Proverbs 29:2 – “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.”
I find this to be a fascinating contrast. As many proverbs do, this proverb contrasts the righteous and the wicked. The result of the contrast is straight forward – because of the thing the righteous do the people rejoice, but because of the thing the wicked do the people groan. So far, so good.
But what is this proverb really contrasting? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to say that when the righteous rule the people rejoice and when the wicked rule the people groan? Seemingly, if when the wicked rule the people groan, then it would be better for the righteous to rule so that the people would rejoice. If this were the case, then we would be saying that one type of rule of man by man is better than another. But, that’s not what this proverb is saying.
We must pay careful attention to the action of the righteous and the wicked that is being contrasted – increase vs. rule. The righteous increase. The wicked rule.
The word increase here is the same word used over and over in the Old Testament in the phrase “be fruitful and multiply.” The word increase is often used in the context of bearing children. Before Jesus, this was predominantly understood in the physical sense – for the righteous to increase, to be fruitful and multiply, was to have more children. After Jesus, we gain a spiritual understanding of “increase.” We cannot multiply or produce other believers. Only the Holy Spirit can do that (John 3). But having been born again by the Spirit, we are able to bear the fruit of the Spirit as we abide in the true vine, which is Christ. The fruit born is not for ourselves, but it is to be eaten by others. As those who have been made righteous in Christ bear the fruit of the Spirit, others come to know, to experience, Jesus. The righteous increase and the people rejoice.
But, the word rule means to rule or to make someone lord. It has the idea of one person taking authority over another person. It can even have the connotation of superiority of the one ruling. Remember how the mother of the sons of Zebedee asked for her two sons, who were of the twelve, to sit on the right and left of Jesus when he was on his throne. The other 10 disciples were upset at this request. Jesus responded, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” (Matthew 20:25) The wicked rule. They take authority over others. They lord their power over them. They bear down on them. And, the people groan.
So, the proverb is not comparing one type of rule to another – the rule of the righteous to that of the wicked. Rather, the proverb is comparing two fundamentally and altogether different actions – increasing versus ruling. Bearing fruit versus lording it over another. Serving versus taking authority over another. On the one hand the people rejoice. On the other hand they groan.
In Matthew 20:26-28, Jesus goes on to say, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many.”
Judges 9 is a worthwhile passage to read in connection with this proverb. The chapter contains a parable of trees seeking a king to rule over them. The trees go to a variety of other trees asking for that particular tree to rule over all the trees. But, the olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine all say they cannot stop bearing their fruit to rule over the other trees. But, then the trees ask the bramble to be king, to rule over them. You know what’s interesting about bramble? It’s prickly. It has thorns. Many consider it a weed because of its tendency to grow in neglected areas and its sharp, tough thorns. (Perhaps all of the above explains why we get the type of people we do to run for president!) See, the parable is contrasting bearing fruit and serving with ruling and lording it over. When you know your purpose, the fruit God has called you to bear, that your life is to be a living sacrifice, carrying about the death of the Lord Jesus, to bring life to others, to reconcile them to God, you cannot be turned from that purpose to rule over others.
Later in Proverbs 29:25-26 it says, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe. Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the Lord that a man gets justice.” How important this is with what has happened this week in Charlotte and Tulsa and the election season that is upon us. We don’t need to seek after so-and-so to lead us. We shouldn’t think that so-and-so will get us on the right track.
No, we need to trust Jesus, to seek him and his kingdom. He is the Lord! Then we will have justice and every other thing he has promised us.