God and Government

Fairplain Presbyterian Church
Fairplain Presbyterian Church
God and Government


Please note: manuscripts reflect what preachers planned to say before they started preaching; sermons are what they actually said, which will always be somewhat different. Since manuscripts are intended as a “jumping-off point,” typos or errors may be included.

Thomas Midgley Jr.

had a problem. It was the late 1910s, and car engines had big problems with knocking. They cylinders were supposed to ignite and burn in a smooth order. But sometimes, sometimes… they didn’t. Thomas was an engineer who worked for a General Motors research lab. He spent years trying to find a good solution. In 1921, he discovered the work of a German chemist named Carl Jacob Löwig. After some initial testing, he was able to beat the knocking problem with a fuel additive that both worked well, and was cheap.

GM called Thomas Midgley Jr’s. solution “Ethyl.” He won a medal for it for original research in chemistry in 1922. GM made a chemical company so they could make sure Dupont made Ethyl right, and Midgley was appointed its vice president.

The problem was, Thomas Midgley’s “magical chemical” started causing people’s brains to malfunction. Because it was made with lead.

Cars drove for half a century in America with lead in their fuel, poisoning people’s brains, including Thomas Midgley Jr.’s, until it was finally outlawed in the 1970s.

The solution was worse than the problem.

Israel had a problem.

They were being conquered right and left, and there was no consistency. They’d get conquered, a judge would rise up and fight off their oppressors, and then they’d be free for a few years, and then the judge would die and the Philistines or the Arameans or the Moabites or the Canaanites or the Midianites… the first few chapters of Judges are a who’s who of local countries that defeated Israel and oppressed them.

The last judge is Samuel the prophet. He was great; his sons were awful. So the people told him, “We want a king.”

They have an engine knocking problem. Samuel tells them leaded gasoline is a bad solution.

Government as a necessary evil

Government as a necessary evil – as something we want. Something we need and want, but not something that’s actually good.

This isn’t to say that all government is necessarily bad, and not even to say we don’t need leadership – I think God does call some people to leadership – but when a government takes up the violence – I know I’m disagreeing with Paul here a little bit – that’s not God’s solution. That’s lead in gasoline. It fixes a problem with a new problem.

It’s a human response to sin in the world. God’s calling is for us to love one another.

God’s ideal is people in loving relationship with one another and with God.
2. But sin is a problem. The other countries have kings so they can enact state sponsored violence. They want one so they can defend themselves with state sponsored violence.
3. A king is their choice – one God through the voice of Samuel explicitly warns them against.

Prior to this, they were at least nominally governed by God. It wasn’t working out too well because they were getting conquered right and left.

Layers – a fallen world

And there are layers here – later on, the story has God saying, “Ok, I’m going to give them a king because I’ve heard their cry from their suffering (9:16)” – but if you hear earlier, this isn’t God’s choice for them.

What if this king is not a removal of oppression but rather a transfer of it, from one king to another?

And there’s this story of an oppressive king who wants to gouge people’s eyes out, and Saul musters everybody and they go out and fight him and they’re free… and this freedom puts Saul in a position to lead, and he does, and in defeating the enemy power, he gains power for himself.

But they wanted something more consistent, something more persistent. They were tired of being invaded by other nations, and walked all over, and what did the other nations have that they didn’t? A king.

The Hope for a King

The hope, the longing, of course, is to have a king who stands up for our interests. A king, or president, who does what we think is right, who watches out for us, and puts those evil others in their place.

Some scholars have suggested that this isn’t all of Israel asking for a king; this is a specific subset. It’s the elders of Israel; the old guard; the folks who have something to lose, who want a king to defend their property they’ve accumulated. The rest of the folks, the folks who will be joining the army to protect the land and property of the wealthy, who are going to experience all the things Samuel warns against… Samuel in his role of prophet will need to speak for.

More recently it has been suggested that those who had accumulated surplus wealth wanted and needed a strong centralized government to protect and enhance that surplus. That motivation also is not explicit in the account. (61-62)

You did this. (Stated repeatedly)

Even as Samuel annoints Saul, he makes it clear: “Y’all did this. Don’t y’all go tryna put this on God.”

God choosing Saul is not a commendation of Saul but a condemnation of the people of God’s lack of political imagination

  • (8:4) appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.
  • (8:6) But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.”
  • (the things the king will do)
  • (8:18) And on that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves…”
  • (8:19-20) …they said, “No! We are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

You did this; don’t go acting like this was “God’s chosen person.”

All that stuff about Saul being “God’s anointed” is, imo, Davidic propaganda, stories about “This is God’s choice;” – Saul was God’s choice, God’s anointed, and now I’m God’s next choice. Nah. This is y’all‘s choice.

The Evil Result of a King

But this happens only after Samuel warns them of all the evil that will come about as a result of their request for a king.

And instead of being overpowered, they become something maybe even worse: They become evil themselves.

Their desire for governance and protection from other nations quickly becomes a desire to conquer and to enslave other nations. Their longing to protect their own stuff quickly becomes a desire to take other people’s stuff; their longing to protect their own land becomes a longing for other people’s land.

