Revisiting the Christian and State Relationship.

The Bible records a time after Moses and then Joshua and before Israel forsook Theocracy for Monarchy: The period of the judges. Christians commonly view the period as one of darkness, chaos, and anarchy. The last verse in the Book of Judges duly notes that “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Some have taken this as a divine criticism of the period. Somehow, they think that in the Bible God must be speaking of the organization of His people during that time as being deficient. However, it would be well for many of us to reconsider the notion—and especially not to move too fast through Judges chapter two!

First, to recapitulate:

Israel was under a Theocracy. What did this mean? Quite simply, that God, not man, was Israel’s King (1 Samuel 8:20; 10:19; 12:12). Gideon understood:

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.’ Gideon said to them, ‘I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you’ (Judges 8:22, 23).

Theocracy was the rule of God over men—that is, the granting of supremacy by creature to an unselfish Creator, a being whom absolute power cannot corrupt, indeed, who will only govern us nonimpositionally and voluntarily.

The Period of Judges

The period of the judges is difficult to place if the late date (c. 1200 BCE) for the Exodus is chosen. Kevin P. Edgecomb argues convincingly for the early Exodus date (c. 1440 BCE) and places the time of the judges approximately from 1350 BCE to 1108 BCE. The reign of the different judges is divided into eastern and western areas (“Chronology of the Judges Period,” Kevin P. Edgecomb, 2004., accessed 2009-03-02 21:15Z).

The Coming of the Monarchy

The transition to Israelite monarchy is especially outlined in 1 Samuel 8-12. The prophet Samuel had appointed his children to follow him in the office as Israel’s judge / deliverer (1 Samuel 8:1). Sadly, their immoral behavior was not known to Samuel (1 Samuel 8:3, 5). Under their administration the nation was chafing, and began looking to neighboring nations for models of governance.

At last, they appealed to Samuel to provide them a king (1 Samuel 8:5). They desired to defer the responsibility that the Theocracy had enjoined upon them. Their rejection of leadership by judges was actually a rejection of God as their king. “They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). At God’s command, Samuel dutifully outlined to them the depredations that would result to the people by changing to a system of human monarchy (1 Samuel 8:9-18). The people rejected the warning, of course. They said,

Nay; but we will have a king over us; That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles (1 Samuel 8:20).

When, in the first ceremony of renewal, the first king is crowned, God’s prophet proclaims, “Ye have this day rejected your God” (1 Samuel 10:19). In the second ceremony of renewal, Samuel pointed out again,

When ye saw that Nahash the king of the children of Ammon came against you, ye said unto me, Nay; but a king shall reign over us: when the Lord your God was your king (1 Samuel 12:12).

At last, Samuel declares thus:

Now therefore stand and see this great thing, which the Lord will do before your eyes. Is it not wheat harvest to day? I will call unto the Lord, and He shall send thunder and rain; that ye may perceive and see that your wickedness is great, which ye have done in the sight of the Lord, in asking you a king. So Samuel called unto the Lord; and the Lord sent thunder and rain that day: and all the people greatly feared the Lord and Samuel. And all the people said unto Samuel, Pray for thy servants unto the Lord thy God, that we die not: for we have added unto all our sins this evil, to ask us a king (1 Samuel 12:16-19).

Hosea makes clear that the transition from Theocracy to Monarchy was more punishment than endorsement: “Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities? Where are all your rulers—those of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’? I gave you a king in My anger” (Hosea 13:10, 11).

Judges Chapter Two Clarifies

The statement at the end of Judges, that “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” should be read in light of Judges chapter two. Verses 1-5 of that chapter outline how God delivered Israel and was faithful to His covenant, but that Israel was disobedient. In response to their unfaithfulness, God warned them that He would would no longer drive out the inhabitants of the land.

Verses 2-6 tell of the death of Joshua and the rise of a generation having no memory of God’s deliverances of Israel. Verses 11-15 speak of the spiritual degeneration of Israel, God’s anger, and how He gave them over to plunderers.

The next section of the narrative is particularly insightful:

Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and He saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways (Judges 2:16-19).

The judge was a deliverer. He was raised up by God from among the common people. He (and sometimes she) led the nation and brought freedom from oppression. The judge led temporarily. After the deliverance he returned to life among the people. There was no development of bureaucracy or state machinery and mechanisms.

The judge was raised up by God and in his delivering activities, “The Lord was with the judge.” No provision was made to elect rulers or to continue any royal lineage among the judges descendants. And yet, judge after judge and generation after generation, when the judge died, the people returned to the very behaviors that had led to the withdrawal of divine protection. Time and again the people abandoned God.

The conclusion that some have drawn—that every person doing what they thought was right in their own eyes is a condemnation of the lack of centralized state power—is not sustained by the text. In fact, the centralization of power in a king or a state is corrupting in its influence. As has been observed,

God desired His people to look to Him alone as their Law-giver and their Source of strength. Feeling their dependence upon God, they would be constantly drawn nearer to Him. They would become elevated and ennobled, fitted for the high destiny to which He had called them as His chosen people. But when a man was placed upon the throne, it would tend to turn the minds of the people from God. They would trust more to human strength, and less to divine power, and the errors of their king would lead them into sin and separate the nation from God (Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 606).

A human sovereign over the people would turn the minds to human strength and away from divine power. Errors in monarchial leadership would influence the nation to depart from God.

It was the last thing they really needed, when their dangerous motives for desiring a king are considered. Ellen White again:

When the Israelites first settled in Canaan they acknowledged the principles of the theocracy, and the nation prospered under the rule of Joshua. But increase of population and intercourse with other nations brought a change. The people adopted many of the customs of their heathen neighbors and thus sacrificed to a great degree their own peculiar, holy character. Gradually they lost their reverence for God and ceased to prize the honor of being His chosen people. Attracted by the pomp and display of heathen monarchs, they tired of their own simplicity. Jealousy and envy sprang up between the tribes. Internal dissensions made them weak; they were continually exposed to the invasion of their heathen foes, and the people were coming to believe that in order to maintain their standing among the nations, the tribes must be united under a strong central government. As they departed from obedience to God’s law, they desired to be freed from the rule of their divine Sovereign; and thus the demand for a monarchy became widespread throughout Israel (Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 603).

Centralization of human power tends ever to corruption and exploitation. It tends to elevate fallible leaders who think to create new rules for the people, new machinery legitimizing their exercise of authority.

The government of Israel was administered in the name and by the authority of God. The work of Moses, of the seventy elders, of the rulers and judges, was simply to enforce the laws that God had given; they had no authority to legislate for the nation. This was, and continued to be, the condition of Israel’s existence as a nation. From age to age men inspired by God were sent to instruct the people and to direct in the enforcement of the laws (Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 603).


The problem in the time of the book of Judges was not that there was not enough government, but that the people were very stubborn. When God removed the power of their oppressors, Israel returned to wicked ways and become yet more wicked. They disregarded God’s plan and followed only their own desires.

Again, the problem was not that there was not enough government; it was rejection of the form social order that God had specified.

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.’ Gideon said to them, ‘I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you’ (Judges 8:22, 23).

There was a turn from theocracy to monarchy, and it was a turn very much for the worse. But if men insisted on forming a state, God would not force liberty upon them. He would let them go into bondage. For awhile. After 6,000 years we are only starting to get His lesson.


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