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Righteousness exalts a nation, 
but sin is a reproach to any people.
Proverbs 14:34

It was a rainy Thursday, May 3, 1787, as thirty-six year old James Madison stepped down from his stagecoach, the New York-Philadelphia Flier.  He had arrived in Philadelphia to serve as a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention.  Madison was in chronic poor health, weighed barely one hundred pounds, and stood but a few inches over five feet, but would soon be hailed as the Father of the Constitution and author and champion of the Bill of Rights.    

Rain up and down the East Coast had turned dirt roads into rivers delaying the arrival of many delegates.  So as Madison waited for a full quorum he proceeded to lay out on paper an initial draft of the Constitution.  This initial draft became the actual agenda for the Convention and the framework for a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  

There is a sense in which Madison had spent his life preparing for these momentous days in Philadelphia.  A studious and conscientious man, he had devoted much of his life to a study of virtue and government.  He had stayed on at Princeton after graduation so that he could be tutored in Hebrew and ethics by the godly John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Then for two years Madison had holed up in his study pouring over crates of books sent to him by fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson.  He had asked Jefferson, while Jefferson was in Europe, to send him every book he found on the history of nations and governments.  Madison longed to know and better understand the workings of a good and godly government.  

But once the Convention was completed and the Constitution adopted, Madison knew that his work was far from finished.  The Constitution still had to be ratified by the various states as an expression of a government by the people.  So Madison set to work, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, and wrote the Federalists Papers in order to explain and ‘sell’ the Constitution to the people.

It was at the ratifying convention for Virginia that Madison stood to plead, not just for the Constitution, but to plead for virtue among the people.  Madison solemnly asked his audience: “Is there no virtue among us?”  Then Madison warned: “If there be not virtue, we are in a wretched situation”.  Madison continued his plea:

No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men.   So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.

Madison knew the Bible well, knew history well, and people well!  Everything that Madison knew told him that without virtue in the nation “no form of government” or“rulers” could secure freedom and justice.  Significantly, Madison looked not to the elected rulers for virtue, but to “the people who are to choose them”.  It all begins with the people. 

We are in the midst of a protracted, heated political battle.  We are bombarded with slogans, bumper stickers, poll numbers, and promises.  We sense that the stakes are high.  But I can hear Madison’s voice echoing across the years: “If there be not virtue, we are in a wretched situation”. 

Sometimes our situation does seem wretched.  We are the first generation of Americans to fear that our children will not have better lives than we.  All leading indicators seem to be headed down the slippery slope south.  But Madison showed our nation the way out.  The wisdom of Proverbs showed us the way out: 

Righteousness exalts a nation, 
but sin is a reproach to any people.

It might not fit on a bumper sticker but it’s the only thing that will exalt and lift up our slouching nation.  The Bible teaches it.  History proves it.  And according to Madison it has to begin, not in the White House, or the State House, but in your house and mine:  “So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them”.

The Old Testament scholar, W. McKane, in his commentary on Proverbs, offers up this biting, incisive comment on nation’s and their rulers:  “A land gets the statesman it deserves”.  Ouch!

Perhaps it’s time I look in the mirror! 

Grace and peace,

photo by pittpanthersfan

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