ORIGIN OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT
(A Biblical Examination of Its Origin and Jurisdiction)
by Kerry Lee Morgan*
And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” 1 Samuel 12:19
“The [People] did not listen, and Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.” 2 Kings 21:9.
Limited Government by Consent
We have seen that God established His government in Israel by the consent of the people repeatedly obtained from the very beginning. This principle of government by consent is universal. Not even God will force His government on any people, nor even at the second coming of Jesus Christ as the King of Kings. We may therefore understand that our civil governments (should we establish one in the first place), exist and govern only by our consent, not by its own will through political decree, force of arms, military action, or threats of violence by local police, homeland security or covert operatives.
Solomon was wise, but he did not practice wisdom regarding limiting his kingly authority as God admonished in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. He became the very king which God warned the people through Samuel that would oppress them. He was a king that took from the people that to which the king was not entitled. He took Israel’s sons. He took Israel’s daughters. He took Israel’s property. He took Israel’s crops. He took Israel’s land. He took Israel’s freedom and made the people his servants. He took foreigners and made them to work in forced labor.
Samuel’s description of a king in 1 Samuel 8 as one whom takes by force, is not a model for either nations or civil governments. It is a description of what a nation and people can expect of their civil government if not restrained by law and those restraints not observed by the legislative and executive branches nor observed and enforced by courts. The wise reservations or limitations on such a government’s power admonished in Deuteronomy 17 are a sober reminder to us that civil government, even a civil government established by our consent, should be very limited in its power.
Deuteronomy 17 is not an exhaustive list of possible limitations but it is a list of essential limitations. There should be limits on the military power of the government. For instance, a nation should not declare itself as the policeman of the world. There should be limits on the ability of government officials to enrich themselves and the nation at the expense of its people. There should be limits on entanglements with foreign governments through treaties and conventions. There should be one law that governs the governed and civil officials and courts. Government officials are to be our servants, not our masters.
Can God Find An Obedient King?
After the death of Solomon, God divided the kingdom. He divided it because Solomon was unfaithful to God. Solomon married foreign wives contrary to the direct command of God. Solomon worshiped idols and the gods of foreign nations, contrary to the direct command and multiple warnings of God. Because of it, God stripped Solomon’s heirs of the kingdom and divided the kingdom. God promised Solomon’s son Rehoboam that he could rule all Israel if he would just obey God’s commands, statutes and laws. Yet God had promised Jeroboam He would tear the kingdom away from Solomon and his son Rehoboam. Jeroboam was in charge over all the forced labor under Solomon. He was Solomon’s servant. The Lord said to Solomon, “Since this has been your practice [the worship of other gods] 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.”
So because Solomon was guilty of public corruption and idolatry, God permitted his son Rehoboam to govern one tribe while Solomon’s servant Jeroboam would govern all the other tribes of Israel. How did the consent of the people play into all this?
Since Rehoboam was the son of Solomon and then reigning, and the people remembered the conditional promise that God made to David, the people and Jeroboam then came to Rehoboam to ask him if he would limit his power and relieve them of conscription and heavy oppressive taxes. Jeroboam and the and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him, “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” 1 Kings 12:3-4.
But Rehoboam said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” The king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the Lord, to fulfill the word the Lord had spoken to Jeroboam about dividing the kingdom because of Solomon’s corrupt practices. The book of Kings then describes what happened after Rehoboam sought and followed the advice of his political advisors who themselves were already corrupt with dreams of rising to power on Rehoboam’s coattails in an Administration designed to be even more corrupt and tyrannical than his father’s.
A Declaration of Separation
So when all Israel saw that King Rehoboam refused to listen to them, they answered the king:
“What share do we have in David,
what part in Jesse’s son?
To your tents, Israel!
Look after your own house, David!” 1 Kings 12:16.
What is going on here? What does this declaration mean? God is giving ten tribes to Jeroboam to rule over. God is asking Jeroboam to obey him and his laws. This should seem familiar. God has asked every king to do the same thing. God has asked every Israelite to do the same thing. God has also, for the sake of David, given Rehoboam the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin including any Israelites who lived within the towns of Judah. I Kings 12:14-17. God also asked Rehoboam to obey his statutes and commandments. But of course neither king did.
