[3rd in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]
What does such a title mean, “king by the grace of God”? Let me offer an imaginary but biblically faithful self-reflective prayer from someone so chosen to lead God’s covenant people in biblical times.
Lord God, you have chosen me and called me to lead your people and to rule over your land. I do not deserve such consideration from you, and I feel too lacking in strength, wisdom, and courage for such responsibility, but if you will be with me, then I will trust in your wisdom and strength. Please guide me in caring for your people, protecting them from their enemies, and providing justice for all, especially the weak and vulnerable such as the foreigner who lives among us, the widow, and the orphan, for I know that your compassion reaches out to them especially. Grant me the faithfulness and courage to do what is right in your eyes, at whatever cost to me myself. Make me a blessing to your people, a champion of the poor, and a fair judge over all. Never leave me to my own ego and desires, but lead me along the paths of righteousness and justice so your people will praise you for calling me to rule over them.
To be a leader by the grace of God is to be chosen for self-sacrificial service to the people. Such service, not the leader’s authority, is the principal issue. Tyrants sacrifice others for the supposedly greater good – the young men (and now also young women) to their wars of choice, women in distress to their desire for power over all women, people classed as minorities to the leaders’ own lust for wealth and need for support from the wealthy and from the resentful who fear being replaced by those minorities. The leader by the grace of God must prioritize justice above popularity and political advantage. The one so chosen does not thereby gain prestige so much as responsibility, and biblically, the leader’s fidelity and success will always be measured by the condition of the poor and disadvantaged, not the increasing prosperity of the already rich and powerful.
During the “golden age” of the northern kingdom, Israel, under King Jeroboam II, the rich were getting much richer and the wealth measures of the kingdom were certainly rising (or would have been if such measures as Gross National Product or Gross Domestic Product had been in use). Yet, the prophet Amos declares the nation bankrupt in the eyes of God because the poor are being cheated and their small parcels of land stolen from them (legally, of course).
When Judah’s king Jehoiakim has his palace freshly paneled in fine cedar from Lebanon, the prophet Jeremiah has this to say about his majesty’s opulence:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms,” and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermilion. Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the LORD. But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence. Therefore thus says the LORD concerning King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah: They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” or “Alas, sister!” They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, lord!” or “Alas, his majesty!” With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried – dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 22:13-19 NRSV)
The poor and disadvantaged are God’s measure of the faithfulness of the leader. What would such a prophet as Jeremiah say in our time to the United States of America and its leadership? The foreigner (immigrant or migrant worker), the widow, and the orphan stand as evidence for or against those in power. The cheated offer the testimony to which God listens. The leader who fails to hear their cries and provide justice for them deserves only to be buried with the full pomp and ceremony accorded to a dead donkey.
What being a leader “by the grace of God” decidedly does NOT mean is being due honor or loyalty no matter what. No one has divine authority to be cruel, ruthless, self-serving, or greedy. No one. No leader is protected from criticism by some divine right. Always the called or chosen are subject to stricter judgment than the people in general. More is expected from those to whom more has been given. Besides, those who seize or steal power by their own cunning or treachery are not anything “by the grace of God,” except still alive and so able, perhaps, to find in themselves some remorse and to repent.