GOD AND GOVERNMENT
By Steve Zeisler
As we near the Presidential election, I suggest we step back from the advertising
blitz for a moment and consider matters instead from an eternal perspective.
We must never forget that we are citizens of two kingdoms. We are citizens
of these United States, and that means we have certain responsibilities
which we must take very seriously. First and foremost, however, we are citizens
of the kingdom of God. Empires, kingdoms and nations come and go. Unless
the Lord returns first, our country too will one day fade from the scene.
Nothing that man does or creates can stand the ultimate test of time, but
the kingdom of God is eternal.
We have been discussing things eternal and things temporal in our studies
in the book of Ecclesiastes, asking questions like, What is the point of
our existence? Why am I made the way I am? How do events on earth stack
up when they are set in the context of eternity and examined from an eternal
perspective? Our purpose this morning is to put the pressure of this coming
election in a setting that reminds us that our first responsibility is to
be about our Father's business. Important as this election is to all of
us, we need to view it from that perspective.
PILATE ON TRIAL
The Roman Empire had the most formidable government this world has ever
known. Its rule lasted hundreds of years. If it was our purpose to study
government, we could not find a better example than the government of Rome.
Pontius Pilate, the Roman the governor of Judea during Jesus' time on earth,
is a good example of how effective was the government of the empire. A bright,
savvy, ruthless man, he was everything a good governor ought to be. Yet
he is best remembered, not for his effective governance, but for an incident
that occurred during his tenure when government itself was brought under
Pilate had to pass judgment on a prisoner, Jesus of Nazareth, who refused
to defend himself. Instead, Jesus put Pilate and the entire Roman system
of government-and by extension, all future governments, when viewed in the
light of eternity-on trial. Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this
world, or else my servants would defend me... I am come into the world to
testify to the truth. Every one on the side of the truth listens to me."
When Pontius Pilate heard these words in the quiet of a private interview,
he realized that he, not Jesus, was the one being examined. "What is
the truth?" asked Pilate. His question has echoed down through the
centuries since. "Don't you know," said Pilate to Jesus, "that
I have authority to either free you or put you to death?" Jesus answered,
"You have no power over me unless it is given you from heaven."
Pilate's response to his own examination was to wash his hands of the whole
matter and hand Jesus over to the Roman soldiers. They mocked him, crowned
him with thorns, and clothed him with a purple robe. The crowd screamed
that he be executed. A human government, which, according to Jesus himself,
had been brought into existence by God, was found wanting by the Lord when
he brought it under scrutiny and set it beside truth which would last forever.
"I am a witness to the truth," said Jesus, testifying to people's
need to respond to God. Questions like taxes, roads, refurbishing of government
buildings, rebellions, etc., suddenly became less urgent when compared with
the challenge of Jesus. Pilate, the representative of the might of Rome,
blinked when he found himself under the scrutiny of the Eternal Sovereign.
In two days, our nation will be called upon to make some extremely important
choices and decisions. Important as these are, however, they will soon fade
into insignificance. We are citizens of this country yes, but we also are
citizens of heaven. We, too, can say, with Jesus, "You would have no
power except it be given to you from on high." Thus, we have opportunity
to respond in two arenas, the temporal and the eternal. Let us look then
at the observations of Solomon the wise, a king who preceded Rome by a thousand
WHAT SOLOMON SAW
The author of this remarkable book of Ecclesiastes set about his work, deliberately
ignoring heavenly revelation and choosing instead to write about life as
it is observed "under the sun." Solomon, the wise examiner of
life, bequeathed this work to the generations so that people would have
a hunger to look beyond the things of earth to the heavenlies, to faith,
and to a God who reveals himself. Up to this point in our studies, Solomon
has been wrestling with personal fulfillment, life and joy, and where he
could find them; where man fits in the grand scale of things, in other words.
But he also speaks about the corporate human experience, of government and
laws, of kingdoms and power. This is the subject of our study this morning.
