The Failure of Democracy
The last verse of the Book of Judges is a summary, the bottom line, of the entire book. It reminds us of the repeated pattern for the previous 21 chapters. Israel kept sinning against God. But what was their problem? Why did Israel go wrong? And what does the Book of Judges, and this verse in particular, have to tell us about God’s ideal civil government – and America today?
By comparing Scripture with Scripture, one comes to the following conclusion: God’s ideal civil government is what may be called “the Righteous Republic.” It is a republic. That is a civil system of limited government. A republic is not a monarchy nor anarchy. Israel had been granted such a government by the direct grant of God. But Israel strayed, and their republic degenerated into a kind of anarchy that was wide open for the rise of a monarchy.
More importantly, Israel’s republic was no longer a righteous republic. It was not righteous because the vast majority of Israelites followed their own inclinations and opinions rather that the Word of God. And when that happens, a republic cannot stand.
ISRAEL AND THE MONARCHY
The text tells us, first, that Israel had no king at this time: “In those days, there was no king in Israel.” Samuel told us this before in Judges 18:1 and 19:1, and the entire verse’s wording is repeated nearly verbatim for 17:6. Whatever else Israel was or was not, it certainly was not a monarchy. True, they had been conquered by external monarchies, but those were not Israelite governments. And, also true, there were a couple of times in which certain wicked power-hungry Israelites attempted to establish a monarchy. Abimelech, you will recall, attempted that in Judges 9.
Someone will ask, “But were not the judges such as Samson and Gideon kings?” No, they were judges, not kings. Judges were temporary and had limited power. Kings were permanent and had far greater power. The judges were raised up by God for awhile, but left no dynasty. Kings, on the other hand, left their children as heirs to the throne.
God’s ideal for Israel was that she be ruled by God as her king. The judges and elders would only serve as vice-regents, as it were. God was the King, and therefore the ideal was that there would be no human king. And yet, when God gave laws and instructions to Israel in the five Books of Moses on how to live as a nation, God saw the day coming when Israel would want a human king. Very well, then, said the Lord. If that is the case, then he must fit certain qualifications. Those qualifications and limitations are given in Deut. 17:14-20.
That God allowed for a monarchy under certain conditions tells us something vital for our study: it is not so much the size of a government that matters so much as its relationship to God and His Laws. For example, God later blessed some Israelite monarchs. In fact, some of Israel’s kings were quite righteous and blessed – David, Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah, to name a few. And, on the other hand, God cursed Israel at times when it had no monarch but was very unrighteous, such as during the time of the Judges. The principle we can learn from that is this: a godly monarchy is better than an ungodly democracy, republic or whatever else a nation may have as its system of government. What really matters is not the size of a government, but its righteousness.
DOING WHAT IS RIGHT IN YOUR OWN EYES
Our text goes on to say, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Is this a commendation or a condemnation? Many people, especially those who favor complete religious pluralism and democracy, consider this a high accolade. What greater praise of a system can there be than this: no tyranny, but complete freedom?
But this is no congratulations; it is a condemnation. The phrase is repeated elsewhere in Holy Scripture with God’s obvious condemnation. For instance, Deut. 12:8 says, “You shall not do what we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes.” Then there is Pro. 21:2, “Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.” Virtually the same words occur also in Pro. 16:2. And then there are other verses in Proverbs which paraphrase the idea, such as 14:12, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
Earlier we saw a form of this phrase in the Book of Judges. When Samson saw the woman in Timnah, he lusted after her. He forsook God’s righteousness and turned to mere sexual desire. 14:3 says that he loved her because “she looks good to me.” The Hebrew literally reads, “She is right in my eyes.” Samson was acting just like any other Israelite at that time.
You may recall another recurring phrase in the Book of Judges: “Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord” (2:11, 3:7, 3:12, 4:1, 6:1, 10:6, 13:1). This is no coincidence. Samuel, the inspired author of the Book of Judges, is intentionally telling us something in these phrases, and it is this: When a man does what is right in his own eyes, it is necessarily evil in the eyes of the Lord.
This follows what the Bible teaches about the relationship of our natures, our minds and our wills. This has perhaps best been explored and explained by the great Jonathan Edwards. Edwards showed that according to Biblical psychology, a man’s will always follows his mind, and his mind always follows his nature. Hence, men are born in sin and have sinful natures; they therefore always see things according to that nature; and consequently, their wills always follow their sinful minds. When God saves a man, he must change his nature – that is what we call regeneration, or the new birth. As a result, we have the mind of Christ, or what Scripture calls the renewing of enlightening of our minds. As a result, our wills agree and trust what the mind now sees. Such and such a thing is right in our eyes in the proper way, for we see as God sees things. That is faith. But when there is no faith, there is only sin. The Israelites did what they wanted to by following the dictates of their fallen minds and natures. That being so, it was necessarily evil in the sight of the Lord.