God cannot find a king that will actually obey Him or limit the use of his kingly power once he becomes king. God had hopes for Rehoboam. But during his 17 years in office, the people of Judah did “according to all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” Rehoboam did not control the situation or enforce the laws of God regarding such matters. 1 Kings 14:22-24. How could it have come to this?
God also had hopes for Jeroboam, that if he obeyed God, that God would bless him, his household and heirs. 1 Kings 11:37-38. Jeroboam, however, later created two golden calves, commanded their worship, appointed his own priests and established places of worship God did not approve. This was sheer madness. God’s prophet said that Jeroboam did “evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back.” 1 Kings 14:9. Thus, God cut off and destroyed his house “from the face of the earth.” 1 Kings 13:33.
The historic demand of the people to have a civil government like all the other nations continued to be met with kings devoted to war, public corruption and evildoing, despite God’s efforts to mitigate Israel’s bad decisions by promising these kings God’s blessing upon them and their sons. This should be a familiar scene. Civil governments created by humans even with their consent tend toward lawlessness. God has given people directions about the wisdom of placing strict limits on their civil governments and their chosen or elected officials. But if that wise counsel is ignored, then that is the people’s fault, not God’s plan or will. Nor is it God’s will there should be any specific civil government, but rather that if a nation desires a civil government, that God has counseled it be established by consent, and organized and limited in such a way to restrain its tendency toward institutionalizing evil by force.
In Israel the people took government by consent seriously. They said that they no longer would be governed by King Rehoboam and his oppressive use of law to work the people and tax them into poverty. To implement that choice the people of Israel declared the causes that impelled them to separate themselves from the house of David. The people still wanted a king. They did not say, “Let us return to the days before the kings, or the days before the judges when our King and Supreme Judge was God.” No. We are far from their founding. They had lost the vision of their founding form of government. Does that sound familiar today?
Instead of going back to their founding and asking God to be their King again, they simply would settle for someone else other than the son of Solomon as their king. The people did not object to being the servants of a king. They did not set their sights on freedom. They only objected to being the servant of a king that was not as harsh as Solomon. The sought a lesser servitude. This was the pattern to come. So much was lost and forgotten.
A Strictly Limited Government, Not A Better King Is The Answer
We could now launch into a discussion of each of the kings that follows. We do not need, however, to go through the history of all the kings of Israel or all the kings of Judah. Their works are written in the book of Kings and in the Chronicles. The story is repetitive and familiar. A new king arises. The king does evil. God judges the people and the king. The people are oppressed by foreign nations. Their king either dies, is assassinated or God kills him. A new king comes in and does evil. The kings of Israel fight the kings of Judah. The kings of Judah fight the kings of Israel. The kings of Israel and Judah fight against foreign governments. On and on it goes–war, conscription and taking of property.
In all, there were 42 kings (and one queen). Saul was the first king, and he ruled over the 12 tribes of Israel for 40 years. After Saul’s death, the kingdom became temporarily divided, with Saul’s son Ishbosheth ruling 11 of the tribes for two years, while David ruled Judah. After Ishbosheth was assassinated, David became king over all 12 tribes. His son Solomon followed him as king. He ruled over a unified kingdom of 12 tribes. Both David and Solomon ruled for 40 years each.
After Solomon’s reign ended, the kingdom divided into what is known as the southern kingdom (Judah and Benjamin, simply called Judah) and the northern kingdom (the remaining 10 tribes simply called Israel). This resulted in a string of 19 kings ruling over Israel and 19 kings (plus one queen) ruling over Judah.
The Bible describes every king of Israel as an evildoer. Every single king did evil. That is how God described them. They did evil. Their politics or party affiliation if any meant nothing on God’s scale. Their public professions meant nothing. Among the kings of Judah they were not all evil. Only twelve were evil. Eight kings were described as good (Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, Amaziah, Azariah, Jotham, Hezekiah, and Josiah). They were good because they tried to obey God’s commandments and statutes.
In Israel the chance of getting a good king was zero. The chance of getting a bad king was 100%. In Judah, the chance of getting a good king was 42%. The chance of getting a bad king was 58%. Of all the 42 kings, 15 were killed or assassinated by others, God killed 3, and 2 killed themselves. Of the 19 kings of Israel, 7 were killed by individuals who killed the king in a coup and then assumed power. However, this happened to none of the kings of Judah, except queen Athaliah who first assumed power in a coup was deposed and killed in a subsequent coup. All combined, Saul, David, and Solomon ruled from 1025-945 BC. The kings of Israel ruled from 945 to 721 BC and the kings of Judah ruled from 925 to 586 BC.
