ORIGIN OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT
(A Biblical Examination of Its Origin and Jurisdiction)
by Kerry Lee Morgan*
The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.
President George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796.
The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction — and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.
President George W. Bush, September 20, 2002.
In the last chapter, the people of Israel rejected God as their King and instead demanded to be ruled by a king that would make them his slaves. Not just any king, but a king like all the other nations. What kind of king is that? The Prince of Peace? Isaiah 9:6. No. A king with the Spirit of the Lord to go to war as in the days of the judges? Judges 3:10? No. Or perhaps King Jesus who with justice “judges and wages war?” Revelation 19:11. No, not a king like these. Perhaps Israel’s distinguished politicians are asking for a king like the Apostle Paul will describe in Romans 13? “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad . . . For he is God’s servant for your good.” Is that the King God himself described in 1 Samuel 8:17-18, when he said this king would make you his slaves? No, they are not seeking a mythical king. Do you see the conflict between “Make you his slave” and “for your good?” You should. God describes a civil government of the nations much differently that you may understand (or misunderstand) the way Paul describes civil government. We will get to this matter in the chapters to come.
The kind of king the leaders and people demanded was a king “to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” 1 Samuel 8:20. They want a military hero to be their king. Is it the glory of war they seek? More glory than Israel enjoyed under God when he annihilated the Egyptian army? Is it to be a great empire they seek, one greater than the empire of God almighty after Joshua settled them in their land? The king will make the people slaves to achieve the victory of war. War makes the people poor. That is a universal rule of economics.
Our purpose here is not to explicate the history of the kings of Israel or examine each of them in great detail. We will not find that God established any civil governments for any nation either. It is rather to observe some key aspects about God’s view of civil government in Israel and the executive branch in particular. As such we will examine the power and purpose of the first three kings, Saul, David and Solomon. Perhaps there is a principle or two we can identify and then apply to our civil government? Do not assume, “Well these are God’s choice so all is well.” No, God is trying to find a man or woman who can control him or herself. He is doing this because he is showing grace and mercy to His people to help them keep their end of the covenant.
The context of Israel’s kings shows God acting to accommodate and defer to His People’s sinful desire to have kings the same as everybody else. There is no suggestion that God wanted either judges or kings in the first place for Israel or that these kings are normative for Israel. God did not get up one morning and say “I think I will improve the civil government of Israel by no longer being their king or deliver. Instead, I will appoint a series of judges and kings to do the job. That will be a great improvement in civil government.” No, He never said such nonsense.
On the one hand we have seen the terrible price that the people would pay to have a king to lead them in battle like all the other nations as described by Samuel in 1 Samuel 8. On the other hand, we have God in His mercy anticipating that His Kingship agreed to by the people in Exodus 19:8, may eventually be rejected by His own people. Thus, as an act of grace, God described criteria that would help to mitigate the seriously shortsighted demand for a war-making king by wrongfully demanding a king in the first place. This wise counsel and gracious help was stated in Deuteronomy 17:14-20.
It is no exaggeration to declare this Divine counsel restates a universal principle. It is a principle found in the laws “of Nature’s God” as that term is used in the American Declaration of Independence. It is found in the laws of Nature’s God because it is given by God well after creation to Israel. The warnings against unlimited civil government and criteria for limiting Israel’s civil government, however, are also of value to the modern nations of the earth to the extent they too adopt civil government. God has not mandated the nations of the earth adopt or establish any civil government. But He has recognized that if a People desire to do so, that the People should limit that government if they are wise. God then details a few limitations of what to Him, are the critical limits on civil power to which a wise people should have recourse. Yet, peoples and nations who ignore or reject this counsel can expect to be ruled as Samuel foresaw, by a civil government that takes what the People have, enriches the rulers, and ultimately reduces the People to slavery.
These concepts will be further addressed when we review the Declaration of Independence which recognized the nature of civil government and likewise sought to establish a benchmark for subsequent alteration or abolition of any civil government that should follow. The Declaration is built largely in recognition of this principle that limiting civil government is necessary and prudent. While Samuel’s warning in 1 Samuel 8, against the slavery a People could expect from a civil government dominated by a warring king, God’s counsel in Deuteronomy 17 provides some relief from such a foolish and shortsighted demand for an unlimited civil government. That wise counsel is available to all nations who desire a civil government that will not reduce them to slavery, economic, intellectual or physical. Don’t skip over the quotation below. God states,
“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 whom the Lord your God will choose. 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. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold. “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.”
