2.2.9 How should government be constituted? Forms of government in Scripture

Back to 2.2.8

Unit 2 Contents


But what else is there in Scripture that relates to the ‘How?’ question about government?

In fact, what we focused on in the last screen, the contrast between the Christian community and political power, is rooted not only in the New Testament but also in the Old Testament in a really fascinating way.  To see this, we need to recall again the outline of biblical history (see 2.2.2) and, in particular, the end of the monarchy in 588-87BCE – the extremely traumatic moment when Jerusalem was overrun and the people of Judah were taken into exile in Babylon.

You might recall (from 2.2.4) that the figure who warned the people that this disaster would happen was Jeremiah – the archetypal prophet of doom.  You were asked to read Jeremiah 21:11–22.19, where he calls on the people to repent, including this:

Do what is right and just. Rescue the victims from the hand of their oppressors. Do not wrong or oppress the resident alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jer. 22:3, NAB)

Perhaps the most famous and influential passage in Jeremiah comes a few chapters after this.  The circumstances are now the reality of the exile actually happening: the people are forcibly being taken to Babylon.  At this moment, of all moments, Jeremiah has something positive to say, a message of hope.  Jeremiah 29 is a letter he writes to the exiles in Babylon.  Read the first part of this chapter, focusing on verses 4-7.


Reading (1pp)

Jeremiah 29:1-14


The crucial verse for what we are looking at is v. 7:

Seek the shalom of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the LORD, for in its shalom you will have shalom.

As you can see, shalom is used three times here.  You’ll recall that we looked at the meaning of this Hebrew word earlier (2.2.4).  Among several different English translations of it, the NAB uses ‘welfare’ here.1. I suggested that possibly the best English equivalent is a term prominent in CST, the ‘common good’, because this refers to the good of the whole city, comprising peace, justice and prosperity, in which each person finds their own good.  Arguably, even this doesn’t capture the wealth of meaning in shalom.

Yet we can understand Jer. 29:7 fairly well if we substitute ‘common good’ for each use of shalom.  Read the quotation above doing this.

Notice what we have here: the city of Jerusalem, now in exile, within another city, Babylon.  That is, two cities, one which is God’s chosen people and one which is an imperial power that, outwardly, controls them.  In this way, it is like Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, when it was under the Roman Empire.  Even more obviously, it is like the Christians in Rome when Paul wrote to them.

But Jeremiah wrote about Babylon’s shalom, not just Jerusalem’s.  In Babylon’s common good, the Jewish people will find theirs.  They should rely on God for their deliverance from exile, not try to fight their way out. In the meantime, they should build houses, plant gardens and bear sons and daughters.

Here is the main root in the Jewish Bible for the duality which the New Testament generated between the Christian community and political power.  The Jews in Babylon and the Christians in Rome were each a ‘city’ of God’s people within another city.  The advice Jeremiah and Paul each gave in their letters was similar: live with it!  Even Babylon has its own shalom.  Even the Roman authorities are God’s servants.

But, moving beyond this duality, what about the three forms of government, monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, which I introduced on the last screen?  Is there anything in Scripture that throws light on these?

What we have just been looking at gives good background for seeing that there is.  Crucially, the moment of Exile when Jeremiah wrote his letter marked the end of the monarchy, after about 450 years.  If you read the history of the monarchy as it is presented in the books of 1 and 2 Kings, overall it was a failure.  Most of the kings were not faithful to God’s ways and ruled unjustly, which is why the prophets denounced them so strongly.  The good ones were the exceptions.  The most celebrated king, David, was a notorious sinner – an adulterer and murderer – and Solomon, as we saw, showed early promise but didn’t fulfil it.

Beyond this, the beginning of the monarchy is portrayed earlier in the Bible in a way that already casts it in a bad light.  The text we have just looked at, Jeremiah 29, comes at the end of the monarchy – and in effect advocates a different kind of arrangement, a way of living as God’s people as one ‘city’ within another.  We shall now look at the text that marks the start of the monarchy.

You will recall that after entering the Promised Land the people were ruled by ‘judges’.  1 Samuel 8 describes the people coming to the judge who ruled them, Samuel, and demanding a king so that they could be “like all the nations” (v. 5).


Reading (1p)

1 Samuel 8 (whole chapter)


According to this passage, the people wanted a king who would “lead us in warfare, and fight our battles” (v. 20).  The text portrays this demand as a rejection of God, of Jahweh, himself.  As Samuel warns the people, Jahweh is their king so they do not need an earthly king like other nations.

