Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

God, Government and the State, Part Two

Jan 10, 2012

In Part One of this article I offered five general biblical principles regarding the role of civil government. Some objections along the way were discussed there. Here I wish to spend the remainder of this article looking at one passage which seems to give us a different perspective on these matters.

I refer to 1 Samuel 8-12. The context, as you may recall, is the end of the period of the judges. Samuel is getting old, and his two sons prove to be worthless scoundrels instead of godly judges. Because of this – and for some other reasons – the Israelites agitate for a king. It seems that this demand displeases both God and Samuel.

Thus this is a passage which has puzzled many believers. Given the much more positive view of government found elsewhere in the Bible, how do we reconcile these matters? Those who may take a dim view of government to begin with will sometimes try to appeal to this passage to prove that God is against government and human rulers.

As but one example of this, I just recently received an email from someone who seems to have problems with authority in its various forms. He did not give me his full name, as my commenting rules state, so I could not post his comment. But what he wrote may be representative of the views of others, so it is worth discussing here.

It is this part of his comment which I want to assess: “Please re-read 1 Samuel 8; the whole chapter, but particularly verses 6-9. We are reminded repeatedly, throughout the Bible, that the reason people turn to government is because they have turned away from God. In contrast to your assertions, the Bible tells us that the more we follow His law, the less we need government. Our founders recognized this also. As John Adams pointed out, our Constitution of Liberty would only succeed amongst a ‘moral and religious people.’ Government is force. God is Love.”

This comment is rather confused in many respects. First, as to the passage he cites, it of course must be seen in the light of the entire biblical revelation. I have already discussed Deut. 17 which clearly anticipates a king, something already hinted at even earlier in the biblical record (eg., Genesis 17:6, 16; 35:11).

As OT scholar Eugene Merrill comments, “kingship was foreseen as early as patriarchal times, and unless one posits that such early references are also late redactions, it is clear that there was preparation for Israelite monarchy in both tradition and theology.”

At most it can be said that the Old Testament seems to present a somewhat ambiguous message about kingship and monarchy. Much of the rest of the OT takes a far more favourable view of kingship. And even in this seemingly anti-monarchy passage, there is a mixture of pro and con teaching, with some parts of it appearing much more open to kingship.

Moreover, it is clear that 1 Sam. 8 is not condemning monarchy so much as it is condemning the motivation and means of demanding kingship. As Walter Kaiser remarks, “It is the covenantal relationship expressed in 1 Samuel 11:14-12:25 that explains the ambivalence. The issue, then, is not the presence of kingship so much as it is the kind of kingship and the reasons for wanting a monarchy.

“There is no question but that the presence of a king in Israel was fully compatible with Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. What hurt Samuel and the Lord was the people’s improper motive for requesting a king in the first place: they wanted to ‘be like all the other nations’ (8:20) and have a king to lead them when they went out to fight. This was tantamount to breaking the covenant and rejecting Yahweh as their Sovereign (8:7; 10:19).”

Or as Chris Wright puts it in his commentary on Deuteronomy, “Clearly the issue is not merely if Israel should have a king or not, but what kind of king that should be. What matters fundamentally for Deuteronomy is whether or not the whole covenant people of Israel will remain wholly loyal to Yahweh their God. The value of a king is assessed solely by the extent to which he will help or hinder that loyalty.”

This commentator also unhelpfully suggests that if we go with God we have no or little need for government. But the truth is, we are not to pick between God and government. In the same way we are not to pick between God and food, or God and sex, or God and family. God has made all these things, and it is only the abuse of these things that the Bible condemns.

If a person makes a god out of the God-given gift of sex, for example, then it becomes wrong, idolatrous and sinful. But sex itself is a good gift of God. So is government. It is his idea and we are clearly told in Scripture to submit to it. But of course at the same time we are not to look at government as our saviour, or as our sole security.

That is something the Bible does condemn. But that is a misuse and abuse of a God-given gift to us. God’s ideal is always self-government, as I mentioned, but he has also created civil government knowing that in a fallen world self-government will never measure up to what God intends.

This commentator’s last line is equally fuzzy. God has ordained that governing authorities use force (the sword of Romans 13) to maintain justice and punish evildoers. This is God’s will, and it in no way stands in opposition to love. Indeed, civil government is meant to entail the use of force to maintain the second great commandment, the love of neighbour.

Of course any parent knows that love and the use of force are not incompatible, but in fact go together. Loving discipline is not a contradiction in terms. Indeed, this is clearly spelled out in Hebrews 12 where God is seen as a loving heavenly father who chastises his children.

It is not unloving to use force, and God has ordained that there is a godly use of force which is needed in a fallen world. So trying to set force and love in opposition to each other is neither biblical nor helpful. They both can be and are quite compatible.

As to his quote from Adams, of course the Founding Fathers predicated their idea of the new American political system on godly faith and behaviour. But they were nonetheless establishing government – which of course includes the use of force and the call to arms. They were not naive about the nature of fallen humanity, and therefore they needed a strong system of governance which also had built in checks and balances.

But the beauty of the American federal system is not here the topic of discussion. Suffice it to say that the Founding Fathers in America saw no discrepancy between the purpose and place of civil government, including the use of the sword, and the need for a spiritual and moral populace.

In sum, civil government is God’s idea and it is not to be despised. Sure, how one teases out the biblical data as to whether there is any one ideal form of government, and how that is to flesh itself out in modern secular societies is the stuff of much prayer and thought.

Christians have come to differing conclusions as to which is the best type of government, what is the preferred economic system, and so on. Taking biblical principles and applying them to contemporary situations is always a tricky thing to do, and believers will come to different understandings of what is the best way to see these principles spelled out.

But that is what we are called to do, as difficult and complex as that may be.

