For King and Country
Many kings have existed throughout the millennia of human history. As nations were founded and borders established, commoners looked up to the power of the throne with both fear and hope.
For biblical Israel, they did not have a king — a human one, at least — until Saul was exalted circa 1046 BC. They certainly arrived late to the party despite their ancient heritage.
What did it mean for Israel to ask for a king from God? What is the true nature of big government? What are some of the reasons that cause us to keep handing power over to our political leaders? These are the topics of interest I would like to unpack and discuss.
But first, let us start from the beginning of the journey…
From Man to Nation
When God called Abram (later known as Abraham), he asked him to uproot and head toward prospects of a promised land, a new nation, extensive influence and renown, as well as countless descendants in due time. It would take many centuries before all this came to pass.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob carried out his plans in history. Notably, he allowed the Israelites to prosper while living in Egypt, and rescued them out from the superpower state when Pharaoh decided to oppress and enslave. God’s intervention proved to the world at the time that he was the true Almighty, not someone to be trifled with.
The four ensuing decades spent in the wilderness saw the Israelites receive God’s law — ceremonial, judicial, and moral commandments, all of which were important for the people to learn how to live as one national community under God’s presence and reign.
In the meantime, God also defended the Israelites from nearby aggressors during their journey. Once they arrived at the destination, the focus shifted to driving out the numerous pagan nations and tribes occupying the Promised Land before they were able to name it and claim it.
They went up against formidable armies of greater numbers, with warriors that were stronger and better trained than the former slaves. But no matter how tough or intimidating these adversaries were, Israel always tasted victory when the Almighty had their back.
After a lifetime of witnessing God’s providence amid Israel’s battles, the courageous Joshua (successor of Moses) said this to the people before his death:
“The Lord has driven out before you great and powerful nations; to this day no one has been able to withstand you. One of you routs a thousand, because the Lord your God fights for you, just as he promised. So be very careful to love the Lord your God.”
— Joshua 23:9-11 (NIV)
For the most part, the descendants of Abraham would go on to conquer the land flowing with milk and honey. Their commitment to God, however, wasn’t ever stable, which led to much complication. In their discontentment, the people came to seek a worldly solution to their problems.
We Demand a King
Imagine having the gall to try and make God redundant by asking for a human replacement.
The divine King of Israel rescued his population; he then fed them, guided them, and even fought for them. Faithful to his promises, he also made them into a nation, increased their numbers, and provided for them a thriving homeland. They were special, and became famous too!
Yet all this failed to satisfy the masses, who felt threatened by neighbouring states, but wanted to simply copy them. They didn’t cherish the privilege of having the Creator as their direct ruler. Instead, they gathered together and confronted the prophet Samuel and said:
“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.”
— 1 Samuel 8:19-20 (NIV)
What astonishes me is the fact that this demand from them was insisted upon after receiving clear warnings about the dangers of setting up an earthly crown.
The fools desired a king so that they would have someone to fight for them, forgetting that God had already been doing that for generations. They wanted such a government figure for security and prosperity, when their heavenly King had offered ample protection and providence.
For some reason, they expected that a human king — once possessing all power and authority over a kingdom — would stay as a humble servant. That would only be true if they were hoping to crown Jesus. With anyone else on the throne, they were in for a rude awakening:
“This is how a king will reign over you,” Samuel said. “The king will draft your sons and assign them to his chariots and his charioteers, making them run before his chariots. Some will be generals and captains in his army, some will be forced to plow in his fields and harvest his crops, and some will make his weapons and chariot equipment. The king will take your daughters from you and force them to cook and bake and make perfumes for him. He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest and distribute it among his officers and attendants. He will take your male and female slaves and demand the finest of your cattle and donkeys for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the Lord will not help you.”
— 1 Samuel 8:11-18 (NLT)
Whatever Israel was looking for, they were counselled to expect the opposite. A king that fights for the people? No, the king would rather make the people fight for him… as well as take their stuff and control their freedom. A human king would always be a poor replacement for a divine one.
Despite the glaring issues of conscription, forced labour, taxation, and the loss of personal liberty, Israel chose to reject the prophetic advice. Ultimately, it proved to be a rejection of God, without whom the entire nation wouldn’t have existed in the first place.
The Nature of Big Government
The wisdom from the 1 Samuel account continues to echo against the unreserved promotion of kings, rulers, and regimes throughout the ages. It exposes the true nature of big government.
To this day, we still struggle with federal governments that are excessively interventionist and intruding into the lives of its citizens. Those in power would often seek to bolster their influence, so it is crucial to realise that “we the people” also have to be responsible for keeping them in check.
Sadly, we fail when we don’t heed God’s wisdom and misunderstand humanity’s nature, especially when they are given great authority. We fail when we are ignorant of the countless, documented examples of big, oppressive governments. Remember: power corrupts, and history repeats!
There are folks in this world who trust and rely on the government too deeply. I noticed this some years ago when I worked as a tutor for IELTS essay writing. As students were asked to engage with a wide range of societal issues (such as regarding technology, culture, education, the economy or the environment, and so on), the majority of answers would end up along the lines of: the government should fund this; the government should ban that.
Of course, this “default approach” to thinking about things isn’t limited to the younger generations. The media excels at drawing attention to politicians and current affairs, thereby conditioning the masses to look toward the government for solutions to many of our problems. In the process, we’ve come to view ourselves as powerless to effect change, while forgetting that federal, one-size-fits-all policies are often inefficient and ineffective compared to local initiatives.
