by Ron Gaudio
Featured writer of The Liberty Voice
In the Old Testament, during the iron age, Israel was ruled by “judges.” These were men of character chosen to be itinerant judges, making circuit rides on donkeys throughout Israel to hear legal cases (1 Sam. 7:16-17) The governing principles of Israel were found in the Law of Moses, given to the Israelites several hundred years prior. People were expected to be self-governing, but there were judges available to hear cases when the need would arise. In times of war, these judges often led the nation into battle as generals. There was no draft, but troops would rally around the generals and were mustered as needed. Those who, for various reasons, did not want to fight, were exempted.
This form of government was a great blessing. The judges did not rule with iron-fisted authority, but led by example and provided moral authority by humbly applying God’s law to the people. Often, after a judge would die, the people would lapse into immorality and end up being oppressed by a foreign power until another judge was raised up. The people were to rule themselves according to the Law of Moses, with God as their King, but they needed the moral guidance of the judges. They were most free when they were most obedient to God’s law, and most oppressed when they deviated from that law.
Israel was unique in the ancient world, for all of the other nations had kings. Their constitutional theocracy stood in sharp contrast to the hereditary absolute monarchies of the other nations. Often, the men who were chosen to be judges, such as Gideon, were reluctant men who did not desire power. After Gideon led Israel to defeat the Midianites, he wanted to retire, but the people wanted to make him a king. Gideon’s response was striking:
“I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the LORD shall rule over you.”
Here is an early instance in history of a person refusing to be crowned a king, but instead directing people back to God. Not only that, but he rejected any type of hereditary monarchy.
Shortly afterwards, a man named Abimelech arose in Israel, killed the sons of Gideon, and attempted to make himself king. This attempt was short lived, for the people rose up and killed him. The people spoke; they did not want a human monarch. Eventually though, things in Israel changed. Instead of being responsible with the great liberty that they had, the people became corrupt and the morals of Israel sharply declined.
Despite this moral decline, God raised up good judges in Israel, such as the prophet Samuel who governed Israel well. Eventually as he got old, he appointed his sons as judges, but they did not follow in their father’s footsteps and became corrupt:
“His sons, however, did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice themselves” (1 Samuel 8:3)
It is within the context of this corrupt power vacuum, that the people desired a king:
“Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; and they said to him, ‘Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.’” (1 Samuel 8:4)
They wanted the glory and splendor of an earthly kingdom like the rest of the nations. After all, who can see an invisible heavenly monarch? They were not happy with the liberty and freedom that they had.
“But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us’ And Samuel prayed to the LORD. The LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.” (1 Samuel 8:6)
God then directs Samuel to appoint a king, but to give the people this solemn warning:
” ‘Now then, listen to their voice; however, you shall solemnly warn them and tell them of the procedure of the king who will reign over them.’ So Samuel spoke all the words of the LORD to the people who had asked of him a king. He said, ‘This will be the procedure of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots… He will appoint for himself commanders…and some to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards and give to his officers and to his servants. He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys and use them for his work. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.’
The people did not heed this warning, but continued to ask Samuel for a king:
“Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, ‘No, but there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.’” (1 Samuel 8:9-20)
A hundred or so years later, Israel was ruled by her third king, Solomon. Solomon had subjected the surrounding nations under Israel’s rule and expanded the borders of the kingdom to the greatest size ever seen in its entire history. There were great scientific, technological and artistic advances. Israel became very prosperous. Massive building projects were undertaken. Now instead of the humble donkeys ridden by judges of old, Solomon imported stately horses, indicative of empire.
But, with the benefits of a great empire, came the burdens as well.
Empires are expensive. Solomon had to levy heavy taxes in order to maintain his kingdom. Also, forced labor was necessary. At first this came from the surrounding conquered nations, which probably did not illicit too many protests from the Israelites. But eventually, Solomon had to press fellow Israelites into forced service through the corvee system.
He would send 10,000 of his people per month to Lebanon to work for shifts of one month in Lebanon and two months home. This is one example of the many duties put on the backs of the people. This double burden of heavy taxation and forced labor eventually led to the northern half of the kingdom of Israel rebelling against Solomon’s son and successor to the throne, Rehoboam. The people asked him to lighten the burden that Solomon had imposed. Not only did Rehoboam refuse, but he promised to make it far worse.
In response, civil war broke out in Israel, and the northern half broke away from the southern half, never to be reunited again. Neither of the two kingdoms ever obtained the glory and heights of Solomon’s empire, but they both sank into immorality and were eventually destroyed by the Assyrians and Babylonians.
What can be learned from the mistakes of the Israelites? For a nation to be great, it must first be good. Every citizen must take responsibility to be moral and upright. The strength of a nation is not in the might of its government, but in the goodness of the people. As John Adams said:
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Also, George Washington said in his farewell address:
“Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. 28 It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
Thomas Shepherd, a Puritan minister and founder of Harvard University, said that only a nation that embraces the Gospel will be free. He stated that if a nation, like the Israelites of old, departs from God, then God will give them over to a harsh task master. It may be a foreign power or maybe even one’s own government. If people don’t want to follow a benevolent heavenly ruler, then they will end up serving an oppressive earthly ruler. We have seen the greatest (though imperfect) expression of the Gospel in the United States, and it is no accident that the United States has been a bastion of freedom, an example for the rest of the world, a city set on a hill.
There are many ways to fight tyranny and each one of us has to decide how we can be most effective in this struggle. At the heart of the matter, at a foundational level, our nation will not recover from where we have fallen unless we reestablish our bond with the heavenly King and then maybe we won’t need such a strong, tyrannical, earthly king.
“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galations 5:1)