Samuel then gives a strong warning of what it will be like to live under such a king.  To say the least, it’s not an encouraging picture.  The king will subject people to himself, exploit them as workers, take their produce, and so on.  It would be better if the people stuck with rule by ‘judges’ – which we could call an aristocratic form of government because it is by a few people, those who receive special inspiration from God for what they have to do and so are best equipped for it.2. But, even if rule by judges would be better, the passage, amazingly, portrays God as conceding to their demand for a king.

It is plain enough that the reality of earthly monarchy gets a bad press in the Hebrew Scriptures. According to 1 Samuel 8, it is not the form of government that God favours. After its failure, Jeremiah 29 commends to the exiled Jews an alternative to it, a different way by which they can know shalom.

Yet nor is earthly monarchy totally unacceptable to God – God can work with it.  Indeed, during and after the period of monarchy there emerges a visionary ideal of what the king should really be like.  We saw this in Psalm 72, Isaiah 11 and other passages (in 2.2.4).  The king should practise mishpat and tzedakah, judgment and justice, so that there will be shalom.  Then the earthly king will represent the true king, Jahweh, mediating his rule to the people.

As we approach the end of our study of the Scriptures in this unit, all this provokes us to return to the figure of Jesus.  As you know well, it was central to Jesus’ message that the reign of God was coming, and, from the very beginning of the Church, Christians professed that the human being Jesus was himself God’s king, the Messiah. Before long, the Christians went further: his authority is supreme, he is King of kings.

Jesus’ kingship turned out to be absolutely nothing like the picture painted in 1 Samuel 8.  It was the opposite of what the people asked Samuel for, a king who would lead them in war.  As you know, Jesus refused the Zealots’ strategy of restoring the monarchy by force.3 

Rather than that, central to Jesus’ ministry was faithfulness to the way of living that the Hebrew Scriptures called for, faithfulness to the covenant – love of God and love of neighbour, in his own summary of the Torah.  In turn, he called others to the same way of living. This is how God’s reign would come, not through restoration of the earthly Israelite monarchy, which had never been God’s favoured way in the first place.

In the real world, Jesus’ faithfulness to that way of living led him to death, but because his faithfulness was total, so was his success.  His execution marked not failure but success. Even death had not defeated his life, his love.

The Church believes that, because he was completely faithful, God raised him from death.  God then gave the Spirit that had anointed Jesus to all his followers. We can read about this in Acts 2, when the Spirit came on the believers at the Jewish festival of Pentecost.  The Spirit was given to enable the community of followers of Jesus to live in the way he did – and St Paul offered one description of this in Romans 12.

Despite the Hebrew Scriptures’ pretty negative assessment of monarchy, the Church has through much of its history said this: it doesn’t matter much which form of government there is; monarchy, aristocracy and republican rule all can be acceptable.  At the same time, the Church has insisted that it matters more that government acts justly and really does contribute to the common good, whatever its constitutional form.  What this indicates is that the Church has seen the first of the three questions about government that have structured our study in this unit so far, that is, ‘What should government do?’, as much more important than the third.

Yet, despite the Church’s relative indifference among forms of government for most of its history, there has during the past century been a change.  The Church has come to favour, with qualifications, democratic government.  We shall be studying this in Unit 4.

To conclude here, one source of this recent affirmation of democracy, even if this is only indirect, goes back to the birth of the Church itself.  At Pentecost, God’s Spirit is given to all, the same Spirit that filled Jesus.  Therefore, in the radical renewal of life together which Jesus began and the Holy Spirit continues, all equally can have a part to play.

The next screen gives a summary of all we have learned through study of the ‘just government strand’ in Scripture.


End of 2.2.9

Go to 2.2.10 Conclusion: the ‘just government strand’ in the Bible

Module B outline

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  1. In fact (oddly), the NAB has ‘welfare’ only twice in this verse and no other word for the third use of shalom

  2. Cf. Judges 3:10, 6:34, 11:29, 13:25, 14:6, 14:19, 15:14. 

  3. It seems that we can say that, in Jesus’ kingship, three things happened at once:

    • The pre-monarchical ideal, in which God was directly the people’s king (1 Samuel 8), was restored.
    • What became the monarchical ideal of an heir to David’s throne who would make real the vision of kingship in Ps. 72, Isa. 11, etc. was fulfilled.
    • The post-monarchical model of ‘two cities’ (Jeremiah 29) was affirmed, in which Jesus’ kingship was recognised as supreme and Caesar’s rule was seen as having a place under it.