'You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.' ~ Exodus 20:4, 5a*
'It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.' ~ Psalm 118:9
Is civil government a form of idolatry?
Let's begin by defining terms. Webster's New World Dictionary defines an idol as 'an image of a god, used as an object or instrument of worship.' It further defines an image as 'an imitation or representation of a person or thing.' Thus, idolatry can be fairly accurately defined as 'worship of an imitation of a god.'
From a Christian perspective, of course, there is only one God. Worship of any 'imitation' of God is strictly prohibited. Sometimes such idolatry is obvious, such as when one prostrates oneself before statues of Baal, Zeus, or'for that matter'Elvis. At other times, however, idolatry is less blatant; it involves imputing the attributes and powers of God to a human being or a human institution and thereby creating and, in a sense, worshiping an imitation of God.
Let us consider the government that God instituted among the Israelites upon leading them out of Egypt and into the wilderness, on their way to Canaan . As God's chosen people, the Israelites were to be different from all the other nations, set apart in all that they did from the peoples surrounding them. Aside from their monotheism, one of the most significant differences from their pagan neighbors was their form of government. Israel was to be a pure theocracy; God and God alone was the king.
What, exactly, does this mean? For one thing, it means that there was to be no human king'and, in fact, no central government of any kind. God chose specific leaders'Moses, and later, Joshua'to communicate his decrees to the people and to guide them into the promised land. God established the laws'laws which applied equally to the leaders and the population at large (see Lev. 4, for example)'and the punishments to be meted out to those who failed to obey. Moses, acting on advice from his godly father-in-law, selected 'capable men from all the people'men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain' and appointed them 'as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens' (Ex. 18:21 ). Thus, government was highly decentralized, with only the 'difficult cases . . . brought to Moses' (Ex. 18:26 ). Most punishment for lawbreaking was meted out by the local leaders, those closest to the situation, and then only on 'the testimony of two or three witnesses' (Deut. 17:6). Those witnesses were also to be 'the first in putting [the convicted man] to death' (Deut. 17:7) for capital offenses; and should someone be found to be giving false testimony, he was to receive the same punishment he intended to inflict on the accused (Deut. 19:16 -19). Of course, in cases of extreme disobedience, the Lord reserved the right to inflict the punishment himself'and at that point, anyone would have been happy to get the punishment that the human officials might have handed out! (See Num. 20, Num. 32, and Jos. 7, for example.)
After Israel had come into the promised land and Joshua had died, 'the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals' (Jud. 2:11 ), whereupon 'the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them' (Jud. 2:14 ). From time to time the people would cry out to God in their distress, and 'the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders' (Jud. 2:16 ). The judges, like Moses and Joshua, were chosen directly by God for specific purposes, namely, rescuing the Israelites from raiders. They had little to no power over the people; and again, they were held to the same standards, as in the case of Samson (Jud. 16). When once the people requested that a judge become king, that judge, Gideon, replied, 'I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you' (Jud. 8:23 ). Gideon clearly understood that his role was to defend the people but not to assume God's role as king.
Gideon's son Abimelech, who did not share his father's scruples, waited until his father had died and then offered to fulfill the people's wish by becoming their king (Jud. 9:1, 2). To destroy any possible rivals and to demonstrate his might, he slew his 70 brothers, at which point the people were thrilled to crown him king. However, the youngest brother, Jotham, had escaped the killing spree and came back to warn the people:
One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, 'Be our king.'
But the olive tree answered, 'Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and men are honored, to hold sway over the trees?'
Next, the trees said to the fig tree, 'Come and be our king.'
But the fig tree replied, 'Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?'
Then the trees said to the vine, 'Come and be our king.'
But the vine answered, 'Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and men, to hold sway over the trees?'
Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, 'Come and be our king.'
