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Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
History’s list of disappointing rulers is long. Everyone celebrated when Emperor Tiberius died in AD 37. A skilled orator who invested in gladiatorial games took his place. History knows this successor as the mad emperor Caligula.
Bishop Hans Meiser’s Easter Sunday proclamation praised the new leader who brought “government according to God’s Laws.” The church was full of “gratitude and joy” because the new state “bans blasphemy, assails immorality” while “espousing the sanctity of marriage and Christian training for the young,” calling upon the people to “fear God.” This praise was about Adolf Hitler in 1933.
The list can go on. Similar high hopes were dashed with Idi Amin, Julius Caesar, and King Saul. Even the best rulers have terrible flaws. The Bible records not only the faith and triumphs but also the sins and failures of kings David, Solomon, and Hezekiah.
Psalm 146 uses clever wordplay to show the futility of trusting rulers. We must not trust in “human beings” who upon death go to the “ground.” In Hebrew, “human beings” is nearly identical to “ground.” People are essentially breathing clumps of dirt. We breathe for a while, then become dirt again. It makes no sense to put our trust in clumps of dirt that breathe for a short time. Yet we get behind certain clumps of breathing dust as if they and their plans will deliver us from our problems.
Not only are rulers not worth our trust, but their plans are also not any better. Many Christians thought outlawing alcohol would solve many of society’s problems. When Prohibition began in 1920, Billy Sunday preached a funeral sermon for “John Barleycorn” to 10,000 attenders: “Good-bye, John. You were God’s worst enemy; you were hell’s best friend. ... The reign of tears is over. ... The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever rent.” The hopes were soon dashed. The legislation intended to stop crime and close saloons led to organized crime and speakeasies.
Fundamentalists thought the Butler Act in 1925 would stop the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools. The resulting Scopes Trial would prove to be an embarrassment for creationists. Attempts to ban evolution subsequently failed in 22 states.
God has certainly ordained civil government with “laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order” (Belgic Confession, Article 36). Government has a divine role for maintaining an orderly society and curbing evil. However, when the government attempts to play the savior and solve problems, failure is the result. The “war on poverty” failed to end poverty. The “war on drugs” failed to stop drug use. Government can outlaw and punish murder, larceny, and human trafficking, but it cannot stop crimes.
According to what God revealed to us in Scripture, the world’s problems are fundamentally spiritual, not political. Sin cannot be defeated through rulers or their legislation. If we could handpick all our rulers and set the policies ourselves, people would still fail to love God and their neighbors. Even if we had an Orwellian government and could micromanage every citizen’s behavior, the sinful heart would remain “beyond cure” (Jer. 17:9). Only God can change a heart, and only the blood of Jesus overturns sin.
Psalm 146 describes the Lord as everything we truly seek from our rulers. He is “faithful forever.” He helps the oppressed, frees captives, and feeds the hungry. He ruins the wicked but helps the foreigner, fatherless and widow. He opens eyes blinded by deception. Best of all, the Lord is unelected and has no term limits. We do not need Donald Trump or Joe Biden. We need the King of kings. The Lord can guide the hearts of rulers like a channel with water (Prov. 21:1). He can use rulers of either party, but many of us would prefer breathing clumps of dirt.
Not only do we prefer mortal leaders, we are willing to kill for them. In 2017, support for the use of violence to achieve political goals was 8% for Democrats and Republicans. Last September, "44 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said there would be at least 'a little' justification for violence if the other party's nominee wins the election."
In many minds, politics has gone beyond best practices and policies to be the dividing line between good and evil. We not only believe those on the other side of the aisle are mistaken. We think they are evil. "Many Americans think people in the other party are ignorant, spiteful, evil and generally destroying the country,” Axios reported in 2018. “Twenty-one percent of Democrats think Republicans are evil, and about the same share of Republicans (23%) think Democrats are evil."
As long as we believe politicians and policies will fulfill our hopes and dreams, we will be sadly disappointed. Worse, we will cling to a simplified narrative and find ourselves hating those who think differently, disobeying our ultimate Ruler to advance agendas of breathing clumps of dirt. Only God Almighty can make real change and only Christ has won the victory over the real enemy of sin. If your hope is in the almighty God, you will have peace and joy no matter who is in power.
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