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: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/10/god-government-and-the-state-part-one/