5 Qualities We Should Look for in Our Political Leaders

March 7, 2024

What makes a good president? Or a good governor? Or a good king or prime minister? What kind of civil magistrate is a blessing to his people? What kind of governing authority is a curse to his people? In short, what qualities should we look for in our political leaders?

The word “qualities” is essential. Of course, we are right to care about the views of our political leaders. It matters where they stand on certain issues. Their ideas about the purposes of government are crucial. What they think about God and morality and the human person and about human nature (if they even believe in such things) is foundational. Their experiences, their ability to communicate, their practical know-how regarding the ins and outs of government—all of these are critically important.

And yet, we can make a good case that the ruler’s character is what is most important. Almost all of the important ideas and abilities listed above are downstream from character—the well-formed character that includes “hard” virtues and “soft” virtues. From a biblical perspective, personal integrity is not a sufficient condition for good political leadership, but it is a necessary condition. While some sins and bad behavior can be kept hidden (at least from some people, some of the time), there is no dividing wall that can keep a person’s private character away from his public governance. That’s why the Bible has much more to say about the moral qualities of those who govern than it does about a specific form of civil government. This doesn’t mean every form of government is as good as another. But it does mean that whether we have a president, a prime minister, a king, a queen, or some other chief magistrate, the Bible tells us what personal qualities we should hope to find in that person.

There are many passages in the Bible that talk about godly character and personal holiness. In a best-case scenario, we would have Spirit-filled, Bible-saturated, theologically-sound, sincere Christians to rule over us. But often that will not be the case. That’s why I find the book of Proverbs to be particularly valuable in knowing what to look for in our political leaders. By definition, the book of Proverbs deals with general rules, with maxims and aphorisms that generally apply to all people at all times and in all places. To be sure, Proverbs teaches that “the fear of the Lord”—the covenant God of Israel—“is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7). And yet, the instructions in Proverbs are not confined to those living under the law of Moses. The wisdom of Solomon was known beyond the borders of Israel. Surely, his sayings were considered salutary for Jews and non-Jews alike. The maxims are less concerned with observing the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant than with giving good advice to all who seek the way of wisdom. When it comes to verses about kings and princes, Proverbs gives us a picture of what good rulers everywhere should be like.

With Proverbs as our guide, then, here are five qualities we should look for in our political leaders.

Quality #1: Wisdom

The entire book of Proverbs is about wisdom, so it’s no surprise that wisdom is considered a key—or perhaps, the key—quality in a good ruler. In chapter 8, the personification of wisdom declares, “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly” (8:15–16). The fruit of wisdom is better than gold (8:19). It brings prosperity (8:18) and a rich inheritance (8:21).

And what does it mean for kings to reign according to wisdom? We could examine the rest of Proverbs to answer that question. But specifically, we are told that wisdom is the way of righteousness and the path of justice (8:20). Wisdom starts with a sense that God is real, he is holy, and he is to be feared. The wise ruler knows that he is accountable to God, and therefore he is eager to keep himself far from evil. When a political leader is wise, he hates pride, arrogance, and perverted speech (8:13).

Quality #2: Understanding

Proverbs tells us that “it is the glory of kings to search things out” (25:2). If a ruler is to be a blessing to his land, providing order and stability, he must be “a man of understanding and knowledge” (28:2). This is not a reference to more information, though accurate information is bound to be helpful. The knowledge Proverbs has in mind is moral knowledge. “The one who keeps the law is a son of understanding” (28:7). Knowledge, in the book of Proverbs, is about knowing what is right. “A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge” (29:7). A good ruler has a moral compass. He understands right from wrong and is eager to know the proper ethical course of action.

The political leader who possesses knowledge and understanding has learned to conduct himself with honor and integrity. A good king will delight in the truth and love those who speak what is right (16:13). People flourish under an honorable ruler and suffer under a morally deformed ruler. “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan” (29:2). The governing authorities ought to be people of sound moral judgment.

