When there is no king: God’s good gift of government

21 Oct

The first verse in the book of Judges chapter 19 begins like this: “In those days Israel had no king.”  The last verse in the book of Judges (the last chapter is 21) ends like this: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”

Sandwiched in between is a story of truly base depravity and utter debauchery.  A Levite man welcomes a visitor and his concubine into his home for the night; drunken “worthless” men bang on the door in the middle of the night demanding that he, the visitor, be sent out for a violent gang rape; the homeowner says no (excellent host!) but offers his virgin daughter or the visitor’s traveling concubine instead; the concubine is sent out, gang raped all night; in the morning, the visitor finds his concubine on the doorstep (she’s dead but he doesn’t know it); he cooly tells her to get up and get going; he discovers that she’s dead, cuts her into 12 pieces and mails each part to each tribe of Israel.  That’s scene one.  In scene two, one tribe of Israel, the Benjamites, which counted among their ranks the Levite host and visitor from scene one,  are made the objects of revenge by the other Israelis.  Indeed, all but 600 Benjamite men were wiped out in moral outrage by the other Israelis (all Benjamite women and children were slaughtered).  Anger subsides and suddenly, the Israelis feel sorry for their fellow countrymen and realize that the Benjamtes will not last long with all men (600) and no women.  Having sworn in outrage before never to allow their own daughters to marry any Benjamite men, they now look for wives for them elsewhere (vile, but men of their word I guess).  But how can they secure wives for the Benjamites without offering their own daughters?  Their plan?  They would take wives from Jabesh-Gilead, the one tribe that failed to show up for assembly one day.  They didn’t just seize virgins from Jabesh-Gilead, but killed everyone in the tribe except for the virgin women, about 400.  Well 400 of the 600 Benjamites are happy, but what about the other 200?  Plan II, snatch women from a place called Shiloh during one of the Lord’s festivals there!  Of course!  Not willing to get their own hands dirty (dirtier), they send the remaining 200 wifeless Benjamite men to Shiloh to hide in the the vineyards, observing the dancing women.  Suddenly, the Benjamites are to snatch the dancing girls for themselves.  If their husbands and fathers complain, they must tell them to get over it, they need these wives, and not to worry about breaking their oath because they never actually offered their daughters to Benjamite men (they were stolen instead, which makes it all ok).  That’s what they did; each man watched the dancing women, caught one, and carried her off.  Why?  “In those days, there was no king in Israel.  Everyone did what is right in his own eyes.”

The story and the bookend statements about the absence of a king in Israel leads us to see the necessity of two things.  First, the need for God’s people to have a perfect King whose kingdom will never end (Saul is made a king, only to be replaced by David, a man after God’s own heart, who receives a promise that his Kingdom would never end, occupied as it shall be by an heir from the House of David, a shoot from Jesse’s stump, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the eternal King of Israel).  But there is a second necessity we may observe.  Human government is a gift from God functioning as a constraint on human depravity, so that men are not as evil as they could possibly be.  Bad government is bad, but it isn’t worse than no government at all.  Because in the absence of an coercive authoritative agency of God to restrain evil instincts, men will do what is right in their own eyes.  Men are not angels after all (Madison).  It is not that the Israelis, the Levite man, the cold hearted visitor, did not have access to or knowledge of God’s abiding and enduring moral law.  That law, written on the heart of every image-bearer, is accessible and known to all men everywhere (Romans 1).  That known moral law may be used to punish them but not pardon them for their guilt before a Holy God.  Grace wrought faith in Jesus is needed for that.  But the story illustrates that access to and knowledge of the moral law of God is insufficient to ensure moral order and prevent moral declension in a society peopled by fallen men, sinners.  That is why God gives, as he did with Israel, government and its civil law to nations.

Paul understood this well when he wrote to Roman Christians exhorting them to be subject to governing authorities, even pagan hostile governing authorities.  He wrote (Romans 13):

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.  This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”

Christians, often political conservatives, have developed a warped view of human government.  A view that stems more from political ideology and political partisanship than biblical theology.  We are instructed to pray for our leaders and be subject to them because they are ordained by God for our good.  Rather than showing honor and respect to human governments in thought, word, and deed, we harbor or express hate and rage.  Yet, and this is the reason why I retell this story, the bible says that without human government constraining human depravity, we would all be facing life in the wild west of kingless Israel.

Oh, and if you don’t like being subject to human governments, you won’t like heaven’s Monarchy.

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