Thus, God offers His insight to the nations. His point is that a nation which establishes a civil government does best to limit its power. Here are some of the key concerns that are important. 1) Prohibit foreign born rulers from holding office; 2) Prohibit standing armies and maintenance of excessively large military forces; 3) Avoid excessive entanglements with other nations by treaty and trade agreements; 4) prohibit exceptions and preferences regarding application of the law of the land one law applied equally to all, the People as well as civil officials; 5) mandate civil government and its officials be under law, not above it, and 6) select civil officials that fear God, avoid bribes, and respect the laws of God for the nation, especially His jurisdiction.
How did Saul, David and Solomon stack up against these criteria stated in Deuteronomy 17? Forget what you learned or didn’t learn in Sunday school. That won’t suffice here.
Saul And National Security
Let us look at Saul. The first point to note is that Samuel anointed Saul as Israel’s first king. Samuel charged Saul, “And you shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies.” Saul was instructed to save the nation from foreign enemies. 1 Samuel 10:1. God gave Saul a new heart and sent His Spirit upon Saul. This is a good start. Samuel told Saul to go to Gilgal and wait for seven days for Samuel to come and offer sacrifices before Saul went to war. Then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the Lord. So far, so good.
Yet, Saul did not wait seven days for Samuel to come and offer sacrifices. Being impatient Saul offered the sacrifices himself before Samuel arrived. This was folly. When Samuel did show up, he upbraided Saul. Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” 1 Samuel 13:13-14.
Let’s get this straight. Saul is king. He is told to wait for Samuel. He fails to do so. He is told Samuel will offer the sacrifice before Saul goes to war. Saul does not wait and offers the sacrifice himself. Samuel comes and says to Saul, “You’re fired. You disobeyed God.” Saul did not last a week in office before he broke the law. Do you think your favorite elected official you voted for is more law abiding than Saul whom God appointed?
So Saul disobeyed the commands of God in the first week of his office. What was his crime? Saul exercised power not given. He had no power to offer sacrifices, yet he did so because he reasoned it was in the national interest. He said, “I thought, Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the Lord’s favor.’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.” 1 Samuel 13:12. In other words, the enemy was set to attack so he took things into his own hands regardless of the law.
It would not be the last time in human history that “national security” was used to justify the exercise of power without legal authority. It was another bad start for kings and God’s remedy was to tear the kingdom away from Saul. It is too tempting to not remark that the government often claims that “national security” gives it the power to do whatever it wants. This is standard operating procedure for the federal government, Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency and Armed Forces committees in Congress. State Governors citing the COVID 19 pandemic as a basis to suspend freedoms and treat the people like slaves confined to their homes are late to the game. The phrases “national security” and “public safety” roll off the tongue so easily and justifies every governmental aggression.
How did Saul deal with the army? Recall that the Philistines dominated the People. The Philistines garrisoned troops in Israel. 1 Samuel 10:5; 13:3. They prohibited the Israelites from possessing weapons such as swords and their farming tools only could be sharpened under civil government oversight. Today we would call this disarmament, a massive scheme to confiscate, regulate and control personal weapons, i.e. what the media call “reasonable common sense gun regulations.” 1 Samuel 13:19-23. Yet, faced with this tyranny, Saul sent home about 330,000 army troops, and chose only 3,000 men to stay and fight.
What is interesting here is that God permitted Saul to remain in the office of king of Israel for forty two years before David was anointed king and he reigned for forty years. Not only did Saul exceed his authority, but God eventually removed his spirit from Saul and sent an evil spirit to vex him. Saul would later even consult mediums for advice on how to conduct his foreign-policy and military battles. Saul started out seeking the voice of God and ended his rule seeking the words of a medium-a woman who consulted the dead. 1 Samuel 28-7. What a tragic fall. Is this what happens when “good people” go to Washington D.C.?