The thornbush said to the trees, 'If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!' (Jud. 9:8-15)
Quite an effective fable, isn't it? Those who have something productive to do and useful to contribute to the community will naturally refuse to give up their already beneficial activities to rule over others. On the other hand, those who have nothing to contribute and, in fact, bring only harm to the community already, will be more than happy to rule over others'and threaten them when they refuse to submit.
Jotham understood all too well the nature of man and the nature of power. God is the only one who can be trusted to rule justly and righteously. Naturally, this failed to faze the people one bit, and they proceeded to exalt Abimelech to the kingship. The love affair didn't last long. 'After Abimelech had governed Israel three years, God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem, who acted treacherously against Abimelech' (Jud. 9:22 , 23) and ultimately killed him.
Did the Israelites finally learn their lesson from this? Of course not! They were only human, after all, and like all other humans they continued to make the same mistakes over and over again, generation after generation. Once again, too, it was the wicked offspring of one of the judges'in this case, Samuel'who led to the crowning of a new king.
Samuel had judged Israel righteously for most of his life. In his old age he appointed his sons as judges for Israel (I Sam. 8:1). Odds are he hadn't consulted God in this matter, for God clearly was not interested in heredity in his selection of judges, and Samuel's sons 'did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice' (I Sam. 8:3). The people were rightly upset about this and asked Samuel to 'appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have' (I Sam. 8:5). [Emphasis mine.]
Of course, the whole point of Israel was to be a nation unlike any other, with God, not a man, as their king. Samuel was displeased, thinking the people were rebelling against him, but God told him: '[I]t is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king' (I Sam. 8:7). That is, the people simply were not content having a God they could not see establish the laws, enforce the laws, lead them into battle, and demand their undivided devotion. They wanted a god they could see: a king'an idol.
Samuel warned the people:
This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day. (I Sam. 8:11-18)
The people, as they had been in the time of Abimelech and Jotham, were not swayed in the least by these words of warning. They demanded: 'We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles' (I Sam. 8:19 , 20). Thus did Israel destroy its unique character by preferring an idol, in the form of a king, to the one true God who had heretofore ruled over them.
God granted them a king: Saul. When Samuel presented the new king to the people, however, he also presented them with this parting shot: 'And you will realize what an evil thing you did in the eyes of the Lord when you asked for a king' (I Sam. 12:17 ). God may have been willing to give the people what they wanted; but like the father granting his son leeway to make a big mistake, hoping he will learn from it, he made sure they knew what his opinion on the subject was.
What followed was a succession of human kings'some good, some bad, but all at one point or another succumbing to the temptation to abuse their power and to think of themselves as gods, above the laws that applied to ordinary men. Even Israel 's greatest and most godly king, David, slept with another man's wife and then arranged for that man's death in battle. In any other culture of the day, this would have been considered a non-event; but God is no respecter of cultures and prevailing mores. David was punished just as surely as any commoner would have been (I Sam. 12). Just as God cared nothing for heredity in selecting his judges, so he readily took the line of royal succession away from the house of David.
Clearly, then, it was always God's intention for his people, Israel , to live under his direct rule and under minimal, highly decentralized civil government. Just as humans have done down through history, though, the Israelites preferred to have a ruler they could see, in whom they could put their faith, and to whom they could bow down'in direct violation of the Third Commandment. They wanted an idol, an imitation of God, rather than the one true God.
The pattern continues to this day for all of humanity. Most people have tremendous faith in kings, presidents, legislatures, armed forces, and even abstractions like 'democracy' to bring them security and, in a sense, a vicarious feeling of power. Of course, the history of government shows that precisely the opposite is the result'that, as Samuel warned, the people so exalting a human ruler would become his slaves. Those who take note of this and suggest minimizing or even eliminating government are treated as kooks who don't understand that government is needed to protect and provide for the common man. But let's be honest: In whom would you rather place your faith, God or man? I, for one, prefer to be a worshiper of God, not of the idol of government.
* All scripture references are taken from the New International Version of the Bible.