ORIGIN OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT
(A Biblical Examination of Its Origin and Jurisdiction)
by Kerry Lee Morgan*
“I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” Genesis 17:6-8.
“But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Leviticus 18:26-28.
We have ventured 2,275 years into human history. The covenant regarding marriage and family God made with Adam and repeated in a modified format to Noah and his offspring remains in effect and continue to this day. Nothing has changed there. Likewise, God has been and remains the King and Judge of the earth, its people and nations. Nothing has changed there. But something new is now introduced. God makes a promise to Abraham saying “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” He said “I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.” God will give him and his offspring all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession. Genesis 17:6-8.
The sign of this covenant is male circumcision. Genesis 17:11. Any male of Abraham’s seed not circumcised is cut off from the covenant and significantly from the right to possess the specific tracts of land promised by God. Genesis 10 tells us that nations shall come from families other than from Abraham. Nations have arisen from non-Abrahamic clans, so Abraham is not granted a monopoly on Nations. Nations are a byproduct of Noah’s covenant to take dominion over the earth. Yet, there is something new here. God did not need to covenant with Abraham to do what every other family was doing. God goes beyond Noah’s covenant and adds additional terms and benefits to a new covenant he is making with Abraham and his heirs.
Let’s be clear what we are talking about. God’s covenant with Abraham to make nations from him is not new. What is new is God promising that kings shall come from Abraham’s offspring and his offspring shall receive a grant of specific land. God said to Noah and his offspring, marry, have children and spread out among the earth which is yours for food, labor and enjoyment. Abraham was subject to that covenant. Now God is adding that kings will arise from Abraham’s offspring and his offspring will be given specific tracts of land which God will later define. This is something different. Another covenant is agreed upon. It is not Adam’s covenant. It is not Noah’s covenant. A new covenant with Abraham and his offspring is proposed which Abraham accepts by faith and verifies by circumcision. Let us explore what is and is not being planned.
The Covenant People and Nations, Kings and Land
The covenant God made with Abraham has three major legal dimensions. It also has a spiritual meaning. God’s covenant with Abraham established faith as the key to redemption from sin and death. This aspect is important but does not concern us here as we are examining the legally enforceable terms of the covenant. First, Abraham’s descendants are to be numerous and form many nations. Second, kings shall come from these nations. Third, these nations and kings shall occupy the land of Canaan forever. Nations, kings and specific land. It is not our purpose here to explore these three in-depth but to simply observe some general principles that we can hang on to in our search for how to think about civil government from God’s point of view.
First, Abraham’s descendants will form many nations. We’ve already seen that God created different languages so that the people should spread out over the face of the earth and exercise the authority they were given as family members. The Earth’s families separated by language, spread out by their clans across the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia after Babel failed. Nations resulted from this language-based clan migration. Genesis 10:32 says the “clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.”
So when God specifically promises to Abraham that his descendants would form many nations, it is not a new concept. In the past Noah’s sons in their nations spread out across the face of the earth and created nations. Now God has promised to make nations specifically from Abraham’s descendants including both Isaac and Ismael. But there is a further distinction. God says of Ismael: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” Genesis 17:20-21. The covenant is with Isaac: “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” Genesis 17:19. The promise of nations to Abraham’s descendant Isaac is part of a covenant. It is part of a promise God has made. The earth shall have nations formed from all of its peoples. Abraham’s descendants through Isaac do not have an exclusive part in that process, but they shall have a significant place in that process.
Thus, the covenant with Abraham regarding the promise of nations is not something new, though the means by which a “multitude” of nations are to be populated is now Abraham specific, though not exclusively. In other words, this is not an exclusive grant that only Abraham’s descendants shall become nations. God is not saying only Abraham’s descendants shall become nations.
Turning then to the second major aspect of this covenant which is the promise that kings shall come from these nations. Is this a statement that God will make kings? Is this a statement that God will finally establish kings and kingdoms that can then rule on his behalf and execute judgment? Is God saying to Abraham, “Look, I don’t think my approach to punishing evildoers has worked too well before or after the flood.” Is He saying, “Let’s change that arrangement worldwide. I will make kings from your offspring that can punish the people the right way when their evil acts occur, and not wait till only four righteous people are left in a wicked city or eight righteous people are left upon the face of an evil earth before I save only them and put the rest to death.” Is that what God is contemplating here?
