Between Caesar and God

Historian and author, Alan Axelrod in this book, ‘Little Known Wars of Great and Lasting Impact’ writes: “Simon ben Kosba believed himself descended from the house of David… At the time of Hadrian’s decrees [Hadrian, the Roman Emperor, who reigned from 117-139 A. D]; Rabbi Akiva, who is celebrated in the Talmud as the ‘Head of all Sages,’ anointed Simon, bestowing upon him a new surname, Bar Kokhba. It meant, in Aramaic, Son of a Star, a reference to the star prophecy found in Numbers 24:17; ‘A star has shot off Jacob.’ By this name, Rabbi Akiva identified Simon bar Kokhba as the Messiah, the savior of the Jews.

…the suggestion of such a claim was enough to alienate a small Jewish sect that followed a ‘rabbi’ whom the Romans had crucified almost exactly a hundred years earlier. The foundation of their faith in this rabbi-Jesus of Nazareth by name-was that he and only he had been the true Messiah.

[remember the words of Jesus-At that time if anyone says to you, ‘look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.’ For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive if possible, even the elect. See I have told you ahead of time. – Matthew 24:23-25]   

Thus, on the eve of a second Jewish revolt against Rome, the Christians definitively split from the other Jews, so that Bar Kokhba’s Revolt may be said to mark the emergence of Christianity as a new religion separate from that of the Jews, rather than a sect within Judaism.

…By the time Bar Kokhba was defeated, the Romans had taken a genocidal toll-580,000 Jews killed, according to Roman sources, many more according to the Talmud. …Those few Jewish Judeans who survived the suppression of the rebellion and the oppression that followed it were exiled-first from Jerusalem and then from all Judea. Thus the Jew were cast to the four corners of the ancient world.[i]

Two elements were at work creating this civil unrest that exploded into such a horrible outcome. An emperor who lacked cultural and religious sensitivities and a renewed religious fervor caused by a belief that Simon ben Kosba was the long-awaited Messiah. The strong belief in Judaism that the Messiah would destroy the political rulers oppressing them was false confidence that led them to revolt and for so many, destruction.

What can we learn from this devastation? What is the right attitude toward civic leaders or leaders for that matter? Many people today question the competencies of governments today. How does that affect our compliance to what is being asked of us? What happens when we don’t agree? Where is God in the equation? Proverbs 16 speaks to the issue of God’s Sovereignty and human responsibility as it relates to this issue of governance and authority.

Throughout human history, humanity and particularly God’s people have lived under the authority of God and his human representatives, tribal leaders and kings, and in some instances a representative government.

Dual authority we recognize- divine sovereignty and human government. Dual authority but not equal authority. …They [God’s people] were confronted regularly… with the competence and caprice monarchs. During Judah’s heyday they watched the pendulum swing from righteous kings to foolish ones, from rulers who trusted God to those who tested Him.[ii]

In Proverbs 16, we are going to see how we ought to respond to those in authority in our lives. What is fascinating is that after the Babylonian exile, the Jewish people were under foreign domination until the modern period. So, what does the wisdom literature teach us about God’s sovereign authority and human governance and our responsibility toward those leaders who are over us even when leaders are ungodly? Throughout human history we have lived with a tension between God and Caesar. Here in Proverbs 16 we have a check and balance in which we can glean directives that will help us honor God and bring direction in order to help us curb civil unrest.

Jesus summarize it so beautifully when he was tested and asked the question, ought we to pay taxes to Caesar? If he said no, he would have been arrested and tried for rebellion against the state. If he said yes, he would have lost the prestige of the common people who felt cheated and oppressed. In other words, where should our allegiance lie? Jesus’ response was insightful and clear. “Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ (Mark 12:17).”

Jesus, when asked if taxes were to be paid, asked the question whose image was on the coin. When they responded, Caesar, Jesus made his famous reply to give to Caesar what belongs to him. Jesus was saying, render taxes to those in human authority but remember your primary allegiance belongs to God.

What we are about to discover in this first part of Proverbs 16 is how God works sovereignly in the lives of people without impeding their freedom. We will also discover that leadership is a God-given instrument for the wellbeing of a society. We need to have a proper understanding, the foundation of a strong faith and confidence that things ultimately will work out according to God’s plan. God works even though we may not see what is occurring. Here in chapter 16 we see both sides of leadership: the divine side, followed by the human side of the equation.

The Divine Side of Leadership is Understanding God’s Overruling Purposes Being Accomplished.

Even though as human beings we plan and prepare with expectations of certain outcomes, ultimately God’s purposes will prevail. “To humans belong the plans of the heart, but from the LORD comes the proper answer of the tongue (Proverbs 16:1).” This is not just speaking that God helps us say the right things, of which He does, but it extends to the idea that though we plan, God determines.

