Governance: Biblical Perspective (Part 1)

Knesset Chamber (Photo: Itzik Edri/Wikimedia Commons)

When we hear the word “politics”, what associations come to our mind? In most cases, we think that the politicians are commonly corrupt people who are pursuing some selfish goals and are far from real people with their problems and difficulties.

How should the Christians treat the political life of society? Should we show interest in politics, or is it something “secular”, something we do not have a direct relationship with? What does the Bible say about the people called to serve the society as political and public figures? Does the Lord care about the political system of our country, or does He not?

In order to understand God’s values, standards and principles of the political organization of society, we must turn to the Old Testament writings and the example of Israel.

The Government and the Definition of Power

Political sphere is one of the most important spheres of public life. It covers the relationship of people with the government, which (at best) should ensure a fair living and safety of people. In a sense, politics is the art of public governance.

In the Bible, Lord promoted His redemptive objectives through a national formation – the State of Israel. Old Testament Israel was a unique political structure based on the covenant relationship (agreement) with the Lord as the King. God did not just want to rule this nation; He also revealed His objectives and values through this people.

People were created for communion with the Creator and with each other. Moreover, we are created in relationships and for relationships. The essence of politics is the ordering of social relationships and their arrangement, which is of direct concern to the Lord. The worship of the Lord in spirit and in truth (see John 4:24) shows our commitment to God’s principles and values in relations with other people. The task of any political leadership is striving to maintain a just order in society.

The fall of humanity perverted all spheres of its activity, including the public or social areas. Consequently, people tend to wickedness and evil, which leads us on the path to self-destruction, and only God’s mercy and grace still serve as a deterrent, not allowing humanity to destroy itself.

The influence of sin on the political life of society is manifested in the lust for power, which of course, usually drives the oppression and violence. Power is a capacity to influence other people and the ability to reach any goal. Although power itself, as an institution, is neutral, however, its abuse is one of the manifestations of the human sinfulness.

Studying the Old Testament Israeli political system, we must remember that political tradition has been evolving and changing continuously over the years, ranging from immature multi-tribal community recently redeemed from slavery in Egypt and settled in the land of Canaan, to the empire of Solomon, the Second Temple era, and until the times of the earthly ministry of Jesus. Nevertheless, the core God’s values for shaping and characterizing the society and forming the basis for resolving social problems by the government are all laid down in the Law given through Moses.

Government and People

The source and nature of power are key issues in talking about the government. Where does the power of government come from? What are its limits? First, all power was originally owned by God as the Creator of all things, including humans. Second, political power comes from God, but the role of the people in choosing the ruler is important. It is the people who elected or overthrew the king, but any human power is accountable to God as the One who “changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Daniel 2:21).

In the book of Deuteronomy, the Lord shows us the importance of choosing the people.

Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.(Deut. 1:13)

From the very beginning of formation of His people, the Lord taught the Israelites to choose their own leaders, who must fit certain criteria, i.e. be wise, understanding and experienced. These people should have led the people and take care of them. Through Moses, God gave to the people the right and power to choose their leaders. The Bible tells us not only about the role of the people in election of the authorities, but also that the government gets the power from the people and is accountable to them. Biblical justice in the political sphere is built on mutual respect between the government and the people, as well as their trust and respect for each other.

In Chapter 17 of Deuteronomy, we read that God, foreseeing that in the future Israelites would ask for a king, says that the king should be an example for all citizens, showing the compliance with requirements and recognition of the Law value in his personal life. The future ruler should not seek military superiority, wealth and have many wives. On the contrary, the king must be a servant of his people, constantly checking the motives of his actions in the light of God’s precepts.

When, centuries later, the Israelites asked Samuel to give them a king “like in all the nations”, God has not taken away from them the right to choose, but warned about the consequences through Samuel the prophet. Later David, knowing that the Lord chose him to be the king over Israel, wanted to ascend the throne, but only when the people elect him to reign as their leader.

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the LORD said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.’” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel. (2 Samuel 5:1-3)

This example shows us that the Lord gave to the people the right to choose the government, and David remembered it. Subsequently, the prophets pointed to the future kings in God’s name, but the Israelites were to give the power to the rulers from themselves. God wanted His people to be involved in the political sphere of public life when choosing the king and evaluating the results of his reign. When choosing political leaders, the Israelites were to assess their character and life, and thus to become responsible citizens of their country.

King as a Servant

In my opinion, the clearest description of the principles of king’s service to his people is contained in the words of the wise counselors of Rehoboam, who served even to his father Solomon.

And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” (1 Kings 12:7)

These men, experienced in the political management of people, disclose to Rehoboam the essence of successful leadership, which implies the mutual service of the king and the people. Yes, people are bound to obey the king, but he, in turn, should use his position to serve the people, and to take care of their needs.

In Psalm 71, we find the prayer for the king, which clearly shows one of the intended uses of power vested on the king.

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice! Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness! May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor! For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight. (Psalm 72:1-4, 12-14)

The words of this Psalm once again present to us the fundamental concept of the government. The king and his government apparatus exist for the good of their people, and not vice versa. King should use his power primarily for fair treatment of the poor and needy members of the society. The government is obliged to create a fair atmosphere in a society where everyone can and must be heard! A characteristic feature of the king’s reign should be the compassionate justice.

The most striking image of a caring king, taken from the life of the ancient Middle East, is when comparing him with the shepherd (Ps 77:52; Ps 78:13; Ps 79:2; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10). The shepherds took care of the sheep. Ezekiel the prophet denounced the wicked kings of Israel, backslidden from the Lord, presenting them as shepherds ruthlessly exploiting their flock, the people.

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.”(Ezekiel 34:2-4)

When Jesus speaks of Himself as the Good Shepherd (see John 10:11), He makes it clear that the way to greatness in the eyes of God comes through the humble service to people. Thus the Lord restores in the understanding of his contemporaries the God’s view of leadership and authority.