God has been putting up with our sin for a very, very long time. One massive overarching theme that we can see in Scripture is that God has been slowly moving his people further away from sin and closer towards his ideal.
In the New Testament we see a massive jump forward with the arrival of Jesus. At the time of Christ’s birth, the Romans had built the most sophisticated system of roads the ancient world had ever seen. The timing of his arrival wasn’t arbitrary. The teachings of Jesus were able to spread quickly throughout the civilized world because of the over 50,000 miles of road that Rome had built.
God came to us in the flesh to say “enough is enough.” No more misinterpretations, no more accommodations, no more concessions. And while there were quite a few things Jesus set the record straight on, we’ll be looking at three major ones and how they were foreshadowed in the Old Testament. It turns out, God never wanted any of them in the first place.
In this third article of a series called “Enough is Enough” we’ll be looking at governments throughout the Bible and how God never wanted them in the first place.
What is Government?
A government is a system of social control under which the right to make laws, and the right to enforce them, is vested in a particular group of people. Governments have been in existence for thousands of years, long before the people of Israel. They have taken many forms, but almost all of them involve some people ruling over the masses. This can look like a monarchy, a democracy, or an oligarchy, it doesn’t matter.
All forms of human government go against God’s desires.
It was never God’s plan to have humans ruling over one another. From the start of human history, God wanted to be our direct “King”. Governments only arose as a result of the fall as sin entered into the world. They were never God’s ideal. The Lord’s disapproval of government and worldly power can be traced all throughout the Bible from the first book to the last.
The first time in Biblical history that we see government is in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). Curiously, the word gets translated into English as “Babel”, though it gets translated as “Babylon” every other time it appears in the Bible. The Tower of Babylon was more than just a tower, it was a consolidation of human power and self-exaltation. It was the first government. The author here is showing us that this Tower of Babylon is the climax of human rebellion against God during the first stages of human history. In response, God confuses the people’s language and scatters them across the lands.
In the next chapter of the Bible a man named Abraham gets called out of this scattering to start a new nation. He is told by God to leave the country he resided in and start a new nation that would look very different from all the other nations. This people group would come to be known as Israel.
The ancient people called Israel had no government and had no king. This was in stark contrast to all the other pagan nations surrounding them. Instead, for Israel, God was their only King. From time to time a slight exception would be made when the situation became disastrous through famine, through social disorder, or through idolatry and a return to pagan religions. God then chose a man or a woman who had no specific authority, but whom he inspired, to lead the people back to reverence for God, that is, to resolve the crisis. These people were called “judges”. When the judges had played their part, they rejoined the people. This was obviously a flexible system. God did not necessarily choose people of distinguished family or health. They had no permanent power. God alone could be considered the supreme authority.
King Yahweh Gets Demoted
For generations, the faith of Israel allowed them to trust in God as their sole King. Relatively speaking, this wouldn’t last long (1 Samuel 8). Eventually, their faith wavered and they asked for a human king “to be like other nations,” to rule over them and to “go out before [them] and fight [their] battles.” In other words, the people felt that having a king would make living easier and make them more secure against enemies. They wanted a worldly king “such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5). To the Israelite’s plea for a human king, God replied, “they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods” (1 Samuel 8:7-8).
God wanted to give his people one last chance to repent and turn away from this wickedness, so he gave them a “solemn warning”. A human king would take their sons and make soldiers of them, forcing them to kill and be killed (1 Samuel 8:11). He would force them to work his lands and create weapons of war (1 Samuel 8:12). He would take their daughters for his harem or as domestic servants (1 Samuel 8:13). He would impose evil and oppressive taxes and confiscate the best lands and thus, according to God, the people would be the king’s slaves (1 Samuel 8:14-17).
The people replied, however, that they did not care. They wanted a king. God warned them again, that they would cry out against this king (Judges 3:9,15; 4:3; 6:7), but nothing could be done.
We see that people want human rulers only because they no longer trust God to rule. It suggests that the very existence of governments is evidence of human rebellion. God pleaded with his people not to go down this path. He warned them that giving a person power over them would wreak havoc in their lives. Fallen humans simply can’t handle having power over other people. What God knew— but what the people seemed incapable of accepting— was that when fallen humans are given power, they use it in sinful ways. Exceptions to this are very rare, as history readily testifies. But the people would not listen. They demanded a king. So God reluctantly gave them what they wanted.
Thus, a human king was chosen. His name was Saul. He became mad, committed all kinds of abuses of power, and was finally killed in battle against the Philistines. This was the beginning of the end for Israel.
