Donald Trump and the Divine Right of Kings, Part 2

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Donald Trump and the Divine Right of Kings, Part 2

In the previous article, I addressed the biblical basis for the concept of the “Divine Right of Kings,” or the logic that people in positions of authority, such as a king or president, derive their authority from God and not from the people. Thus, kings are God’s “chosen ones” and ought to be respected as such. The two main passages buttressing this ideology, Daniel 2:21 and Romans 13:1-7, were analyzed and it was shown that in fact, God and human authority are not tied together. God allows kings to rise and fall while he remains eternal. Therefore, he has instructed us to work in and among the political systems that exist, flawed as they are, rather than trying to create a Christian “utopia,” as God recognizes that any humanly administered system will corrupt. In the end, far from being an endorsement of human leadership, the biblical instruction is an appeal to pragmatism in the reality of human corruption.

A counter to the previous article is that at times God does in fact call and appoint kings, even non-believing ones. He calls them his “servant.” So even if the concept of the Divine Right of Kings isn’t blanketly given, something no sane Christian would argue, God does have his “chosen ones.” Therefore, this article is going to look at God’s relationship with both the concept of kingship and kings themselves, mainly in the context of a kingship he himself instituted, albeit reluctantly. Secondarily, God’s relationship with non-believing kings will be examined as well. In the end, it will be argued that God’s relationship with kingship, indeed any human authority, is primarily antagonistic. Additionally, while kings occasionally cooperate with the divine will, this should not be taken as a sign that God has specially chosen them; God is going to get his work done regardless of the king; indeed, often in spite of the king.

Of God and King

As elucidated in much more detail in the article on the Divine Image, the connection between gods and kings is older than history itself. In the world of the Bible, the divine king ideology ranged from the king merely being the viceroy or chancellor of the gods, such as in Assyria,[1] to the actual incarnation of the god, such as in Egypt.[2] By Christ’s time, the Roman emperors had found a happy medium in accepting divine honors for being “god-like” but not really god.[3]

The Bible’s depiction of different kings’ relationship with the divine is complicated. Adam and Eve, along with the rest of humanity, were created as “kings” of earth and this quickly broke down. It could be argued that all of Genesis serves as a “king’s list” leading up to the Israelite departure from Egypt, establishing the whole Israelite people as “kings” much like Assyria’s kings functioned as viceroys or caretakers.

Already through the Torah, a clear pattern should have emerged: God is constantly democratizing royal authority and decentralizing human leadership, a pattern which carries through until 1 Samuel. While God would raise up or empower individual leaders from time to time, this was a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency deal, not a preferred norm. But unlike a king or a president, these “judges’” authority did not derive from any institutional office or birthright.[4] Instead, what power they did have, if any, was based on force of personality, quality of character, divine blessing, and direness of the situation. Remove any one of these factors and their authority vanished like mist. Of these factors, character seems to have been the most important, and the judge’s character flaws are shown to have had disastrous consequences once the emergency was passed.[5]

It should be noted that up to this point, God’s interactions with kings, all non-Israelites, have been universally negative. So when it comes to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy, God is understandably reluctant. While he ultimately allows it and even goes so far as to call Saul and David his “messiahs” or anointed ones, the caveat is that their very existence was contrary to God’s purpose. Rather than being called God’s “anointed ones,” perhaps they ought to be called God’s “allowed ones.”

Just like with the judges, God’s tolerance of kings was directly related to their character and adherence to his laws. All of them were failures[6] which would have disastrous effects on the people. Saul was spineless and lived by an “ends justify the means” attitude which led to a massacre at the hands of the Philistines.

David’s story reads much differently if you pick it up at his coronation. No longer is he the brave, underdog hero of Israel but now is a polygamist tyrant who power rapes and murders his subjects while letting his children run rampant. The consequence of his lack of character is one bloody civil war, one plague, and one war of succession.

Solomon doubled down on his father’s tyranny, oppressively taxing his subjects and enslaving them to build his vanity projects. While we think of Solomon’s empire-building as a sign of divine blessing, a fun exercise is to read 1 Kings 9 in comparison with Deuteronomy 17 and discover that Solomon’s “accomplishments” are a list of things he was not supposed to do. God didn’t wait until he was cold in the ground before instigating the events that destroyed any hope of an Israelite Empire.

While a list of exactly how and why each king was a disaster might be fun, the point should be clear that even as an Israelite king, which was as close as it will ever get to being God’s chosen ruler, character mattered. What good they did for their country was irrelevant; if their character didn’t pass muster, God would work against them.

A perfect example is the Omride Dynasty of Israel. Under Omri and Ahab, Israel would reach her zenith to the point that the Assyrians would refer to Israel as the “House of Omri.” Yet God was working against them, primarily through Elijah. The result was severe drought, multiple defeats, violent deaths for everyone except Omri, and finally, the utter eradication of the line.[7]

Eventually, God’s tolerance would run out with both kingships. Israel’s kings’ constant evil resulted in the destruction of Samaria by Sargon II of Assyrian in 722 BC. To the south, one king, Manasseh, was so horrific that his sin alone doomed Judah with no hope of recovery and they were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC.

God and Non-Believing Kings

This leads to a common defense of Trump that even if his character is sketchy and his Christianity is lacking, God didn’t always use good, moral believers. Sometimes he used non-believing kings to accomplish his purpose.

