Public Square & Theology 101

Biblical Warnings About Government

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Editor’s Note: This post has been adapted from Dr. Art Lindsley’s white paper, Government: Small or Large? If you are interested in learning more about a biblical perspective on government, check out Dr. Lindsley’s white paper and IFWE’s recently published research on the Bible and limited government.

In my last post, I talked about how humans are fallen in nature, meaning that those in power have the tendency to abuse their authority. The historical accounts throughout the Bible confirm that government has often overstepped its bounds, with frightening consequences.

This is evident in Egypt where the Pharaoh initially resists Moses’ plea to “let my people go.” (Exodus 9). We see in Pharaoh a hard-hearted, totalitarian tyrant resistant to submit even after several plagues show God’s power. Passover is a celebration that commemorates prophetic resistance to a totalitarian dictator and God’s powerful deliverance of his people from slavery (Exodus 12). It is a defining moment in the Old Testament.

After their deliverance, the Israelites often longed for a king instead of the theocracy that God had established for them. Finally, God told Samuel to listen to the people even though it meant a rejection of God’s kingship (1 Samuel 8).

Bill Arnold, in his commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel, argued that the Israelite demand for a king was “sinful in its motive, selfish in its timing, and cowardly in its spirit.” The Israelites were seeking conformity and security. What they failed to see was that unchecked kings would “become militaristic, conscript Israelite men, confiscate property, and lead ultimately to enslavement.”

In 1 Samuel 8, Samuel warned the people that future kings would “take” their sons for their armies, “take” their daughters for cooks and bakers, “take” the best of their fields, “take” a tenth of their seed and their vineyards, “take” their best young men, “take” a tenth of their flock. Eventually, he concluded, “you yourselves will become his servants” (1 Samuel 8:10-17).

The history of kings in the Old Testament reveals that most lived up to this warning. Even Solomon, who started so well, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not follow the Lord fully” (1 Kings 11:6). He did not listen to the warning to future kings set out in Deuteronomy:

He shall not multiply horses for himself…neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself (Deuteronomy 17:16-17).

Solomon did all these things, even establishing centers for idolatrous worship for his foreign wives.

Solomon also taxed his people heavily. After Solomon’s death, his son, Rehoboam, rose to power. The elders of Israel came to Rehoboam and pleaded that he might “lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke which he put on us” (1 Kings 12:4). The king rejected the advice of his elders that he should listen to the people and took the advice of young friends who grew up with him. He responded to the elders of Israel, saying,

My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions (1 Kings 12:14).

This misjudgment led to the division of the kingdom and a rejection of Rehoboam’s authority. Rehoboam refused to limit his power and greatly miscalculated, losing about half his kingdom.

The examples of Pharaoh’s heavy-handedness, Samuel’s warning about the dangers of kingship, Solomon’s excess, and Rehoboam’s folly are just a few examples from the Old Testament demonstrating the need for government to respect limits to its power. Many more examples exist.

Perhaps the most dramatic usurpation of power occurs in Revelation 13:1-10. In this vision, John sees a beast rising out of the sea and gaining great power and authority. One leader, seemingly resurrected from the dead, speaks “arrogant words.” He attacks believers and gains authority over “every tribe and people and tongue and nation.” All except true believers worship him. Leon Morris says,

[Some commentators see] the beast as signifying worldly government directed against the Church and he takes to a multiplicity of heads to indicate that this has various forms as Babylon, Assyria, Rome, etc.

Some commentators think that the beast is Rome. It may be, but it also signifies more than Rome, perhaps pointing to the future. Robert Mounce comments,

The worship of the satanically-inspired perversion of secular authority is the ultimate offense against the one true God. The temptation rejected by Jesus at the outset of his public ministry reappears at the end of history in its most persuasive form and gains the allegiance of all but the elect.

When government seeks to replace God, as in the illustration in Revelation, it commits the ultimate offense.

We must remember that God has clearly approved of government as an authority. Due to fallen human nature, God chooses to use government as a tool in order to uphold order, justice, and the rule of law.

Yet government itself is composed of fallen individuals and is far from perfect. Time after time, governments in the Old Testament exceeded their bounds, clearly reflecting the need for government to be limited.

These warnings indicate that Christians must carefully assess the consequences of their choices with regard to the size and scope of government, listening to biblical warnings, pondering the pervasiveness of the Fall, and learning from the lessons of history.

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