An Examination of the Lexicology of Theocracy

Me: “I believe that the Bible should be our foundation for discerning how we ought to influence government.”

Someone-else: “You are advocating a theocratic utopia!”

Me: “Ummmm… No.”

The above exchange is all too common, unfortunately, to be more than slightly humorous to me. I get that response all the time, and it is, to be honest, rather aggravating. :P

Many people have evinced a desire to understand what a theocracy really is, and as I am tired of trying to say the same thing over and over again, I thought it would be handy to answer the above response once and for all. (And put the debates all in one handy location. ;) )

But that is rather hard to do, because it really isn’t a response at all, but a knee-jerk reaction. However, the word Theocracy has a lot of varying connotations, and as they all have a profound lexicological bearing on Godly government, I believe it is worthwhile to discuss them.

As with any word that you want to find the best definition for, I will of course turn to Webster’s 1828 for a Biblical definition:

THEOC’RACY, n. [Gr. God, and power; to hold.] Government of a state by the immediate direction of God; or the state thus governed. Of this species the Israelites furnish an illustrious example. The theocracy lasted till the time of Saul.

This gives me a very good place to start my study. The modern dictionaries and common usage has watered and perverted this definition until it is practically unrecognizable, and lexicologically useless (except to throw at someone to annoy them). Getting back to the above definition would be a major improvement in the current state of our language, and also a major help in discerning God’s will for the formation and influence of government.

There are two rival definitions that are prevalent in usage today (other than the correct one).

One is used by a group of eminent (but with whom I passionately disagree with on several vital and foundational issues other than that of the definition of theocracy) scholars who call themselves theonomists for the most part.

The other is merely a ‘label.’ A word used for attack, rather than refutation. This form is so perverted and weakened that it carries just about as much weight as the ridiculous word ‘speciesist,’ which term is used to label someone who thinks that humans are (oh horror!) better than any other species of animal. In other words: pointless, useless, and meaningless. This is the term used in my opening exchange, and which really merits little more than what I am saying right here: ignore it. :)

There are, in fact, three groups of people who use the word Theocracy (other than the group that is right, of which I am a proud member, hehe).

The first are those people who use the word Theocracy correctly, and assume that I want to institute a nation in replica of OT Israel, complete with stonings for idolatry, adultery, and cursing your parents (with the possible exclusion of the ceremonial laws, whichever ones those might be).

The second is a group of people who believe that we shouldn’t use the Bible at all in government (on various grounds, all of which are wrong and heretical, and I will mainly point these people to 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The third are the theonomists, who at first with me that we should use the Bible to determine government, assuming that I intend to do what the first group fears I will (although they call it by a different name). In other words: these people want me to institute a nation in replica of OT Israel, complete with stonings for idolatry, adultery, and cursing your parents (with the possible exclusion of the ceremonial laws, whichever ones those might be).

I am now going to refute all of the above at once by explaining why I believe that we definitely should not try to replicate the OT government (whether or not you exclude the ceremonial laws). My reason is very simple:

Israel was not only a theocracy, it was the only true theocracy that ever has existed, and ever can or will exist (outside of heaven, but that is a different topic).

The theonomists (from what I can tell) claim that every nation is a theocracy, if any is, and deny that Israel was any exception to the rule. They point to such verses as Daniel 2:21 (“he removeth kings, and setteth up kings”) and other similar verses to show that God has sovereign rule over every nation equally, and that to assert that He has more rule over Israel than over any other nation is lessening His sovereign power. Needless to say, theonomists are for the most part Calvinist, which makes it hard to debate them on this issue.

They are in part right (every lie has a bit of truth). God does remove kings, He does set up kings, He does guide the course of the nations, He does punish nations that give themselves over to abominations (every major nation that has accepted homosexuality, abortion, and like sins have ceased to exist within a few generations from that point).

But God did not orchestrate and lead Hitler to slaughter his millions. He did not order terrorists to attack the World Trade Center. It was not His will for any of these things to happen, any more than it is His will for any person to go to hell (although they do), or for the deaths of hurricane Katrina (although they still died), or for the thousands of innocent orphans of Haiti to have the troubles they are having (although they are).

All these things are our fault, because of our rebellion, our sin. Our world is cursed by sin. (For more info on that, see Answers In Genesis.)

But.

God did rule directly over the OT nation of Israel before the Monarchy.

Look at Webster’s definition (that he got from the Bible): whatever Israel was before the monarchy, and was not afterwards, that is what a theocracy is.

Theocracy is a state of government like a democracy, a monarchy, a republic, or even socialism.

The word is from two Greek words: Theos and Cratos: God Rules. Democracy is where the people rule (also aptly called mobocracy by the American founding fathers and me). A monarchy is where a king rules (there are elected monarchies, hereditary monarchies, etc.). Theocracy is where God rules.

That was what Israel was. It was the first and last true theocracy.

Judges 8:22-23 Then the men of Israel said unto Gideon, Rule thou over us, both thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son also: for thou hast delivered us from the hand of Midian.
23 And Gideon said unto them, I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the LORD shall rule over you.

God instituted a unique system of government for Israel. There was a hierarchy of officers, captains, princes, and elders, and above all those was one man: the judge (there were of course other judges, but this was the judge). So far it looks like a monarchy (rule by one man). But that is not what God thought. And neither did the Israelites.

1 Samuel 8:4-5 Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah,
5 And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.

They wanted a king so that they would be like the other nations (in direct defiance of God’s covenant with them for them to be unique and separate, which we will get to).

1 Samuel 8:7 And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.

They were not merely requesting a change of human leadership (“they have not rejected thee”) but a change from God’s theocratic system of government for a monarchy (“they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them”).

So how did the theocracy work?

