Wisdom for Twenty-First Century Monarchy and Other Leaders
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And Solomon said, ‘Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’ (3:9)
You can understand Solomon’s anxiety. How was he, as king, going to govern the people of Israel? They were a turbulent lot, living in turbulent times, in a turbulent region, sandwiched between warlike nations. And to top it all, Solomon had to follow in the footsteps of his ‘father David’ (3:6, 7) – celebrated giant slayer, musician, poet, warrior and military leader, under whom Israel had flourished as never before. It can’t be easy to become king when your immediate predecessor is the most popular monarch in living memory, either then or now.
Smart choice then for Solomon to request ‘an understanding mind’ – wisdom – when ‘the LORD appeared to him in a dream at night.’ (3:5) Solomon requests such wisdom, not simply as a good in itself, but so that he will be ‘able to discern between good and evil.’ (3:9) Intriguingly, in the early biblical creation stories, in Genesis, in defiance of God’s command, deciding to ‘eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’, (2:16), brings about the downfall of humankind. Here, however, Solomon’s request for such knowledge is (we are told), pleasing to God: ‘it pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked for this.’ (3:10) Changed circumstances bring changed demands it seems.
And circumstances do change, for kings, as well as for subjects and citizens. We’ll get to the changed circumstances between Israel, more than nine centuries before the birth of Christ, and the United Kingdom, more than twenty centuries after. First, though, just consider the change of circumstances between Solomon’s situation and when the Apostle Paul wrote to Christian congregations in Rome, just a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God,’ writes Paul in rather sweeping fashion. (31:1) But Paul does not have Israelite monarchs like David or Solomon in mind. They are long gone, along with the independent kingdom of Israel. Instead Paul writes to Christians in Rome, the centre of that empire.
Paul, does not mention the emperor by name, which may be wise. Instead he talks of ‘authority’ and ‘authorities’ (13:1, 2, 3, 6) and unnamed ‘rulers.’ (13:3) Government, says Paul, exists to control and deter wrongdoers (13:2-2-3), and to maintain society, for which purposes it is permitted to raise revenue through taxation (13:6-7). Here, Paul seems to echo Jesus’s comment about paying to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17): ‘pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.’ (13:6-7)
So between these two Bible readings we are shown both sides of a coin. In our first reading a monarch seeks wisdom in order to govern. In our second reading the apostle shares his wisdom about being governed. Neither Israelite monarchy or imperial Rome, though, is identical to the twenty first United Kingdom setting, either as regards monarchy, or citizens … or should that be ‘subjects’!
There is a word that links both readings and today’s situation, though, and that’s ‘servant.’ Solomon describes both his father, King David, and himself as a ‘servant’: you have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David,’ (3:6) And ‘now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David … give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people.’ (3:7, 9) For Saint Paul, government is ‘God’s servant for your good,’ and we pay taxes so that ‘the authorities [who] are God’s servants’ (13:6) can do their God-given work.
Now notice something here; it’s not the governed who are described as servants, it’s those who govern. They are the servants. And then notice another thing. Those who govern are not described as the servants of the people who are governed. In our democratic setting, in theory at least, those in government serve the people. And if the people are not happy with how they are being served then they can let their servants know about it … as recent local election results have demonstrated.
But to think of a monarch or government as the people’s servant is not how Solomon understands it, or how Paul writes about it. Instead, those who govern are portrayed as the servants of God. Solomon addresses God, describing both himself, and his father before him, as ‘your servant.’ Paul writes about the authorities as having been instituted or appointed by God (13:1, 2), describing them as God’s servant for the people’s good.
We may, and we should, show appropriate respect for those who have been placed in positions of authority, because they have been given an important task by God; to ensure the wellbeing of God’s people. At the same time, though, we are not their servants. In our particular situation, to some extent, since we live in a democracy, those elected by us are our servants, but ultimately they are God’s servants.
This understanding also comes across in Psalm 148, where along with all of creation, and with all the peoples, those in power are on the same level in praising God:
‘Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his [God’s] name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven …
Praise the Lord!’ (148:11-12, 14)
Maybe it’s a combination of our UK twenty-first century democratic history, experience and spirit, allied with some hazy notion that ultimate authority lies elsewhere, that made the invitation for each and all of us to say during yesterday’s coronation that, ‘I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God’ somewhat controversial.
So then, how should one govern, whether in a representative role, such as today’s British monarch, or in an executive capacity, such as His Majesty’s Prime Minister and government? What might it mean to consider yourself as God’s servant, appointed for the good of others? It would be good to look to the example of Jesus, not for the details of day to day political decision making, but for the approach and mindset he displayed.
All power could have been his, but he chose not to use it to bend people to his will. As Paul put it in another of his letters (Philippians) Jesus ‘did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave [or servant]’ (2:6:, 7). He did so in order to win back people to God, whose ‘name alone is exalted above heaven and earth’ (148:13),by both monarchs and people, as the psalmist says. (148:11) As Jesus himself put it, ‘the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45)
And what works for kings and political governing authorities applies to others as well. All of us, in all of the situations where we wield authority, do so as God’s servants: Elders and Ministers, parents and teachers, managers, volunteers and committee members, and the rest. Like monarchs and government ministers, we should receive respect for the office that we hold, though that never makes other people our servants. They, like we, are God’s servants; God who gives us a world, and sustains it, including providing government so that all in society might flourish.
So may God give to King Charles, to government ministers, to all in authority, ourselves included, grace, that when we make decisions for others, we do so with a sense of service; service to God, for the sake of the good of others and for God’s world. Amen.