We will be looking at four different passages from Ecclesiastes. As we do
so, let us remember that Solomon is not prescribing answers. He is merely
describing the way things are. Thus, today we will take a tour with Solomon
the wise observer, and look at what government is and is not, its strengths
and weaknesses. And we will see, not only what was true thousands of years
ago, but what remains true today as far as the possibilities and the limits
of government are concerned. So at this point we are not advocating anything,
but merely observing, with Solomon.
Chapter 3, verse 16:
Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of
justice there is wickedness, and in the place of righteousness there is
Next, Solomon interjects a parenthesis. He takes up his argument again in
4:1. First, however, let's look at the parenthesis. 3:17:
I said to myself, "God will judge both the righteous man
and the wicked man," for a time for every matter and for every deed
is there. I said to myself concerning the sons of men, "God has surely
tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts." For
the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies
so dies the other; indeed they all have the same breath and there is no
advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place.
All came from the dust and all return to the dust. Who knows that the breath
of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the
earth? And I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy
in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what
will occur after him?
Solomon then returns to the issues of injustice and oppression in high places.
Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were
being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and
that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors
was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead
who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better
off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen
the evil activity that is done under the sun.
First, Solomon raises the issue of oppression and injustice versus righteousness
and justice. Can society or government effectively bring about justice for
the needy, care for the weak, and share power? Solomon's answer is no. Power
is concentrated in the few, he observes. As a consequence, justice is not
done. Wickedness, not righteousness, is what resides in high places.
Solomon hints that the average person responds to oppression in one of two
ways. The first response is given in the parenthesis 3:17-22. Are men really
different than animals? he wonders. If God does not reveal that they are,
he is tempted to conclude that there is no difference. Both come from the
dust, which is later dispersed following their death. The breath of either
(or spirit; the word may be translated either way) is not obviously distinguishable
one from the other. They live, deteriorate and die in the same way. How
can anyone know for sure that a spirit inhabits man, one which ascends upward
toward God? Isn't he just like the animals? Besides, we treat one another
the same. In the animal world the powerful prey on the weak. Big animals
feed on littler animals; big fish on littler fish. This is the nature of
things. One life is prey to another.
But it is no different with humans. The powerful and strong prey on the
powerless and weak. Mark Twain once said that you can take either a man
or a dog who has been beaten and mistreated and you can cause them both
to prosper; the only difference in their response to your action will be
that the dog will be grateful. Solomon is saying something similar here.
He muses that the way in which man responds to oppression is to take care
of himself. This is the point of 3:22: "...nothing is better than that
a man should be happy in his activities..." Maximize your own self-interest,
in other words. If we cannot know for sure whether man is more worthwhile
than the animals, if we have no independent knowledge or guidance in this
area, the wisest thing to do is take care of yourself. As you see what may
or may not be wickedness and oppression, therefore, protect yourself and
look the other way.
The second major option which Solomon observes is highlighted in verses
1-3 of chapter 4. He looks again at oppression but this time sees the tears
of the oppressed. This moves him to recognize that humans and animals are
different after all. Humans cry; animals don't. The tears and the crying
out of the suffering so affect him so that he is outraged.
So the first option was to take care of number one. Like the water polluters
who discard their toxins into our rivers and seas, and the legal eagles
who debate the fine points of the law, take care of yourself first. But
the second option is to be outraged, to cry out against injustice and oppression.
It is wrong that this be so. We should not have to live to see these things.
They are so reprehensible that we would be better off dead than seeing or
There are many examples of people who have protested oppression. Rosa Parks,
a kind, Christian woman, sat down in a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, back
in 1955, and refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was arrested.
