By justice a king builds up the land - Geneva College, a Christian College in Pennsylvania (PA)

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Biblical Wisdom
November 4, 2019

By justice a king builds up the land

by Dr. Bill Edgar, former chair of the Geneva College Board of Trustees, former Geneva College President and longtime pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPNCA)

Proverbs 29:4 – By justice a king builds up the land, but he who exacts gifts tears it down.

Some proverbs seem so blindingly obvious one wonders why write them. A government of any kind builds up a country by justice. If a king exacts gifts, he tears it down. But what are “gifts?” Some English versions translate “bribes,” maybe because “bribes” make the two parts of the proverb obviously parallel: bribes to the judge bring injustice. But the word is “gifts,” as the more literal translations read. So we will stick with “gifts.”

What is wrong with the king accepting gifts? Here’s what is wrong: gifts of any kind establish a relationship of reciprocity. I gave you something, so when I need a favor, you owe me. To understand the dynamics of gift giving to rulers, we can start with the American Constitution. Article I, section 9, clause 8 wisely reads, “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” The clause means to block the formation of a titled American aristocracy. More specifically, however, it aims to keep foreign governments from corrupting American officials with gifts like titles, jewelry, or money, so that they begin serving the interests of a foreign government rather than their own country’s interests.

When rulers receive gifts, they stop treating everyone fairly. For example, suppose you are running for office in this country. You can’t accept gifts outright (see our Constitution), but you can get paid tremendous fees for giving a twenty-minute speech; you can receive campaign contributions; and you can solicit money for your foundation. People with an interest in what you can do for them will pay for your speech, give to your campaign, or fund your foundation. “Pay to play” expectations are automatically built into a king’s “exacting” gifts, named “gifts” to disguise their actual door-opening purpose.

There is usually no explicit quid pro quo for a gift, but rulers accepting “gifts” grant audiences to their benefactors. They naturally tend to frame laws and apply them not for the good of the entire country, but for the good of the gift giver. Let “gifts” become how a government operates, and over time a country will fall into ruin, through wasteful government contracts and regulations allowing favored businesses to enjoy monopoly-like privileges.

Has the American government become a realm of gift giving? Of course it has, and the result can be seen in the deep influence of “lobbyists” in writing our laws and bureaucratic rules. These lobbyists represent the gift givers, to whom our rulers are deeply indebted for campaign contributions, huge speech fees, and donations to their foundations. When rulers exact gifts, they will not rule with justice. They will bring a country to ruin.

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Photo by Paweł Furman on Unsplash