While technically true, it isn’t true in the way that Trump or Divine Right’s supporters would want. These kings were almost universally raised up as adversaries and punishers of God’s people. In other words, they were raised up to be the villains, not the heroes.

The Pharaoh of the Exodus is the first and most poignant villain perhaps of the entire Bible, one that the Bible explicitly says was raised up to be the villain.[8] Similarly, God sent people to punish the Israelites during the period of the judges,[9] many of whom were led by kings.[10] God “raised up” adversaries for Solomon, specifically two future kings, Hadad of Edom and Jeroboam of Israel.[11] Hazael of Aram-Damascus was anointed by Elisha to rape and plunder Israel.[12]

Two kings in particular that Trump gets compared to, Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus,[13] were actually villains. Nebuchadnezzar is humanized by his relationship with Daniel, yet almost every other Judahite hated him. It was in response to his campaign that Psalm 137 was penned. Furthermore, his excessive destruction of Jerusalem incurred God’s wrath and Babylon’s doom was pronounced because of him.[14]

Ahasuerus more often gets connected with Trump, with the repeated “for such a time as this” references. However, what is missed is that line is for Esther, not Ahasuerus. Despite her position in the royal harem, Esther had no power and was totally at the mercy of the king, which makes a Trump comparison faulty.[15] Ahasuerus, on the other hand, is portrayed as a hapless villain played by the machinations of his vizier into signing off on the extermination of the Jews. Hardly God’s agent of good and if Ahasuerus is Xerxes, it should be noted he was assassinated.[16]

The one exception to this trend is Cyrus the Great, who is one of the most unusual conquerors in history. He garners great praise in Isaiah 44-45 and is remembered for returning the Exiles to Judah and authorizing a new temple, something he did for all exiled peoples. Interestingly, even among the Babylonians, Cyrus is viewed as a liberator more than a conqueror.[17]

Is Cyrus the lone exception that shows God can choose a non-believer as his personal chosen one? Perhaps but if so, God certainly did Cyrus no favors. Shortly after returning the Exiles, Cyrus was killed in battle and not long after that, his heirs were killed in a strange twist of events.[18] Was he God’s chosen or just a “benevolent” conqueror in the right place, at the right time, quickly to be discarded? Probably the latter.

Conclusion

Kings or their equivalents are necessary evils. Given the choice between structured, institutionalized human authority prone to corruption and anarchy prone to unfettered chaos, the former is generally preferable, as Paul suggests in Romans 13. However, there is a difference between toleration and approval. God tolerates kings; he does not approve of any of them.

What does this mean for us? For one, rather than revering any person or office of authority, we ought to regard them with a healthy suspicion. God can of course work in any circumstance, but we should remember that at best, he is only tolerating human leadership. Second, and this is especially important for voters, character matters to God’s use for them. Certainly, he has used those lacking character to punish his people but never as saviors. And all those kings, or at least their nations, suffered the price for punishing God’s people. That is not something we should desire.

As I said at the beginning, I am not going to tell you whether or not to vote for Trump this fall. Rather, I want you to take a serious look at why you are voting for Trump or Biden. Are you looking to them as God’s chosen one? The savior of America? Are you overlooking their character flaws and defects?

Remember that neither is God’s “chosen one.” Remember that character matters. Remember that all human leadership is by its very nature corrupt and doomed to fail. There is only one savior and his name is Jesus and he’s not on the ballot.[19]

Read part 1 of this series.

______

Notes.

[1] Mario Liverani, Assyria: The Imperial Mission (MC 21; trans. Andrea Trameri and Jonathan Valk; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2017), 12.

[2] Ian Shaw, Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford; London; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 99.

[3] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 199.

[4] In Hebrew, the word for “judge” is related to the verb “to judge” but it does not denote a legal office or any institutional function. No judge, to my knowledge, in the text actually “judges” a legal case or even recites the Torah. These judges functioned almost purely as charismatic military leaders and little more; there is little evidence that they held any sort official authority beyond commanding volunteers in battles and raids. The people who fulfilled the modern “judge” roll, or at least the closest approximation, were local elders.

[5] See for example, Gideon and the ephod, Jephthah and his impatience with the Ephramites, and Samson’s everything.

[6] Josiah is one possible exception, depending on how you read his battle with Neco at Megiddo.

[7] Cookie question: how many of Israel’s 19 kings were assassinated?

[8] Exod 9:16 and Rom 9:17

[9] Judg 2:14

[10] Or a similar hereditary or institutional leadership paradigm

[11] 1 Kings 11:9-43

[12] 2 Kings 8:7-15

[13] Often identified as Xerxes I

[14] See Jer 50-51

[15] Unless it is really Melania who is God’s chosen one

[16] Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome (New York: Norton, 2007), 543-44.

[17] Ibid.,  468.

[18] Ibid.,  500-06.

[19] Answer to the cookie question: 7 or 8, depending on whether or not Zimri’s self-immolation counts, which is the same number as those who died of natural causes. One died as a result of an accident, one in battle, and the final king was deported into exile, probably executed.

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About the author

Jonathan Gardner

Jonathan Gardner is a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School studying archaeology and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds to the Old Testament. Writing is one of his big two passions, along with travel, so he happily contributes to Compass while maintaining his own blog on theology, godlikesus.wordpress.com. Have a question about the historical backgrounds of the Bible or Biblical archaeology? Email Jonathan at [email protected] and he would be happy to answer your questions.