Written by Peter Blanch
The kings and rulers of the ancient world often did not live under law. They lived over the law and did whatever they wanted. When they made laws, they made laws for their subjects that did not apply to them. The character of their rule was not one of consistency to a governing standard. The character of their rule was dependent on whatever whim took them at the time.
If a ruler like this didn’t like you, if you upset them in any way, even in a trivial matter, they could take your life. This was their freedom and right – because they ruled, and you didn’t.
This kind of rule was common in the ancient world and so it is no surprise that you can see such a ruler described in the Scriptures. In the book of Daniel we read about the king of the Babylonian empire, Nebuchadnezzar. He ruled in fickle and unjust ways, shown in his treatment of the so called “wise men” of Babylon (these are the “wise men” that Daniel ended up rescuing). We see his inconsistent rule continue when his son Belshazzar comes to the throne after him [remember the incident of the writing on the wall?], and in Darius after him [who puts Daniel in the lion’s den]. It was the same with King Herod, the puppet king of Israel at the time of Jesus’ ministry – in his fickle use of authority he had John the Baptist beheaded and his head brought to him on a platter to please his stepdaughter, all because of his unjust and abusive use of power.
One of the key reasons why those in authority would govern with one standard for themselves and another for the people was because of the gods they believed in. We have lived in such a christianised culture for such a long time that we link God and justice together, and so we should because they do go together! Righteousness and justice are the foundation of our God’s throne.
But the gods of this world are not particularly interested in justice at all. The ancient Canaanite fertility gods were not concerned with justice and faithfulness, but with performance and reproduction. They were not concerned with righteousness and fair judgements, but with homage, debauchery and debasement.
Modern Hindu gods are just as fickle. Buddhism does not allow for personal justice, and instead has a view of impersonal karma.
Atheism, although claiming a basis of justice has ultimately borrowed ideas from Christianity. In an atheists world view there is no rule of law except “survival of the fittest” which has no justice woven into it at all.
It is our God, the God of the Bible, who has at the foundation of his rule justice and righteousness. You see this clearly in the covenant he made with the people of Israel in the Old Testament.
The 10 Commandments are the opening part of that covenant and establish the whole concept of justice. The Law established standards of righteousness and unrighteousness: what is punishable, why it is punishable and how it is punishable. And as God sets out those laws, he himself commits himself to be bound by them. You see this in Jesus, who came as God in the flesh, and as he came, he fulfilled the law. God lives by his own standards because the foundation of his throne is righteousness and justice. You can rely on God to use his power rightly because he himself lives underneath his own standard.
It is this God-given foundation that has shaped the western worldview of the right use of power and authority. Some of us are old enough to remember what happened with Bill Clinton who, as president, committed sexual immorality with Monica Lewinsky. Or if you’re really old, you’ll remember Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. America is a country where even the president can be brought to court. A president can have his whole presidency challenged. Both of these men had to stand under the law their government enforced. Likewise, our own politicians in Australia are subject to ordinary laws.
It is not like this in many countries around the world. We easily take for granted that our system of authority and rule has been profoundly influenced by the Bible. No human system is perfect, but there is goodness in a rule that attempts to reflect the foundation of God’s authority of rightness and justice.
In a world of such rapid growth and change, let us not take for granted the christian influence that remains in the way our Government operates. Let’s be thankful for it and pray that it may long continue, in God’s grace. Pray also for countries around the world where this is not the case.
More than this, let us not take for granted God’s goodness and righteousness and justice. Let us continue to give thanks to Him for the foundation of His throne and the goodness of his rule over us, that also includes the mercy and grace we find in Jesus.