This means we are almost 3,500 years from the beginning of human history and mankind’s experiment with kings appears to be an ever present remarkable failure even with God’s grace in counseling Israel and by implication the nations of the earth that pay attention, about the importance of establishing a civil government by consent and ensuring that it operates strictly under the rule of law itself. The rock band “The Who,” got it right when they declared “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Won’t Get Fooled Again from Who’s Next, 1971. That is a great song. If you need a break, listen to it now and think about our last several presidents.
What Do We Know After 3,500 Years of History?
It is curious how anyone can assert that the kings and queen during this period were “governing authorities . . . instituted by God” or that any of these kings were “God’s servant” for their good. Romans 13:1-4. If so, don’t you think it is strange that God killed a few along the way? How can it be said these kings were “authorities.” If so, they were not very good authorities. They were not to be obeyed in their evildoing. How can these evil kings even be considered “God’s servant?” If they were His servant, they were not very good servants. They should be fired by their masters.
What is the take away from our analysis of God’s perspective on civil government approximately 3,500 years from the beginning of human existence? Get that yellow marker out again. We must dispense with the notion that God has established civil government. The only government established and its authority and purpose described by God is the family government with its authority over the earth, land, seeds and animals. Neither a husband nor his wife are given any right to rule over any other person, or any other family. Neither person had any authority to exercise capital punishment for murder until after Noah.
A mother and father have exclusive authority over their own children, and no authority over their neighbor’s children. Even after the flood none of this changed except God gave mankind the authority to punish murderers. He did not give it to nations or governments since none then existed. It is arguable that He gave the power of capital punishment for murder exclusively to the family that was offended and not to all mankind to vindicate every murder, but this is merely arguable and not a hard and fast rule. It is common to say that the family is the primary unit of government. It is more accurate, however, to say that the family is the only unit of government established by God.
After the flood God merely describes kings and what they do. They make war, use women for pleasure by force if needed, financially enrich themselves, take what is not theirs, control territory, put men to forced labor and slavery, and promote nationalistic idolatry. This is the real face of civil government. We have seen God promised Abraham, who was not a king that many nations and kings would come from him. We have seen how this promise was fulfilled in part through both Ismael and Isaac, and also through Jacob, Israel and Judah. (We should also note that this was not a nationalist promise only, but a declaration that Abraham’s faith in God established a precedent that God would regard human faith positively in all ages without regard to being Jewish. Galatians 3:5-9). But this does not mean God created kings or instituted human kingdoms.
We also saw that the governmental establishment and law of the nation of Israel were no model or rule for other nations. The judges and kings of Israel were not an improvement of Israel’s founding Theistic government, but rather a departure from the original intention of God. It is true that God will use King David and the throne of David as the forerunner of the messianic Kingdom of Christ in the Millennial period to come, but this is what God redeemed from the People’s evil decision to ask for kings, rather than God’s plan that Israel should have kings so that prophecy could be fulfilled.
Our inquiry into civil government was rewarded when God did us a favor in 1 Samuel 8 by describing the actual way of the kings of the nations of the earth. The operative conduct of these kings was to take that which was not theirs. The way of kings is to take things to which they have no rightful claim. The way of kings is to take our children. The way of kings is to take property. The way of kings is to take our freedom and the control we enjoy over our minds and bodies. The way of kings is war, personal enrichment, and slavery. That is the terrible way of civil government as described by God. Is this what you see when you think of Congress, your state legislature or county government? Or perhaps it is God who is out of touch? How do you see it?
God also shows us grace, though not unlimited, to mitigate the effects of our shortsighted choices regarding civil government and civil officials. God does not require civil government. The failure or refusal to establish a civil government is not a sin. But if a nation or people do establish a civil government, the Scriptures provide us an insight. It helps us to see that a civil government which we establish by our consent ought to be limited. The more it is limited, the less likely we shall be its slaves. The less it is limited, the more likely we shall be its slaves. When God promised Israel to be their King, it was not to make them His slaves. Have we have been deceived to accept unlimited civil government to our own foolish detriment?