THE HERESY OF DEMOCRACY
This phrase, “every man did what was right in his own eyes,” can be summed up in a single word when it comes to a society: democracy. You will recall that I noted that many sociologists and political scientists and politicians hail this verse as a description of the ideal society – no monarchy, but complete freedom. But, as we have also shown, God’s estimation is the exact opposite. It is a condemnation, not a compliment. But why?
One reason has to do with the historical origins of democracy. Most political historians trace the roots of democracy to ancient Greece. Well enough, but that does not make it good. To be good, something must be Biblical, not merely ancient. Monarchism is also ancient, but not necessarily good. Moreover, we would do well to heed the several warnings in Scripture about Greek philosophy (such as in I Cor. 1). The pinnacle of Greek democracy was found in Plato’s Republic. Actually, it was not entirely a democracy or a republic by today’s definitions. It was certainly an improvement on Egyptian Pharaohism and other tyrannies of the ancient world. But Plato’s Republic did not qualify as the Righteous Republic according to God’s Word. Why? Because it was founded on human reason and not on divine revelation.
There is another way of looking at the problem of democracy. I grant that, to a certain extent, the verse before us describes democracy – no king, only freedom. But since it is a condemnation, then we cannot truthfully say that the Bible teaches that democracy is the best kind of government for a society to have.
Before we go any further, it is necessary to remind you of what you all learned in your high school civics class (or should have learned). The terms “democracy” and “republic” are not synonyms. A republic is not a democracy. They are similar, but not identical. A republic is a limited government with a constitution that sets down specific principles. A democracy, on the other hand, is not necessarily based on a constitution. A democracy is based more on the will of the people. Thus, if the people so will, then that government may be diminished or enlarged. If it is diminished, it becomes a “pure democracy” and then anarchy. If it is enlarged, it becomes a monarchy or a tyranny.
Of course, this is not to confuse the terms with the two political parties associated with them. Most Republicans are in fact advocates of democracy, not supporters of the republic. Does it make a difference? Yes. The writers of our national constitution nowhere used the word “democracy,” but rather “republic.”
So far, this is not too controversial. But let me throw some gasoline on the fire. Some years ago, the founder of a leading conservative political organization became famous when he said, “I don’t believe in democracy.” That leader disagreed with democracy because he favored the idea of a republic. But he did not go far enough. I do not believe in democracy, but for a different reason. Democracy is not the ideal system, for it does not match God’s ideal, namely that of the Righteous Republic. Those who advocate the idea of a republic are closer to the truth than those who believe in democracy, but they share that error when they fail to see what the Book of Judges teaches. That lesson is this: a republic is better than a democracy, but a godly democracy is better than an ungodly republic. Righteousness is the main thing.
But there is another important principle: a republic is more conducive to true righteousness than a democracy is. Why? The answer is simple. A democracy is based on the principle of “vox populi,” or “the voice of the people.” If the people, for example, want to legalize vice, then so be it. If 51% of the people want to legalize immorality, then it must be right. If they want to legalize abortion, drugs, homosexuality and other vices that God strictly condemns, well, then, we must obey man rather than God. In a democracy, “vox populi” is the same as “vox dei.” Democracy means that the voice of the people is the voice of God, which really means that in democracy Man is God.
You see, democracy is wrong, not merely because it inherently leads to either anarchism or tyranny, but because it rejects the Biblical truth of the Righteous Republic. Democracy necessarily rests upon the idea of religious pluralism. It simply cannot produce “one nation under God,” but a nation under whichever god the people want. But the Righteous Republic is first, last and always “One nation under God.” The Bible says, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psa. 33:12). But such is impossible under democracy.
Now, as soon as you speak of “the heresy of democracy,’ you will be totally misunderstood. Those who believe in democracy will go paranoid and jump to the erroneous conclusion that you are advocating tyranny and totalitarianism. Nothing could be further from the truth; the reverse is more accurate. Democracy rejects human totalitarianism as the ideal, and in that it is right. But democracy necessarily also rejects divine totalitarianism, and in that it is wrong. It simply cannot tolerate the notion of “One nation under the one God,” ruled according to God’s Laws.
But this leads to other problems. Those who advocate the Righteous Republic are the strongest opponents of human tyranny. Democracy opposes tyranny, but if you examine history closely, you will find that advocates of democracy would prefer a human tyrant to divine rulership. Such persons dread Communism and Nazism, but they fear and hate the idea of a Righteous Republic far more. Why? Because by nature, man wishes to be his own god and his own ruler. If his democracy fails, then he would accept a totalitarian state if it is a human totalitarianism and not a divine one.
