Theology Tuesdays: Democracy in the Bible

Tomorrow the United States inaugurates a new president.

If you’re anything like me, this last election cycle has brought out a lot of questions. I’d love to hear yours. Here are some of mine:

  • What is a Christian’s role as a citizen of a country?
  • What does the Bible say about abortion?
  • What does the Bible say about refugees?
  • What does the Bible say about the poor?
  • What does the Bible say about how a government should be run?
  • Is there anything inherently Biblical about representative, democratic government?
  • What is the role of my vote versus my responsibility to serve my community . . . and what is my community?
  • Does the Bible actually say anything about voting in a democracy?
  • And, finally, what in the world is going on? 😩

Maybe some of you share some of these questions. Actually, we’d like to try to address some of these over the next few months, as we’re trying to find answers ourselves. But today, I’d like to hone in on this one:

Does the Bible actually say anything about voting in a democracy?

I’m still a little baffled by the examples I hear from some comparing our current president to a biblical king used by God. In 2016, it was Nebuchadnezzar. Recently, I heard comparisons to Cyrus or even King David. Notwithstanding that only one of those kings was actually the from the same country as the people of God, and not enslaving them, my question, again, since I heard this line of reasoning is, “What does the Bible actually say about voting in a democracy?”

Our government is by representation, which means we don’t have kings who inherit power, or are appointed by God as David was, and so far we don’t have political leaders from another nation and culture who conquer our nation, deport us, and enslave us, as in Nebuchadnezzar.

So does the Bible actually say anything about representative democracies? Certainly there are verses we could appeal to about how Christians should act. But what about an example of voting in the Bible? The following story is actually something I was looking at and wrote up in 2016. At risk of adding fuel to the fire of the political ire at the time, I never did anything with it. Same song, second verse, this past year. But now that the votes are cast, and especially after what the last few weeks have held, I’d like to share it.

The story is, of course, a Bible story. Here in Madagascar, we turn to Bible stories to try and understand what’s going on. This particular story is from the book of Judges (chapter 9), and in my 2016 search it was the closest thing to voting in a representative democracy I could find in the Bible.

God’s people electing their own king in 1 Samuel chapters 8 – 10 might be another example but even then God selects Saul and puts him forward for the people’s approval. Abimelech seems to be the best example of something close to democratic election.

The Story

Abimelech was from a privileged family. His name means “my father is a king,” because his father, Gideon, had led Israel and been treated like a king. But Abimelech was the forgotten illegitimate child. Until, one day, at a time in which Israel is being led by a multitude of privileged aristocrats, Abimelech campaigns to lead them. His strategy was careful, his message simple: (1) Better for one to lead than many—a strong leader can cut through the bureaucracy and get things done. (2) Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Abimelech uses his influence to persuade the citizens that he is “one of them” in order to get their vote.

But the citizens are going through a rough time politically, so they listen to the outsider. He convinces them he’s a better option than their current government because he is really one of them. So they give him religious blood money (taken from the temple), he quickly gathers other evil-minded people around him, and promptly goes and kills off all their leaders, 70 of his half-brothers. What a leader. 

But one of the brothers escapes from the slaughter and decries this new leader’s actions. This guy tells a parable that reveals that while their government had problems, the citizens knew Abimelech was a bad choice. Strikingly, this guy prophesies that the citizens have elected a worthless man who treats the lives of others as worthless—and they will be held responsible for their choice.

For a while it looks like the prophet’s wrong. Things go for fine for three years. But then God brings justice. The citizens decide they actually don’t like their leader now that he’s leading. So they try to get him out of office. That goes poorly. Abimelech starts a war, razes a city, and burns the citizens inside the temple. Like I said, fun guy. Then, while trying to do that same thing to another city, Abimelech is maimed by a woman with a millstone. So God brings justice on Abimelech for his destruction and justice on the citizens for electing him. As Bible scholar, Daniel Block, sums up, God gives the people the leader they deserve, and Abimelech what he deserves (Block, 335).

There is so much in this story, but I just have three questions as we read this story: 

  • What do we learn about people? 
  • What do we learn about God? 
  • What do we learn about voting?

