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Proverbs 24:21

New American Standard Bible 1995

21 My son, fear the Lord and the king; Do not associate with those who are given to change,

Proverbs 24:21

New King James Version

21 My son, fear the Lord and the king; Do not associate with those given to change;

Proverbs 24:21

English Standard Version

21 My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not join with those who do otherwise,

24:21 The Westminster Leningrad Codex

21 יְרָֽא־אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה בְּנִ֣י וָמֶ֑לֶךְ עִם־שׁ֝וֹנִ֗ים אַל־תִּתְעָרָֽב׃

IMHO, since said verse uses "the" article for the "Lord" and then another "the" article for the "king", it is trying to emphasize that:

a) the Heavenly Divine God is "Lord"

b) and the earthly governing leadership represented by the term "king"

are 2 separate entities.

In the Proverbs 24:21a part of the verse, I can understand when it emphasizes that we should fear the Heavenly Divine God , however, it then continues on to emphasize that we should fear the earthly governing leadership.

The problem is that earthly governing leadership may or may Not be aligning themselves with being Godly. For example, King Ahab of the Northern Israelite kingdom was evil.

How should the bible reader properly interpret and apply Proverbs 24:21a use of the term "the king" if the earthly governing leadership happens to be evil?

Update: ( Good insight from @agarza 's answer ) +1 for @agarza "So in Proverbs, Matthew, and Romans, the "fear" is more akin to showing respect for their authority. Nowhere in these three passages is the direction to give unwavering fealty, just respect."

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    Keep in mind that when Paul wrote Romans 13:1-2, Nero was Emperor...that may help. Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 18:36
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    I made a very slight edit so that we are not asking, "What will someone experience and misunderstand when reading this..." We are asking, "What should we think about this to properly understand." I just changed "would" to "should" in the title, and a few words near the end. I love this question!
    – Jesse
    Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 8:57
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    Questions like this are one of the most important reasons we have hermeneutics. We often misunderstand or feel that something doesn't make sense with many things in life, not only Bible. Proper epistemology (viz hermeneutics for Bible) often clears up the feeling of a contradiction. Most curiosity for hermeneutics starts with a feeling like this. Putting our feelings aside is not for the question we have in the first place, but for our interpretation during the hermeneutical process of answering that question.
    – Jesse
    Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 9:02

6 Answers 6

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We can better understand this verse by focusing on the word "fear". The original Hebrew word יָרֵא yare' (Strong's H3372) is translated as:

  • Strong's Exhaustive Concordance

    affright, be make afraid, dreadful, put in fearful reverence, terrible act,

  • Brown-Driver-Briggs

    1 fear, be afraid
    2 stand in awe of
    3 fear, reverence, honour,

BDB categorizes the usage of "fear" in Proverbs 24:21 as the third definition, "fear, reverence, honour". Under this definition, BDB gives examples as "parents, Moses and Joshua, the oath, commandment, the sanctuary, other gods, elsewhere of God." As for the human examples, they are imperfect and sinful.

This verse can be corroborated with Jesus' and Paul's words:

Pay back, therefore, Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God. (Matthew 22:21)

1 Let every person be in subjection to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except by God; the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God. 2 Therefore, whoever opposes the authority has taken a stand against the arrangement of God; those who have taken a stand against it will bring judgment against themselves. (Romans 13:1, 2)

Can the governments of this world be evil? Yes, but these same governments provide the laws that keep us safe, financial programs to help the poor, directives to keep people alive during pandemics, etc.

So in Proverbs, Matthew, and Romans, the "fear" is more akin to showing respect for their authority. Nowhere in these three passages is the direction to give unwavering fealty, just respect.

[All scripture quotations from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition)]

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  • +1 for @agarza "So in Proverbs, Matthew, and Romans, the "fear" is more akin to showing respect for their authority. Nowhere in these three passages is the direction to give unwavering fealty, just respect." Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 21:04
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Actually, none of the OP's versions accurately render the Hebrew of Prov 24:21. The Hebrew article is lacking before YHWH and "my son" is repeated. Therefore, it literally falls into three lines thus:

My son fear [the] LORD

My son [fear] also the king

with those given to change do not associate

I agree that two people are listed here: the LORD (Jehovah) and the king, the representative of divine authority on earth, 1 Sam 8:7, 8, 24:6, 2 Sam 19:21, 1 Chron 28:5, 29:23, 2 Chron 9:8, 13:8, Ps 5:2, 44:4. (See also Matt 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26, Rom 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-17.)

For more detail about our loyalty to civil government, see the appendix below.

APPENDIX - Attitude to Civil Government

Here I want to explore the Biblical theology of civil or state government. Historically, the relationship of the Christian community to state government has been difficult at best, and at times, resulted in horrific acts of cruelty from both sides. Indeed, it was the revoltingly disastrous experiment of the medieval church, at times indistinguishable from state government, that produced the modern notion of secular government which is neither theistic nor atheistic, as well as the modern concept of the separation of church and state. The resolution of these issues revolves around two questions:

  • To what extent should state government be involved in religious matters? That is, to what extent should state government be Christian, atheistic or secular, if at all?
  • To what extent should the Christian community be involved with state government? Should Christians vote, pay taxes or be members of a government?

Unfortunately, the Bible material on these questions is scant but succinct. Here is a summary of the Biblical data.