Israel’s Sad Downward Spiral
After king Saul, the next king was David, the most famous of all Israelite kings. While David is often praised as being a “man after God’s heart” (Acts 13:22), not even he could resist the evil of having power over other people. David used his power to take “many” wives and sex slaves (2 Samuel 5:13). He used his power to murder and slaughter thousands of people. He used his power to forcibly take married women into his bed while murdering their husbands. In the end, God would scorn David for “shedding much blood and fighting in many wars” (1 Chronicles 22:8).1
After David, came his son, Solomon. Solomon took his kingdom from a city to an empire. As his kingdom grew, so did his wickedness. The people of Israel were freed from their bondage of slavery in Egypt in order to become God’s nation, a light to the world. They were supposed to be different. They were supposed to be the anti-Egypt, the anti-empire with God alone as their king. But, instead, Israel became Egypt.
In order to build his empire and the Temple, Solomon enslaved 30,000 of his own countrymen (1 Kings 5:13), with the aid of roughly 3,300 slave masters.2 For the slaves it took 7 years to build the Temple (1 Kings 6:38) and then it took 13 years building king Solomon’s palace (1 Kings 7:1). His slaves constructed many other buildings including another palace for the Pharaoh’s daughter, whom he had married (1 Kings 7:8). The very burden that Pharaoh placed on the Israelites was now put on them by Solomon.
The oppressed had become the oppressor.
The Minority Prophetic Voice
After Solomon, the kingdom was split into two and both parts suffered under dozens of horribly evil kings.3 But, for every king there was a prophet. The prophets weren’t fortune tellers in the way modern readers might assume, rather, they were mediators for God. The prophets were most often a severe critic of royal acts. Prophets were sent by God with warnings. These messages were always in opposition to royal power and worldly government. Naturally, the prophets were often expelled: they were obliged to flee, they were put in prison, they were threatened with death. However, this did not make any difference.
The prophets were a counterforce, representing God’s disapproval with rulers and government.
Despite the many warnings, the two kingdoms of God’s people would meet their end. The northern kingdom of Israel was overrun by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon. These were God’s chosen people, and even they couldn’t resist the sin of power over people. They couldn’t resist the lure of kingship and government. The worldly form of power they wielded led them to complete ruin and captivity. For hundreds of years until the time of Christ, they wouldn’t have another king.
Governments Belong To Satan
Right before Jesus started his ministry he went into the wilderness to fast. There he faced three temptations by the devil. In the book of Matthew, the final temptation was the one that the Israelites failed most miserably at.
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the nations of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
According to these texts, all powers, all the power and glory of the nations, all that has to do with politics and political authority, belongs to the devil. It has been given to him, and he gives it to whom he pleases. Those who hold political power receive it from him and depend upon him for gain and expansion. This is supported by the overarching theme in scripture and by it being stated directly many times (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4). Scripture says that the whole world is under the devil’s power (1 John 5:19).
Notice that Jesus does not say to the devil, “It is not true. You do not have power over nations and states.” He does not dispute this claim. He refuses the offer of worldly power because the devil demands that he has to worship him to obtain it. This means that in some way, no matter what, all those in political and governmental power, have to, and do, whether they know it or not, worship the devil. We know this because this is the condition until which the devil grants humans the power to run nations. Read more about this here. This is why God has been opposed to human government from the beginning.
What about “give to Caesar what is Caesars” (Mark 12:17)? What about “the authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1)?
Render Unto Caesar
The Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” Jesus replied, “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
The head of Caesar on this coin was more than a decoration or a mark of honor, like heads of presidents are on U.S. currency. It signified that all the money in circulation in the empire of Rome belonged to Caesar. This was very important.
Here is the basis and limit of his power. But where is this mark? On coins, on public monuments, and on certain altars. That is all. Render to Caesar. You can pay the tax. Caesar has no right whatsoever to the rest. Caesar has no right of life and death. Caesar has no right to plunge people into war. Caesar has no right to devastate and ruin a country. Caesar’s rightful domain is very limited, according to Jesus.
The fact that Paul says all governing authorities have been “established [tassō] by God” does not go against all the other verses in scripture that claim that the devil rules governments. Indeed, it supports it, for tassō (Greek) has the connotation of something being “ordered,” “arranged,” or “filed.” It thus does not imply that governments behave the way God wants them to behave, as though God wanted the barbarically violent regimes of Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot to carry out their atrocities. It simply means that God makes use of governments as he finds them.
To cite an analogy suggested by John Howard Yoder, a librarian need not approve of the book he files or arranges on the library’s bookshelf. He may actually loathe the book, but he nevertheless puts it in its proper place given the kind of book it is. So too, since all governments in our fallen world are going to rely on the sword, God is willing to stoop to influence their sword wielding, as much as possible, to promote justice and minimize evil. And insofar as governments reflect this influence, they function as God’s “agents of wrath.” But insofar as they do not, they simply reflect the violent and unjust hearts of their leaders (and the demonic forces they are aligned with). Hence, we again see there is nothing in this passage to warrant interpreting all government violence, let alone violence between governments, as reflecting divine judgments.
