Proverbs 28:16

ESV A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor, but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days.
NIV A tyrannical ruler practices extortion, but one who hates ill-gotten gain will enjoy a long reign.
NASB A leader who is a great oppressor lacks understanding, But a person who hates unjust gain will prolong his days.
CSB A leader who lacks understanding is very oppressive, but one who hates dishonest profit prolongs his life.
NLT A ruler with no understanding will oppress his people, but one who hates corruption will have a long life.
KJV The prince that wanteth understanding is also a great oppressor: but he that hateth covetousness shall prolong his days.

What does Proverbs 28:16 mean?

Interpreting this proverb is easier when comparing other lessons in the Book of Proverbs. This book implies a progression of ideas (Proverbs 1:2–7). For the most part, a "fool" is a person who rejects godly truth or common sense (Proverbs 12:15; 14:16). "Learning" usually means acquiring information (Proverbs 1:5). Retaining learning for later use implies "knowledge" (Proverbs 14:6). The ability to act appropriately on knowledge is "wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10–11). Deep wisdom which should be passed along to others is "understanding" (Proverbs 5:1). A person may be intelligent and filled with facts, yet still lack wisdom and understanding.

This lesson connects oppressive, immoral government leadership (Proverbs 28:15) to a lack of this type of "understanding." Such a relationship is mutual: poor decisions harm the people, and those who lack godly understanding are more likely to be cruel. Spiritual ignorance and tyranny go hand in hand (Proverbs 28:28; 29:2).

Many evil rulers see their position as a means to obtain wealth and power. They might apply outrageous taxes, violence, terror, and other tactics to keep subjects under foot. Their rule might involve heavy labor or outright slavery. Such things might benefit the tyrant—for now (Proverbs 12:7; 22:8)—but they ruin the lives of those they oppress. And, as history shows, they frequently result in uprisings and coups that bring dictators to a messy end (Proverbs 11:8; 12:7). In contrast, a godly ruler inspires loyalty and confidence from the people, who benefit from their integrity (Proverbs 14:34; 28:12). A leader who stands for what is right is more likely to enjoy a lengthy reign than a corrupt, hated dictator (Proverbs 28:18).

God is the supreme Ruler, and He is just, compassionate, caring, benevolent, and loving. As a shepherd, He leads His people to what benefits them most (Psalm 23:1–2). He is the perfect example earthly rulers should follow. The ruler who follows God's example and obeys His Word "will prolong his days."
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