Part One of this article is found here:

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9 Responses to God, Government and the State, Part Two

  • Nice article Bill,

    You covered a lot of ground here. I hope many read this and give it some thought.

    Kind regards,

    Neville Schoof

  • One of Fathers of Federation – the second Prime Minister of the Commonwealth Alfred Deakin made this comment “A life, the life of Christ,” Deakin wrote, “that is the one thing needful—the only revelation required is there … We have but to live it.”
    What a pity so few of his successors can say that, especially the latest one who governs by accident.
    Wayne Pelling

  • Senator Cory Bernardi just posted this from 1776 by Thomas Paine I enjoyed what he had to say under Of the origin and design of Government.
    Rob Withall

  • Bill, whenever I talk about that whole section of Judges from ch 8 to ch 11, I emphasise that Samuel gave God’s charge to the king, and to the people: to obey His Law (anyway).

    So after Samuel had warned the people what a king would do to them, and then what God would do in judgement, he charged the people to obey God’s Law, along with the king.

    Therefore there is not quite the strict sense of obeying the king which the other nations pursued – the worship of raw power/military might.

    There is no command to obey the king – “orders are orders without thinking” is a denial of personal responsibility, but it does not absolve the kings advisers, officials and generals or the people as a whole from obeying God’s Law.

    If both the king and the people obey God’s Law, there will be consistency, there will be respect for public office, there will be freedom from oppression for the people and there will be unity and blessing in the Land.

    But if there is any breach of the Law, then there will be sin (as Nathan had to tell David) and consequences.

    John Angelico

  • Really helpful summary, Bill. Thank you.
    Peter Scott

  • Thanks Bill
    I’ve struggled with many a verse in my time but this, Government and God working together, made perfect sense to me. And not to mention, you Bill do all the hard work and all I have to do is read. I’ll pass this clearly painted picture onto my family.
    Daniel Kempton

  • I also received Cory Bernardi’s post. It is good reading.
    Ronald Reagan spoke of the ‘three legged stool of conservatism’. It consisted of A strong national defense, strong free market principles and Strong traditional social values. If any one of these three legs was missing, the (conservative) government was considered unbalanced and working against the people.
    It usually goes without saying that American Democrats (in Australia the ALP and Greens) typically do not ‘have a conservative leg to stand on.’
    I have heard one person was asked what holds the three legs together? His reply was the seat. The seat is the God-given rights found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution enabling Individual life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness bound together by faith in God and love of country.
    Under socialist constructs, you are not free to be an individual, you are constrained, and you must pursue Utopia not happiness. You are to dispose of God, but worship the State and Dear Leader like lemmings. For many of its followers, socialism’s ‘happiness’ is found only in what others call vices.
    Mike Evans

  • Thanks Mike

    Yes I have been discussing Reagan’s three-legged stool in various posts lately, such as:

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Why has the US fallen – an allegedly “Christion Nation” ?

    Here are the thoughts of Otto Scott as quoted by Gary North;

    “…Otto Scott, in a perceptive essay on the ever-changing U.S. Constitution, warns us against becoming deluded by “a sloganized history” of this nation and its Constitution. He traces the history of growing tyranny in the United States in terms of the steady transformation and reinterpretation of the Constitution. “The history of the Constitution Conspiracy in Philadelphia of the United States, like all other aspects of our national history, reflects the changes in American society and government through the years. To understand these changes it is essential to understand that history as it was, and ourselves as we are. Yet we have as a nation failed to confront the truth of our history in many important respects.”3 He then calls for the restoration of Christianity to “its early prominence among us. Let us, therefore, abandon the legend that the Constitution is intact, and set about the task of Christian Reconstruction – and Constitutional restoration.”4

    Stirring words, indeed! But what he fails to note in this perceptive essay is something he called to Rushdoony’s attention during a taped discussion they had regarding the theological foundation of the Constitution. Scott, over Rushdoony’s protest, identified the Constitutional Convention accurately: a successful effort by lawyers to
    overcome Christianity.5 Thus, if we are to achieve Scott’s two-fold goal – the restoration of Christianity as it once prevailed in this nation and Constitutional restoration – we must return to the expressly Christian oaths of the state constitutions of 1787, which were the constitutions that prevailed before the Philadelphia lawyers displaced
    them by means of a new national oath, an oath that openly refused to acknowledge the sovereign God of history who had made possible this nation’s experiment in freedom. We must no longer ignore Scott’s analysis: “The United States is the only government in the history of the world that has been established without a god . . . without specifically acknowledging any definition of any religion.

    The Constitution of 1788 was unique in that respect. No society hadever done that.”6 Actually, Rhode Island had, but that experiment in pluralism was protected by a larger commonwealth.
    Scott may not have understood that he was challenging one of Rushdoony’s most cherished beliefs. In 1965, Rushdoony had written:
    “The concept of a secular state was virtually non-existent in 1776 as well as in 1787, when the Constitution was written and no less so when the Bill of Rights was adopted. To read the Constitution as the charter for a secular state is to misread history, and to misread it
    radically. The Constitution was designed to perpetuate a Christian order.”7
    This was mytho-history on a grand scale, and he never deviated from it. Scott had challenged it head-on. ……

    3. Otto Scott, “The Legend of the Constitution,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction, XII (1988), p. 59. 4. Ibid., p. 59.
    5. “Easy Chair” audiotape #165.
    pg 346
    6. Otto Scott, question and answer session, message on Leviticus 8:1–13 by R. J. Rushdoony
    (Jan. 30, 1987).
    7. R. J. Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System (Nutley, New Jersey: Craig Press,
    1965), p. 2.

    You may read the rest of Otto’s thoughts in North’s book at;

    Phillip Ellery

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