Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What Civil Government Is For

It is hard to imagine what must have been going through Jotham's mind as he climbed Mt. Gerizim. He had just escaped brutal murder at the hand of his half-brother Abimelech. His many brothers had not been so fortunate. The bloodshed was all because Abimelech wanted no rivals to his position as king. So, as Jotham summitted Gerizim, he planned to deliver one of the most unusual and fascinating political parables of all time.

Listen to me, you leaders of Shechem, that God may listen to you. The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?’ And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?’ And the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?’ Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon' (Judges 9:7-15, ESV).

Jotham described honorable and productive people as those who have no time for ruling over others. He had noticed how it is often despicable people who seek to reign, and they often do it for self-serving reasons. They offer promises which they cannot fulfill (the absurd picture of trees taking refuge in the shade of a bramble), and they often destroy those who put their trust in them. The bramble, or briar, is good for nothing, but it can easily catch fire and cause great destruction.

Through this fable, Jotham also taught that people often get the rulers that they deserve. He asked the Shechemites if they had acted in good faith and integrity when they made Abimelech king. Their own treachery toward Jerubbaal matched well with the treachery of Abimelech, the man they had made king. Therefore, they would destroy each other (Judges 9:16-20; compare the example of Israel choosing its own king in 1 Sam 8:9-18).

After listening to Jotham's fable, we might wonder if civil government can ever be a good thing. It seems as if it is always just taking and taxing. Maybe we would just be better off without it?

The answer to that question is "No." Human government of a state is a good thing. It is a necessary thing. In order to know that, we would need to look no further than Romans 13:1 which says, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." In fact, Romans 13:4 says that the ruler is "God's servant for your good." But my purpose in posting this is not merely to acknowledge the fact of human government. It is rather to understand a bit of its proper purpose. Hopefully, through this brief series of posts we can gain wisdom as to how we should relate to the government in our lives.

(Next: Three points to set the context for the purpose of state government)

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