The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Government

The Old Testament book of Daniel is famous for portraying human government doing wicked things! What could it tell us about the goodness of government? The fact that Daniel and his three friends are willing to work within the Babylonian courts is itself instructive. These are men who, quite literally, are willing to die before they compromise on their convictions (Dan 1, 3, 6)—if working within the government of Babylon was necessarily sinful they would not have participated in it. But, like other Hebrews who work in pagan governments, like Joseph and Esther, Daniel and his friends utilize their position of authority in government (we assume) for righteous ends. In Jeremiah’s letter to exiles in Babylon (of whom Daniel was one) he exhorts the, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare,” (Jer 29:7). One way that Daniel can “seek the welfare of the city” is by participating in its political realm.

But that isn’t the only clue we have in the book that gives a positive nod towards human government. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King, is at two places described in a way reminiscent of Genesis 1. Genesis described the vocation of mankind like this: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth,” (Gen 1:27-28). “Dominion” is the language of kingship, authority. Adam and Eve were to rule over creation as royalty, expanding the garden of Eden outwards, filling the whole earth and subduing it. Now, when Adam and Eve sinned, they failed to accomplish that task—but they did not wholly forsake it. The rest of Genesis (and the Bible) shows man’s impulse to pursue this cultural mandate.

Daniel describes Nebuchadnezzar as, “the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all,” (Dan 2:37-38). Further, in chapter four Nebuchadnezzar is described as a tree whose, “leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it,” (Dan 4:12). These texts show us that Nebuchadnezzar’s rule over Babylon, though faint, echoes the original mandate of Genesis: using one’s authority and dominion to the benefit of others through your work. And Nebuchadnezzar did certainly do astonishing things in pursuing the expansion of the culture, beauty, and education of the ancient city. The Greek historian Herodotus asserted, “In addition to its enormous size, [Babylon] surpasses in splendor any city of the known world.” 

Friends, this shows us that government is a gift from God. It is part of His original design and persists even through a fallen world. This is why Paul can write things like Romans 13 where he assumes that government—even pagan government—has been instituted by God and works to punish evil behavior and reward good behavior (cf. 1 Pet 2:13-17). This is why Christians are not anarchists; human government is one of the channels through which God’s blessings can flow to the world. We see dim reflections of that in Daniel.

But where we see drops of goodness in human government in Daniel, we find cascading waterfalls of evil. Governing authorities in Babylon use barbaric violence to threaten and kill its subjects (“ripped limb from limb and your house will be turned into a garbage heap,” Dan 2:5), enslave conquered people, and codify and require idolatrous, pagan worship (Dan 2-3). We see backstabbing, envy, and cowardice in politics (Dan 6). We see kings whose whole empires exist to satisfy their cravings for adulation and praise, while neglecting God’s righteousness and justice to the oppressed (Dan 4-5). The vision of Daniel 7 of the four terrifying beasts, which represent the coming kingdoms of men, demonstrate the inhumane and ghastly nature of these governments—a vision that the book of Revelation uses to describe the Satanic embodiment of governmental power who devours and destroys Christians (Rev 13). 

So, while government is a gift given to us by God, the Bible, and the book of Daniel in particular shows us how it can and often is horribly, horribly abused. And it is the fact that is designed by God for good that makes the abuse of it so heinous. It is far worse when someone has legitimate authority and abuses it than when one has no authority and acts wrongly; this is why it is particularly heinous when a father abuses his children, a pastor members of his congregation, or a police officer the citizens he is sworn to protect. Authority is not inherently wrong—it is a gift—but it is peculiarly wicked when it is abused.

For as long as we are on this side of heaven, our human government will always be a mixture of good and evil. We shouldn’t be deluded into assuming that we will arrive at a political utopia. But we also shouldn’t become so disenfranchised that we think that there is nothing redemptive in the system of government. I’m extremely grateful for many gifts of government, like labor laws, police officers, a postal service, and city water. And if there is real good that can bring real positives in our world, than we ought (as opportunity and conscience permits) to strive to work with the good as much as we can, even while we must be honest about the bad. Even calling out the bad when it is presented before us.

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