This is the first in a short series of posts examining the biblical conception of the civil magistrate. This entry will focus on what I believe to be the Old Testament’s primary teaching passage establishing the relationship between God, the people, and civil government. At a later time, we will look at historical examples of this relationship in action. In a final article, we will move to the New Testament to consider its discussion of these themes in light of this context. For a very helpful and thorough, if dense, treatment of these topics, I highly recommend Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex. In what follows, I have been heavily influenced by Rutherford’s argument.
Events of the past couple of years have raised serious questions about how Christians and the church are to think about civil government. What is our responsibility to obey the governing authorities? How far does that responsibility extend? What responsibility does the government have to "We the People"? Do the people hold the government accountable, or does that only go the other way?
To go about answering those questions, we must understand what the Bible teaches on the subject. As simple as that sounds, though, there appears to be little consensus on how to go about that beyond arguing over Romans 13 and what it means to "be subject to the governing authorities."
There is a better way. We need to begin by examining the origins of government, and especially the origins of Israel's monarchy. This is a more important discussion than it might seem. My contention is that when Paul and any other biblical author write on the topic of the civil magistrate, they necessarily do so with Israel's history and government in the back of their minds.
Christians have basically two competing conceptions of government's ultimate origin. There are those who see the civil government as being handed down from God as the means of administering His sovereign rule over the lives of humans. On the other hand, there are those who see civil government as something that arises from the people when they corporately determine how and by whom they will be governed. Which conception we hold will profoundly influence what power, position, and authority we ascribe to the civil government.
God Gives Israel Permission to Make a King
Deuteronomy 17:14-20 provides us with an early and crucial discussion of the founding of the Israelite monarchy. As Israel is about to enter the land of Canaan, the Lord through Moses prepares the people for life in their new home by reminding them of His laws and statutes.
Beginning in verse 14, the Lord says:
"When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,' you may indeed set a king over you."
Here God gives the people permission to set up a monarchy when they get into the land and decide they want one. There are a couple important details to note about the way this permission is given. First, notice whose choice this is. "When you come to the land... and then say, 'I will set a king over me...'" (v. 14). God gives the people, acting on their own volition, the right to choose that they will have a government over them, when that will happen, and that it will be a king. The choice is theirs. Second, notice who performs the action of making the king. "You may indeed set a king over you" (v. 15). With God's permission, the people have the right both to make the decision to set a king over themselves and then to put that decision into action. In short, the people make the king.
Requirements of the King
In no way does this recognition of human right and responsibility diminish God's sovereign role as the one divinely overseeing the whole process. While granting the people this privilege, God nevertheless retains oversight. Verse 15 makes clear that this king whom they choose is to be one "whom the LORD your God will choose." There are certain qualifications the king must meet.
First, he must be an Israelite.
"One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother" (v. 15c).
This most certainly also means he must be a worshipper of Yahweh, and not a pagan. More on that later.
Verses 16-17 spell out several behavioral cautions for the man on the throne. First, "He must not acquire many horses for himself." (v. 16a). Military might is not to be the king's greatest concern; his trust is to be in the Lord. Second, the horses he does acquire are not to be sourced from the land of Egypt. The LORD had commanded the people, "You shall never return that way again" (v. 16b). The nation is not to look to another nation for their national security or well-being, particularly not Egypt, the land with whom they had so much history! Third, this man is "not [to] acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away" (v. 17a). Though the moral implications seem clear and probably most prominent to us, this prohibition goes beyond cautioning against sexual immorality. Kings in those days often took multiple wives from among the family of foreign kings as a means of gaining and leveraging foreign political alliances. As bad as it would be to secure military strength from foreign nations, taking foreign, pagan women as wives would personally expose the king to their pagan idolatry. Last, but not least, the king must be careful to guard himself against greed and not "acquire for himself excessive silver and gold" (v. 17b). As it would be tempting to rely upon military power rather than upon the Lord, so it would likewise be tempting to rely upon silver and gold.
To promote the spiritual fidelity and maturity of the king, certain spiritual precautions are to be in place. First, the king is to "write for himself in a book a copy of this law" (v. 18). He must know God's law for himself and his people. Writing out his own copy would display a greater commitment to learn and practice all that is written in it. Interestingly, this verse also tells us that he is to do this under the tutelage of the Levitical priests. In this area, the prince is subject to the priest. Not only is he to write the law, but "it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life" (v. 19). The king is to be a daily student of God's Word.