God’s will is definitive as to what will actually happen. One can strategize about the future, to be sure, but this wise observation would lead one to acknowledge that the future can only be determined by God.[iii]

“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’S purpose that prevails (Proverbs 19:21).” In Proverbs 16:2 we find the idea of perspective. “All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the LORD (Proverbs 16:2).” All of us generally find justification for our actions. Robert Alden insightfully shares that “even the most violent criminal rationalizes his sin to himself; somehow we all manage to talk ourselves into doing what we want to do.”[iv]

We all need a ‘level’ to determine if we are lined up properly or we will build improperly. What’s true in construction is even more critical in our lives. We need something to measure our lives against. God’s Word is a plumb line. He evaluates and measures our lives.  It is critical to see our lives in light of God’s standards and not the ever-changing shift we see in our culture.

I was reminded recently that as I was meditating upon Scripture the powerful words from Psalm 19:9-14; that when we truly have the ‘fear of God’ and recognize the power, purity and rightness of God’s word, which are more precious than all earthly wealth; they guide our lives, warning us and rewarding us. God’s Word reminds us that we are unable to discern our hidden faults and can keep us from willful sins ruling over us. Only then will we be innocent of great transgression. Only then will the words of our mouth come from a right heart.

Most Old Testament scholars see this picture of weighing as taken from an Egyptian hieroglyphic that pictures the human heart being weighed on one side of the scale and the feather of truth on the other. What we need to see is that this is not an arbitrary evaluation of how we think we are doing, but it is measured by God’s ability to understand and see the true motives of our heart. What we may be justifying may in reality bring a sentence of pain and ultimately sorrow to ourselves and others. When we live a life pleasing to God, even our enemies are at peace with us. “When the LORD takes pleasure in anyone’s way, he causes their enemies to make peace with them (Proverbs 16:7).”

How does this occur you may wonder? Circumstances and perspectives can change loyalties. One example of this is found in Genesis where Abimelek, the king of the Philistines and his people grew envious of Isaac because of God’s blessings and they destroyed his wells and ultimately asked him to move away. Isaac moved and continued to humbly serve the LORD. God reassured Isaac of his continued protection and provision. Later in that chapter we read of a change of heart in the life of Abimelek. His had a change of perspective.

Meanwhile, Abimelek had come to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his personal advisor and Phicol the commander of his forces.

Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?”

They answered, “We saw clearly that the LORD was with you; so we said, ‘There ought to be a sworn agreement between us’- between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you

that you will do us no harm, just as we did not harm you but always treated you well and sent you away peacefully. And now you are blessed by the LORD.”

Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank.

Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other. Then Isaac sent them away peacefully.[v]

Here we see that when we commit our ways to God and endeavor to walk in his ways; we find God’s grace flowing into our lives. If our lives and plans are to be established they must be given over to God. “Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and he will establish your plans (Proverbs 16:3).”

This proverb fits in with the previous two verses. It reminds the sage that, as important as human planning is, the ultimate outcome (as in this verse) and the morality of it (as in 16:2) depend on Yahweh. All planning thus should be in recognition that God can indeed overturn it. The thought is not that we simply pray for God to honor our plans and to establish them. Rather, it is the idea that we submit our entire life’s action to God, so that even if our human plans are subverted, we can recognize an even deeper plan at work in our lives.[vi] 

Another biblical scholar, Bruce Waltke, points out: “Secular man, who feels so self-confident, paradoxically is plagued with fear. Pious people, who know God’s sovereignty and their limitations, live in prayer and peace.”[vii]

What are these scholars reminding us of? That when we act, the outcomes are beyond our control. God is ultimately in control, so when things don’t work out the way we think, we need to trust that what God has in mind ultimately is better for us and others.

What we need to understand in relationship to justice is that God will ultimately address injustice. God even uses those who do evil, incorporating their actions into His ultimate plan. Mankind cannot thwart God’s purposes.

The LORD works out everything to its proper end- even the wicked for a day of disaster.

The LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished.[viii]

What these verses teach is that God overrides what those who commit evil intend, but God uses their action ultimately to further a greater purpose. We see this expressed in the story of Joseph and his brothers where they meant their actions against their brother to end his dreams, so they sold him into slavery. However, God used their very scheme to move Joseph into Egypt where he became God’s instrument for good. Later when the brothers fearfully approached Joseph and looked to him to forgive and show favor toward them, Joseph was able to answer them. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Genesis 50:20).”

