Theme: Authority Both Established and Limited
From this week’s lessons we learn that government is given by God for the good of its people, and those who rule are responsible to act justly.
Scripture: Psalm 82:1-8
We have already looked at the first verse, but we need to return to it again briefly because it sets the scene for what follows. It is a convening of the court. It is God calling the “gods” before him to render judgment.
This verse meant a great deal to Martin Luther, who spent many pages on it in his lectures on the psalms. At the time he wrote his study of Psalm 82 he was reacting to the Peasants’ Revolt, which in his judgment threatened to sidetrack or even undermine the Reformation. This revolt, which erupted in 1525, was an attempt at political revolution, and the peasants expected the great reformer’s support. Luther did not give it, because he knew that spiritual goals cannot be advanced by political means, and also because he knew the value of civic order and rightly feared anarchy. He himself had been protected from death at the hands of the Roman church by the Elector of Saxony, his prince. So he pointed out that Psalm 82:1, 6 both establishes and limits the authority of princes. It establishes it, because it is God who appoints the authorities; it is he who calls them “gods.” It limits their authority because they are accountable to him, as the psalm shows.
This is exactly what Jesus said when he appeared before Pilate, for he recognized Pilate’s authority to preside over him at his trial, while at the same time he reminded him that he was responsible to God for what he did. Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (John 19:11).
Paul taught the same thing in Romans 13, when he spoke of rulers as “God’s servants,” appointed by God but also accountable to God. Paul said, “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (Rom. 13:5).
As far as Luther is concerned, he struck a wonderful balance, though he has been criticized for not joining the peasants’ cause as a revolutionary. On the one hand, he argued that the rulers must be obeyed: “For where there is no government, or where government is not held in honor, there can be no peace. Where there is no peace, no one can keep his life or anything else in the face of another’s outrage, thievery, robbery, violence and wickedness. Much less will there be room to teach God’s Word and to rear children in the fear of God and his discipline (Eph. 6:4).” On the other hand, God “keeps down the rulers, so that they do not abuse his majesty and power according to their own self-will…. For they are not gods among the people and overlords of the congregation in such a way that they have this position all to themselves and can do as they like. Not so! God himself is there also. He will judge, punish, and correct them; and if they do not obey, they will not escape.”1
1Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 13, Selected Psalms II, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1956), pp. 44, 45.
In what sense does this psalm both establish and limit the authority of earthly rulers?
Why did Martin Luther not join the peasants’ revolt?
Application: How does this passage affect your attitude toward your government?
For Further Study: To learn more about the relationship between the Christian and secular government, download and listen for free to James Boice’s message, “How God Views Human Government.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)