Do not forget that in the Old Testament both prophet and priest kept kings in check:
The biblical Christian constantly needs to maintain biblical balance and deal with dangerous and incorrect views concerning Christian truths. The disciples 2000 years ago were continually doing this, and we still need to do so today. Going off on unbiblical extremes and tangents is far too common, even among evangelical Christians.
The issue of how the Christian relates to the state is one of these areas. I have penned a number of pieces recently on this, especially in light of the corona crisis. See this article for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/05/christianity-and-the-state/
As I said there, the biblical Christian rejects anarchism, but he also rejects statism. Up until recently I often had to deal with the former. And I still do. On a social media discussion one friend who has a healthy suspicion of statism said something about ‘government is violence’.
While I am aware of where he was coming from, I replied by saying that there is a difference between force and violence. God created the state to use force. Yes, the legitimate use of force can sometimes morph into illegitimate violence. While the State can so very easily be corrupted, misused and abused, government is nonetheless ordained by God for a fallen world.
But my main task of late has been to deal with Christians who have this unbiblical idea about “my country right or wrong.” They think that blind, unquestioning submission is the proper way for Christians to deal with the State. But this is clearly not the case. All human government is delegated authority, and only God has absolute power and authority that we are called to submit to.
I also recently wrote about how the prophets of God were so very often seeking to keep kings in check, hold them to account, and rebuke them when necessary. As just two examples, we had Nathan the prophet of course roundly condemning God’s anointed and appointed King David when he sinned. And we had John the Baptist resolutely dealing with the evil King Herod.
But it was not just the prophets who had to keep kings on the straight and narrow. We also find that the priests did these things, eg., challenging the power of kings when they went astray. We have various examples of this in the Old Testament. But I just read one of these in my daily reading and it is worth discussing here.
In 2 Chronicles 26 we read about King Uzziah. He started off as a very good king, and God was with him. As we read in verse 5: “He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him prosper.”
He began his reign at the age of 16, and the Lord granted him great victories over his enemies. But sadly his great success led to pride, and to his eventual downfall: “But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction.” (v. 16). So in verses 16-23 we read about how all this panned out.
But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the LORD his God and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense. But Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the LORD who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the LORD God.” Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priests in the house of the LORD, by the altar of incense. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead! And they rushed him out quickly, and he himself hurried to go out, because the LORD had struck him. And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the LORD. And Jotham his son was over the king’s household, governing the people of the land. Now the rest of the acts of Uzziah, from first to last, Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz wrote. And Uzziah slept with his fathers, and they buried him with his fathers in the burial field that belonged to the kings, for they said, “He is a leper.” And Jotham his son reigned in his place.
Azariah the priest, and the 80 other priests, did what far too many sheepish Christians would never dream of doing today: they held the leader to account, and they refused to stay silent when sin, evil and unrighteousness was taking place. They confronted the king, regardless of the risk to themselves. Would that we had such fearless and sold-out believers today!
To see what a courageous act this was, let me share a few words from the commentary by Andrew Hill:
Like Kings Saul (1 Sam. 13:9) and Jeroboam I (1 Kings 12:32– 13:1), who also sought to assume the priestly role, Uzziah is rebuked by a priest (2 Chron. 26:17–18). Azariah the priest is not mentioned elsewhere, although two priests by that name are mentioned in the genealogy of Kohath (1 Chron. 6:9, 13). More important to the Chronicler is the courage he and eighty other priests show in confronting the king over the issue of ritual protocol (2 Chron. 26:17). This challenge to royal authority is done at great risk, given the distant memory of Saul’s massacre of the priests at Nob (cf. 1 Sam. 22:17– 19) and the more recent horror of Joash’s murder of the priest Zechariah (cf. 2 Chron. 24:22).
Azariah identifies the key issue in the conflict with Uzziah by appealing to the special divine anointing or consecration of the priesthood for the specific task of offering such sacrifices (26:18; cf. Ps. 133). Even as the Davidic king is anointed to shepherd the Israelite nation, so the Aaronic priest is anointed to serve God and the people through the ministry of ritual sacrifice. This divinely ordained division of labor and service is also designed to separate political power from religious authority in Israelite society in order to prevent abuse of one office by the other. Azariah’s threat to Uzziah is cast generally as a censure of divine honor for the king (2 Chron. 26:18).
Hill’s final words are important to bear in mind. Even when we consider Ancient Israel and its unique relationship with Yahweh, and think of it as a theocracy (rule by God), there was still a clear division of powers. There were three divinely ordained offices: prophet, priest and king.
The king never had sole, absolute power, but he was kept in check by priests and by prophets. Thus the theocracy was never about unchecked statism and the divine right of kings. The king, just like everyone else, was to be under the authority and Lordship of God. He was not to be a law unto himself.
If that was true back then, how much more so today, when most state governments are totally secular and take no notice of divinity or divine law? All the more reason for all of us to ensure that too much power is NOT concentrated in the hands of a few rulers or politicians.
While Christians today are not exactly like the Old Testament priests, every single one of us are nevertheless spoken of as being a royal priesthood (see for example 1 Peter 2:9). So we all have priest-like roles and responsibilities, and that includes keeping the State to account and not allowing it to overstep its bounds.
Everywhere with the corona crisis we see case after case of this happening, and it is incumbent upon all believers not to act as servile sheep, but to take on the role of responsible citizens and salt and light Christians as we seek to keep our rulers in line.
Too often they have been taking away our freedoms, trashing our constitutions, and taking unto themselves unwarranted power and control. That never ends well. Thus the need for all of us – including all Christians – to speak out, and if need be, to resist.
As the great Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer put it in How Should We Then Live?:
If we as Christians do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have a real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon the absolute. This was the issue with the early church in regard to the Roman Empire, and though the specific issue will in all probability take a different form than Caesar-worship, the basic issue of having an absolute by which to judge the state and society will be the same.
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Bill Muehlenberg teaches ethics, apologetics and theology at several Melbourne Bible Colleges. His independent blog, Culture Watch, has over 5,000 articles commenting on the major cultural, social and political issues of the day. Bill's podcast is exclusively produced for The Good Sauce audience.