We see this reality expressed in the book of Acts where God used the scheming of wicked people to accomplish His ultimate purposes. In humanity’s greatest act of evil, the crucifixion of Christ, God’s greatest act of grace and goodness was being accomplished on behalf of the salvation of humanity. Peter expressed it this way in his Pentecostal sermon:

This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.[ix]

            No wonder the apostle Paul reminds us of that amazing truth that God is working despite the evil in our world. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).”      

Understanding Human Governance which is an instrumentality of God.

God uses human institutions such as government to help guide society. One of the great mysteries is how God allows human freedom but still accomplishes His purposes to prevail. We do find some leaders who establish their leadership based on doing the right thing, here described in Proverbs as righteousness. When that happens they are acting as God’s agents overseeing his affairs in the lives of people. “The lips of a king speak as an oracle, and his mouth does not betray justice. Kings detest wrongdoing, for a throne is established through righteousness (Proverbs 16:10, 12).” “The king is identified with Yahweh as an authority, one who holds life and death in hand, he must ensure that justice is done on this earth.”[x]

Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value the one who speaks what is right.    

A king’s wrath is a messenger of death, but the wise will appease it.

When a king’s face brightens, it means life; his favor is like a rain cloud in spring.[xi]

In verse 13, we see that this king who values honesty and what is right shares divine values.

…Yahweh’s purposes are carried out whenever human authorities decide to value what God values. If those rulers and authorities fail, Yahweh will still see that justice is done, but his first choice is kings and subjects who share God’s desire for goodness. Using a common form of the proverb, we might paraphrase, ‘Better a good king who establishes right dealings throughout the land than a bad king who makes the LORD establish justice and righteousness.[xii]

What is he saying? Simply that it is a good thing to have godly leaders, but even when there are ungodly leaders; God will still work through them to fulfill His ultimate ends and purposes. Here we discover the mystery of God’s sovereignty being played out without impinging on human freedom. God works through the lives of human leaders to ultimately accomplish His purposes.

“In the LORD’S hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him (Proverbs 21:1).” Even a despotic leader like Nebuchadnezzar, who was filled with vanity and pride was under the control of God. The book of Daniel describes how God warned Nebuchadnezzar in a dream that he would discipline him if he didn’t have a change of heart. Daniel earlier had explained Nebuchadnezzar’s dream where if he didn’t humble himself, God would humble him.

All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar.

Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”

Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you.

You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on the earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heave until his hair grew like feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.

At the end of that time, I Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and gloried him who lives forever.[xiii]

Here in Proverbs 16, we see that true justice flows from the Lord. “ Honest scales and balances belong to the LORD; all the weights in the bag are of his making (Proverbs 16:11).” Richard Clifford explains that weights were seen as an instrument of justice.

In the ancient Near East, the belief was widespread that the gods created the universe and determined all its ways. Laws, weights, and measures were part of that determination. The king as regent of the gods was responsible for ensuring that the divinely implanted justice was observed in the conduct of business. Weights and measures were instruments in the administration of divine justice.[xiv]

So what were the wisdom writers teaching us regarding both Divine and human authority? That God’s instruments were the king’s in the land. To disobey those in authority would be at one’s own expense. Even those kings that were considered evil, God would work out his purposes. Sometimes they were used as instruments of discipline such as the kings of Assyria and Babylon. Sometimes they were the instruments that God used to bless and help his people, like the Persian kings that help the Jewish people go back to their land and rebuild their Temple.

So how does that apply to us today? We need to be in subjection to those governing authorities that are over us, recognizing that they are God’s instruments for a season. That they are ultimately accountable to God and will be judged accordingly by Him. Are there any exceptions? Only when the governing authorities are asking us to disobey God can we, like Peter, say: “We ought to obey God rather than man.” Our obligation to God is greater than to man. Yet, having said that, we must heed the Holy Spirit’s instruction through the apostle Paul.             

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.[xv]

Those who rebel against God’s ordained leaders will find themselves fighting against the ultimate authority, which is God Himself.

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[i] Alan Axelrod, Little Known Wars of Great and Lasting Impact, (Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press, 2009), 28-31.

[ii] David A. Hubbard, Proverbs, The Communicator’s Commentary, (Dallas, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1989), 232.

[iii] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 327.

[iv] Robert Alden, Proverbs: A Commentary on an Ancient Book of Timeless Advice, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983), 125.

[v] Genesis 26:26-3, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[vi] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, 328.

[vii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 11.

[viii] Proverbs 16:4-5.

[ix] Acts 2:23-24.

[x] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 424.

[xi] Proverbs 16:13-15.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Daniel 4:28-34.

[xiv] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 159.

[xv] Romans 13:1-2

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