Considering Civil Government, Pt. 3: OT Examples of Civil Disobedience to an Overreaching Ruler
This is our third post examining how the Bible presents the civil magistracy and its relationship to the people. Having previously identified and examined Deuteronomy 17 as the origin of the Old Testament monarchy, we focused last time on examples of the covenant relationship between monarch and people.
If the king's authority to rule were to come directly from God, irrespective of the consent of the people, then the people could have no right to stand against his wishes unless he required his people to sin in some way. It might be helpful to think of the authority of a prophet. A prophet of God is given his position and authority by God, perhaps with the anointing of another prophet (as with Elijah anointing Elisha in 1 Kings 19:16). The prophet has no constituency to whom he is accountable; he is answerable to God alone. Is the king’s authority derived from God alone, as is the case with the prophet, or is it derived, at least in part, from the people? If the latter, then we would expect him to be, at least in part, accountable to the people as well.
This post will look at numerous examples of civil disobedience in Israel’s historical narrative as an important step in testing our hypothesis from Deuteronomy that the relationship between king and populace is covenantal, with both parties having obligations to meet. If our hypothesis is correct, and a ruler does not meet his obligations, we should observe certain consequences unfolding in Israel’s history.
Civil Disobedience or Sin?
The first few examples we will look at involve situations where, it might be argued, the people choose to disobey in cases where obeying their ruler might mean sinning against God.
In 1 Samuel 19-20, Saul is seeking to put David to death. Jonathan and Michal both work to undermine and ultimately thwart the king’s efforts, Jonathan risking his own life in the process. They act to spare David's life and keep the king from the sin of murdering an innocent man. For David’s part, he flees from his lord, who seeks his life rather than obediently submit to execution. The king’s wishes are clear. He sees David as a rival and a threat and looks to have him killed. However, Saul’s own children, not to mention David himself, plainly defy the king’s orders and actively work against them. Would it have been sin for Jonathan or Michal not to have resisted Saul’s attempts to kill his rival? Whether or not that would be the case, these people clearly consider it right to disobey their king.
First Samuel 22 records Saul confronting the priests who had given aid to a fleeing David. In verse 17, we read:
"And the king said to the guard who stood about him, ‘Turn and kill the priests of the LORD, because their hand also is with David, and they knew that he fled and did not disclose it to me.’”
Saul wants vengeance on the priests for their support of David and commands a guard to kill them. What we read is surprising. “But the servants of the king would not put out their hand to strike the priests of the LORD." Simple guardsmen and servants disobey the king’s explicit order because they are unwilling to harm the Lord’s priests.
Another important example of civil disobedience is found in 2 Kings 6:30-33. The king of Israel dispatches a messenger to bring Elisha to be beheaded. Elisha becomes aware of the threat and tells the elders around him to close the door and hold it fast, barring entry for the man sent to arrest him. Both Elisha and the elders actively and premeditatedly block the agent sent to do the king’s bidding.
Amid a hard-fought campaign against the Philistines, Saul makes a vow that is apparently intended to motivate his troops. “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies” (1 Sam. 14:24). Jonathan, unaware of his father’s prohibition, refreshes himself by eating some honey. When Saul finds out what his son has done, he orders that Jonathan be put to death. The people, however, will not stand for it.
"Then the people said to Saul, ‘Shall Jonathan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel? Far from it! As the LORD lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.’ So the people ransomed Jonathan, so that he did not die" (v. 45).
The people flatly refuse to obey the king’s direct orders and will not allow him to execute Jonathan.
In each of these cases, perhaps one might argue that to obey the king would mean to commit sin personally. While that might be the case in some of these instances, it is at least debatable. For instance, does not a king have the right to execute traitors, rivals, or threats to the throne or person of the king? However we might resolve those questions, the following passages are cases where obedience and submission to the king would not have necessitated personal sin.
Civil Disobedience for Other Motives
The case of Obadiah, the man in charge of Ahab and Jezebel’s household, is one such case. In 1 Kings 18:3-4, we read:
"Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water."
Obadiah holds a position very close to the royal family. When queen Jezebel orders the prophets of Yahweh to be killed, Obadiah directly disobeys her instructions. He takes and hides a hundred prophets to keep them safe from the queen. Nor is this a one-time action. Obadiah continues in his position with the royal household while simultaneously providing not only shelter but ongoing provision for the fugitives. Here is a faithful man seeking to submit to his human authorities where he can yet defying them where they have become tyrannical. Obadiah most likely would not have been personally sinning by not risking his own life to save and provide for the one hundred prophets, yet his actions clearly fly in the face of the queen’s commands.
Second Kings 1 recounts the prophet Elijah twice refusing a direct royal command delivered by the military. King Ahaziah sends a captain to bring the prophet to the king. When the captain finds Elijah sitting on a hilltop, he commands Elijah to come down in the name of the king. Elijah refuses and calls fire from heaven to consume the captain with his men. The king sends another captain with men to deliver the same command, in the king’s name, in even stronger terms. Elijah again refuses and calls down fire to consume the soldiers. When the third captain with his fifty is sent, the angel of the Lord instructs the prophet to relent and go along to the king. Until the angel commands the prophet to obey the king’s order, Elijah clearly, openly, and even violently defies the apostate king’s command. The fact that the angel tells Elijah to go along with the third captain clearly shows there would have been no sin in going with the first or second captain. Yet Elijah defiantly disobeys the royal command.
One final act of civil disobedience for us to consider is the case of queen Athaliah (2 Kings 11 // 2 Chron. 23). Athaliah has become queen by treachery and murder. She has eliminated all who might oppose her for the throne, except for one overlooked prince named Joash, who has been secreted away. Athaliah reigns for six years. Eventually, Jehoiada the priest, various temple guards, and others covenant together to oust her and place Joash upon the throne. Their coup succeeds, and Athaliah is executed. This intriguing account shows that the people, particularly the lesser magistrates, think they have the right and even duty to unseat one monarch and install another. 2 Chron. 23:3 records how the people view the relationship between sovereign and people:
“All the assembly made a covenant with the king in the house of God.”
That covenant was clearly important to them. Athaliah had been an illegitimate ruler and had ascended to power by cruel and evil means. The priest and temple guard take action to remove her and raise the legitimate heir power. Part of that process involved this very important covenant between the king and the people. The people risk treason for the sake of having the rightful king enthroned with the rightful covenant.
The way a king was made in the Nation of Israel shows their understanding that the people have considerable and even essential authority in placing a king on the throne. Israel's history in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles shows that the people of Israel understood there were times and ways for the people to hold even their sovereign king accountable to the obligations of his position and covenant. At times they simply disobey a particular order. Other times they actively work against the king to save someone's life. Fugitives get aided and abetted in large numbers against the king's order. In one case, priests and military commanders stage a coup and depose and execute an evil queen to place another on the throne.
Israel's history seems to reveal an understanding that corroborates the existence of a covenant relationship between ruler and people. That covenant relationship has stipulations on both sides, and at certain points, when the king transgresses his end of the covenant, the people defy him. The numerous examples of civil disobedience in Israel’s historical narrative prove that the relationship between the king and the people is covenantal. Both kings and people have obligations they must meet. When a ruler does not live up to his obligations, the people may, at times, respond with varying degrees of corrective consequences.
Brennen Behimer (BA, Moody Bible Institute; MA, Wheaton College) is a pastor at Parkside Bible Fellowship in Fallon, NV. He is husband to Stephanie and father of six.
Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors on this site.