By justice a king builds up the land,
but he who exacts gifts tears it down.
A ruler who rules justly builds up his land. He encourages and blesses his people. This was true in the days of the Israel’s divinely ordained theocracy, and it is true today of governments of every variety. The promotion of justice fostered by those in authority is a great benefit. It is a benefit to those who have been wronged, as justice is done on their behalf, and it is a benefit to the wrongdoer as well, for as justice is meted out, a door is opened for confession and repentance.
On the other hand, the ruler who "exacts gifts" tears down his kingdom. At first blush, this can be understood in terms of the dishonest and unjust ruler who rules by unjust means. Perhaps bribery is in view in the term "exacts gifts." Corrupt and dishonest rulers, though they may personally prosper for a time, tear down their own land. The English Standard Version provides a foot note to the effect that "exacts gifts" could be translated as "taxes heavily." Oh boy, there is a political can of worms if there ever was one. In this meditation, we will not use this verse as a proof-text for or against any political party or any set of government policies local or national. Suffice it to say that the ruler who oppresses his people, either through bribery or through excessive demands of wealth from the population under his rule, does harm to his country.
The New Testament is clear about our responsibilities as Christians to honor those whom God has given authority over us and our financial responsibility in terms of the running of a country. Romans 13:1, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." Later in the same passage Paul writes, “… for he is God’s servant for good…. he does not bear the sword in vain….. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing" (v4, 6).
Wherein is the spiritual good for the Christian in this, that is, in submitting to government authority and paying taxes? Well, I think that there are a couple of things.
- Submission to governmental authority reminds us of our need to submit to God. Not doing whatever we please civilly reminds us that we may not do whatever we please morally. It reminds us of our place.
- Paying taxes reminds us that our wealth is not all ours to do with it as we please, merely to maximize our pleasure. Paying taxes reminds us that we have some responsibility for the common good. In giving to Caesar that which is his due, we are reminded to give to God that which is his due.
- Finally good and just rulers point us to Jesus. In them, we see but a glimmer of the righteous rule of King Jesus. At the same time, bad and unjust rulers point us to Jesus. They serve to remind us that this world of injustice and oppression is not our home. Our citizenship is in heaven from where Righteous King Jesus rules.
So, honor the king; pray for the peace of the land to which your Heavenly Father has sent you; pay your taxes and long for that Kingdom ruled by the One who is not only just, but the justifier of those who believe.