Our choices seem to be between a man who hopes to be a god and one who thinks he already is one. —Pastoral prayer, November 3rd 2012
…To withhold your contempt from men’s vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement…. —Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (1961)
The Character of a Ruler
For sometime our political contests have pooh-poohed questions about our candidates’ moral character. And long before, almost from the beginning of our national history, questions about our candidates’ religious convictions have been completely off limits. Yes, presidential candidates are supposed to make a vague allusion to a god of some sort, but we are never to ask after any creedal specifics. As a nation, we are pretty well convinced that we all we need is a man (or woman) with the proper vision, a new program, and the managerial skills necessary to execute it. Religion and character are irrelevant. And, because we’re a bit on the shallow side, we’re used to confusing media presentations with reality. We also believe that a smattering of thirty-second TV spots or radio sound bites will tell us all we need to pick the right candidate for the office.
King David saw things differently. When he came to the end of his life, he had a few things to say about the character and function of rulers. The words, however, weren’t his alone if you believe the Bible. He spoke by divine inspiration. He said this:
The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. (2 Sam. 23:3)
The word “just” means righteous in conduct and character. The just ruler conducts his personal life and his public responsibilities in obedience to God’s righteous law. He keeps God’s commandments. This righteousness is born out of the “fear of God.” This is a heart attitude. The just ruler takes God seriously in all His claims. He is careful to please God and afraid to offend Him. John Gill describes this fear as “filial fear…a reverential affection…and devotion.” The just ruler serves and honors God from his heart.
There’s more. David sees the godly ruler, not as a necessary evil, but as a positive blessing:
And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain. (v. 4)
David compares the godly ruler to the light of dawn, to a cloudless sunrise, and to the rain that causes the grass to sprout after a long drought. A godly ruler scatters the darkness of the past. He provides vision and direction. Like a bright sun after rain, he nourishes his people and they flourish under his reign. Obviously, he is more than the Lord’s policeman, more than God’s hangman. He is a positive force for good in God’s kingdom.
The ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy is in the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and David’s thoughts immediately turn to God’s promise and covenant.
…He hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all my salvation, and all my desire. (v. 5)
God had promised that David’s Son would sit upon his throne and reign forever; that is, that He would defeat sin and death (Acts 2:22-36). The Psalms and prophets are full of descriptions of His righteous reign. And, Psalm 72 is in large part an amplification of David’s last words:
He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment. (v. 2)
He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor. (v. 4)
He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth. (v. 6)
In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth. (v. 7)
For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper. (v. 12)
Jesus Christ alone is the righteous King who establishes justice and peace in the world. This is important. It means that no human ruler will ever match the description of the just ruler that David sets forward. David was a man after God’s own heart, yet at times he failed horribly, both in his personal life and in the administration of his kingdom. Still, his reign was far better than Saul’s. David’s faith in God’s promise moved him to behave more consistently like the righteous King to come than any monarch the world had ever seen.
The Source of Godly Character
Faith matters. A man’s character springs from his religious commitment. Without exception, we all serve someone or something (Rom. 6). We either serve our Creator, or we serve a creation. That is to say, we either serve God or some sort of idol.
By nature, we are children of Adam, dead in trespasses in sins (Eph. 2:1). We are conceived and born in sin and go astray from the womb speaking lies (Ps. 51:5; 58:3). In our flesh, in our Adamic nature, dwells no good thing (Rom. 7:18). So in the flesh we can’t please God. In fact, we are at war with God on all fronts (Rom. 8:7-8). What our flesh brings forth is corruption (Gal. 5:19-21; 6:8).
This means that human nature as it comes to us from Adam is incapable of producing godly character. Its potentials are wholly on the side of evil. “To put it another way, there is no such thing as a neutral character, which may be developed one way or another, shaped by the environment, coerced by threat of punishment, or lifted by high ideals” (Powell, 24). Here’s the sobering facts: Neither a good education nor a good environment can transform human nature or build godly character. “If a godly environment with appropriate punishments and rewards, diligent administration of the laws, and separation from the rest of the world could ever have produced good character, then Israel would have been the godliest nation on earth” (24). She wasn’t. She isn’t. Information, character training, environmental control, or psychological manipulation can never produce godly character if the Holy Spirit isn’t “building the house” (Isa. 29:13).
Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him. (Prov. 27:22)
That which is born of the flesh is only and always flesh (John 3:6). As Job said, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one” (Job 14:4). For a good tree “cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:18). We need good trees. We need new, regenerated trees.
Godly character is the work of God’s Holy Spirit. It springs from a new creation, a new birth (2 Cor. 5:17; John 3:3-7). The prophet Ezekiel describes the Spirit’s work in these terms:
And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: that they may walk in my statutes, and keep mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezek. 11:19-20)
Just rulers are men whose hearts have been transformed by the word and Spirit of God (1 Pet. 1:23). They are moved by the fear of God. They trust God for their salvation and for all of life. They aren’t just libertarian or conservative or fiscally sound. They are new creatures in Christ Jesus. They aren’t nice men, or men of high ideals or sound principles… they are born again sons of God who live out their faith (albeit, imperfectly) in their private lives and in their civic responsibilities.
The Danger of Perfectionism
We are woefully short of such men and women today. What then? Because there are no just men on the slate, shall we take our hats and go home? Or shall we “play politics” and round up some truly godly men for office who will never win any election given the current system?
God tells us that rulers must be just. Yet He also tells us that He sets up pagan kings and emperors and that they are His ministers and servants (Dan. 4:17; 5:18-21; Rom. 13:1-5). He also tells us to pray for them. Paul commands us to pray “for kings, and all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim. 2:2). When our rulers are ungodly, we are to pray that God will overrule their administrations in such a way that the Church can continue its worship and mission in peace.
God can and does convert wicked rulers. He converted Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4). He can move wicked rulers to do the right thing. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Prov. 21:1). God can place His servants within wicked administrations and use them for great good. Consider Joseph, Daniel, and even Obadiah, who was steward to the wicked Ahab (1 Kings 18:3). God’s hands aren’t tied by our poor crop of candidates. Jesus is still on the throne (Matt. 28:18).
We should want righteous rulers. We should vote for righteous rulers. But we shouldn’t be fools. If there aren’t any righteous men on the ticket, then we shouldn’t pretend that there are. And at that point our choices, like our prayers, must be moved by our concern for God’s Kingdom. A libertarian may be better than a liberal. A Mormon may be better than a Muslim. Maybe. But the bottom line issue has to be the freedom of the gospel. Whose administration will likely afford the preaching of the gospel the greatest liberty? Which administration will grant God’s people some measure of protection, or simply leave them alone so that they can do God’s work? Watch out Tuesday… there are dangerous political curves ahead.