Government, Good and Bad (Ecclesiastes 10:16–20)


We recently held a national election, which gets me thinking about politics.

Does the Bible have anything useful to say about government or citizenship? Absolutely! But it usually speaks in general principles rather than offering detailed policy guidelines. Take, for example, what we read in Ecclesiastes 10:16–20.

The Preacher begins by noting how unpleasant it is for citizens to live under a bad regime. More precisely, he points out how cursed it is for “the land” to live under the unwise (child kings) and self-indulgent (feasting princes). Obviously, the land includes all the people who live on it, and so the land refers to citizens. (We call our own country “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” for example.) And yet, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that in the century just past, bad government has been bad for the environment too. The countries of the former Soviet Union are still dealing with the sludge left by that totalitarian regime. And the worst famines of the last century (1930s Ukraine, 1950s China, 1980s Ethiopia) were government-engineered, to a certain degree. Under bad government, the land and its people both suffer.

By strong contrast, good government promotes the commonwealth. What are characteristics of good government? Two things: The best people govern, and they do the right thing at the right time and for the right reason. America, of course, is a democratic republic, so the Preacher’s praise of aristocracy (“the son of nobility”) does not apply to us straight across the board. But the basic principle—that the society’s leaders should be the best trained—still makes sense.

The Preacher then turns his attention to two side topics: the danger of laziness and the value of material possessions. A house falls apart if it is not constantly cleaned, maintained, repaired, and painted. So, quite frankly, does a country, if its leaders and citizens neglect the spiritual, moral, and physical infrastructure of the nation. But we should never forget, as we work hard, that life is more than maintenance. God did not merely put us on earth to work, but also to enjoy. “A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything.”

Finally, the Preacher returns to the topic of government. In a highly authoritarian society, which is what monarchies tend to be, it is important not to think ill of the ruler. In a totalitarian society, doing so can get you imprisoned or killed. So, writing in the context of a monarchical society, the Preacher warns citizens to watch their mouths, lest their words occasion royal wrath. In America, of course, we have a First Amendment right to say what we want—however negative or positive—about those who govern us. Our government, thankfully, is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—in Lincoln’s lapidary phrase. Still, although it is legitimate to criticize those who govern us, we ought to do so in a respectful way, if not of the officeholder, then at least of the office. Whether our government is monarchical or democratic, we citizens should mind our manners.

In sum, good governments govern wisely, and good citizens act respectfully. Those are two general and common-sense principles for both governors and the governed.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

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