First: Let politically conservative Christians realize that the Christian writing this is neither politically aligned nor politically motivated.
Equally important: Let any reader who does not espouse Christianity be assured that this brief essay will NOT be a call for Christians to rise up to make the U.S.A. a Christian nation.
When the proverbial expression “righteousness exalts a nation” (Proverbs 14:34) is quoted, the hearer (and the quoter!) would do well to realize that it was originally penned and/or spoken in the context of a theocratic nation. That is to say, deity was then in charge of both civics and religion, for lack of a better way to put it.
The “righteousness/justice” word family makes for an interesting study in each distinct piece of biblical literature, and the Proverbs are particularly difficult (for me, at least) to handle contextually. I’m not really sure what the term “righteousness” means in Proverbs 14. If I could in fact figure out the word’s contextual meaning there in Proverbs, I’m not sure how I would deal with the idea in the current geopolitical framework. A modern nation’s perceived “behavior” seems only vaguely connected to its place within contemporary global politics. Moreover, it is pointless to point back to the original point, whatever it was, about the righteousness of ancient Israel—as though such hindsight, however informed or ill-informed it might be, has anything whatsoever to do with the U.S.A. (or any contemporary nation).
Even in the theocratic Hebrew context in which the proverb was written, I suspect that individual behavior was the underlying subjects spotlighted by the phrase “righteousness exalts a nation.” In other words, personal righteousness on the part of every man and woman would mount up to an aggregate “national behavior,” and one of the effects would be national “success.” Today, some correlation might be seen between ostensibly “righteous” behaviors of a nation’s government and the ascendancy of that nation. However, such national magnification is no longer a goal to be pursued—not by anyone who wishes primarily to be loyal to God, that is. No geopolitical nation exists as a theocracy.
On the other hand, peace and contentment are reasonable goals for every right-thinking person. Some political rulers, not wishing to be limited and unable to be content with peace, have set their sights on ruling ever-expanding empires. In other words, some have taken steps to assure that their particular nations are more powerful than the next. Such aspirations are inherently discontent and not peaceful.
So who cares about national “good behavior,” anyway?
» If one is a nonbeliever, a nation’s supposed righteousness may be moot, differently conceived, or possibly low on the importance scale.
» If on the other hand one is a believer with some sense of the progression of history of God’s people, he ought to realize on some level that the ancient nation of Israel—the one we read about in the Hebrew Bible—no longer exists. He will realize that the current situation vis-à-vis Israel is materially different now, so “righteousness” is not a national concern in the Old Testament sense, and, after all, the U.S.A. is not Israel.
(I felt silly typing that last clause, but I’ve heard many statements that indicate people don’t get it, so I thought it needed to be said.)
I would expand on Proverbs 14:36 this way:
- Early on in biblical history, righteousness could exalt a nation. One particular theocratic nation. Israel.
- That Israel no longer exists. There is no longer a geopolitical entity to which the “righteousness” proverb is applicable.
- Although all individuals are ultimately accountable to God, He maintains no behavioral standard for any political nation today.
Today, righteousness has a different face and new associated expectations. It is not dependent on priestly service and the atonement sacrifices of ancient Israel. Righteousness now is the goal of—and the blessing imputed to—those in the Christian nation, God’s “spiritual Israel.” It is this nation that the first Petrine letter has in view when issuing a call to recognize the surpassing national identity.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10, NET Bible)