Human Rule Weighed in the Balances
Part 2—Kings, Like Stars, Rise and Fall
Monarchy: a government headed by a hereditary chief of state, such as a king or an emperor; Kingdom: a monarchical form of government headed by a king or a queen; Empire: an extended territory usually comprising a group of nations, states, or peoples under control of a single sovereign power, generally headed by an emperor.
“NOW it came about in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar.” Here, as Genesis chapter 14 :1 opens, the Bible uses the word “king” for the first time. Whether Amraphel was, as some claim, another name for Babylon’s famous King Hammurabi, we do not know. What we do know is that, whatever his identity, the idea of human kingship did not originate with Amraphel. Several hundred years earlier, Nimrod, although not called a king, obviously was one. In fact, he was the first human king in history.—Genesis 10:8-12.
True, we have no artifacts referring to King Nimrod or to King Amraphel. “Enmebaragesi, king of Kish, is the oldest Mesopotamian ruler about whom there are authentic inscriptions,” says The New Encyclopædia Britannica. From Kish, an ancient city-state in Mesopotamia, came the Sumerian word for ruler, meaning “big man.” The dating of Enmebaragesi’s rule, although at variance with Bible chronology, nevertheless approximates the time period allowed by the Bible and, more important, places the origin of human rule in the same part of the earth as does the Bible.
Unity Through a Majority of One
The Chinese Shang, or Yin, dynasty is generally thought to have begun sometime between the 18th and 16th centuries B.C.E., although this dating is uncertain. At any rate, monarchies are the oldest form of human government. They are also widespread.
The word “monarch” comes from the Greek words moʹnos, meaning “alone,” and ar·kheʹ, meaning “rule.” Accordingly, a monarchy vests supreme authority in a single person serving in his own right as permanent head of state. In an absolute monarchy, the king’s word is law. He forms, as it were, a majority of one.
Monarchies have always been considered helpful in holding nations together. John H. Mundy, who teaches medieval European history, explains that in medieval times, political theory “argued that because it transcended particular parties, the institution of monarchy was suited for large areas with diverse and conflicting regional interests.” These large areas of “conflicting regional interests” were often the consequence of military conquest, since kings were invariably military leaders. In fact, historian W. L. Warren says that victory in war was “commonly regarded as the first criterion of successful kingship.”
Thus, the monarchical form of government was conducive to the establishment of world powers like the Grecian Empire under Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire under the Caesars, and, more recently, the British Empire. The latter, at its height in the early 20th century, united under a single regent about a quarter of the world’s population and a fourth of its land area.
Royalty in Religious Robes
Many ancient kings laid claim to godship. As historian George Sabine noted: “Beginning with Alexander, Hellenistic kings were enrolled also among the gods of the Greek cities. The deified king became a universal institution in the East and in the end it had to be adopted by the Roman emperors.” He says that this belief in royal divinity persisted in Europe “in one form or another, down to modern times.”
In Central and South America, the Aztec and Inca states were considered sacred monarchies. In Asia it was not until 1946 that the late Emperor Hirohito of Japan relinquished his claim to be the 124th human descendant of the sun-goddess Amaterasu Omikami.
While not all kings claimed godship, most of them at least maintained that they had divine backing. Being singled out to represent God on earth carried with it priestly charisma. John H. Mundy explains that “the ancient idea that kings were themselves priestly spread through the West, making a prince the administrative head of his church and director of its apostolate.” It was a religious concept “derived from the Constantinian partnership of church and state [during the fourth century C.E.], and from the parallel absorption of Neoplatonic thought by the church.” The religious blessing bestowed at the time of coronation dignified the king’s rule with a legitimacy that would otherwise have been lacking.
In 1173, Henry II of England began using the title “King by the grace of God.” This led to the idea later known as the divine right of kings, meaning that the king’s power was hereditary. God supposedly manifested his choice in the fact of birth. In 1661, Louis XIV of France put an extreme version of this doctrine into operation by assuming total governmental control. He viewed opposition as a sin against the God he represented. “L’état c’est moi! [I am the State],” he boasted.