Our text gives us three specific reasons why these precautions are necessary. The first reason is "that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them" (v. 19b). A solid spiritual grounding must be the foundation for the king's governing. A second reason for these directions is "that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers" (v. 20a). He must remain humble, despite having been lifted to the position of king, and not begin to consider himself to be above the people. In sum, the king is to take care that he "not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left" (v. 20b). A wise and good king will heed these precautions "so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel" (v. 20c). He can anticipate God's blessing on his kingdom and reign, as well as that of his children who follow after him.
Before moving on to consider how the reign of an Old Testament figure relates to this passage, we need to pause and note some truths about government, in general. First, participation in civil government or any position of power exposes rulers to significant temptations to compromise in areas of greed, power, sexual immorality, and spiritual matters. Those with power face great temptation. Second, in the logic of Deuteronomy 17, civil government does not seem to be lowered down from heaven on a sheet. It is formed when a people wishes to be governed in a particular way and decides to set up a civil government to accomplish that. As we will see in the next post, this takes the form of a covenant between God, the king, and the people.
Does Deuteronomy 17 play as important and foundational a role in the Israelite conception of the monarchy as we have argued? A brief look at 1 Kings 10-11, which describes the peak and decline of Solomon's reign, should confirm the centrality of the Deuteronomy passage for Israelite thought on the subject.
Solomon's Decline in Light of Deut. 17
King Solomon was unrivaled in his glory, wealth, and wisdom. In 1 Kings 10:1 we read that "the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD," so she came to test him and see if he was as impressive as she had been told. This was a great high point in Israel's history and a vivid example of God's blessing upon his people.
Immediately after the queen's departure from the scene, the author gives us an overview of Solomon's accomplishments and lifestyle. Verses 14-23 describe the unimaginable wealth of gold and silver the king was accumulating. In fact, "King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches" (v. 23). He had so much silver that it was as common in Jerusalem as stone (v. 27)! Next, we encounter the huge number of chariots and horsemen (presumably with their horses), which the king was amassing (v. 26). In fact, he was having them imported from Egypt (v. 28)! Not only did he multiply horses from foreign lands, but "he loved many foreign women" as well (11:1), something the Lord had sternly warned against as far back as Exodus 34:16. Sure enough, as he had been warned, Solomon's foreign wives turned his heart away from the Lord to serve other gods (vv. 3b-8).
What was the result of all of this in Solomon's case? The Lord said to him:
"Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant" (v. 11).
The Lord took his kingdom from him, but he did so, not in Solomon's day, but in the days of his son (v. 12).
The account of Solomon's decline in 1 Kings 10-11 reads almost like a deliberate negation of the precautions prescribed for the king in Deut. 17. The king was not to acquire many horses, but Solomon did so and did so from the forbidden land of Egypt. The king was not to acquire many wives for himself, but Solomon accumulated 700 wives and 300 concubines, foreigners and pagans, who drew his heart away from the Lord. The king was to be careful not to "acquire for himself excessive silver and gold" (Deut. 17:17), but Solomon gathered huge quantities of gold and silver, so much that silver was made virtually worthless. The king was to be careful to fear the Lord, but Solomon allowed his heart to be led away from God. The king who was careful to trust and obey the Lord, as Deut. 17 and all of God's law taught him, could expect his kingdom to prosper long and he would be able to pass it on to his children (Deut. 17:20), but Solomon's disobedience and unfaithfulness led to his kingdom being torn away from his son.
It is hard to read about Solomon’s decline and not be reminded of the instructions and cautions of Deut. 17. The similarities are so great that it seems very likely the author of 1 Kings had the Deuteronomy passage in mind.
We began by asking where government has its origins. Is it handed down from on high as God’s means of administering his sovereignty in the lives of people? Or does it arise from the people themselves under God’s hand? Deuteronomy 17 would seem to argue that it derives its authority and origin from the people themselves by the permission of God. Next time we will see how this agreement between God, people, and government plays out in Israel’s history.
Brennen Behimer (BA, Moody Bible Institute; MA, Wheaton College) is a pastor at Parkside Bible Fellowship in Fallon, NV. He is husband to Stephanie and father of six.
Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors on this site.