What do we learn about people?

People are blinded and corrupted by what they want.

Now there is obvious unrest in the community. How do we know? The parable describes leaders who act too good to help. The citizens are also willing to get rid of their leadership by paying off their illegitimate, distant relative—which is still pretty shameful in today’s majority cultures. It means these people really wanted something to change in their leadership—enough that they were apparently completely blind to what Abimelech really was.

In part this is because the citizens treat the lives of others as worthless. People who do not respect all life often usher in death. They pay a shekel apiece for the lives of the 70 brothers at a time when you had to pay 50 shekels to buy someone’s life back out of slavery or poverty (The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 258).

And with the measure they use it is measured to them (Matt 7:2). Those who do not respect life (unborn, weak, strong, the dying, black, Muslim, etc.) create a culture of death. These citizens mistook hubris, a lack of respect for life, and an insatiable lust for power as the ability to get things done.

What do we learn about God?

God is unfortunately absent in this story—not because he’s not there but because the people don’t care about him. Still, justice is meted out. 

God lets his people face the consequences of their decision. What can we say? the people want what they want. So God let’s them have it. And chaos ensues. God basically lets Israel destroy herself (Block, 309).

God always wins; His kingdom always standsIn different ways, both Abimelech and the citizens were only using each other to get their hands on power. Abimelech wanted to be the ruler and the people wanted a new form of government. Both completely ignored the fact that God rules over all, and it cost them their lives. “In the end Abimelech’s egomaniacal ambition must yield to the kingship of God” (Block, 334).

What do we learn about voting?

God respects the votes of citizens, but allows voters and elected officials alike to reap what they sow. 

The Hebrew wording draws out the idea that the people of the town are leaders able to make decisions for the community. Or, as the NIV translates it, they are “citizens.” These citizens have the right and power to elect a leader (king) for themselves (Block, 313-14).

What we see is that in a setup where people are electing a leader to make decisions for them, those people are held responsible for their vote, especially for the brutality they invoke. In the context of this story, we might say they are held even more responsible when they know they are choosing to be led by a ruthless man.  

Again, these citizens make a bad choice to solve their political situation. The parable shows that for sure there were already problems with Israel’s government leaders. It’s not like those before didn’t have their own issues. But it shows God outright rejects Abimelech’s style of leadership (Block, 321).

Regardless of how bad the government is, these citizens do not take their grievances to God. Instead, they elect a ruthless man who is contributing nothing to society or God’s kingdom . . . but he does think a lot of himself (Block, 318).

Old Testament scholar Daniel Block (from whom I have pulled from throughout) has this priceless quote:

“ . . . persons of honor engaged in constructive activity have no time for political agendas. They are too caught up in serving humanity, and so the rule often falls to the despicable elements of society. Third, rulers have a tendency to desire power for the worst reasons—their own narcissistic self-interest. In order to gain power they are often forced to offer promises they cannot fulfill. Fourth, in the words of a modern sage, people tend to get the leaders they deserve. Jotham’s fable is not only a polemic against a certain kind of kingship; it is actually directed primarily at those who are foolish enough to anoint a worthless man to be their king.”

Daniel Block, Judges-Ruth (NAC; Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1999), 321.

Foolish votes in a democracy have consequences. We should vote in the fear of God, who rules his kingdom with perfect justice and watches over the lives of all. We will be held responsible for who we choose to represent us.

This past week at the Capitol shows very clearly the kind of president we voted for (and when I say we I mean an overwhelming majority of evangelicals) and the kind of violence and shame he has ushered in . . . thanks in large part to evangelicals. We must take responsibility for that. That does not stop with our vote.

Our form of government is built on the principle that the voter is in charge. As Christians, it is our right and responsibility, no matter who we voted for, to use our voices, time, and resources in the fear of God, for the sake of all life, and putting others before ourselves. The issues facing our nation are complex, and aren’t solved with just our votes. We must intentionally invest ourselves in the issues we voted on, learning from both sides–that’s what it means to be in a democracy. We have to sow better things or risk our choices crashing down on our own heads.

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