“A divine sentence is in the lips of the king: his mouth transgresseth not in judgment.”
Oracle of God
If there was ever a puzzling verse of scripture, this could be it. At first glance it seems to suggest that a king is not only infallible in judgment, but the very words from his lips are divine. Is this teaching the “divine right of kings”?
Let’s look at the way two other translations treat this verse.
“An oracle is on the lips of a king; his mouth does not sin in judgment.” – Proverbs 16:10 ESV
“God’s verdict is on the lips of a king; his mouth should not give an unfair judgment. ” – Proverbs 16:10 CSB
I think we can derive two things from the comparative reading: 1) the king is not a god, but speaks as a mouthpiece for God; 2) if the words are from God, then they are true and fair.
But that still poses a problem, doesn’t it? Are all kings the mouthpieces of God? Are all kings incapable of speaking lies, untruths, or making poor judgments?
Of course not! As the late Matthew Henry said in his commentary on this verse:
We wish this were always true as a proposition, and we ought to make it our prayer for kings, and all in authority, that a divine sentence may be in their lips, both in giving orders, that they may do that in wisdom, and in giving sentence, that they may do that in equity, both which are included in judgment, and that in neither their mouth may transgress, 1 Tim. 2:1. But it is often otherwise; and therefore, 1. it may be read as a precept to the kings and judges of the earth to be wise and instructed.*
Accountable to God
In Romans 13:1-5 we read rulers are “ministers” of God put in place to “execute wrath on him that doeth evil” (verse 4). God has even used unbelievers, even ungodly kings and authorities, to bring about the punishment of evildoers and protect His people. That means that the king does not act as the ultimate authority, but as a servant to the true King.
There are those who may have considered the words of a king to be the final authority, as final as the words of God. However, the only words that are final and unchangeable are the words from God, and the king, at best, is only a mouthpiece, an oracle, charged with speaking wisdom from above.
Leadership at all levels, from kings to presidents, from policemen to senators, should keep in mind that they will one day stand before the throne of the King of Kings and give an account.
As a pastor, one charged with faithfully expounding the Word of God, that terrifies me even more.
*Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 990.