We see this in history. Men prefer anything to the Righteous Republic. That is what the Book of Judges is all about. Israel tried again and again all sorts of alternatives to God’s Righteous Republic. They turned to foreign tyrannies, they turned to anarchy, they turned to democracy. But they turned to God only when God sent judges and revival. Sinful men do not turn to God, but naturally turn away from God. That, friends, is why democracy appeals to the natural man more than the Righteous Republic does. Man would rather be ruled by a Stalin or a Hitler or other dictators than by God.
The favorite word in a Righteous Republic is just that, “righteousness.” The key verse to this system is Pro. 14:34, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” It is “one nation under God.” It is all different in a democracy. In a democracy, Man is what matters, not God. It is “one nation under Man.” In a system where the majority rules, and that majority follows the dictates of the fallen heart, the resulting dictum becomes: “Sin exalts a nation, but righteousness is a disgrace to any nation.” We need not look far for examples of this. Here in democratic America, righteousness is going down the drains, and the sewers of immoral unrighteousness are being opened like floodgates. The only “disgrace” in America is Biblical righteousness. In democracy, all vice becomes virtue, and virtue becomes vice. Why? Because in democracy, every man does what is right in his own eyes.
THE PROBLEM OF FREEDOM
Related to the heresy of democracy is the problem of freedom. In a Righteous Republic, there is freedom to worship, but in a democracy there is the worship of freedom. In the one, there is freedom to worship God according to the Bible, and unbiblical and pagan religions are suppressed. In the other, freedom itself is worshipped, and eventually the true worship of God is suppressed.
There is a sense in which ”freedom” is a good thing. The Bible says so. But it never advocates freedom merely as freedom, or freedom for freedom’s sake. The freedom God approves of is freedom from sin and freedom to worship and obey Him. God freed Israel from Egypt, not so the Jews could sin all they wanted to, but so they could worship and obey God rather than Pharaoh. The same is true in personal salvation: God saves us and frees us, not so that we can serve sin (which is slavery) but so that we can serve Christ (which is true freedom). See how it works?
“Freedom” in a democracy, however, has a different meaning altogether from freedom in a Righteous Republic. Democratic freedom is what is shown in Judges 21:25, “Everyone did what was right in his eyes.” Such freedom means freedom to “do your own thing,” regardless of what God or the Bible says. Democratic freedom means freedom to sin, not freedom to worship God in God’s way.
Most of us would agree that tyranny, such as Marxism, is against the idea of freedom of worship. That is only partly true. Human tyranny believes in a sort of freedom of worship – the freedom to worship Man, be he the Caesar, the Pharaoh, the Furher or the State, which is Man collectivized. Human tyranny does not recognize the freedom to worship God, for such is a false religion which must be suppressed.
Most see that in tyranny. Bur I suggest that the same is true in democracy, at least as it differs from the Righteous Republic. Granted, Christians may enjoy the freedom to worship God for awhile; many do. But in principle, democracy is antithetical to true worship of God. It is schizophrenic – it is pressed between righteousness and unrighteousness, between God and Man. And it always gives in to Man and unrighteousness. Eventually, democracy becomes an opponent of the Righteous Republic, and opens the door to one of two things.
WHAT DEMOCRACY LEADS TO
Democracy may lead directly to what some call “pure democracy,” which is another word for anarchism. It usually does this by means of that system known as Libertarianism. How does this happen? Well, it happens like this. Those who advocate freedom always want more, like a narcotic. Soon, they worship freedom for freedoms’ sake. Their god becomes a trinity known as “Libertas, fraternitas, aequalitas” – liberty, fratenity, equality. Maybe you have heard that those were the three great words of the French Revolution: “Liberte, fraternite, egalite!”: And perhaps you know that the French revolutionaries were consistent in their democracy. First it led to a kind of anarchism. Then the worship of Man. Then the tyranny of Man over Man. Some liberty! And essential to such a system was the vehement opposition to the Righteous Republic.
Democracy, then, can easily lead to anarchy. But not for long.
Israel was in a sort of anarchy that waffled in and out of democracy at this time. But then it called out for a change, as in the French Revolution. In I Sam. 8, we read of Israel crying out to the last of the judges, Samuel. They cried out for a king. Imagine that. They went from democracy to anarchy to tyranny. The pendulum swung completely. The middle of the Righteous Republic was rejected, so the pendulum swung and wouldn’t stop until it became a monarchy. My point is, a democracy always follows this path. It cannot simply stay a democracy. It tends to lead to lawlessness (“freedom”), and this produces the call for law and order – Man’s law, not God’s. And that means monarchy. And if not a righteous monarchy, then an unrighteous monarchy, or what we call tyranny.
