In my previous post, I started to look at Jacques Ellul’s attempt to “reconcile Christianity with anarchism”. In the chapter on Anarchy and Christianity that we are looking at, Ellul summarises what he sees as the biblical evidence for anarchism.
First, in answer to the question “What does the Old Testament teach concerning political power?”, Ellul looks first at power generally, among “the nations”, and then at political power within Israel itself.
1. “The nations”
The Old Testament “always challenges political power in itself where the ‘nations’ are concerned”:
The Old Testament claims repeatedly that these kings consider themselves gods, but they will be destroyed in order to manifest their weakness.
Even in the case of Israel’s deportation to Babylon:
…when the prophets instruct the people to work for the good of the society in which they live, there is no question of supporting the Babylonian king.
Even the examples of Joseph and Daniel, who “collaborate with a foreign king”, do not legitimise those foreign kings. Joseph’s service to the Egyptian king, in the end, “produces nothing but the slavery of all Israel!”
As for Daniel, he finds favour with both Babylonian and Persian rulers, but he still ends up in the lion’s den:
Power is dangerous and devouring; participating in political action and reflection on behalf of the government is an undertaking that inevitably puts true faith in danger. Such participation can lead only to proclaiming the end of this power and to its destruction.
We must remember that Daniel remains a prophet of doom for the different kings he serves. He announces to each one the end of his reign, the destruction of the kingdom, the death of the king, etc. Consequently, he negates power to its face, in a sense, even if he serves it temporarily.
2. The Israelite monarchy
The Old Testament’s depiction of the Israelite monarchy is scarcely any more positive than that of the rulers of the nations. “The main text is clearly 1 Samuel 8, the institution of kingship”, asserts Ellul, and the message of this chapter is threefold:
- Political power rests on distrust and rejection of God (vv.6-8).
- Political power is always dictatorial, excessive, and unjust (vv.10‑18).
- Political power is established in Israel through conformity, in imitation of what is done everywhere else (vv.5, 19-20).
The first King, Saul, is a “raving madman”. David is then “by grace and as an exception … just a ray of light, showing that God can bring miraculous good from human evil”.
As for David’s immediate successor:
Solomon shows how exceptional David was; though admirably well equipped for the exercise of power, Solomon ends up radically corrupted by power. His accumulation of wealth and women, his setting up of an independent political power, his establishment of cities, etc. ‑ these can all be considered normal actions for a political power. But these activities produce Solomon’s estrangement from God, and finally his rejection. The Bible indicates clearly that Solomon’s exercise of political power corrupted a man who began as wise, good, and humble.
Ellul then makes a fascinating observation about the depiction of kingship in the books of Chronicles, which “offer us a very strange assessment of political power”:
Systematically … all those shown objectively to be “great” kings historically are represented as bad kings: idolatrous, unjust, tyrannical, murderous. These kings brought about better political organization, made conquests, and enriched their people. In other words, they exercised power “normally.”
On the contrary, when it comes to historically weak kings, those who lost their wars, allowed their administration to unravel, and lost wealth, Chronicles considers these as good kings…
The utter consistency on this issue in Chronicles shows its significance. As far as I know, no other chronicle or historiography, in any country in the world, uses this approach; everywhere else, one considers the successful king as great and legitimate.
Then, as a final observation on the Old Testament, Ellul examines what the coronations of the Israelite kings has to tell us. He argues that the coronation procedure and the names used to designate kings show us that:
…the king is never considered to have value in himself. The king is never anything but the current, temporary, incidental sign of the One who is to come.
The Coming One defines the present king, who has no importance. He serves merely as a signpost, a pointer that anticipates. God accepts political power to the degree that it points ahead to the ultimate perfection of the Messiah and the Kingdom.
Political power never has any value in itself. On the contrary, Scripture radically repudiates, challenges, and condemns it whenever it claims to exist as political power rather than as a sign. Political power’s only value depends on something coming in the future (uncertain at best!) and on what it signifies (the unknown!). We can therefore conclude that the Old Testament never in any way validates any political power. On the contrary, the Scriptures consistently challenge it.
In the next post, we will look at how Ellul tackles the “two tendencies” found in the New Testament: those texts (such as Romans 13) that are “favourable with respect to power”, and those (“much more extensive”) that are “hostile” towards it.