“No one saying do this,” sings Simba, “No one saying be there. No one saying stop that, no one saying see here. Free to run around all day – free to do it all my way!” The young lion isn’t singing about anarchy, or even summer vacation, but rather his anticipation about taking over for his father, the noble Mufasa, as king of all the creatures on the Savannah.
He soon discovers, however, that being king is neither liberating nor easy. Rather, as William Shakespeare more accurately reflects in Henry IV Pt 2, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
Despite the pressure, responsibility, and often short life expectancy that comes with the crown, kings and queen still hold an unshakeable glamour. There’s a reason why Disney Princesses have the market on little girls’ entertainment in a vice grip, and why – despite being little more than figureheads – the British Royal Family still remain huge celebrities. Even Christian literature like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not free from the monarchy’s allure – at the end of the book, the four Pevensie children become kings and queens, and get to rule for many years fighting exciting battles, throwing wonderful parties, and living in a fairytale castle.
For centuries, royal families – especially in Great Britain, where the monarch is the head of the Church of England – have claimed Divine right to justify their rule. As Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother dramatizes in The Crown, “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth. To give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God.”
To a modern viewer, especially one watching in a country like the United States that was founded through its rejection of the monarchy, these sentiments seem out of touch. When you consider the Biblical foundation for monarchy, however, things become a little bit more complicated.
Originally, the Israelites were led by prophets and judges – individuals serving as direct conduits for God. Leaders such as Moses, Gideon, and Joshua told the people what God wanted them to do, and when they obeyed, things went well. Israel was a direct theocracy – a government in which priests, prophets, or other religious leaders lead in the name of God. Everything changed, however, when Samuel was the prophet leading Israel. In 1 Samuel 8, the Israelites come to Samuel asking for a king. They provide one reason for their request – Samuel’s sons, presumably their future leaders, are wicked. Considering that God has called unrelated people before to be his leaders, this excuse doesn’t hold up, and soon a second, less righteous reason emerges: they want a king because the nations around them have kings. Kings are symbols of power, physical manifestations of leadership that are easy to follow and devote themselves to. To the Israelites, the king will be what Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother describes – an ideal to strive towards.
When the prophet Samuel tells God about the people’s demand, God assures him that the people are not rejecting him, but God and his providence. Through Samuel, God warns the people of all the consequences of monarchy: conscription, taxes, and slavery. “When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day” (8:18 NIV).
Nevertheless, the people insist, and in the next two chapters Samuel finds, anoints, and crowns Saul, a handsome, tall man who looks the part of the king. Soon, however, things go downhill – and while we’ll look at a few notable exceptions later, this chart demonstrates that God’s prediction came true. Neither Israel nor Judah has a particularly good track record with kings.
In spite of the people's misguided intentions, God intended to give them a good human king (see Deuteronomy 17:14-20). The chaos of the period of Judges comes to an end, and eventually David, the descendant of Ruth and Boaz, brings about a period of prosperity and prestige. And David's descendant, Jesus, eventually wears a crown and declared the King of the Jews. God will eventually give himself as the truest and best monarch of not only Israel, but the world.
More than two thousand years later, we have overwhelming evidence as to the suffering and oppression that can result from monarchies – but also from governments that appear to obey the will of the people. Hitler, after all, was democratically elected. How should Christians interact with government today? In 1 Peter 2:13-14, Peter writes “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right” (NIV).
Does this mean that monarchs – and presidents, and dictators – are ordained by God? How should Christians approach government today?
Related texts or passages to consider: Romans 13:1-7; 2 Chronicles 20:6; 1 Peter 2:13-14
• Paul seems to claim that all government authority comes from God; how do you reconcile this with governments that did unspeakable evil (such as the Nazis or Stalin), and the actions of Christians who resisted them?
• Should Christian attitudes towards government change depending on the type of government? Do we have a responsibility to bless and pray for elected leaders if we did not vote for them?
• Should Christians vote in and take part in elections? Should they make an effort to legislate their principles or beliefs?
• In light of Deuteronomy 17:14-20, do you think it's safe to say that God intended to give Israel a human king? How does this harmonize with what is reported in 1 Samuel 8?