7/5/2015 11:00:13 AM
The Fourth Commandment - July 5, 2015
The fourth commandment instructs us to honor our father and mother. Further examination of the bible’s teachings on this topic shows us that the fourth commandment also includes leaders in the church and in society at large. But what are God’s people supposed to do when these leaders are clearly headed in the wrong direction? What happens when we hear stories of parents abusing their children? What happens when we hear about church leaders abusing their positions? What happens when governments ignore or even participate in persecution of Christians? What happens when even our own government passes laws and makes decisions that are blatantly contrary to God’s will? Today, as we consider King David and his son Absalom, we see the guidance God gives us in the 4th commandment for this part of our lives.
“In the course of time, Absalom provided himself with a chariot and horses and with fifty men to run ahead of him. He would get up early and stand by the side of the road leading to the city gate. Whenever anyone came with a complaint to be placed before the king for a decision, Absalom would call out to him, “What town are you from?” He would answer, “Your servant is from one of the tribes of Israel.” Then Absalom would say to him, “Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you.” And Absalom would add, “If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice!” (2 Samuel 15:1-4 – NIV84).
What could have inspired Absalom to this kind of rebellion against his father David? Based on the rest of the bible’s record about David, one can make a pretty good case that David probably wasn’t a model father. There were the numerous political marriages David took part in that resulted in him fathering many children with many different women, creating what could only have been a disaster of drama and rivalry in the royal household. And then you add to that the whole affair with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah – events we will look at more closely in connection with the sixth commandment. As Absalom sat on the side and watched these and other events and lived in the dramatic mess that must have been life in the royal household, it’s pretty easy to see how it might have been hard for Absalom to respect David as a father.
But the problem Absalom had with David didn’t stop with family issues – Absalom thought he was better suited to be king than David was. Whether this is true or not is a matter of speculation – the bible just doesn’t tell us all that much about David’s rule outside of his military victories – but based on this incident with Absalom and some other events, some scholars wonder if perhaps David was more of a warrior and general than he was an administrator or judge – and perhaps Absalom scorned David for this possible shortcoming.
Even though none of us are actively considering rebellion, I think we can see in ourselves some of the thoughts that Absalom had, and they may even seem entirely justified and understandable. It’s not always easy to respect our parents – because they are sinful just like each one of us is and sometimes that causes problems. Maybe it’s a personality conflict or some harsh words. Maybe it’s something a little bigger like a divorce, some kind of abuse, or something else.
Perhaps, for many of us, it’s even easier to identify with Absalom when we consider our relationships with the secular authorities. It’s hard to respect a government that always seems to be inefficient and wasteful. It’s hard to respect a government that at times seems to be anti-Christian, even in a country with as many freedoms as we enjoy. In fact, many of us have probably echoed sentiments in our conversations similar to what Absalom said, “If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then ________.” and you can insert whatever the issue of the day is. And in some cases, that might actually be true. So what is the Christian to do when those in authority don’t seem to be worthy of respect?
Absalom had his plans: “Whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him, and kiss him.” These cultural signs of respect would certainly not have been typical behavior or any king or official when dealing with the “common people.” “Absalom behaved this way toward all the Israelites who came to the king asking for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”
And then it was time for Absalom to act on the groundwork he had been cultivating for some time. “At the end of four years, Absalom said to the king, “Let me go to Hebron and fulfill a vow I made to the LORD. While your servant was living in Geshur in Aram, I made this vow, “If the LORD takes me back to Jerusalem, I will worship the LORD in Hebron.” The king said to him, “Go in peace.” So he went to Hebron.”
Absalom knew that David would be thrilled that his wandering son had made a vow to the LORD that he intended to keep. What better way to get away from Jerusalem quietly? “Then Absalom sent secret messengers throughout the tribes of Israel to say, “As soon as you hear the sound of trumpets, then say, “Absalom is king in Hebron.” (2 Samuel 15:5-10 – NIV84). And with that, the rebellion was fully in action. It was a solid attempt at a rebellion – David spent some time in exile, regrouping his forces and rallying support from the Israelites before he could attempt to take back that throne, an attempt that ended with David’s victory and Absalom’s death. And what had started with a disrespectful attitude toward David as a father and as a ruler ended with warfare, rebellion, and many needless deaths.