It is also clear that Saul refused to follow God or keep His commandments during his reign. God told Saul that he should attack and destroy the Amalekites and their King Agag, but Saul decided to spare the king. This decision was directly contrary to the commandment of God. Saul argued that it was okay because it was what the people wanted. Sound familiar? Saul wanted to please the people more than he wanted to obey God. Isn’t that the way of kings? Do you know any elected officials like that?
The point is that Samuel wrote down the law in a book and told Saul he had to obey the law. Saul said he didn’t have to obey the law. Saul said that he was special and could disobey the law in cases of national security and to please the people. Where have you heard that before? Saul was the king. The law was beneath him. This argument is a popular pattern for many civil rulers to copy in centuries and millennia to come. “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal.” President Richard Nixon, May 19, 1977. Nothing new with Saul.
Our interest here is in noting that there was a law and that it was written down. But merely having the law written down in a book saying that the civil government should obey the law, is not enough to prevent the government from disobeying the law. Likewise when Samuel confronted Saul about his disobedience, Saul’s response was to maintain a public persona of God’s approval without genuine obedience to the law. Who among us is like a Samuel? Who among us will confront the local, state and federal civil government and say “You are acting lawlessly.” John the Baptist publically ridiculed Herod for living with his brother’s wife saying, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Matthew 14:1-5. This might be a good woke sermon topic on how John could have been more loving.
Yet, reviewing the minimum elements of a limited government we see Saul was an Israelite, not a foreigner. He also relied on God, at least for the first two years of his reign in connection with the military. Rather than retaining a massive standing army, he dismissed the army and retained only 3,000 troops. Likewise, the Biblical record shows Saul made no treaties with other nations, at least not formal ones. It is more difficult to say if Saul was equally subject to the law of the land or acted under the law. He was not consistent. His secret meeting and consultation with the medium of Endor was a capital offense. This act alone merited God’s death sentence which was executed the very next day in battle.
This review strongly suggests that Saul’s invocation of “national security” to usurp the priest’s authority was the beginning of the end. Saul at the end of his life simply did not fear God or respect the laws of nature regarding the duty of human communication with God and not mediums. Nor did he respect the laws of nature’s God respecting God’s counsel that kings should be under the law and not excuse himself or his co-conspirators from punishment as did Saul when he “swore to her by the Lord, As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.'” 1 Samuel 28:10. What insanity. Yet, Saul is not much different than our modern politicians?
David and Centralization of His Military
After Saul’s death, the elders of Israel came to David and made a covenant at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. 2 Samuel 5:3. This is a good start. The people recognized that God had already chosen David to be king but now the people made that choice their own. Isn’t that interesting? God recognizes that people are enabled to choose their own governors and civil officials.
Moreover, a compact is struck. What were its terms? God said that David should be a prince over Israel. God refers to the times of judges and announces that Israel should live in peace and not be afflicted by their enemies. God also promises David a lineal secession of kings and that David’s own son would build God’s house, provided his heirs would continue their faithfulness to God. 2 Samuel 7:8-17.
There are other theological statements associated with David and his kingdom, of whom Jesus was genealogically descended from, which though important, do not directly implicate our inquiry here. To accomplish this God appointed David as king of Israel, but this is no rule for the nations. God appoints neither presidents nor dog catchers. Our interest in David is tied to his being made a prince through the grace of God and the consent of the people and that his authority was limited by a covenant. David would continue to serve as a national deliverer of the people from foreign domination, and there was light at the end of the tunnel that Israel would come into a time wherein it would be at peace with its enemies. To do this David centralized the military under his rule.
David was not perfect. No civil ruler is perfect. Nor should we expect any civil ruler to be perfect. David was ultimately charged and convicted of murder and adultery by the testimony of God’s prophet. 2 Samuel 12. Among God’s punishments was the death of his first child with Bathsheba. David also was punished for his actions when he ordered a military census of Israel’s fighting men sometime between 2,890-2,930 years into human history from Adam. In Israel there were 800,000 men who drew the sword, and of the men of Judah were 500,000. 2 Samuel 24:9. David had an army of 1.3 million fighting men. This dwarfed Saul’s standing army. By comparison, it is estimated that the total military personnel of the U.S. Army for fiscal year 2016 was about 500,356 persons.