Is that what God is saying when he says to Abraham: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.” Genesis 17:6. Is that what the text says? No, God is not saying any of these things. Don’t read what is not stated. God is stating a fact — kings will come, nothing more. God is describing, rather than proposing a fundamental change. God is not saying “I will make these kings.” God is not declaring these future kings have any inherent authority. He is not saying these kings have a right to rule, or their commands automatically oblige deference just because they come from Abraham’s lineal descendants. He is not dictating how a man may become a king or a woman a queen. Nor is He saying that all such kings will act lawfully.
God’s promise about kings is not these kings will act lawfully or obey His law. They may, but they may not. God does not say. God is not stepping off the throne and elevating Abraham’s future kings to a position of perfect kingship. That is not what is being promised. That is not what is proposed. No speculations are part of the covenant. We shall see this in greater relief when we examine the history of Israel and Judah and their foolish request for a human king in 1 Samuel 8.
As to the third aspect of the covenant, God grants specific land to a specific people and nation. This makes perfect sense as a nation without land is not much of a nation. We see God is very thoughtful in this covenant with Abraham. He covers all the bases: nations, kings, and specific land. But also recall that all mankind was previously directed to scatter over the face of the earth and occupy and work their land into which they migrated. So nothing in this third aspect is different on that score. What is different is that God is saying He will now give specific real estate to a specific nation, as contrasted to His prior general direction that families should hold and enjoy real property.
Now let’s see how God fulfills this covenant. Perhaps we can understand better what God has in mind with kings and kingdoms and civil government. At this point, however, we ought to resist the urge to jump to the conclusion that because God said to Abraham that kings shall come from you, that ergo all of the world’s leaders, presidents and civil governments now in existence or arguably traceable to Abraham are put there, authorized or appointed by God himself to rule over their peoples by a divine right or otherwise. That is far from the truth. Don’t be a simpleton or drink the political Kool-Aid about this, or conclude that civil government is therefore “from God.”
God still has his rules for the nations in place. He is still the judge of the nations. He has not delegated that away. Any nation that commits abominations, so the land becomes unclean will be judged by God. Leviticus 18:26-28. His covenant with Abraham does not leave God with nothing to do except figure out how to save the human race. He is still God and His government of the nations and enforcing the peace is without end. Isaiah 9:7. We must understand this as a day to day reality, not as some pie-in-the-sky future spiritualized judgment. There is a future war against the kings of the nations (Rev. 19:14-19) and a final judgment of every man and women ever alive (Rev. 20:11-13), but what we are referring to in this chapter is God’s ever-present authority and power over the nations of the earth to this very day. Duet. 8:20. “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you.” 2 Chronicle 20:6.
God has authority over all the nations of the earth, but for Abraham and later for Israel and then Judah he offered something more. His promise of specific land to Abraham was only fulfilled in the time when Israel left Egypt. At that time God will offer to be that nation’s King in residence, live among them, make specific laws for them as a legislative body, implement and enforce those laws as a King, and judge the people by those law as a Judge. Granting of land to Abraham is the forerunner of a civil government yet to come that the world has never seen.
As to the other nations, they are bound to what they have been given. They have not been given a civil government by God. They have (like Abraham) been given family, its own authority structure of husband and wife, parents and children. They have been given purpose in life. Exercise dominion over their own land according to their clans and nations, and use and replenish the earth to sustain them.
Why did God set up all the nations in this way? He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Acts 17-26-27. That is the purpose of nations that they should seek God and find Him.
A nation which fails this purpose is unworthy of the designation. Do you know of a nation that now seeks after finding God? Or do they rage against Him through their schools and government officials? Do they plot in vain in their Congresses and legislatures? Do they take counsel with their judiciary against the Lord and against his Anointed? Psalm 2: 1-3; Psalm 102:18-22; 148:11? Ponder these questions the next time your church mechanically prays that God would bless our governmental leaders and give them “wisdom.” Read Psalm 109 for something different.
As for the covenant God made with Abraham, it was basically a modified family covenant. It involved making many more nations, and one nation with offspring through one specific family line with specific land for a special purpose beyond that previously given to all families from Adam and Noah. God was setting the stage through Abraham about His forthcoming offer to this family line in the course of time, to live in a specific land for a specific purpose to be the earthy King, Legislature and Judge of the one nation set aside for the special purpose of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. See Exodus 19:4-5. That is the legal core of Abraham’s covenant, not that kings or civil government come from God. God is carrying on the family theme. And don’t let some theologian tell you that the covenant is merely spiritual.