Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people (Proverbs 14:34 ESV)
צְדָקָ֥ה תְרֽוֹמֵֽם־גּ֑וֹי וְחֶ֖סֶד לְאֻמִּ֣ים חַטָּֽאת׃
In 2007, the I-35 bridge that crosses the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, collapsed suddenly during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145. The investigation revealed the gusset plates, the thick sheets of steels that connect the girders together in the truss system were undersized, resulting in a structural flaw leading to its collapse. A year after the tragedy, The New York Times summarized what went wrong:
The bridge was designed in the 1960s and lasted 40 years. But like most other bridges, it gradually gained weight during that period, as workers installed concrete structures to separate eastbound and westbound lanes and made other changes, adding strain to the weak spot.
The city planners in Minneapolis ignored the design of the bridge and pushed the limitations of the span to hold a weight amount it was not designed to withstand.
Likewise, America was designed by our founders to function within certain parameters of morality and integrity. Our nation was not fashioned to tolerate an unbearable amount of immorality. The more sin we tolerate in our country, the greater the chance our vulnerabilities will collapse our precious nation.
In Proverbs 14:34 Solomon equips us with the prescription to build a strong nation using a support system where righteousness holds all pieces together. This ancient text teaches that a nation’s greatness exists not only in its victory over terrorism, a robust economy, a vibrant foreign policy or lack of racism, but in its observance of justice and morality. To ignore this principle is to dabble with the possibility our country can wind up a moral disgrace.
During this presidential election cycle, it is important we understand from Proverbs 14:34 what really makes our country tick . . . and what will make it great again.
We can expect to be lifted up as a nation by our conformity to God’s moral standard
In 2015 the film “Spotlight” became an Oscar winner for the best picture of the year. The film’s setting is 2001 when editor Marty Baron of The Boston Globe assigns a team of journalists to investigate allegations against a priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys.
As I ponder the sad message of the film, I am struck by Hollywood’s hypocrisy in ignoring the sexual sins of some of its best representatives such as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. I eagerly anticipate a series of films exposing the sins of these admired film industry giants.
One might argue these entertainment headliners are not held to the high moral standard a priest would be accountable to. True.
Yet don’t all humans, regardless of their belief or unbelief in a divine being, have an inner conscience to which they are answerable?
In the often quoted Proverbs 14:34 Solomon states that “righteousness exalts a nation” (צְדָקָ֥ה תְרֽוֹמֵֽם־גּ֑וֹי). In contrast, moral relativism will bring a nation crashing down. Consequently, the king of Israel compels us to ponder the meaning of “righteousness”..
Every nation needs a moral standard it must conform to. Righteousness (צְדָקָ֥ה) is that which conforms to God’s will as described in His word. Since Solomon was writing to Israel, he expected his subjects and himself to live in obedience to the commandments of the Torah.
Another way of depicting righteousness is the quality of liable to someone greater than yourself. To Solomon, accountability to the Torah is the same as saying one is answerable to God Himself for their moral choices. Unrighteousness describes people who live as though they do not have to answer to anyone for their moral behavior . . . . not even their own conscience.
Note carefully Solomon declares “righteousness lifts up a nation.” He does not speak of individuals being lifted up but an “entire nation.” The words used by the writer of Proverbs for “nation” (גּ֑וֹי) and people (לְאֻמִּ֣ים) are normally applied to gentile pagan nations.
If unrighteousness exalts and sin degrades heathen nations, how much more must this be the case with God’s own people?
Primarily, Solomon’s words are directed to Israel, but we can take liberty in applying them to any nation that seeks to please God.
Every nation will experience God’s benefits upon conformity to His will. Righteousness among a group of people has a beneficial effect. They will be “lifted up” says Solomon.
America is a nation concerned with our exceptionalism. Yes, we are an exceptional nation. We are not perfect, but we are unique in our compassion among the nations of the world.
According to Solomon, we are to be “lifted up” not by the size of our nation, our ability to defeat our enemies or our ability to produce a great economy. Rather, our willingness to answer to a moral standard higher than ourselves is what makes us good.
In contrast, when a nation chooses to reject godly morals, the reputation of that entity is brought to a place of shame. This bring us to the second half of Proverbs 14:34.
We can expect a torn reputation as a nation by our rejection of God’s moral standard
James Emery White tells a story about his visit to the Eagle and Child pub in Great Britain, the place where C. S. Lewis and his friends used to meet.
“One day, as I sat at my favorite table, I heard the manager muttering, ‘Bloody Christians.’ I was enough of a regular to feel comfortable asking him what he meant.
“Take a look at this,” he said, holding up a menu. “They cost me two pounds each. I ordered hundreds of them, and now I only have ten because they keep getting nicked.”
“You mean people are stealing them?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah, the bloody Christians take the menus, while the bloody students take the spoons and ashtrays.”
“I’m surprised they don’t try and take what’s on the walls,” I mused, looking at the pictures and particularly the framed handwritten letter from Lewis, Tolkien, and others.
“Oh, those aren’t real,” he said, “just copies. They still get taken. I’d never put the real ones up.”
Imagine that followers of Jesus who want to honor a great Christian writer demonstrate a blindness to their own lack of righteousness.
And what do they lose in the end? Their reputation.
The Hebrew wording in this passage is distinct. The word for “reproach”is the familiar word for “lovingkindness” (וְחֶ֖סֶד) or “chesed.” Oddly, here it means “shame” or “to bring condemnation” as in Leviticus 20:17. How do we get from lovingkindness to reproach?
Some translators use the phrase “to strike with love”. The idea is that out of love for His people, God brings shame on a nation that chooses to reject moral principles.
It is obvious righteousness brings a nation to a place of honor. But a nation known for its immorality is a disgrace to the people. It brings them down before God rather than raises them up.
As I wrestled with this verse, I concluded the writer of Proverbs is telling us righteousness comes from the top down AND from the bottom up.
First, no leader is responsible to enforce any religious document on the nation he rules. To establish any moral code whether it is the Ten Commandments or the Code of Hammurabi, would be establishing a national religion by the government which goes against the first amendment.
At the same time, there are moral issues like abortion, capital punishment, racial discrimination or abuse of children and the elderly that we want our government to enforce. Here is where we express our morals in the way we vote and communicate our opinions on issues that affect the moral environment of our country.
Second, we cannot solely rely on our leaders to reflect morals. Our morality must come from the bottom up. It is up to us as citizens to choose to live moral lives.
Let‘s be practical. It is our responsibility to control our choices when it comes to sexual promiscuity, upholding the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, indulging in excessive greed, resorting to incessant lying, committing cyber crimes, expressing uncontrollable rage, excusing racial discrimination, engaging in unfair business practices and mistreating one another.
Third, the people of a nation should choose elect a ruler who best reflects righteous principles for the common good. We do not want to elect a ruler who is oppressive, who flaunts sinful behavior or excuses his own need to be accountable to someone greater than himself. Any ruler who dismisses any sense of a moral authority is potentially leading our nation down a path of shame and disrepute.
The goal as stated in Proverbs 14:34 is to exalt our nation by making America good again rather than to bring shame or reproach on our great nation.