But the real problem in all this is much more serious. Maybe David was a terrible father. Maybe Absalom was more qualified for some of the civil administrative tasks than David. Maybe some of us could be better parents or better civil rulers than those who are in those positions. But in the end, none of those things really matter, because the 4thcommandment teaches us that failure to respect our parents and others in positions of authority is really an act of rebellion against God himself. Rebellion against God’s authorities basically means telling God, “I know better than you do.” Which is really another way of saying, “I don’t really need you, I can take care of myself.” And you know as well as I do that trying to go it alone spiritually, without God, leads nowhere other than to hell as we are forced to face the consequences of our sin without God’s help and forgiveness.
Respect God’s Representatives
So if not rebellion, what are God’s people to do when faced with authorities who don’t appear to be fulfilling their positions properly? God gives us two things – one to think about and one to act upon. What to remember and think about first: “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1b – NIV84). Think for a minute about what that actually means. Who is the God who puts the authorities in position? The very same God who time and again shows himself to be the ultimate authority. History shows us the rising and falling of nations – geopolitical events that happen only with God’s permission. The Bible shows us smaller things too. You heard one example of that in today’s gospel lesson where Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead – showing a level of authority no earthly power can match.
And even more significant than that, God shows us that he will use his ultimate authority for the good of his people. That’s why he sent his Son Jesus into the world. We struggle to respect the authority figures in our lives today, but Jesus was perfectly respectful even though most religious and secular authorities in his day opposed him and eventually crucified him. Jesus never once received the respect he deserved as the Son of God, and ended up dying the most humiliating and shameful death the Romans could come up with.
And yet, even that was for our good as Jesus paid the penalty for our disrespectfulness, for our rebellion against God with his own life. And when we remember that it is this same Jesus who has done so much for us already, who places his representatives in positions of authority today, in the home, in the church, and in broader society, how can we do anything other than respect them, knowing that Jesus, who loves us more than anything, put them there as part of his plan for our eternal good – despite what things might look like from our perspective?
Support God’s Representatives
But knowing that doesn’t always make it easy, and so God gives us some guidance about what we might do when confronted with authorities who appear to be acting in the wrong way. Absalom’s example of what not to do isn’t the only example in the bible of people interacting with authority. About 500 years after the time of David and Absalom, God allowed the Israelites to be taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The Babylonians, for the most part, left their captives alone and allowed them to live and work in peace and relative freedom in Babylon so long as the captives conformed to Babylonian culture and laws – culture and laws that were not always compatible with worshipping God. Sounds pretty similar to today in some ways. And here’s the guidance God gave to his people through his prophet Jeremiah as they went into this captivity: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7-9 – NIV84).
The Israelites were to support the society they were living in, because through that society God would bless them. But notice also what God DOESN’T say. He doesn’t tell the Israelites to make Babylon their permanent home and conform in every way – he describes it as “the city to which I have carried you into exile.” Exile – not permanent home. Exile – not always in agreement with a godly society. And his people understood what that meant – there were going to be conflicts. There were going to be times when God’s people would have to choose to obey God’s laws rather than the governing authorities. Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den because he refused to worship the king. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the furnace because they refused to worship an idol. And while those particular accounts are likely somewhat more dramatic than anything you and I are likely to face, perhaps the time is coming when for the first time in any of our lifetimes Christians in America might be forced to choose between obeying God and obeying the governing authorities.
But despite these challenges, let’s remember what God said to the Israelites: “Seek the prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it.” Pray that the preaching of God’s word will continue to change sin-hardened hearts in our society and culture. Pray for parents who have sinfully shirked their duty as God’s representatives. Pray for children like Absalom who are lost in rebellion. Pray for our secular leaders, that they may, even if they are not Christian, see the wisdom of God’s laws and ways. Pray that God’s people would have the courage to hold firmly to the truth and obey God rather than men. And don’t forget to pray with thanksgiving that God has given us the free and open society we have and celebrate this 4th of July weekend – the freedom to choose our leaders, the freedom to voice our opinions and even our disagreements with those in authority in a lawful and respectful way. This 4th of July weekend, may we all find reason to rejoice and thank God for the blessings he gives us in the leaders he places in our lives. May he give each one of us the courage to respect them and support them as his representatives. Amen.