What is a king supposed to do?

We are in an election cycle right now, and each of the candidates for the two highest offices claims allegiance to Jesus, the two vice presidential candidate as committed Catholics (although of different part of the faithful Catholic spectrum), one of the presidential candidates as a born-again Christian (according to a 2003 interview) who is said to attend protestant services at Camp David, but who keeps his faith private, and the other a committed Mormon. Because of this all of them are presumably concerned about person divine input as to what their job description might be. The fact is that God has given us precious little except what is in the Hebrew Scriptures, for it is there that there was a type of divinely appointment government.

In the Hebrew Scriptures the king (and to a degree before that the judges) had two main responsibilities: (1) defense (the Hebrews asked for a king who would “fight our battles for us”) and (2) justice. The ruler was also often the force behind worship reforms and/or led the nation in worship, but that varied and was never part of the job description. So long as the ruler was faithful to God and his covenant, he did not need to be in the forefront in terms of worship, although we do remember Solomon for the temple, which was originally David’s impulse (although some of that impulse was the centralization of worship in the royal city), and Samuel, Hezekiah, and Josiah for their reforms.

There are, however, very interesting aspects to the two parts of the job description. First, defense was to be accomplished without much of an army. The “law of the king” in Deuteronomy 17 says that the king was not to obtain many horses, which would mean that he could not have a large cavalry or chariot force (I would think in terms of armored forces today). In fact, the only complaint that God gives about armies is that they are too large. The author of 1 Kings satirizes Solomon by writing about the enormous number of horses that he has, since he includes it with his enormous wealth and his enormous harem, the three things a king is not supposed to have in Deuteronomy 17. Hezekiah is told that God will defeat the Assyrians without Judah firing a shot – “I do not need you.” Gideon is told his army is too large. David faces Goliath alone. One of Saul’s great battles is actually won by Jonathan and his armor bearer when the rest of the army was hiding out and only they and Saul himself had modern weapons. Basically, God seems to want to make “in God we trust” more than a vague slogan; he wants to make it the basis of defense policy with the God trusted being YHWH.

Second, justice is especially the care of the poor and their defense against the rich. The Hebrew Scriptures assume that the wealthy will take advantage of the poor and underpay them and otherwise abuse them. And, assuming that knowledge of the Seventh Year and Jubilee Year was present, that they would avoid loaning money to the before before the Seventh Year (when debts had to be forgiven) or ignore the year altogether and that they would try to avoid redistribution of their land in the Jubilee Year. The king is to be the thumb on the scale that makes the two sides equal. What is more, he is not only to bring God’s type of justice to the poor, he is also to meet their needs. Just look at the royal boasts in the Psalms, if one doubts this (or Job’s boast in Job, to see another version). So the king is the leader in charity or poverty relief or development funds, and he is the bringer of justice between the rich and the poor, the lack of which the prophets often criticize.

Interestingly enough, the king is not responsible for the economy. God takes personal responsibility for the economy. It was an agricultural economy, and he makes it clear that it is he who brings the rain and gives the fruitful seasons. So long as the king does his job, bringing justice and trusting God in matters of defense, God will happily care for the economy. If the king (and the people following the king) fail (often because the “god” they trust is not YHWH, but some other “deity,” even their own strength, as Deuteronomy 8 makes clear), then nothing they can do will help the economy.

So despite the claims to follow Jesus and therefore, one presumes, to listen to the Hebrew Scriptures, we have quite a contrast today. Both sides agree that a might army, the mightiest army, an army far more mightier than the armies of any other nation, is an absolute necessity. Both sides agree that it is the government’s job to manage the economy (although they disagree about how and about who can do it better). And neither side show intense concern for the poor, those without the means of the production (e.g. the levite in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the immigrant), those without income and protection (the orphan and the widow), although one suspects that the Democrats trump the Republicans on that one. 

So, it seems, God is irrelevant to the discussion, although prayers and “God bless America’s” are frequent. His job description, and his way of doing the job are ignored, while job descriptions that he says are his job are focused on. There are gnats of ethical issues (biblical speaking, in terms of the amount of biblical text about them) that are focused on, and camels that are swallowed. “In God we trust” is on the money, but not part of the policy, unless the money is indeed the God we trust. It is, one might say, an Alice in Wonderland season that gets “curiouser and curiouser,” to quote Alice. And what would Amos or Isaiah say?

[The above are musings from having taught Old Testament Survey through this period, especially having taught Deuteronomy, Samuel – Kings, Isaiah, and Amos.]

About Peter H. Davids

I am a retired Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a retired professor, and an active Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years, writer, and editor). My present appointment is Chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Our Lady of Guadalupe Priory in Georgetown, Texas. I am also a priest available to parishes and communities in the Diocese of Austin, and the resident priest for the Austin Byzantine Catholic Community. I am married and so am a husband and also a father, and a grandfather.
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1 Response to What is a king supposed to do?

  1. Hi, Peter – thanks for these timely thoughts. This morning I’m about to embark on the adventure of teaching a 3-week intensive course on the books of Jeremiah & Ezekiel to first-year students in a small Biblical studies institute in Donets’k, Ukraine. Your reminders of the “real” history of Israel – not the Sunday-school version – will be helpful … oh, did I mention, Ukraine’s in the throes of a national election campaign, too? 😉 Pray for us … 😉

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