Quality #3: Justice

A good ruler builds up the land by justice (29:4). In particular, this means two things.

First, our political leaders should not give favorable treatment to the rich and powerful. “If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever” (29:14). This doesn’t mean the governing authorities should rig the system in favor of the poor. The king must never sin in his judgments (16:10). He must always employ a just balance and fair scales (16:11). But the king should be aware that those at the bottom—economically and culturally—are often treated unfairly. The king should open his mouth for the rights of those who are destitute (31:8). He should judge righteously and defend the rights of the poor and needy (31:9).

Second, when political leaders rule by justice, they punish wrongdoers. Justice is about fairly applying the law and consistently enforcing the law. A good king shines favor upon the righteous, but is “a messenger of death” to the wicked (16:14–15). “A wise king winnows the wicked and drives the wheel over them” (20:26). The wicked fear the king (24:21–22), because he is a terror to those who do what is wrong (20:2). His favor is like the dew, but his wrath is like the growling of a lion (19:12). The just leader in Proverbs is the one who upholds the rule of law, ensuring that the weak are not mistreated and insisting that evildoers are punished.

Quality #4: Humility

 “The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor” (15:33). In the book of Proverbs, humility means being teachable and open to correction. “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning” (9:9). The fool never accepts redirection and never admits he is wrong. “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (12:1). The good ruler knows that pride leads to disgrace, while humility leads to wisdom (11:2). “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (12:15). In particular, the king must surround himself with good, honest counselors, not status-seekers, sycophants, and liars. “If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked” (29:12). In short, we need political leaders who are humble enough to learn, to grow, to listen to others, and to change course when they have acted in the wrong way or have set out on the wrong path.

Quality #5: Self-control

In the last chapter of Proverbs, before the famous section on the Proverbs 31 Woman, there are instructions for a Proverbs 31 King. The first eight verses relay instructions to King Lemuel from his mother. The instructions are chiefly about justice (31:8–9) and about self-control. The king is told to exercise personal discipline over his sexual desires (31:3) and over his drinking (31:4–5). The first set of desires can destroy the king (as it did Solomon), while the second set of desires can render him irrational, unable to exercise the mental faculties necessary for political leadership.

If promiscuous sex and immoderate drinking are two dangers that can undermine a person’s judgment and rationality, then the third danger in Proverbs is uncontrolled anger. The prudent man knows how to ignore an insult, but the fool is easily vexed (12:16). The wise man knows how to have a profitable argument, but the fool only rages and laughs (29:9). The unwise ruler has not learned to exercise control over his natural impulses and emotions. “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (29:11). In all three examples—sex, drink, and anger—the person who lacks self-control, puts himself under the mastery of someone or something else. This is a dangerous quality in anyone, even more so in those who are given to rule over others.


If these five qualities—wisdom, understanding, justice, humility, and self-control—mark out good, effective, and honorable rulers, what should we do if these rulers seem to be in terribly short supply?

For starters, we can at least acknowledge that this is what we should be looking for in our political leaders. As Christians we must never excuse the lack of these qualities in our presidents and prime ministers. It is foolish to deny or downplay reality when these virtues are lacking, let alone defend or celebrate the opposite. To the degree that our political leaders are foolish, morally ignorant, unjust, proud, and devoid of self-control, we should lament, not laugh or look the other way.

We should also consider whether we have the interests and abilities—or we know others who do—to serve as righteous “kings and princes” (or whatever the equivalent may be). If the best people stay out of politics, then we will only have the worst people to exercise authority over us. And in so far as we have the opportunity to vote for those who possess the qualities that Proverbs highlights, let us be eager to do so.

Finally, we can pray. It is a blessing when we have noble officials to serve and to lead. Likewise, it is often an indication of God’s judgment on a land when there are none but fools and wicked men to rule. Therefore, let us pray earnestly that those in positions of power would grow in virtue, that those bereft of these virtues would be kept far from power, and that God would, in the days ahead, bless us with honorable rulers who are better than we deserve.

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Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, North Carolina and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

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