What Do the Bible's Words about Theocracy Teach Us Today?
You can define a theocracy in two ways. In one way, a theocracy is a government where God’s laws directly dictate the rules and governance. The term “theocracy” literally means “the rule of God.” In this type of government, the leaders submit themselves to God’s laws and govern based on those laws.
The word theocracy can also mean the pretense of divine rule. In this structure, the people may see the leader as having divine authority. The rulers in this type of government may say they rule by divine influence, but you often discover their leadership can be more self-serving. As you read through this article, unless noted when I mention theocracy, I am referring to governing or leading according to God’s laws.
How Did Ancient Israel’s Theocracy Inform Its Government?
The greatest example of a theocracy was the nation of Israel, which we read about in the Old Testament. The nation of Israel was born from the descendants of Abraham, whom God promised to make into a great nation. While God led Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they were not a formal nation, so there was no official governing structure.
It would be hundreds of years before the foundation of Israel being a theocracy was laid. The first place you can point to that would show a theocracy was after Moses delivered the Israelites from Egypt. While they were in Egypt, the Israelites could worship God, but they lived under the rule of the Pharaoh. Once they were liberated from slavery and the rule of Pharaoh, they could live under the governance of God.
As the leader of Israel, Moses was God’s representative. Moses led the people of Israel as God directed him. He sought God and moved in his direction. While God desired to always lead the people of Israel in this fashion, it was not always Israel’s desire to be led by God.
Upon Moses’ death, Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land. Just like Moses, it was a theocracy—because Joshua led as God directed him. Israel had the unique position of being a nation that God led. He established how they should live, worship, and treat those who were part of their nation and those who were not.
After Joshua died, God used judges and prophets to continue the theocratic leadership. However, this all changed because Israel did not want to stay under God’s rule. They wanted a king like the surrounding nations.
So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. (1 Samuel 8:4-7)
From the moment Saul became the first king of Israel, Israel ceased being a theocracy. They became a monarchy. God could still direct the nation, but the difference now was that the king had a substantial influence in determining whether they would follow God’s leading. Israel operated like a theocracy when the king followed God’s heart and walked in his ways.
Have There Been Any Theocracies Since Ancient Israel?
If you define theocracy as being ruled by God, then the nation of Israel in the Old Testament was the last true theocracy that existed. However, some nations have been led under the pretense of divine rule. Under this pretense, the leaders of these nations tend to oppress those they lead. These types of governments often suppress the rights and freedoms of those who live there.
There is one major difference between this type of theocracy and the one experienced in Israel. In Israel, when they followed God’s rule, the entire nation flourished. As the Psalmist wrote,
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance. (Psalm 33:12)
When the leaders of Israel followed God’s rule, the nation experienced God’s blessing. When you consider nations that operate under the pretense of divine rule, the leader often benefits the most, and the people may suffer. Some theocratic nations today include Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.
What Separates a Theocracy and a Nation Based on Christian Values?
The major difference between a theocracy and a nation based on Christian values boils down to who is the ultimate authority. In a true theocracy, God is the ultimate authority, and the nation’s leaders recognize God as that authority. Everything that is done falls in alignment with God’s word and God’s ways. If there is a dispute, God’s word becomes the ultimate arbiter in deciding it. Theocracies will have rulers and leaders, but they willingly submit themselves to the rule of God.
In a nation shaped by Christian values, the ultimate authority is not God or his word. While Christian values may influence the creation of the laws, those laws or a constitution are the ultimate authority. In America, for example, when judges interpret laws, they don’t judge them based on how they align with scripture. They measure based on the laws that have already been written. There is no guarantee that those interpreting those laws will even acknowledge that Christian values shape them. A society shaped by Christian values points to a moral code people choose to live by. That code may or may not be directly part of the laws of the land.
Will There Be Any Theocracies in the Future?
As we look to the future, there will be one final theocracy, which has yet to be established. That will happen when Jesus returns and takes his rightful place as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This will be a theocracy unlike any before, and it will differ from what Old Testament Israel experienced: Jesus himself will reign and rule.
The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven which said:
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)
Until that time, Jesus has established theocracies in the hearts of men. Right now, the rule of God is not with individual nations but with individual people. Those who follow Jesus submit to his rule, and his word is the ultimate authority in the decisions they make in their life. However, like Israel, you can submit to this rule or try to live like the world around you. That choice belongs to you. I encourage you as we await this final theocracy to be set up in the earth, make sure you are living with Jesus as the king of your life. There is no one greater to submit your life and allegiance to.
But in your hearts set Christ apart [as holy—acknowledging Him, giving Him first place in your lives] as Lord . . . (1 Peter 3:15a AMP)
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Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.
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These verses serve as a source of renewal for the mind and restoration for the heart by reinforcing the notion that, while human weakness is inevitable, God's strength is always available to uplift, guide, and empower us.
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