For Christians the one true king is Jesus Christ (Isaiah 9:6). You see, Jesus wasn’t crucified by Rome because he was teaching people how to go to heaven when they die. Jesus was put to death because he challenged the political authority of Caesar. In the time of Jesus there was absolutely no difference between religion and politics so everything Jesus said was political. Everything Jesus taught challenged the ways of government and worldly power. Jesus came to establish his nation which would rule with a different kind of power. His nation is called the Kingdom of God. His nation is upside-down, shaming the way that worldly governments use power.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials exercise their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant.”
Note that Jesus makes no distinction or reservation. All national rulers, no matter what the nation or the political regime, lord it over their people. There can be no political power without tyranny. This is plain and certain for Jesus. When there are human rulers and leaders, there can be no such thing as good political power. Here again the world’s version of power is called into question. Power corrupts. This is supported by the claim that the devil holds all governmental power.
This is prophetic in a sense, when we consider what became of the church when it entered the political field and began to play politics. It was immediately corrupted by the relation to power and by the creation of its own authorities. The church’s sad history has been extensively recorded and is heartbreaking to learn about (read more about it here).
From Genesis to historical narratives, to the prophets, to the Gospels, human government is challenged. But there is no other book of the Bible that is more overtly opposed to government and empire than the book of Revelation. The whole book is a challenge to political power. Throughout the book, there is radical opposition between the majesty of God and the powers and dominions of the earth. This shows how mistaken are those who find continuity between the divine power and the worldly powers.
Written in a literary form common in the ancient near east called apocalyptic, poetic imagery is used to send a message to its readers. In the book, the dragon, which is the devil, has given all authority to one of two beasts. It is given this first beast “all authority and power over every tribe, every people, every tongue, and every nation” (13:7) Created by the dragon, the beast comes from a theme of the later prophets who depicted the political powers of their time as beasts. The second beast we find is an exact description of propaganda in support of nationalism. The beast makes speeches which induce people to obey the state, and to worship it (13:12-15).
Lastly, there is the symbol of Babylon the Great, which represents Rome and all other forms of empire and national power— past, present, and in the future (Revelation 17). What is promised, is the pure and simple destruction of political government, power and dominion in every worldly form. These things are specifically stated to be enemies of God. God judges political power, calling it the great harlot. In chapter 18 the symbol of empire is destroyed, crumbling under the weight of its own violence. Victory is complete for the Lamb of God, his followers, and the Kingdom of God.
The Nation of God
The majority of the Bible was written by the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, the defeated. The majority of the Bible is a condemnation of the superpower: the Egypts, the Babylons, the Romes. It is very difficult for American Christians to see this overarching Biblical critique and rebuke of government and empire because American Christians are very often the beneficiary of such power. This is the very same struggle that the first-century citizens of Rome had. The apostles had to remind the citizens of Rome (and also us) that they were no longer citizens but now foreigners, strangers, and aliens in the nation they lived in (Hebrews 11:13, 1 Peter 1:17, 2:11).
Those not under the Lordship of Christ put their faith in the power and security of their worldly nation. Citizens of the Kingdom of God, on the other hand, put their trust in God as their sole ruler. Kingdom people are therefore to place no more trust or confidence in governments than Jesus did— which is none. If a government’s laws happen to be consistent with the rule of God, we obey them. If they’re not, we follow the example of Jesus and disobey them. But either way, it’s clear that our behavior isn’t to be dictated by what government says, but by what God says.
Kingdom people have one Master and serve one Kingdom. In light of this, the lords/presidents of the earth and kingdoms/nations of the world are irrelevant to us. Our job is to build his Kingdom by doing what Jesus did. Nothing must distract us from this one task. Jesus came to announce his own government. God never wanted human governments. They are a rebellion against God. He used them for a time, but now with Jesus, they are done away with once and for all. Enough is enough.
- This is a foreshadowing of the truth revealed in Christ, that God abhors death and violence. Jesus issues a new command to love all men, even one’s enemies. (read more here)
- Interestingly, in Egypt, the Israelite slaves are described as “slave laborers”, and in Israel, the slaves are described as “forced laborers”, though the source word in Hebrew, “mas”, is the same for both. Also, the slave masters, or task masters put over the Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 1:11), share the same Hebrew word “sar” as the “foremen” who oversee the “forced laborers” under Solomon’s rule (1 Kings 5:16). The English translators had obvious bias towards how Solomon ruled, versus how Pharaoh ruled even though they employed the same means.
- The elders of Israel advised Solomon’s son, and designated successor, to adopt a more livery policy, reducing taxes and the heavy yoke of servitude. But, Rehoboam did not listen to them, and when the people reassembled he told them: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will make it still heavier; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:14). The people revolted. They stoned his finance minister. They rejected the house of David. A division took place. The tribe of Judah stayed loyal to Rehoboam. The other tribes rallied around a former minister of Solomon, Jeroboam. See 1 Kings 17-2 Kings 8.