9 Dec 2020

As the King Goes, So Goes the People: Reflecting on Kings & Presidents

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: American Empire, Bobby's World, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, Politics

One of the most pervasive themes in the Bible is the power of leaders, for good or ill, to shape people. So pervasive is this theme is that it has nearly proverbial status:

“As the king goes,
so goes the people.”

We see it over and over in Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. Think Deborah, Gideon, Eli, Samuel, David, Solomon, Ahab, and Zedekiah. In Scripture we read a typical statement like the one regarding Asa on the influencing power of the King/President,

He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, walking in the ways of Jeroboam and his sin, which he had caused Israel to commit” (1 Kgs 15.34).

We must remember that Israel is the people of God, they are not analogous to the USA/Russia/Germany but the church. But the principle of “As the goes the king, so goes the people,” is one that holds true when the biblical writers evaluate the governments (kings) of the nations around them. When we read of the prophets, for example, criticizing the nations around them they never (as far as I recall) bring up a specific covenantal issue. But they do bring up matters God seems to expect of everyone. Lewis Smedes years ago called this “Mere Morality.” We might want to call this the second half of the Ten Words/Commandments. Yes, it would seem that the second half the Ten Words/Commandments is stuff that God expects of everyone, Israelite or non; Christian or non.

The Bible, in fact, gives a rather simple standard for a leader and that standard is not the unique covenantal values of Israel, but the mere morality, the exercise of justice on behalf of the lowest of humans.

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice …
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor …

For he will deliver the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy

(Psalm 72)

In fact, more often than not it is that “mere morality” that is used even against Israel’s own leaders. King Ahab is a case in point. From “secular history” we know that Ahab was in fact one of the most successful of all Israel’s kings. Israel was rich and powerful, as the archeological record for the period has shown.

So wealthy, and powerful, was Ahab that he was able to lead a coalition, that included Egypt, itself against the mighty Assyrian Empire at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC with 2000 chariots (the equivalent of sophisticated ancient tanks). The Assyrians themselves tell us about this battle, not the biblical historians. From the biblical perspective, Ahab was an utter failure.

Why was Ahab such a failure? The economy boomed. The riches of Samaria are plainly evident archeologically. Israel was an entity to be reckoned with under Ahab’s regime. Israel had the respect of the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Syrians, in fact of everyone.

What was the problem? In a word, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The powerful ran over the non-powerful. Ahab turned Psalm 72 on its head.

Elijah was God’s voice to Ahab. You will recall that Elijah had the famous encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18. Worshiping false gods (idols) was a covenant violation. The false prophets were defeated. But Elijah’s story with Ahab does not end there.

It is not until several chapters later where we find “doom” pronounced upon Ahab. Ahab robbed the poor. The poor suffered. The rich got richer. Justice was denied the powerless. As the Proverb notes, King Ahab revealed his lack of righteousness:

The righteous know the rights of the poor;
the wicked have no such understanding” (29.7).

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy
.” (31.8-9)

So we are confronted with Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). Naboth is a peasant. Ahab wanted Naboth’s property for himself, even though he already had plenty. A plot was hatched in cooperation with the local authorities to steal Naboth’s ancestral heritage to satisfy the covetous greed of the wealthy. Naboth was arrested on falsified charges by the authorities, essentially for being non-patriotic (meditate upon 21.13 a long time). Then Naboth was legally executed – murdered – and the property was taken over by the state (king).

I find it noteworthy that God did not threaten to kill Ahab for idolatry. But Yahweh did promise to kill Ahab for his abuse the poor man Naboth. Notice what Yahweh said,

This is what the LORD says: Have you murdered a man and seized his property? Then say to him [Ahab], ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood – yes, yours!” (21.19)

Yahweh, through his prophetic servant Moses, had already gave notice how seriously God takes the abuse of power against the poor by those in political power. When leaders decide to mimic Pharaoh, they make themselves Yahweh’s personal enemy. The words are terrifying to me.

You shall not wrong or oppress an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword” (Exodus 22.21-22).

Ahab led Israel by greed, avarice, lust for power. This toxic elixir translated into how people treated one another as well. Having a massive 10,000 chariot army was no sign of God’s blessings upon Israel. While Assyria had great respect for Omri and Ahab (father and son), he destroyed the mere morality of his nation.

It was not the economy! It was the care for the poor that was the measure of the strength of their relationship with God. (I recommend reading Amos on this point, dated a few generations later, the scenario is almost exactly the same: Israel is rich and powerful again but the poor are sold for a pair of slippers!). For more on Ahab see Powerful Man, Powerless Man, and God’s Man.

When God humbled Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel did not accuse him of any uniquely covenantal violations. Daniel said to the Babylonian monarch, “atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged” (4.27). Mercy to the oppressed. Toxic leadership is a cancer in a nation.

In line with the vast sweep of biblical tradition, the very wise sage, Jesus the Son of Sirach, offered the following perspective on why it is necessary to choose leaders who have a basic grasp on how they impact society.

A sagacious ruler educates his people,
and his rule is well ordered.
As the magistrate is,
so will his officials be,
as the governor is,
so will be the inhabitants of the his city.
An undisciplined king will be the ruin of his people,
a city owes its prosperity to the understanding of its leaders
(Sirach 10.1-3)

I like how Knox translates that opening line in v.2,

Like king, like court,
like ruler, like subjects.

The United States is not Israel (the people of God). But God expects mere morality, the pursuit of basic justice for the aliens, the poor, the powerless, from us just as he did Nebuchadnezzar.

Perhaps Sirach explains why “we” are often in the situation we are in because we leaders (like Ahab and Nebuchadnezzar) think greatness is measured in tanks, wealth, and avarice rather than protecting the poor, the widows and the aliens.

Just some thoughts.

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