David to Nero

One of the beautiful things about Scripture is that it is so comprehensive. Not only does it address every area of life by precept or implication, but it is also thorough as it does so. In guiding Christians in their relationship with political authority, the Bible could not be more clear what our responsibilities are. Regardless of the type of government, the influence or ability of the citizen, or the character of the ruling authority, Christians are to do three things: not put their trust in political leadership; respect political leadership; and pray for political leadership.

Don’t hope in them: David was the best king that Israel ever had. It would have been easy for Jews living under his rule to put their trust in David’s military prowess, his love for the country, and his devotion to the Lord. Here was a man to be trusted – a man after God’s own heart! He was succeeded by Solomon, the wisest man in history, under whom the nation had unprecedented prosperity and security. But the Psalmist, inspired by the Holy Spirit, told the people not to put their trust in princes, or depend on them for help (Ps. 146:3). The best kings die, their bodies return to dust, and the legacy of their rules can be undone by the very next king. They cannot save. Only Christ can do that because His throne is fixed for ever and ever ((Heb. 1:8). We are blessed when we put our hope in Him and draw closer to Him, not political leadership, regardless of how faithful and able it may be.

Respect them: From a long line of depraved and godless Roman Emperors, Nero stands out for his cruelty, selfishness, and immoral decadence. Yet, under his rule, the apostle Peter told the church to “be subject…to the emperor as supreme” and he connects this attitude with piety: “Fear God. Honour the emperor” (I Peter 2:13, 17). We are to do this as living servants of God, to silence foolish people (v. 15). Roman emperors often murdered their way to the throne, gaining illegitimate power by intimidation and violence, yet Christians were called to show them respect. If believers then were called to honour a man who burned their fellow believers as human torches at his garden parties, surely we who live in much easier times must honour any political authority over us. Even if we suffer unjustly as a result of abuses of power, we are simply following in Christ’s footsteps, who, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” In other words, respecting political authority is Christ-like.

Pray for them: All leaders need our prayers. As a believer, David needed different prayers than Nero, but both of them needed the prayers of the church. Paul instructs the church through his first letter to Timothy, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (I Tim. 2:1-2). But the reason Paul gives for this command is not what we might expect. Our prayers for political leadership are not first of all so that they would be saved, though of course we do desire and pray for that. Paul’s first reason for telling us to pray is “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” The believer’s personal piety is God’s primary concern, and He brings that about partly by placing us under earthly authority. It is our holy response to any given government that “is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:3).

No American president has ever come close to David for piety and military ability. No American president has ever come close to Nero for public depravity and abuse of office. And we voters fail daily as we misplace our hope, disrespect those who are elected, and forget to pray for leadership. Perhaps when we understand that Scripture’s commands to us regarding our basic political involvement are primarily for our sanctification – our personal growth in godliness – then we will be able to rest content in Christ’s kingship, regardless of election results.