When judged in light of Deuteronomy 17, David appeared to otherwise keep within his limited authority and not disobey the commands of God. He was not a foreigner, but he amassed rather than restricted a standing army and excessive military forces. Verse 11 of 2 Samuel 5 suggests that David may have made a treaty with Hiram, king of Tyre. Hiram sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, also carpenters and masons who built David a house. He also supplied building materials which David amassed for the future when Solomon would build God a temple. But this arrangement does not appear to have any direct military significance. It was commercial in nature.
It is also interesting to note though not widely known that David had many wives. Eight wives are mentioned by name in the Bible. They are Michal, Abigail, Bathsheba, Ahinoam, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, and Eglah. 2 Samuel 3:2 5; 1 Chronicles 3:1 3. According to 2 Samuel 5:13, David also married more wives in Jerusalem, but how many is not stated. It simply says that he took “concubines and wives from Jerusalem, after he came from Hebron, and more sons and daughters were born” to him. 2 Samuel 5:13. Maacah was the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur. Perhaps some of these marriages were de facto treaties of non-aggression in disguise. What David did in comparatively small measure, however, his son Solomon would do in excess. Of course, God had laid down the law of nature regarding marriage that it should exist only between one man and one woman during the lifetime of both. Genesis 2:24. David ignored this law. David’s rule also trampled down a few other limitations that God advised Israel to put in place in Deuteronomy 17.
Solomon: Military Strength, Foreign Wives, and Billions for Global Hegemony
Solomon followed David as the king of Israel. Though much is touted of Solomon’s wisdom, few study Solomon as a king. Fewer still pause to ask, “Did Solomon limit his authority within the wise limitations on civil power God set forth in Deuteronomy 17:14-20?” Don’t forget, that God had wisely provided that if the people made the shortsighted (indeed treasonous) choice to have a king like all the other nations, that at the least they should limit the king’s power in mitigation of their foolishness.
God cautioned that the king “must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses.” Did Solomon acquire many horses for himself? You bet he did. Solomon had 40,000 stalls of horses for his 1400 chariots, and 12,000 horsemen. 1 Kings 4:26. Solomon imported horses from Egypt and Kue, 1 Kings 10:26-28. By comparison the greatest number of chariots recorded were owned by King Sisera and were 900 in number. When the Egyptians pursued Moses and the people after they left Egypt, they employed 600 chariots. In other words, Solomon had the greatest “mechanized” infantry and cavalry in the world, more than double the size of pharaoh at the height of Egypt’s glory. Solomon, therefore, did not observe the limitations on his military that God laid down in Deuteronomy 17.
God also cautioned that the king, “shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away.” Did Solomon acquire many wives or his heart turn away from God’s? Solomon is the world champion of wives. Though God had said to not enter into marriage with women from the nations around him, Solomon nevertheless had 700 wives who were princesses, and 300 concubines. 1 Kings 11:3. When Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. 1 Kings 11:4. So Solomon ignored these limits also.
God further cautioned that Israel’s king should not “acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.” Yet, God had also promised that Solomon would have wealth and honor, more than that of any other king. 1 Kings 3:10-13. The weight of gold that came into Solomon’s treasury every year was 666 talents of gold. 1 Kings 10:14. A talent weighs roughly 75 U.S. pounds (34.3 kilograms), which is equal to 1,094 troy ounces. At $1,500 per troy ounce, a talent of gold is worth $1,641,000. At $1,600 per troy ounce, a talent is worth $1,750,400. Solomon received 666 talents each year and reigned 40 years. Thus, he annually received between $1.092 billion to $1.165 billion if measured in 2018 United States dollars. The fiscal year 2020 Department of Defense’s budget authority was approximately $721.5 billion dollars. Russia’s military spending/defense budget for 2019 was $65.10 billion dollars. Iran’s military spending/defense budget for 2019 was $12 billion dollars. North Korea’s military spending/defense budget for 2018 was $1.60 billion dollars. Cuba’s military spending/defense budget for 2018 was $0.13 billion dollars. Who is excessive? You judge for yourself whether Solomon’s revenue is “excessive” or simply the result of God’s promise he would have more wealth than other kings.
