What is the best system of government? David Instone-Brewer explores the ideal of democracy, and why God didn’t instigate it for Israel.
Democracy is spreading over the world. In ancient times it made Greece different from all other countries – though it was democratic only to the extent that it allowed native-born males to vote. Democracies don’t always work, but most nations still hold to it as the best form of government, while others aspire to it, expecting it to bring stability and prosperity.
If democracy is the ideal, why wasn’t Israel ruled democratically? Shouldn’t the Old Testament give moral guidance in the area of political leadership?
The Old Testament portrays several forms of government in Israel. It started as a patriarchy (families, clans and tribes being ruled by the oldest male), a system that could easily fail, as seen in the story of how the patriarch Israel was fooled by his son Jacob. Theocracy (rule by God through priests) also proved fallible with priests such as Eli’s sons caring more for their perks than for the people. Nomocracy (‘rule by law’ – ie according to legal principles – through the judges) was another failure; it would have worked better if the judges had actually known and taught the law! Eventually, and against the advice of God’s prophets, the Israelites demanded a monarchy like their neighbouring nations, realising too late that bad kings are difficult to remove.
With these forms of government all having serious flaws, we might wonder why God didn’t instigate a democracy for his people. In fact, there was a one-off occasion when they elected a ruler, and it went wrong for reasons that it sometimes fails today. When Winston Churchill was voted out in 1947, he said (perhaps sourly) that: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ Many nations who are recent converts to democracy also realise that it isn’t straightforward. Even with a fair voting system, there are three big potential pitfalls, all of which Israel experienced when they tried it.
Israel’s experiment with democracy occurred when King Solomon died and the people faced the prospect of being ruled by his son Rehoboam. They loved Solomon for the peace and wealth created by trading with neighbouring nations instead of fighting them. And they basked in the fame of his wisdom. But there was a huge downside: the conscripted labour by which the prestigious new temple and palaces had been built. Many thousands had suffered from the harsh conditions, so they wanted assurance from Rehoboam about the work he would demand from them.
Rehoboam’s older advisors said: ‘Act like a servant to them for one day and they’ll be your servants for a lifetime.’ But his younger advisors said: ‘Tell them that if they refuse to work, you’ll beat them more than your father did.’ Unfortunately he agreed with the obnoxious young aristocrats and passed on their threats to the people (1 Kings 12:1-14).
The people’s spokesman was Jeroboam, who knew too well about the cruelty of conscripted labour. He had been a labourer and had been promoted to the highest rank of overseer. However, he had remained popular, which eventually made him politically dangerous. He had needed to flee before Solomon could kill him, but now he was back. Following Rehoboam’s foolish decision, most people wanted to make Jeroboam their leader. Ten of the tribes voted for Jeroboam, while the two tribes living near Jerusalem decided to stay loyal to Rehoboam.
Democracy in action. But there were three major flaws. First, the population was divided into tribes, and tribal loyalties meant that individuals had no real freedom of choice when they voted. It also meant the losers couldn’t accept the majority decision. Fortunately, although Rehoboam planned to lead his two tribes into battle against the other ten, they realised this was an unwinnable war. And rather than the minority being attacked or persecuted, as often happens, the two sides separated, splitting into two nations, Judah in the south and Israel in the north.
The second problem was that the elected leader placed himself above the law. Afraid that his people’s loyalty might lean towards Jerusalem (the centre of their religion), Jeroboam created two new worship centres in the north and south ends of his new kingdom. A golden bull (a popular religious symbol) was erected for worship at each site, even though idolatry was totally contrary to the Law of Moses. He also established a new feast in the eighth month to dissuade them from attending the Day of Atonement fast in Jerusalem in the seventh month. It was a convenient and popular move since the olive harvest sometimes continued into the seventh month and most people prefer feasting to fasting. Jeroboam had learned the first lesson of democracy: give the people what they want. But in doing so he had put himself above the law.
The third problem was that although the people voted for Jeroboam, they couldn’t vote him out again. He made himself their king for life and arranged for his son to inherit the throne. This son only survived two years before a rival killed him and his whole family, and then set himself up as the next lifelong monarch. Successive kings were worse and worse, until the nation fell victim to the nearby superpower of Assyria.
This experiment with democracy was ultimately disastrous for Israel because it split the country; the new leadership started its decline which continued under successive kings. But the fault didn’t lie with democracy itself – their society wasn’t ready for it. Democracy cannot work when tribal or religious factions each have their own candidate, because the losing side can’t accept the result. We saw this recently in Iraq, and it is a danger in Egypt. Democracy also needs a strong legal system which even the ruler submits to – a lesson which Russia and Burma need to bear in mind. And the frailty of human pride means that rulers have to be voted in for a limited period and allow themselves to be voted out. If Mugabe had learned that lesson, history may have praised him as the father of his nation rather than the ruin of it.
The best system of government is one which occurs very rarely: a beneficent dictatorship. This has worked well in Singapore, a country of peace and prosperity despite having no natural resources except its people. Ancient kings had the autocratic power of dictators and some, like Solomon, used that power largely for good. The Bible says that one day we will see this type of leadership working perfectly when Jesus rules as an absolute sovereign over the whole world. In the meantime, absolute power is too dangerous for most humans, and democracy works fairly well – as long as we learn the lessons in the Bible’s history.
Democracy is frail and depends on the participation of a sufficient number of the population to make it work. Membership of political parties in the UK is now dangerously low. If only one in seven believers in the UK joined a political party, they would form the majority of members. Surely that would change politics.