Undoubtedly, in general the Bible urges people to submit to the authorities, to show respect for the authorities, as well as for every person. The concept is summarized in Paul’s letter to Romans 13.1-6.
«Everyone must submit to public authorities, because there is no authority that God has not provided, so those that exist were established by him.» (Rom 13.1).
In the same line of thought are other passages in the New Testament, such as 1 Timothy 2.1; Titus 1.3 and 1 Peter 2.13-17, which urge us to respect the authorities, pray for them and seek peace. It is very significant that the passage in Romans repeats three times the phrase that the authorities are «at the service of God» (in RV 1960, «servant of God»). The Christian vision is that there is an order established by God and that, above all, there is God who is sovereign, creator and supporter, in short, the “king of kings”. It is from this perspective that the prophet Samuel did not like the request of the people of Israel, when they demanded a king to rule them (1 Samuel 8.1-22), like the other nations around them. The Israelites’ request meant, as God Himself tells Samuel, that «they do not want me to rule over them.» The request of a king was an affirmation of the rejection of the people of Israel to their God. «They have abandoned me to serve other gods,» was God’s comment to Samuel.
God allows them to have their king, but at the same time warns Samuel to warn them of what it would entail to have a human ruler, other than God. So, Samuel does not miss the opportunity to graphically tell the Israelites all the evils they will suffer at the hands of their rulers, and «when that day comes, they will cry out for the king they have chosen, but the Lord will not answer them.»!!
We can interpret the permissiveness of God at this very significant moment in the history of God’s relationship with his people, as a teaching, that only with time was going to be assimilated, that no type of government on earth will solve the problems of the human beings (and, in particular, God’s people), nor will it guarantee peace and security while sin reigns in our lives, that is, while there are still sinners. As the history of the kingdom of Israel was then unleashed, he agreed with Samuel and thus that history became a lesson for Christians of all times.
The same story forces us to be critical of rulers and harbor no illusions about earthly authorities. While we are urged to show all respect to the authorities, as to every creature of God, we know that they, just like us, are sinful beings, that they will not solve all the problems of life and that, deep down, they represent the human tendency to reject God’s authority and serve idols, other gods.
It was this reality that later led to the emergence of the prophets, who repeatedly had to face the authorities to show them their sin. Sometimes the ruler listened, recognized his failure and repented, but other times he got tough and only sought to silence the voice of the prophet.
Even the great King David, a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22), could not avoid being confronted by the prophet Nathan for his sin, for his tremendous injustice, when he plotted the murder of his general Uriah to take over of his wife (2 Samuel 12.1-12). Nathan was evidently not afraid to confront David and denounce him for having despised the word of God and doing what is not to his liking. In that case, as Psalm 51 attests, David acknowledged his sin, humbled himself, and repented, but his sin still had dire consequences.
Unlike that case of David, repeated were the warnings of the prophets against the injustices of the rulers that did not induce a change of attitude and repentance. A “man of God” confronted Jeroboam, king of Israel, for his idolatry to no avail (1 Kings 13). Then the prophet Ahijah again denounced Jeroboam (1 Kings 14). Later in history the prophet Elijah denounces King Ahab for his maneuvering to take the vineyard from Naboth (1 Kings 21).
The prophets were not silent in the face of injustices committed by the rulers and the wealthy. They denounced them and many times, like Jeremiah, they had to suffer the painful consequences of not saying what the rulers wanted to hear. It is not necessary to cite all the examples, which are many, but simply to recognize that God raised the prophets mainly to denounce the sins of his people, including their rulers.
Sufficient here would be to cite two examples: «Woe to those who only think of evil, and even lying down they make evil plans! As soon as it dawns, they carry them out because they have the power in their hands. They covet fields, and they appropriate them; houses, and they own them. They oppress the man and his family, man and his property.
Therefore thus says the Lord: «Now I am the one who thinks bring misfortune upon them, from which they will not be able to escape. They will no longer walk upright, because the hour of their disgrace has come. In that day they will be mocked, and this lament will be sung to them: We are lost! The fields of my town are being distributed. How they are taken from me! Our land is divided up by the traitors ”». (Micah 3.1-4)
«Woe to those who issue wicked decrees and publish oppressive edicts! They deprive the poor of their rights, and they do not do justice to the oppressed of my people; they make widows their prey and plunder the orphans. What will they do when they are held accountable, when the storm comes from afar? Who will they turn to for help? Where will they leave their wealth? They will have no choice to humble himself among the captives or die among the slaughtered. « (Isaiah 10.1-4)
Some other examples of the harsh words of the prophets against such injustices and neglect of God’s teachings are found in the following passages: Micah 3.1-4, 9-12; 7.3; Isaiah 5.8-9; Jeremiah 21.11-12; 11.22-15.17.
Now, there are two key observations to make. In the first place, the denunciation of injustices is based on the teachings received from God. It is not a matter of opinion and there is nothing relative about reprimands. The standard has been set by God and departing from it deserves God’s judgment. And here is the second observation. The judgment is God’s and if the prophet has the courage to denounce the injustices committed, it is not because of pride, but because of mercy, since it is God’s will that “the wicked turn from their bad behavior and live” (Ezekiel 33.11) .
In this passage from Ezekiel, God’s command to the prophet is made explicit to warn the wicked of the need to change their misconduct so that it does not carry the consequences of God’s judgment and if the prophet does not comply with the corresponding warning, God will to hold him accountable for the blood of the sentenced. There is no option here. Silence in the face of injustice also brings God’s judgment as a consequence.
Alongside the prophetic voice we also find «civil disobedience» in the Bible. In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to comply with King Nebuchadnezzar’s order to honor his gods and bow before the golden stature. Then Daniel himself (in chapter 6) refused to stop worshiping his God, instead worshiping King Darius.
A similar situation occurs in the New Testament when the apostles, despite the fact that the Jewish authorities strictly prohibited them from teaching in the name of Jesus Christ, declared that «It is necessary to obey God rather than men!» (Acts 5.29). They denounced the authorities for the death of Jesus and without hesitation they continued to proclaim the teachings of Jesus. One of the consequences of his firm stance was the arrest and martyrdom of Esteban.
He was not silent either, but declared before all the authorities of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Council), that they were “stubborn, hard of heart and dull of ears! … You who received the law promulgated through angels have not obeyed it. « (Acts 7.51, 53). How many times the rulers nowadays do not obey the laws dictated by themselves!
Since there is civil government and we do not live in a theocracy, it is important to reflect briefly on those biblical norms that should guide the administration of justice, which is the task of everyone who has some function within the state.
In the Old Testament the king (civil government) was expected to be guided by the Torah, the law and to read it every day of his life (Deuteronomy 17.19). He was expected to abide by the law and its precepts. Furthermore, he would not have to believe himself superior to his brothers (Deut 17.20). The king and all his officials had the fundamental role of ensuring that the people enjoy Shalom, peace, security and, above all, good and just relations with one another. This, at least, was the ideal, which in reality – as we have already observed – did not happen. Instead, many times, the critical comment of Proverbs 28.16 was the reality: «A ruler lacking in judgment is a terrible oppressor.»
However, it remains to guide us the primordial biblical concept that justice is based on correct relationships between human beings, relationships of all kinds and when this does not happen, whoever commits the injustice, it must be made manifest, by mercy towards the victim as well as towards the perpetrator. In this sense, the prophet is not a choice of life but an obligation before God and «men».