  • God rules the kings and governors of the earth. Rev 1:5, 6, Dan 2:21, 47
  • Every government is established and exists by God. John 19:11, Rom 13:1, Job 12:23
  • God even uses wicked governments to accomplish His divine purpose. Jer 25:8, 9, Acts 4:27, 28.
  • Christians should pray for those in government. 1 Tim 2:1, 2, Jer 29:7
  • Christians should honor and submit to government and civil law. Matt 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26, Rom 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-17. This includes paying taxes.
  • There are limits of conscience in obeying governments and laws – our first duty is to God. Dan 3, Acts 4:19, 5:29.
  • A Christian in government service should strive to be the best civil servant possible. Dan 6:1-4, Gen 41:37.
  • Foreigners and strangers (as well as poor) in a country should be subject to the same privileges and protections as others. Lev 19:34, Deut 10:18, Ps 146:9, Jer 7:6, 22:3, Zech 7:10, Mal 3:5.

To the above explicit instructions we may add the implied requirements illustrated in the story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite in 2 Sam 11, 12.

  • No-one is above the law, including the king. All should receive the same treatment and punishment as appropriate for the crime.
  • Those who deliver judgement messages should not be punished.
  • Foreigners (Uriah the Hittite in this case) are just as important as local residents.
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What Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes

Here's yet another angle: cross-reference the same author.

The same author, also writing the same genre of "Wisdom" Literature, gives a reason to fear a powerful man in the "being afraid" sense. He doesn't say "fear", but this is a precaution with a reason for fear.

Ecclesiastes 10:20 (NASB)

Furthermore, in your bedchamber do not curse a king, and in your sleeping rooms do not curse a rich man, for a bird of the heavens will carry the sound and the winged creature will make the matter known.

The term "rich man" certainly applies to any "king" because in a monarchy the king technically owns the whole country and its wealth.

In light of this, the reason in Ecc 10:20 certainly is one reason to "fear" the king in Prov 24:21, whether that king is good or evil.

What Solomon didn't write in Proverbs

Solomon doesn't write that we should believe that the king is good or godly, nor believe anything about the king's character at all for that matter. Proverbs is a book of wisdom, keep in mind. Some of this merely teaches scruples AKA "street smarts". Assuming that one shouldn't be afraid of what the king can do is a generally foolish notion.

No matter how evil or good the king may be, Ecclesiastes tells us that it is a bad idea to make the king angry. Proverbs tells us just as much.

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Possibly an Ancient Old Testament(OT) Hebrew Bible literary device

If we look at the structure of the Proverbs 24:21a part of the verse, we will notice that fearing "The Lord" is followed by fearing "the king" which is sort a phrase alignment and order

I'm thinking out loud but it might have been possible that the ancient Old Testament(OT) Hebrew reader interprets said phrase alignment and order as some kind of Ancient OT Hebrew literary device that emphasizes that since "the king" is mentioned after "The Lord", it would suggest/hint that the Proverbs 24:21a's specifically means a Godly "king" who follows God like King David or King Hezekiah in the Old Testament.

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Proverbs is a "collection of collections" including Proverbs of Solomon and other wise men. There is a debate whether all Proverbs in there have divine nature or some may be human.

The kings were at that time considered to be an earthly presence of the Lord, and they exercised the law of the Lord. So when the king was evil and people suffered, it would deemed as the people was evil and got punished.

We should avoid using present concept to interpret the events in the past, and justify its rationality, although the Bible should have its timeless adaptability. Furthermore, something in the Bible may not even connect to the Lord, as the Lord had once said in Jeremiah 29:9 NIV

9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

We need wisdom to read the wisdom from the Book.

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The proverb operates on two levels. The plain reading is to fear the King and not be associated with any revolutionary movements. There is no support for Robespierre in the book of proverbs, and this very obvious point apparently still surprises some readers.

It does not matter if you think the king is evil or not, as the King is God's anointed. A child answers to their parents, the parents to the king, the king to God. Those on the bottom are in no position to judge those higher than them in this order - they are simply unqualified to judge.

The idea that if you think a King is evil then you go and remove him is condemned in the Bible, with the best example being the patience of David in never laying a hand on Saul or doing anything to remove Saul (1 Sam 24.10) - as well as David's execution of anyone who tried to help out the Philistines in removing Saul (2 Sam 1:14-16). Samuel says "Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft" (1 Sam 15.23). Arguing that rebellion is justified because the king is evil is akin to saying witchcraft is justified because the need is great. The godly man never rises up in rebellion but keeps his head down to live a quiet life of obedience and good works.

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; 2 For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. 1 Timothy 2:1–2 (KJV 1900)

(See also Romans 13.1-2). At the deeper level, the king in this proverb is God and here, too, you are not in a position to judge God, who is your father, deciding that something that happens is evil and something else is good. Just fear God and do not rebel against him, regardless of what happens, and then all things will work together for your good.

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  • In (2 Kings 9:6-13) Jehu who was initially a captain of the Israelite army was anointed King of the Northern Israelite kingdom by a one of the sons of the prophets( who in turn was sent by Elisha the prophet). (2 Kings 9:6-7)He arose and went into the house, and he poured the oil on his head and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I have anointed you king over the people of the Lord, even over Israel. 7 You shall strike the house of Ahab your master, that I may avenge the blood of My servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord, at the hand of Jezebel Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 21:02
  • I don't understand the point being made here. Are you thinking of yourself as God, that you have the same right to replace kings as God does? The observation that God is the one who appoints kings is yet more evidence that we have no business trying to overthrow them ourselves.
    – Robert
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 21:05

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