God Over King

The other thing that happens in this morning’s text is that it’s made so clear that God remains above their king, even as the prophet anoints the king.

The Office of Prophet

The office of prophet was already there – Prophet came before King. The prophet is a God-given check on the people-appointed government, appointed before the government, who says, “No, you can’t do just whatever you want because it benefits you.” The prophet is looking out for the people the king might overlook.

Saul and Samuel’s relationship as prototypical

Saul gains power through Samuel, and throughout his entire reign, is dogged by Samuel. It sets up and predicts the relationship of prophets and kings throughout the history of Israel. Forever throughout, the prophets are going to stand up and tell kings, “Oh no you didn’t.”

The problem is when the king gets the prophets in his pocket; when it becomes the church legitimizing or baptizing the king or the president, rather than doing the more complex work of continuing that statement of insisting that God’s law is higher than the king.

That’s why the king gets crowned by the archbishop of Canterbury. The church, the prophet, the archbishop, crowns the king not to raise up the king to have the power of God, but to show the king is under the power of God. (Weirdly, in England the king is anointed to show that he’s the head of the church of England, which feels very sketchy).

The prophet anoints the king, showing that the true ultimate power is God’s, not his.

Accountability to a higher authority

In the same way, American presidents take their oath of office on a Bible, giving at least lip-service to the idea that they are accountable to an authority higher than their own.

Prophets are called to independence

So if the prophets are in the pocket of the king, if the church is in the pocket of a president, if the prophets are saying “this is MY king, this King is God’s choice and can do no wrong,” then we’re in a VERY dangerous place.

Samuel anoints Saul, says “this person is God’s choice (in answer to your choice);” but Samuel does NOT see Saul as infallible. Samuel anoints Saul, and Samuel tells Saul, “You’ve rejected God and God rejected you as king.”

Samuel doesn’t pledge allegiance

And the people’s allegiance, Samuel warns them, is to God. Samuel does not pledge allegiance to Saul; Samuel’s allegiance is to God first and Saul second, and when Saul does evil, Samuel… okay, fine, he hesitates a little, because he’s afraid of Saul now – but for every king, there is a prophet, reminding them that their power is not absolute and speaking up for those at the periphery.

Consequences of getting too caught up in this human institution of governance

That’s why it gets very dangerous when churches and pastors and Christians start talking about political candidates as if they’re “God’s anointed” and therefore can do no wrong.

In 2016, people were calling Donald Trump God’s candidate, and writing – I’m just gonna say it how it is – blasphemous songs honoring a political candidate and singing them as part of their worship, in church. I heard a new one last week, by a Christian singer-songwriter named Natasha Owens, called “The Chosen One,” and it was about a candidate for president and not Jesus. I survived 30 seconds before I had to turn it off.

In 2020 a lot of people thought that Donald Trump was God’s anointed candidate, and then Donald Trump lost. And that screwed with people. There were all kinds of conspiracy theories, about cheating, and election interference, and lies, and some people even said Donald Trump really did win the election and was running things behind the scenes as kind of a shadow government…

I’m talking about Donald Trump here because I don’t think anybody said Joe Biden was God’s anointed candidate. God, I hope not. They’re both men. We picked them, collectively, not God.

Seriously, look at those two guys. I can’t imagine believing God picked either one of them.

Nobody’s ‘God’s Candidate.’

People saying that Joe Biden or Donald Trump or whoever is “God’s candidate” are fundamentally disunderstanding the relationship between God and government.

Our Christian Duty to remind leaders of their duty before God to those with the least power

So even if the president is the one you want – or not the one you want least – as a Christian, as members of the kingdom of priests, it is still our duty to remind the president and our elected officials that they lead under God and it is not simply their duty to do right by a select few; that,
like Nathan told David
and Elijah told Ahab,
they may not use their office to enrich themselves and to wrongfully take whatever they want. Taxes are expected and permitted, but not theft.

They are called to do right by the least powerful, not just the most powerful.

In a few months we’re going to have an election. We as a “kingdom of priests,” as voters, will take part in deciding who will lead our country. And it’s so important that we not say, “This candidate is God’s choice.” Every candidate on the ballot is a flawed human who will need the voice of a prophet in their declaring loudly in their ear, “No, it is not ok to treat people that way.”

The prophets speak up for those who can’t bend the king’s ear. In one story, the servant of the prophet is speaking to the king when a widow arrives, and he helps her.

Choose the one who’s going to need the least prophetic input

The king, the president you want, is the one who is going to need the least prophetic input to do what’s right. Nobody is going to do everything right, and if you have a candidate or president you think is doing everything right, who is God’s annointed, that’d be a good time to make sure your faith hasn’t been co-opted by that candidate.

Closing Prayer

God in your mercy, help us as we vote and as we think about your world, to not give in to the easy answers, to thinking if we just get this candidate in office, your Kingdom will come. Protect our hearts from the allure of princes and presidents, and usher in your gentle reign, the day when we will no longer need the stopgaps of police and armies, when your love will rule under all, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

A few sources

I am indebted to Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, and to Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Samuel, for inspiration for this sermon.