Democracy rarely leads to the Righteous Republic. Usually it leads away from it. In fact, democracy is usually the door through which a nation passes when it departs from being a Righteous Republic.
Take America. We have two sets of “Founding Fathers.” The first Founding Fathers were the Pilgrims, who were Puritans. They believed in the Righteous Republic. Their theological cousins back in England helped set up the Puritan Commonwealth, which was directly patterned after the Righteous Republic in the Bible. That system lasted only till 1662. The old monarchy came back. And that same monarchy eventually went after the Puritan Republic in the colonies. That produced the tyranny against which the American colonialists revolted in the 1770’s. But what did they put in its place?
Here is where I disagree with the two leading theories of our history. One theory says that this second group of Founding Fathers were all Evangelical Christians who advocated the Righteous Republic. I disagree. Franklin and Jefferson, among others, were Deists (the grandfathers of Liberalism) and were no friends of either Evangelicalism or the Righteous Republic. On the other hand, I disagree with the theory that all these men were Deists. Witherspoon and others certainly were not Deists. Moreover, many of these second Founding Fathers believed in the Righteous Republic.
The result? A compromise. The new nation would be a republic all right, but not quite so righteous as the Puritans once had. This was the fatal flaw. It has taken us some 200 years, but that crack has become a Grand Canyon. The flaw was that the republic allowed for religious pluralism and did not stress that it would be “one nation under God” as the original Puritan Pilgrims had envisaged. .
Now, the odd thing is that our republic became less and less righteous, and concurrently it became increasingly democratic. This was no coincidence. Moreover, we have gone almost full circle. Has it occurred to you that the English monarchy against which our fathers rebelled was more righteous than America is today? Sure, its tax system was wrong, but look at ours. But righteousness is not measured like that. Just look where we are today – abortion, homosexuality, drugs, and so on. Even the English monarchy of the eighteenth century did not allow those vices. So we have become worse than what we rebelled against. We have gone from the frying pan into the flame. We are going full circle, too, for our unrighteous democracy is leading to tyranny, just as it did in Israel. It is a tyranny worse than King George’s.
Back to our text, Israel was far from being a Righteous Republic. Why? Because it had rejected God as its king. It was no longer “one nation under God.” It chose democracy over the Righteous Republic: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Had Israel stayed with God and God’s system, then the Book of Judges would have been totally different. It would have ended with these words: “In those glorious days, God was King over Israel. And every man did what was right in the eyes of God.”
In some senses, Israel was to be different from the nations. It was not to follow other gods, for example. Furthermore, its laws were different, and in this respect: it had certain ceremonial and civic laws that were not applicable to the Gentiles. But those laws were temporary; they were abolished by Christ. But when Israel as a whole rejected the Messiah, it forfeited its unique status as a special theocracy.
In other respects, Israel was not to be an exception, but an example. If it properly used and obeyed the Laws which God had given, then it would set the example for others. Others were not to follow its example in those distinct ceremonial laws, but in the moral laws as they applied to religion and government.
Conversely, when Israel rejected God and His blueprint for society, it exemplified how all other nations turn away from God. Israel became like all the others. That is why Israel wanted a king – I Samuel 8 explicitly says this. Israel went downhill. And so do all others who start as a Righteous Republic and turn to humanistic democracy. As America’s history shows, when you reject a Righteous Republic, you soon end up with a very unrighteous democracy and then anarchy and then tyranny.
Let me state a few brief conclusions. First, all political and social systems are good or bad depending on how they weigh up against what God says in the Bible. A system is not good or bad merely by how it measures up with “freedom,” much less economic success. A nation is good or bad by how it measures up with God’s Word.
Second, no matter how good the system is at the start, it is only as good as the people in it. You know the famous quote from Alexis De Tocqueville: “America is great because America is good. If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” What makes a people good is when they follow God’s Word.
Third, Israel had the best possible system, but failed. America began with a pretty good system – not quite the Righteous Republic of the Puritans, but better than the French Revolution and others. But look where we have sunk to.
Lastly, what is God’s answer? God’s Word calls for national repentance and a return to His Word. In the Book of Judges, we saw how God sent judges to Israel. Israel repented, and there were small revivals. But there were also judgments. When a nation rejects God and His Word for them as a people, then God either sends men and women of God to revive them, or He sends cruel tyrants to judge them. Since America has cashed in its Righteous Republic for a mess of democratic humanism and religious pluralism, it can be assured that God will send it either revival or judgment.