If it is true that governments are responsible before God to punish evil and encourage good, then should we not look to the extensive laws that God gave to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament to find out in more detail how governments are to function. Those today who would condemn the Bible as a source of guidance most likely would start in the Old Testament to prove their point. However, we cannot do this directly, and we can only do it with much difficulty, because of the special place those laws occupy in the scope of the whole Bible. We will now take a look at the reason for that difficulty.
The Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy record many laws that God gave specifically for the nation of Israel. These laws belong to what is called the “Mosaic covenant” because God gave the laws to Moses and Moses gave them to the people. The ‘covenant’ defined the relationship between God and His people and the laws defined the relationship from the time of Moses onward. Understanding exactly how Israel’s laws might possibly be relevant to secular civil governments today is one of the most complex questions in Biblical interpretation. Here are a few of the reasons:
The place of Israel: Proper interpretation of Israel’s laws requires understanding of the place of the nation of Israel in the history of the Bible and God’s purposes for Israel in the history of the world.
Israel as a theocracy: Understanding of Israel’s laws requires a realization that Israel was unique because it was to be for God, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. [Exod. 19:6]. It was a theocracy ruled by God Himself, and therefore the laws of Israel governed the religious life of God’s people as well as matters that ordinarily belong to all civil governments in all ages of history.
God’s end-time judgment breaking into current history: Understanding Israel’s laws requires an understanding of some unusual examples of God’s judgment suddenly “breaking in” to human history. Even before the establishment of Israel as a nation, there were examples of God’s judgment breaking into history to bring swift retribution to extreme human sinfulness. The story of the flood and Noah’s ark (Gen. 6-9); the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-28); the story of the destruction of the cities of Canaan by the people of Israel, an event carried out under God’s direction (Deut. 20:16-18; and the contrasting in vv. 10-15), where such war of divine judgment was forbidden; when Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control, he called the Levites to him, instructed each to strap on a sword and go through the camp, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor…that day about 3,000 died…the Levites were blessed that day for they had taken a stand against evil; all are examples of God’s involvement in human history. This war of conquest and destruction of Canaan was carried out at the specific command of God and was part of his plan for establishing His people in the land He had promised to them. It foreshadowed God’s ultimate final judgment on the whole earth. Many of the actions could very well be attributed to Hitler or Stalin but they were actions that God saw as necessary to establish His people as holy, His chosen ones to carry the Word to all the world. What happened then should never provide the pattern for civil governments to imitate today. It was historically unique.
Extensive application of the death penalty: Interpretation of Israel’s laws requires understanding of another unique aspect of the laws of Israel, namely, the imposition of the death penalty, not only for murder (Gen. 9:5-6), but also for promoting a false religion (Exod. 22:18, 20; Lev. 20:22; Deut. 13: 6-170), for rebellion against family authority (Exod. 21:15, 17; Deut. 21:18-21), and for sexual sin (Lev. 20:10-140). These and other examples of the death penalty were part of Israel’s identity as a “holy nation” (Exod. 19:6) before God, but that does not mean that nations today, which do not exist as theocracies or as “holy nations” before God, should ever attempt to follow these examples. In fact, these Old Testament narratives shows that such severe laws and penalties could not create a truly holy people because the laws did not change the people’s hearts (Jer. 31-33; Rom. 8:3-4; Gal. 3:21-24). Such penalties should not be used as a pattern for governments today.
What about the Sabbath command? Some who would want to downplay the Bible would ask whether governments today should enforce the command against working on the Sabbath (Exod. 20:8-10)? Even Christians have had differences over the application of this commandment for several hundred years. Some believe it should still be observed and that it is sinning to work on Sunday. However, many see the Sabbath commandment as different from the other nine commandments in that it was a summary of the ceremonial laws that God gave to Israel, such as the Sabbath year, the Jubilee year, and all the sacrifices and offerings that the people of Israel were required to make to God. Consider:
“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ”. [Col. 2:16-17]. Also, “You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain”. [Gal. 4:10-11]. Could it be that the Sabbath requirement to refrain from work was a “ceremonial law” like the laws about animal sacrifices that we no longer have to obey? It would probably not be proper for the government to require businesses to be closed on Sunday. That, though, does not mean that people should work seven days a week. God knew that rest was good. So it would seem wise if Christians in this New Testament age set up a pattern of life where they refrain from work at least one day a week. This may not always be a Sunday. This is a question of Biblically informed human wisdom, not a matter of sinning or not sinning or an absolute rule that can never be broken…my days in the Navy have shown me that to be a fact of life. Some Christians disagree and that is perfectly OK…Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby are good examples. As the apostle Paul writes: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind”.(Rom. 14:5-6). Of course the study of history in Biblical times would place the Sabbath on Saturday rather than Sunday and of course even Jesus questioned those who condemned others who did necessary work or actions on the Sabbath…Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
If these distinctions are kept in mind, the laws that God gave to Israel can still provide useful information for understanding the purposes of government and the nature of good and bad government. Considering the laws of some of the nations of the ancient near east, the laws that God gave to Israel were an amazing model of how justice, fairness, compassion for the poor and oppressed, and genuine holiness of life can work out in daily life. Although the specific provisions of the Mosaic law in Exodus thru Deuteronomy were intended to apply directly only to Israel at that time, some other sections of the Old Testament are not addressed specifically to the Jewish people but speak in general terms about governments and kings. The Book of Proverbs alone has thirty-two verses that mention a king. Psalms and Ecclesiastes add more. These verses give additional wisdom about civil government. How can a ‘book’ that contains so much about government be excluded from the message from the pulpit?
Next week we will take a look at what governments should do and how at times it may be right in God’s eyes for citizens…Christians…to take a stand against civil government. Today we like to blame the condition of the nation on the Republicans, on the Democrats, on the ‘right’, on the ‘left’, on the ‘liberals’, on the ‘conservatives’, on the communists, on Washington, on New York, on Hollywood, etc. The actual blame belongs at the foot of the churches and the congregations. They have been ‘missing in action’ and convinced themselves that religion and politics don’t mix. They have declared themselves ‘too holy’ to be involved in such stuff while the nation ‘burns’. Action begins on our knees asking for guidance and starts when we get on our feet. We cannot send ‘heathens’ to Washington and expect them to do God’s work and will for the nation.
– Bob Munsey