Deuteronomy 17:8-10 If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, [being] matters of controversy within thy gates: then shalt thou arise, and get thee up into the place which the LORD thy God shall choose;
9 And thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall show thee the sentence of judgment:
10 And thou shalt do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the LORD shall choose shall show thee; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee:

If your local judges and Levites are unable to decide a controversy (not matters of doctrine, but matters of judicial law), the parties involved go to the temple, to Jerusalem, the seat of the government and of God. There they bring it before the judge and the priests. What do they do? They use the holy oracles of God to get the answer straight from Him who sees all, is the law, and who is perfectly just. That is why…

Deuteronomy 17:12-13 And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel.
13 And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously.

Disobedience is punished by death (even if the original matter was small). That is because it is flagrant and direct defiance of God’s Word spoken to you directly. That is unique to Israel, and cannot be implemented with impunity in a NT government situation. True, we are commanded by God to obey the government (true government), but we are even more strongly commanded to obey our parents (in our youth). You aren’t committing a capital crime if you disobey your father just once (even under the OT law). This is just one of the many instances where Israel’s unique, theocratic situation deeply affects its criminal law.

Now, why was Israel a theocracy, and how did it become one?

Very important question, glad I asked it for you.

Deuteronomy 7:6 For thou [art] an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that [are] upon the face of the earth.
7 The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye [were] the fewest of all people:
8 But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

There is the ‘why,’ plain and simple.

Deuteronomy 7:12-13 And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only [ye heard] a voice.
13 And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, [even] ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.

This is explained in several parts of the law, that the ten commandments were the core of the covenant between God and Israel. They bound themselves to obey them on pain of death. Several, were of course, already a part of the role of government (thou shalt not steal, etc.). Others were already sins (thou shalt not covet, etc.) Yet others were rather new (remember the Sabbath to keep it holy). But this law became assimilated into the government system of Israel (punishing covenants is part of the role of government), and therefrom sprang laws making actions that are abominations to God capital crimes.

This is why we cannot merely extract the ceremonial laws and implement the rest. We cannot replicate that covenant: it was initiated by God, and relied on the oracles that are now gone by.

We can do a few other things to learn about government from OT Israel though (you can learn tons of other things from it as well, of course). Such as, because we know that God kept the laws of Israel based off of the normal, unchanging, role of government (with some additions), we know that if a law wasn’t in OT Israel, we definitely shouldn’t implement it nowadays (a law in principle, not the exact application).

There are lots of verses that could be added, supporting my above conclusions, but I will spare you the necessary repetition. I will, however, conclude with a series of passages conclusively setting the OT Israel in its unique and unreproducible status.

Exodus 34:10 And he said, Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou [art] shall see the work of the LORD: for it [is] a terrible thing that I will do with thee.

Deuteronomy 4:5-8 Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it.
6 Keep therefore and do [them;] for this [is] your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation [is] a wise and understanding people.
7 For what nation [is there so] great, who [hath] God [so] nigh unto them, as the LORD our God [is] in all [things that] we call upon him [for?]
8 And what nation [is there so] great, that hath statutes and judgments [so] righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?

(Notice that the other nations did not say “Why don’t we do that too?”!)

Deuteronomy 4:31-38 (For the LORD thy God [is] a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them.
32 For ask now of the days that are past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and [ask] from the one side of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been [any such thing] as this great thing [is,] or hath been heard like it?
33 Did [ever] people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?
34 Or hath God assayed to go [and] take him a nation from the midst of [another] nation, by temptations, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by a stretched out arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
35 Unto thee it was showed, that thou mightest know that the LORD he [is] God; [there is] none else beside him.
36 Out of heaven he made thee to hear his voice, that he might instruct thee: and upon earth he showed thee his great fire; and thou heardest his words out of the midst of the fire.
37 And because he loved thy fathers, therefore he chose their seed after them, and brought thee out in his sight with his mighty power out of Egypt;
38 To drive out nations from before thee greater and mightier than thou [art,] to bring thee in, to give thee their land [for] an inheritance, as [it is] this day.

(Notice that the purpose of Israel was not to convert other nations to its form of government, but to drive them out and destroy and decimate them.)

Deuteronomy 5:3-4 The LORD made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, [even] us, who [are] all of us here alive this day.
4 The LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire,

This theocratic covenant was even unique to a particular time period in Israel’s history. It started at Moses, and ended at Christ (isn’t that interesting?).

This is only one plank out of 8 foundational principles of theonomocracy.

With joy and peace in Christ,

Jay Lauser

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5 Responses

  1. You said in reference to God: “He did not order terrorists to attack the World Trade Center. It was not His will for any of these things to happen, any more than it is His will for any person to go to hell (although they do), or for the deaths of hurricane Katrina (although they still died), or for the thousands of innocent orphans of Haiti to have the troubles they are having (although they are)”

    I would disagree about Haiti, think of the Israelites, you think orphan children didn’t suffer when God sent plagues, and other punishments? To us, it doesn’t seem right. But that’s proof right there that it can happen. I’m not saying it did, I’m just pointing out that God has done such things in the past. He’s not a tame God. :)

    • God ordered an entire set of nations to be utterly wiped out, man, woman, child. The horses were houghed, etc. He had a reason for that: it was part of His promise to destroy nations that held to things that were abominations to Him and did not repent. This promise is still valid, and it could have had an effect in several of the modern catastrophes (possibly including Haiti).

      Point taken. :) Although you will admit that God was not behind Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, etc.?

    • Yes, I agree. However, God may have had his hand in their evil plans such as he did in Pharaoh’s. I really am only speculating. lol

    • God always works with the evil the world to His glory, but that doesn’t mean He wanted it to happen in the first place. :)

    • Correct. :D

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