The Character of a Nation 

 In Preaching & Teaching

Since July 4th is regarded as the birth of our nation, this seems to be a great opportunity to be reminded of the privileges and responsibilities of living in this great nation.   Likewise, we should ask ourselves many of the same questions.  We as a people have much for which to be thankful.  All of us have benefited from the character and commitment of those who have gone before us.   

Likewise, it is also a great time to remind ourselves of how we should define ourselves.  Success only matters when we are measured objectively.  In order to know how we are doing in any area of life, we need an objective standard.  Taking an inventory or an audit of anything is only effective when we measure ourselves against an objective standard outside ourselves.  Fortunately for us, King Solomon included the following standard in Proverbs 14:34 that we can apply to any nation.  It is not exclusive for the ancient kingdom of Israel, nor is applied only to America in the 21st century.  It is an eternal standard by which any nation in any era can measure itself.    

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. ~ Proverbs 14:34

In other words, a nation is exalted through its virtue and despised for its sin.  Since righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people, then we can safely say that any nation is exalted by its righteousness and despised for its sin.  Therefore, we should ask ourselves the following questions: What is righteousness?  How is a nation exalted by righteousness? What happens to a nation to does not value righteousness?

What is righteousness? 

According to Tim Keller the definition of righteousness is to “disadvantage oneself to the advantage of the whole community.“ According to this definition, the character of any nation is determined by how eager its citizens are to disadvantage themselves for the benefit of their fellow citizens.  Success is measured not by what we can extract from others, but by how much we can serve and benefit one another. 

From the inception of our nation, our founding fathers knew that successive generations would be impacted by their sacrificial actions, even if they were unsure of the outcomes.  

The more that people within any nation disadvantage themselves, the more that nation will be exalted.  This is why the words of John F. Kennedy still inspire us today, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

How is a nation exalted by righteousness? 

There are many ways that a nation can be exalted.  It could by the amassment of land, the strength of the GDP, a strong military or perhaps cultural contributions.  According to Bruce Waltke, an American Reformed evangelical professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, a nation’s exaltation depends on its piety and ethics, not on its political, military, and or economic greatness.  Being a “first world” nation means nothing unless it is due to having “first-rate principles.” 

Throughout scripture and history we see a recurring pattern.  When a nation’s leaders lead with righteousness, and its citizens extend that righteousness, the people of that nation prosper.  When corruption occurs at the top, the whole nation suffers.  

There are certain principles that God has established that will strengthen any society even if those in the society and their leaders do not worship God.  The prophet Daniel calls for the pagan king to demonstrate justice on behalf of those who have been marginalized.  Daniel tells King Nebuchadnezzar, “27 Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.” (Daniel 4:27) 

In the early 1800’s, a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States and wrote on the concept of Democracy in America.  While searching for the greatness of America he wrote:

“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there … in her fertile fields and boundless forests—and it was not there … in her rich mines and her vast world commerce—and it was not there … in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

What happens to a nation that does not value righteousness? 

In the Old Testament, we see that God blesses His people when righteous kings such as Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah rule.  Israel’s prosperity was directly tied to the kings who were leading in such seasons. Likewise, we see the nation judged when unrighteous kings govern.  In fact, even though God has unique covenant with Israel, most of the rulers were immoral leaders. 

Nations that fall into patterns of rampant sin are considered a disgrace to outside observers.  The word for “disgrace” used in verse 34 is seen in Leviticus 20:17.  It refers to the clear, unexplainable, universally repulsive transgression.  Scholars note that disgrace brings on  condemnation that involves subjugation, enmity, and scarcity to peoples. We see this applied to Israel specifically (Deuteronomy 28:1–14, 15–68) yet is also true for other nations as well.  Nations that are defined by liberty and justice tend to flourish over time while nations known for corruption and injustice find themselves in cycles of dysfunction and destruction. 

America’s founding fathers knew that all people were given rights by our creator, even if some of these founding fathers were unwilling to initially grant all these God-given rights to all her citizens.  Yet our founding fathers also knew people were imperfect and that power corrupts.  Therefore, they built into our Constitution protections for ourselves from ourselves.  Although there are many examples, let me share just two. 

First, our founding fathers limited the power of a single individual.   They created a separation of powers between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government because they knew that humanity could be corrupt and needed to be guarded against.  We needed laws to protect us from one another.  We also needed three distinct branches of government so that one person (or party) could not serve as lawmaker, enforcer and judge.   

Secondly, our founding fathers created a constitution that allowed for amendments.  The constitution has amendments because leaders don’t always get everything right every time.  To amend something  is to admit that imperfection exists.

It has been said, “Our founding fathers knew they were imperfect leaders who were creating something (a constitution) that was imperfect in an attempt to lead a people they knew were imperfect.”  

Perhaps what makes our nation worth celebrating is that we have always attempted to be better – to create a “more perfect union.” Our founders, founding documents, and complicated history have shown that we don’t always get things right, but we can always try to correct things and make them better.  We are ultimately, what we elect to be.   

Whenever we are disappointed with our past mistakes or current challenges , we need to remind ourselves that we all long for  level of righteousness that the world has never seen before.  Perhaps this reminds us that ultimately, we were made to live for another world.   C.S. Lewis famously said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

As we await that world, let us strive to make a difference in this world. 

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