Martin Luther King and others protested, and the civil rights movement was
born. The oppression had gone far enough. The organization MADD, Mothers
Against Drunk Driving, came into being because one or two women decided
to take on criminal drivers, the courts, government, and even the liquor
industry. A few people began to protest the pornographic magazine racks
set at eye-level for children in 7-11 stores, holding that this was an outrage
and an injustice to children and grown-ups alike. The Southland Corporation,
owners of these stores, finally agreed to stop selling these magazines.
The Silent Scream, a documentary film of an actual abortion,
pictured a struggling baby, mouth open in a silent scream, struggling as
it was being sucked out of its mother's uterus. "Behold I saw the tears
of the oppressed," says Solomon.
Solomon sees that power is concentrated among the few, and that those in
power oppress those not in power. And we could point out that a change in
the power structure brings new oppressors into power. The revolutionaries
who overthrow power structures, in time become worse than those they overthrew.
We can respond to this by withdrawing from any involvement in fighting injustice,
or we can become involved in trying to right wrongs.
THE YOUNG HERO
Let us look at some more observations which Solomon makes about life and
government. Here is another phenomenon of his time and ours as well. Chapter
4, verse 13:
A poor, yet wise lad is better off than an old and foolish king
who no longer knows how to receive instruction. For he has come out of prison
to become king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom. I have seen
all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces
him. There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and
even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too
is vanity and striving after wind.
Occasionally a new voice, a new political hero, a young, energetic and enthusiastic
personality comes on the scene. People begin to hope that the old, foolish,
doddering king, together with his old and foolish advisers, will fade away.
When the new blood takes over, they reason, things will be different. This
happens, says Solomon, but the new king one day becomes old, just like his
predecessor, and you are faced with the same problems. "This too is
vanity," he concludes.
David's son Absolom rebelled against his father and the people flocked to
the young man, thinking that David had lost his ability to reign. But Absolom
was not the answer to their problems. The Republicans nominated Dan Quayle,
a young, attractive, energetic new face, for Vice President. Many look to
Jesse Jackson, a passionate, charismatic man drawn from a tough and deprived
background, as their hope for the future. Even the Forty-Niners football
team has a problem deciding between a young and an old quarterback. The
younger man, however, will soon become an old quarterback. Solomon says
all this is vanity, striving after wind. Heroes don't last very long.
In chapter 5 verse 8 he talks about bureaucracies:
If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness
in the province, do not be shocked at the sight, for one official watches
over another official, and there are higher officials over them. After all,
a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land.
If you see oppression and you bring it to the attention of the bureaucracy,
do not be surprised that the officials you are dealing with are unmoved.
Their main interest is in gaining their supervisor's approval for their
job performance. This material may be three thousand years old but it sounds
like it was written about the Department of Motor Vehicles! As a matter
of fact, it could be written about any of our bureaucracies. No matter how
well grounded your appeal, when you deal with the bureaucracy you come away
feeling as if you had just been pounding your head against a wall. Bureaucracies
are layered, one on top of the other, and each level is mainly concerned
with pleasing the one above. If the king has a field to cultivate, he may
advance policies that will benefit all. Your best hope is that the top man's
interests and yours coincide. Bureaucracies don't change.
Solomon, of course, is not endorsing any of these circumstances which he
brings before us. He is merely reporting on what he has seen. Once again,
we must conclude with our wise observer that there is nothing new "under
LIMITS TO GOVERNMENT
I say, "Keep the command of the king because of the oath before God.
Do not be in a hurry to leave him. Do not join in an evil matter, for he
will do whatever he pleases." Since the word of the king is authoritative,
who will say to him, "What are you doing?" He who keeps a royal
command experiences no trouble, for a wise heart knows the proper time and
procedure. For there is a proper time and procedure for every delight, when
a man's trouble is heavy upon him. If no one knows what will happen, who
can tell him when it will happen? No man has authority to restrain the wind
with the wind, or authority over the day of death; and there is no discharge
in the time of war, and evil will not deliver those who practice it. All
this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done under
the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt.
