What is the role of government? What is the Christian’s relationship to the governments of the world? Whenever questions about government are discussed, the conversation usually (and rightfully) revolves around key New Testament scriptures (such as Rom. 13.1-7; 1 Pet. 2.17; 1 Tim. 2.1-2, among others). It is, however, of vital importance not to neglect what the Old Testament says about human governments. The New Testament authors were joining an ongoing discussion about the role and destiny of human governments; a discussion which revolved around the Old Testament scriptures. Understanding what the Old Testament teaches about government is essential for the Bible student to rightly divide the New Testament scriptures.
Below is a brief summary of what the Old Testament teaches about human governments. I have written more extensively on each of these topics. If you are interested in a deeper study, check out the hyperlinks I have included throughout this article.
God is Sovereign, Not Man
God has always intended that man should live under law – His law. As the Creator of mankind, He knows what is best for His creation and He has the right to command them. He did, however, create man in His image, and delegated to man the authority to govern His creation.
God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the hearth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1.28
Notice that God did not give man the authority to govern other men. Just a few verses later we read that “The Lord God commanded the man” (Gen 2.16). While man was given the authority to rule over creation, the right to rule over man remained with God alone. From the beginning, there has only been one lawgiver.
- God holds all authority. In the beginning He delegated to man the authority to rule over his creation, but reserved the right to rule over other men to himself. People had no right to rule over other people.
The Origins of Human Governments
Adam and Eve were the first humans to attempt to live independently of God’s authority, and mankind’s rebellion continued to increase until God destroyed the earth with a flood. Yet there is no mention of any authoritative organized effort at human self-government established until after the flood. In the absence of God creating any other governing body, it can be understood that all rightful governing authority remained with God alone.
We are never told which nation of people were the first to organize a human government, but we can be certain that human government did not originate with Israel. For one thing, we know of multiple human governments that preexisted Israel (Babel, Egypt, etc. ). For another thing, Israel did not begin as a human government. Israel was created as a manifestation of God’s government. Moses was not Israel’s lawmaker; he was their lawgiver. The body of laws which governed the nation of Israel came straight from the hand of God. God is the only rightful lawmaker.
Sometimes people point to the laws of Israel as a precedent for human governments today, but God eventually took the Jewish national government out of the way and replaced it with His more perfect kingdom – the church which was established by Jesus. Therefore we can know that modern human governments have their origin in ancient Gentile governments, not in the government that was given to Israel. The modern manifestation of God’s government for Israel is to be found in the church, not in any earthly government.
- The nation of Israel did not have a human government. Their laws were given directly from God, thus Israel’s government was a manifestation of God’s government.
- Efforts of organized self-government originated among Gentile nations.
The first mention of an organized effort of self-government is found as we are introduced to the Kingdom of Nimrod at Babel (Gen. 10.10). The account of the rebellion of Babel is given to us as the event through which the Gentile nations were scattered across the earth. From Genesis 10-11 we learn that the Gentile nations were formed out of an attitude of rebellion and a desire for self-government. This rebellion and self-government provides a stark contrast to the submission and faithfulness of Abraham, who was called to separate from his country and his people (Gen 12).
- The Gentile nations were formed out of man’s desire to self-govern. God recognizes these nations and their efforts at self-government as rebellion against His authority.
The Relationship of God’s People to Gentile Nations
The nation of Israel was continually instructed to remain separate, and not to make any alliance with the Gentile nations (Deut. 7.2-3). They were to completely destroy all the Gentile nations that previously occupied their land. This separation was important not because of racial differences, but because of differences in authority. This is known because God often spared the life of Gentiles who would forsake their own people and their own governments and turn and submit themselves to God’s government. Whenever Israel maintained their separation from the Gentile nations they were blessed. Whenever they mixed with or made alliances with these Gentile nations they suffered. One of the key reasons Israel was taken into captivity was because they made alliances with human governments for protection rather than turning to God. (Isaiah 30.1-5; 31.1-3)
- Israel was to maintain separation and refrain from making alliances with the human governments which surrounded them.
Israel was also to refrain from imitating the governments of the nations which surrounded them. In 1 Samuel 8, the people of Israel demanded a human king so that they could be “like the nations.” Again, this shows that up to this point, one of the key differences between Israel and the Gentile nations was the absence of a human king. When Israel requested a form of government like that of the Gentile nations, God saw this as a rejection of His rightful kingship.
- Israel was not to imitate the human governments which they saw in the gentile nations. When they did ask for a king, God viewed this as a rejection of His kingship over them.
God’s Purposes for Human Governments
When Israel demanded a king, God gave them what they asked. He ordained for them to have a king, but he was never pleased with their request. In giving them what they had asked for, God also gave them the consequences of their request (1 Sam. 8.10-22). For the rest of Israel’s history (with few exceptions), Israel’s kings continually led Israel farther and farther from God, until Israel was taken into captivity.
I gave you a king in My anger
And took him away in My wrath. – Hosea 13.11
Although God never approved of human self-government, He did rule over these wicked gentile governments to accomplish His purposes. He often referred to these nations and their kings as the “Rod of My [God’s] anger” or a tool in His hand, such as an ax, saw, club or rod (Isa. 10.5-15); His “servant” (Jer. 25.8-14); His shepherd and His anointed (Isa. 44.28-45.7). Reading through all of Jeremiah 50-55 makes it clear that as Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon were marching forth and destroying nations that it was God who was sending them, and it was God who was using them to accomplish His purposes. Although God never approved of these wicked nations, He did ordain them as His ministers to execute His wrath on those who had rebelled against Him.
At times God overruled wicked human governments to bless His children. Cyrus, King of the Persians, was a pagan ruler who knew not God, yet God used Him as His servant to bless His children. Yet even in these times when human kings ruled in favor of God’s people, God’s servants were still to refrain from making alliances with them or trusting in them as their saviors.
- Throughout the Old Testament, God overruled the rebellion of the Gentile nations so as to use them as His ministers to execute His wrath on evildoers and to bless His children. This does not mean that God in any way approved of the wicked things which they did, but rather we are assured that God remains in control in spite of their wickedness.
The Destiny of Human Governments
One of the major themes of the book of Daniel is the future destruction of the human governments of this world. (This theme can also be seen in several of the Psalms, such as Psalm 2). Through the prophet Daniel, we are told that ultimately the human kingdoms of this world will be crushed in pieces and destroyed (Dan. 2.44).
The Destiny of God’s Government
In contrast to this future destiny of the kingdoms of this world, Daniel foretells of the coming of the “Son of Man” and the establishment of God’s kingdom as a kingdom which will never be destroyed and will never be left to another people. The government of God and the governments of man were to be antagonistic rivals of one another in a conflict that will never end until all the enemies of God are crushed under His feet.
Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him. – Daniel 7.27
- God’s kingdom will be established. It will remain in conflict with the human governments of this world until those governments are destroyed.
The People of God in the First Century
By the time the first century rolled around, the Jewish people viewed the Old Testament scriptures as a story that had not yet reached its end. The governments of this world were to be destroyed, but currently the Romans remained in control as the new Babylon. The Messiah would surely come soon, and God’s government would surely be established (Isa. 9.6-7).
With the Old Testament scriptures projecting this conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world on into the future, the Christian can now read the New Testament and gain a better understanding of the nature of His Kingdom, the Christian’s relationship to the governments of this world, and the final destiny of those kingdoms.