being a semi-god. He, by virtue of his office, represented divine authority. Thus, we read of Nebuchadnezzar making an image for everyone to worship. Either the image represents him, or he, acting as the divine representative, establishes what the people are to worship. Darius signs a law that everyone is to pray only to him for thirty days.
This divine status authenticated the absolute power he wielded. His word was law. The book of Esther presents an example of this. King Ahasuerus signs a law that would wipe out the Jewish race. They have done no wrong; he is persuaded by his advisor Haman who has a grudge against one Jew. There can be no debate with him; indeed, once he signs the law, not even he can change it? Why? Is the law above the king? It is not so much that the law is above the king, but that the king speaks the law. For him to take back what he has made law would be tantamount to saying that he is a mere mortal who makes mistakes and who ought to be under the law.
This is the status and power of the ancient kings. What was it to be a king of Israel? Deuteronomy 17:14-20 gives the laws that bind the king. He could not be a foreigner. He could not acquire many horses; i.e., he could not build a large army and one that uses the military tactics of its neighbors who rely on strength rather than God. He was not to acquire many wives nor a great amount of wealth. Then it reads as follows:
18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.
Far from being divine or semi-divine, the king was to understand that he was no higher than his fellow Israelites, that he was subject to God’s law, and that the success of his reign depended not on strength of army or political shrewdness, but on obedience to the law. Some kings did a good job of serving with righteousness, such as David, Hezekiah, and Josiah; others were terrible, such as Jehoram, Ahaz, and Amon. Both good and bad, were held accountable by God, and prophets were sent to correct them. Even David was rebuked by the prophet Nathan.
Thus, there was a standard as defined by God’s law for the king to adhere to and to enforce in the land. But there was also the sense of the king having a special status. Though not divine, he was regarded as “the anointed one” of God, placed in his position by the Lord. One might refer to him as the standard bearer for God. In God’s name he was to carry out justice and protect God’s people. Whereas our president is seen as a representative of the people, and who derives his authority from the people, the king received his mandate and his authority from God, the real King of Israel. Furthermore, after King David, there was the understanding that some day the Messiah would come from the royal line of David. Each king was the potential “Anointed One,” i.e., the Messiah.
10 An oracle is on the lips of a king;
his mouth does not sin in judgment.
To understand the proverb, recall what we have learned about Israel’s king. Though he does not possess the status of being divine, he is given the responsibility to act on behalf of the Lord. Thus, when he speaks, he ought to be speaking as a trustworthy representative of Yahweh, Israel’s true king. He ought to speak as though speaking an oracle, i.e., a divine word. All the more reason, then, that he should not speak forth wrong judgments that transgress God’s law.