God also commanded that the king should be bound by the written law and read that “all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them.” It is clear from the days of Moses that the law prohibited the worship of foreign gods. God had explicitly said that, “You shall have no other gods before me.” He made it clear that, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” Exodus 20:3-5
Yet, Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Solomon also built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. He did this for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods. God said don’t, but Solomon said the more, the merrier.
As a result the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice and had commanded him about this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what the Lord commanded. Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, “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. Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen.” 1 Kings 11.
Think about that. Don’t gloss over that. God is tearing the kingdom from Solomon because Solomon has committed treason against the very nation he serves. Impeachment was avoided. Removal from office was avoided. But shame and humiliation were not avoided. He had become an idol worshipper just like the people under the judges. He was judged for his idolatrous treason.
Finally, God warned that the king should not “be lifted up above his brothers.” We have evidence that Solomon thought he was above the people, at least to the extent he felt he could worship Ashtoreth, Milcom and Chemosh with impunity.
Solomon also established a system of forced labor in Israel to build “the house of the Lord and his own house, the Millo and the wall of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer.” 1 Kings 9:15. At first, forced labor was only imposed on the remnant of the Canaanites, “All the people left from the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, that is, their descendants remaining in the land, whom the Israelites could not exterminate these Solomon conscripted for his slave labor force, as it is to this day.” 1 Kings 9:20-21. David had also relied on forced labor of this same group. 2 Samuel 20:24. “Solomon had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country.” 1 Kings 5:15. But Solomon made no slaves from among his brother Israelites. Instead of making them his slaves, he became the tyrant Samuel warned about in 1 Samuel 8 and conscripted his Israelite brothers into his military as “his fighting men, his government officials, his officers, his captains, and the commanders of his chariots and charioteers.”1 Kings 9:22.
Samuel had warned that, “these will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.” As noted, Solomon had 40,000 stalls of horses for his 1,400 chariots, and 12,000 horsemen. This was a bigger army and military force than any recorded government which preceded it. It was manned by Israel’s sons. It was not a volunteer army. It was based on forced conscription. Solomon took these men and made them military personnel. 1 Kings 9:20-22.
Samuel also cautioned that a king would “take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.” Some Bible commentators observe that the daily food and drink ration described in 1 Kings 4:22-23 as enough to easily feed about 30,000 persons. Obviously somebody had to bake the bread and cook the meat for this large administrative bureaucracy. Samuel warned that the bakers and cooks would be Israel’s daughters.
Solomon had to get bread, meat, and drink from somewhere. Samuel recognized that kings will take bread, meat and drink and will take these staples from the people. He warns that the king “will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants.” Solomon did precisely that. Solomon made their lives hard and they were taxed heavily.
Solomon’s life is an enigma. God gave him wisdom and riches and in return Solomon disobeyed God’s commandments regarding intermarriage and was an idolater. God made the world to be at peace with Israel during his reign, but Solomon made the people to serve in the military and foreigners to serve at forced labor. Solomon was fabulously wealthy, though God warned he should not be. Taxes and conscription made a very hard life for the Israelites. Don’t forget that Samuel had described how hard life would be under a king and that the above limitations in Deuteronomy were merely basic protections designed to lessen the servitude.
Yet, Solomon was precisely the type of threatening king that Samuel foretold and his reign continued the downward path of the nation away from the original covenant struck in Exodus 19:5. Rather than progressing to becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, they continued their rearward trajectory back to the status of a nation like all the other nations of the earth a nation that loves war and idols. The introduction of kings continued this decline. It is no model for the nations. Yet, in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 God shows grace to Israel and by reasonable implication the modern nations of the earth by advising Israel of the importance of limited civil government for those foolish enough to establish a strong civil government or a strong executive power in the first instance. The wise may learn by this example. Solomon was not wise in this regard. Neither are a People when they demand an essentially unlimited executive, President or King.
The quotations from President Washington and Bush at the beginning of the chapter illustrate how a commitment to war deforms liberty and ultimately renders the people less free and a servant of the nation. But it also reflects that over time, the United States government and its people have chosen to also become like all the other nations, losing their way by moving away from its founding principles of limited government, a distaste for non-defensive wars of foreign aggression, rejecting standing armies, a commitment to sound money retained by the people, and avoiding entangling alliances and wars of Europe and the world.