Why God has His doubts about the State
Remember when the Israelites asked the judge Samuel to appoint a king over them? (You’ll find it in 1 Samuel 9 - 12.) They needed protection against the Philistines, Samuel had grown old, and his sons, whom Samuel had also appointed as judges, “did not walk in his ways” (8:3).
It had been God’s pattern for many years to permit Israel to suffer at the hands of neighboring tribes during periods of infidelity, and then to raise up a judge to guide and protect them when they repented. As we can well imagine, Samuel was not pleased by the request of the people for a king. Nonetheless, God quickly disposed of Samuel’s personal grievance: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (8:7).
So God told Samuel to “solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (8:9). We ought to attend to this warning, for it describes what amounts to the difference between a free people and a modern state:
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. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. [8:11-17]
Now God was clearly annoyed by Israel’s desire for political power. He preferred that they would simply live in a manner worthy of His ongoing special care. But His response to Israel is instructive. He permits Israel to have a king, and he tells the people that all can still go well: “If you will fear the Lord and serve him and listen to his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be well” (12:14).
But otherwise not. See the very next verse.
So where does this leave us? There is no evidence that God desired to directly guide the political affairs of any nation other than Israel under the Old Covenant. But the evidence is undeniable that He expects all peoples and all governments to listen to His voice and keep His commandments. Thus the troubling character of political authority remains—the perennial temptation to make it a power unto itself.
We must ask: Is the rightness of an action determined by the positive law? Are human rights defined by those in power? Does “reason of state” render immorality right? When we answer “yes” to these questions, we are guilty of idolatry.
This is why God “has His doubts” about the State, particularly the modern secular state which invariably usurps the moral law. But when Samuel described the slavery that kingship would bring to Israel he also warned them what would follow. “In that day,” he concluded, “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day” (8:18).
Might this be nothing but another cry of selfishness from those who have refused God’s love?
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