The first point made in this section is that government is legitimate, and
therefore one is wise to obey the commands of the king. Governments exist
because God allows them. When you pledge allegiance to your country, God
takes your pledge seriously. We find the same advice from the apostle Paul
in Romans 13. We ought to subject ourselves to civil authorities. Furthermore,
says Solomon (and Paul agrees with this), if you do not obey, you will be
punished. The government does not bear the sword in vain. In dealing with
sedition, "the king will do whatever he pleases."
The Scriptures consistently teach that we ought to be honest, contributing
citizens. We ought to vote, and we ought to encourage others to vote also.
When we see oppression and injustice we should attempt to make courts and
legislatures responsive. We should be wise enough to use the system ("proper
time and procedure") to bring about the desired results, to seek ways
within it to right wrongs. God uses governments to restrain some of the
possibilities for evil. We are gloriously gifted of God to live in this
country. Let us respond by being active, obedient citizens.
But recall that we are citizens of two kingdoms. Human government has the
right to collect taxes, to call people to jury duty, to draft soldiers into
the army, to supervise businesses, education, medicine, etc. But there are
some things it cannot do. No government official can say what will happen,
and "if no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will
happen?" Governments cannot foretell the future, when the next natural
disaster will strike, when the next beneficial scientific breakthrough will
occur. The Lord God, not governments, is the one who controls the future.
And no government can tell people when their lives will end. God, not government,
ordains each person's life span.
"There is no discharge in the time of war," says Solomon. Once
events have taken over so that war is imminent, no king or president can
avoid the inevitable, short of surrendering. Evil does not deliver us. We
can't use the wind to restrain the wind. In other words, there is a whole
array of things in which the government has no say.
Our recognition of the limits of government should lead us to recognize
the greater authority of our heavenly Sovereign. We have been drafted into
a spiritual army to fight with weapons, "divinely powerful for the
destruction of fortresses" (2 Tim.10:4). We are ambassadors, heralds,
stewards-dispensing the riches of Christ, announcing the glorious verdict
that the heavenly Judge does no hold our sins against us. Jesus' ministry
is extended to his followers: "preach good news to the poor, release
to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the downtrodden, the favorable
year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18,19).
We must respond to and obey the machinery of government. This is what Scripture
teaches. But we must also obey our Father in heaven, knowing that his words
will never change, and that the governments of earth are temporary.
Solomon began his reign by asking God to make him a good king. He wanted
to reign wisely, appoint just judges, and build a model kingdom.Years later,
however, following the building of the temple, he was more interested in
people coming to know, believe and respond to God. He was on his knees before
his people, praying that as they came to know the heavenly Sovereign, his
own role as an earthly sovereign would be reduced. This too must be our
perspective. We must obey the King of kings, as well as be model citizens
of our government.
Here then are Solomon's words which he spoke at the dedication of the temple:
And it came about that when Solomon had finished praying this
entire prayer and supplication to the Lord, he arose from before the altar
of the Lord, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread toward heaven.
And he stood and blessed all the assembly of Israel with a loud voice, saying,
"Blessed be the Lord who has given rest to his people Israel, according
to all that He has promised; not one word has failed of all His good promise,
which He promised through Moses His servant. May the Lord our God be with
us, as He was with our fathers; may He not leave us or forsake us, that
He may incline our hearts to Himself, to walk in all His ways and to keep
His commandments and His statutes and His ordinances, which He commanded
our fathers. And may these words of mine, with which I have made supplication
before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, that He may
maintain the cause of His servant and the cause of His people Israel, as
each day requires, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the
Lord is God; there is no one else. Let your heart therefore be wholly devoted
to the Lord our God, to walk in His statutes and to keep His commandments,
as at this day."
Now the king and all Israel with him offered sacrifice before
Will you retain the high calling of a "heart wholly devoted to the
Lord our God," during this season of politics, presidents, and propositions?
Catalog No. 4086
November 6, 1988
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