“If a ruler listens to lies, all his ministers will be wicked.” – Proverbs 29:12
About a decade ago, I worked a part-time job at Best Buy. I was a sales associate in the home theater department, which meant that it was my goal to sell as many high-end televisions and home-audio solutions as I could.
And at least when I was working for them, Best Buy would send all their employees to an off-campus sales training program. This program lasted a week. And within it, we were taught both sales tactics and proper sales ethics. The problem was, at the store I worked for, higher value was placed on the tactics than on the ethics.
My manager would regularly encourage us all to automatically add a protection plan to a customer’s cart which often costed a good deal of additional money. We were to only remove it if they asked, not the other way around. We were also meant to push Best Buy credit cards through manipulative means. My manager also use to bait his employees with bonuses and free lunches if they participated in such dishonesty.
Eventually, almost all sales associates in that store were taking part in these schemes. My managers dishonesty and lust for a larger paycheck successfully corrupted the entire workforce under him.
But this isn’t just a sales job problem. It’s a problem anywhere there are leaders. And we find ourselves in a leadership position, we need to make sure that we ourselves aren’t the agent of chaos.
The Book of Proverbs and Corrupt Leadership
Most biblical scholars agree that Proverbs was originally intended as a guidebook for young nobility. This would have been a text that the sons of Israelite kings, or other members of the royal court, would have read in order to gain the wisdom to lead their people well.
That’s why we see so many of the proverbs aimed at teaching leadership skills address royalty. Because Israelite kings were to act as representations of the God they served, their verdicts were never to be unjust (Proverbs 16:10). Kings were also meant to take an active role in winnowing out evil from their land (Proverbs 20:8) and needed to constantly seek after the heart of the Lord in order to do this well (Proverbs 25:2).
But there is one proverb that will be my area of reflection in this blog post: Proverbs 29:12.
This passage has everything to do with the ability of a leader to corrupt the community he or she serves within by not properly committing to truthfulness.
It’s also important to note that the verb “listens” in the first clause can be interpreted in a few equally valid ways. We could first picture a scenario where a king paid little attention to the words of his ministers by not being careful to check if they were true or not. This ruler would then be known as someone easily manipulated and his servants could take advantage of such a quality for selfish or wicked reasons. But “listen,” here, doesn’t necessarily have to be understood passively. We could also read it in an active sense. That is, this king might be “entertaining” or “giving attention” to lies within his court. He could be the one manipulating others through falsehood for selfish or wicked reasons.
And I don’t think that these two different ways of reading Proverbs 29:12 are in competition with one another. It very well could be the case that its original author meant his audience to come at this maxim from a variety of angles.
But nevertheless, and no matter what way we look at it, when leadership tolerates falsehood, the community that leader serves within experiences corruption.
Paul’s Leadership Pattern
So how might we learn to fight against such dishonesty when we experience it ourselves? What should we do as leaders when we sense falsehood? What should we do as followers when we feel as if we’re being lied to or manipulated?
Looking to the apostle Paul might help.
Consider his words in 1 Thessalonians 2:3-12 –
“For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. 2 But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. 3 For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5 For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. 6 Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. 7 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”
In this section of scripture, Paul is thinking back to his time with the Thessalonian church. And in doing so, he makes a few observations about his motives among them.
Paul and his ministry partners did not let the suffering that they endured distract them from their mission of sharing the gospel there. They also refused to minister in any sort of self-serving or manipulative way. Their sharing of the gospel wasn’t in hopes to please the Thessalonian church, nor was it a means to line their own pockets with good things.
Paul was an apostle. He could have used that status to get whatever he wanted from the churches he ministered to. The Israelite kings that Proverbs 12 refers to could have also used their royalty to receive riches.
But Paul refused to let corrupt actions distort the message he was preaching. And Israelite kings were instructed to now bow down to falsehood lest they lead their people into corruption.
We should follow suit.
So, what might we learn from both Proverbs and Paul? How might we be good leaders? How might we follow well? Consider a few short, bulleted points towards that end:
- We need to be aware of falsehood and manipulation.
- We need to call evil for what it is, wherever it might be located.
- We should judge our leaders by their character, not by their position.
- We should hang on to truth, even if a leader insists on something else.
- We should never disobey the Lord for the sake of work.
 See Robert Gordis, “The Social Background of Wisdom Literature,” The Jewish Theological Seminary of America 18 (1944): 77-118.