So, that’s all quite depressing, and seems to just reinforce the notion that governing authorities tend to become what they are not through some sort of righteous dispensation of “justice,” but rather through sinful corruption and the use of force.
Been pondering the question of where exactly do we see the concept of the “state” arise in the biblical narrative. We commonly talk about the three spheres of authority: the family, the church, and the state. But where exactly did the precedent for the state come from?
As I think through Genesis, and trace the concept of authority downstream of Adam, it would seem to me that the first time we start to see authority outside the context of the family at least perhaps implied may be within the context of the city that Cain built (Genesis 4:17). But it would seem to me that the very founding of this city was an act of rebellion, as God had told Cain that he would be a wanderer on the earth, not a settler (Genesis 4:12). So this doesn’t seem to be the model for a legitimate government.
Beyond that, it looks like we are first introduced to the concept of “nations” in Genesis 10, where we are told that the clans of the sons of Noah begin to spread across the earth (Genesis 10:5). But before that spreading really took off, the people were gathered together to – once again – build a city (Genesis 11:4). Rather than fulfill the creation mandate of filling the earth and subduing it, the people banded together with the express purpose of not dispersing throughout the earth. God, of course, intervened.
So then we had clans, with different languages, dispersing to different places on the earth. And now we’re to the point where peoples are really functionally divided now. And when this division happens, we start to see these people groups come to possess specific lands. Genesis 10 is the first chapter (I think) where we see the word land or earth (H776) referred to in a possessive sense. Clans now come to possess their own territories. And they begin now building cities in those territories (Genesis 10:11). So when we meet Abram in Genesis 12:1, and he is commanded to leave his country, we understand what is meant. His country is the land that his clan possessed.
So when the peoples of earth began to scatter, the family is still more or less the governing authority. The concept of the king or the state has not yet been introduced. It is the patriarch of the clan who continues to be understood as the leader of the people. Fascinating.
Then, when we come to Genesis 12:15, we see what seems to be possibly our first concrete example of a monarch – the Pharaoh of Egypt (Egypt being the land named after Egypt, the son of Ham - Genesis 10:6). The term, “Pharaoh,” means “great house,” and has always been understood to be the king of Egypt. It seems probable to me that this Pharaoh was likely the patriarch of the house of Egypt, but I am unlearned. Nonetheless, this Pharaoh appears to have both the wealth (Genesis 12:16) and authority (Genesis 12:20) consistent with kingship.
And by the time we get to Genesis 14, we are finally introduced to the concept of the king. We see kings of regions and kings of cities. Maybe these are heads of clans. Maybe they are not. We know nothing about the ethics involved in their original appointment. And no sooner are we introduced to these kings than do we immediately see them go to war with one another.
I mean, think about that. The first time we see monarchs established in the history of the world, they immediately go after each other to overthrow one another. And from then on, the rest – as they say – is all history. Human history is one bloody drama full of power struggle, assassination, and warfare. Kingdoms are conquered. New countries are formed.
How in the world could we ever try and get to the bottom of defining what is a “legitimate” government? How could we ever hope to define, historically, who has the right to wield governing authority? All we have is a legacy of sinful bloodshed.
Yet God, in his unsearchable counsels, sovereignly ordains it all.
And regardless of who has the sword at any given time, in whatever given circumstance – from Pilate, to Nero, to Donald Trump – all authority is given out by God. He alone establishes kings and principalities. The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will (Daniel 4:17). History bears witness to only one legitimate king, and that is the Christ.
So who is Caesar? Simply put, Caesar is whoever God has sovereignly handed the sword to at this given point in history. Regardless of what the documents of any given nation may state, the reality is that persons bear the sword, and persons will either do justice or withhold justice. History has a number of examples (e.g. Magna Carta) where men ratified documents, only to have them set aside by as soon as it became advantageous to the person in power, because it is persons who wield power, not documents.
In the final analysis, the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence only have “rightful” authority only insomuch that the persons who wrote them had any rightful authority to assert the content contained therein to begin with. But did they? Let us not overlook that our nation was founded by our forefathers rebelling against the Caesar of their day.
Edit to add: I’m not saying we should all become British loyalists or anything like that. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be so short-sighted as to exalt our founding documents as being some sort of divine authority. We need to be thinking as Christians in whatever cultural context God has placed us, and in whatever era. And that means recognizing that this nation is but a drop in the bucket to the Almighty (Isaiah 40:15). He established it, and will one day just as easily disestablish it.