When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel… Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’ So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of 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 orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’
Back in June, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ use of Romans chapter 13 to defend the separation of children and parents on the US border, and said that ‘it is very Biblical to enforce the law.’ Do we believe this? How do we respond as Christians to political authority? Should we accept them as put there by God, or should we be ready to challenge them over matters of justice, even committing acts of civil disobedience?
Over the centuries, various monarchies have claimed that they have been given their power by God, sometimes citing the precedent of King David, and some monarchs have claimed absolute power as a result. This was one of the causes of the English Civil Wars in the 17th century, but it’s not an idea completely consigned to history. If you’ve got a (British) coin to hand and look closely at it, you’ll see the first part of the inscription reads ‘Elizabeth II D.G. Reg. ‘ This is short for the latin Dei Gratia Regina – Queen by the grace of God. This most everyday of objects contains a theological claim that our monarch was put there by God. So while the idea of the ‘divine right of kings’ has been watered down a little, it is still sometimes argued, usually by powerful people, that governing authorities must be backed by God.
However, the Biblical support for monarchy, or the automatic legitimacy of any ruler, isn’t so straightforward. This passage certainly doesn’t suggest having a king will be good for Israel. Rather, a king will exploit the people for his own benefit, and the Lord, through Samuel, suggests this isn’t the right way forward. This suggests we should put justice ahead of support for any particular leader or institution.
Gracious and almighty God, we pray for people in positions of power, and ask they will use that power with wisdom and humility for the benefit of all. We ask also that where there is injustice you will give us the strength and courage to challenge it, and speak truth to power, putting your kingdom ahead of earthly kingdoms. Amen.
The Rev’d Nick Jones is minister of Heswall URC & St. George’s URC, Thornton Hough