On the matter of funding, we have to be aware that the government should neither be treated as a business, nor as a charity. Its operation isn’t based on earning profits or receiving freewill donations; rather, the ruling establishment gains resources primarily through the collection of taxes by decree, which is to say that if we demand that they give, they must first take from the people by force.
Being prudent, therefore, involves figuring out the government’s key roles, evaluating the necessity of federal programs, and contemplating whether or not select tasks are better off left to other organisations. We’d be foolish to assume that politicians are able to handle everything at once, spending all the money in the world without consequences. Fiscal conservatism is underrated.
Consider this insight given by the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century:
The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.
— Margaret Thatcher
Additionally, government officials shouldn’t get too comfortable in messing with the free market. Their actions determine whether capitalism lives, or that it gets poisoned by corporatism.
Economic overregulation stifles production and hinders healthy competition. It also opens the door for corruption, as politicians end up offering unfair advantage to major businesses and special interest groups. Worse yet, they could be pressured to bail out companies deemed “too big to fail” when, in fact, the fear of failure is what steers people away from shady practices in the first place.
Overspending on this scale severely increases inflation and the national debt, only to pave the way for another catastrophic financial crisis in the not-so-distant future!
On the matter of banning, the reality is that making something illegal has its limits to how it shapes society. Even God’s perfect laws aren’t all that effective in that regard; they are useful for exposing and condemning sins, yet cannot change hearts and behaviours in the way that Jesus is able to.
Human laws written by human wisdom are worse. It isn’t only that a piece of legislation may be flawed, but sometimes its enforcement also leads to costly and destructive consequences.
A most prominent example in recent decades is America’s war on drugs. This government-led initiative has been an ongoing attempt to stop illegal drug use, distribution, and trade since 1971. Methods employed primarily focus on arresting and increasing prison sentences for dealers and users, while foreign aid is given to countries like Mexico and Colombia to fight against cartels. Overall, it is estimated that the United States spends about $50 billion annually on these activities.
Nevertheless, support for the initiative has waned over the years. The one-two punch of interdiction and incarceration is a proven failure, as the supply and demand of illicit drugs remain ever high. Arresting recreational consumers is often unjust; jailing hardcore addicts seldom helps. The amount of resources required for policing and imprisonment is staggering, with offenders returning to the habit just to kick off the whole cycle again.
In this case, the government is better off leaving nonviolent users alone, especially those who approach drugs responsibly, as many do with alcohol. With funds freed up, some can then be injected into rehabilitation programs for people who struggle with substance abuse, treating the issue as one that is medical, instead of criminal.
And contrary to popular assumption, legalising narcotics doesn’t necessarily lead to increased usage. Doing this also steers profits away from crime syndicates, and gives authorities the chance to generate a new source of revenue by taxing this trade — a tax that is justified, so everybody wins! Check out Portugal’s success story of decriminalisation in its battle against a drug epidemic.
All of this is to say that we should be cautious of pushing for the government to do more than its main duty of protecting life and liberty. Anything beyond, and politicians may just end up creating more obstacles than they overcome. The threat of big government isn’t nullified by mere good will.
Consider this observation given by the 40th President of the United States in his inaugural address:
Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.
— Ronald Reagan
As a reminder, allow me to advocate for sober-mindedness in our critique of government, and not let rage cloud our discernment. Those who are overwhelmed with hate become counterproductive; they tend to fall into discontentment, ignorance, and envy, and resort to questionable methods to fight for the wrong kind of change. Like the Israelites, they crave for what other nations have, while being too stubborn to recognise the dangers of certain types of foreign systems and ideologies.
We may observe such misguided rebellion from crowds infatuated with Marxism (or, when infused with postmodern critical theory, Neo-Marxism). As zealous enemies of capitalism, they advocate for socialism and communism, the implementations of which require the government to significantly expand and become authoritarian. They seem blind to the evident issues of socialist states, and deaf to the warnings of immigrants escaping communist utopias.
One way or another, big government may assert its big, ugly head if we aren’t careful. As the year of 2020 is ravaged by COVID lockdowns, many Australians have gotten a sharp taste of our country’s tendency to veer toward a nanny-police state.
I shall let someone more eloquent to respond to the challenges that our society continues to face. The following admonition originates from the managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, and it serves as a summary of the main ideas that have been discussed:
Many Australians think nothing of heaping up the authority of the government, setting power-enhancing precedents, which could be abused tyrannically in the future.
Many overtly disagree that it’s a problem. Some even like an all-powerful government to keep them “safe”. Such people are confused about history, human nature, and the nature of power itself. They remain confused at their peril.
Australia is not a special bubble that magically receives the rays of heaven, permanently suspending the risks of power abuses (or enhancing the competence of powerful governments). We are part of the same world, the same history, and the same fallen humanity as everyone else.
The conditions of liberty that make tyranny seem so far-fetched and ridiculous are only here because of the gargantuan diligence and zeal of many generations, informed by values of freedom… values that are not very normal from a global, historical perspective.
There are many people who want power for evil intent. Even the hardest left-winger sincerely believes that. Therefore, the more you expand the scope of “power”, the more freedom such people will have to do evil when they get hold of it, as they usually do from time to time.
That is why we must remain diligent in our pursuit of liberty, and controls on governmental power.
— Martyn Iles
Governments and kings aren’t called to be all-powerful. They are not God. And as citizens, we aren’t called to trust them either, but only to submit within biblical reason.
With freedom and peace, let us use our God-given wisdom and voice to promote healthy governance. Let us place our trust in Jesus alone, the true King over every country on earth.