A similar idea appeared in Scotland at more or less the same time. While ruling Scotland as James VI but before becoming King James I of England in 1603, this monarch wrote: “Kings are called Gods . . . because they sit upon GOD his Throne in the earth, and have the count of their administration to give unto [H]im.” We do not know to what extent this belief influenced James to authorize translating the Bible into English. We do know the result, the King James Version, still widely used by Protestants.
The Age of Absolute Monarchies
From the early Middle Ages onward, monarchies were the typical form of government. Kings developed a cheap and convenient way to rule by delegating authority to prominent landholders. These, in turn, set up a political and military system known as feudalism. In exchange for military and other services, the landholders gave their vassals land. But the more effective and powerful feudal landholders became, the more likely the kingdom would be to disintegrate into feudal power blocs.
Besides, the feudal system robbed citizens of their dignity and their freedom. They were dominated by military landlords, for whose income they were chiefly responsible. Deprived of education and cultural opportunities, “the serf had few rights that were enforceable at law against his manorial lord,” says Collier’s Encyclopedia. “He could not marry, transmit his leasehold to heirs, nor leave the manor without the lord’s consent.”
This was not the sole method of ruling in absolute monarchies. Some kings bestowed administrative posts on individuals who could later be removed from office, should it be thought necessary. Other kings entrusted local government to popular institutions that ruled by means of custom and social pressure. But all these methods were in one way or another unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, writers of the 17th century, such as Sir Robert Filmer of England and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet of France, still advocated absolutism as the only proper form of government. Yet its days were numbered.
“Gods” Reduced to Figureheads
Despite the general belief that monarchs were responsible to God alone, pressure had long been growing to make them responsible to human laws, customs, and authorities. By the 18th century, “monarchs employed a rhetoric different from the sovereigns of the seventeenth century,” says The Columbia History of the World, adding, however, that “beneath and behind the rhetoric they were still sovereigns.” It then explains that “when Frederick the Great called himself the ‘first servant of the state’ and repudiated the divine right of kings, he was not thinking of abjuring power.”
Nevertheless, after the Revolution of 1688 in England and the French Revolution of 1789, the day of absolutism was over for the most part. Gradually, absolute monarchies gave way to limited monarchies with legislatures or constitutions, or both. In contrast with the 12th century when “kingship was still what a king was capable of making it, and what his subjects were prepared to accept,” to quote historian W. L. Warren, today the political power of most kings and queens is quite limited.
Of course, a few monarchs still wield considerable power. But most of them have long since lost their halos of “godship” and are content to serve as figureheads, central figures of power around which peoples can be encouraged to rally in a spirit of loyalty. Limited monarchies have tried to retain the unifying features of one-man rule while eradicating its negative aspects by bestowing the real power on a legislature.
The idea of limited monarchies is still popular. As recently as 1983, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, leader of the Nepali Congress Party in Nepal, spoke out for a monarchy ‘as a barrier against chaos,’ saying that ‘the King is essential to keep the country united.’ And although in 1987 the French were making final preparations for celebrating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, 17 percent of those polled favored a return to the monarchy. A member of one monarchist group said: “The King is the only way to unite a nation so long divided by political strife.”
That same year, Time magazine noted: “Royalty commands loyalty perhaps because monarchs are the last great icons of our secular age, the only larger-than-life figures who can still quicken belief while dwelling in mystery. If God is dead, long live the Queen!” But then viewing things more realistically, it added that “the sovereign power of the [British] Queen lies mostly in her glittering powerlessness.”
Absolute monarchies are unsatisfactory. By their very nature, they are unstable. Sooner or later, every ruler dies and must be replaced by a successor, who more often than not is chosen because of descent and not because of high morals or ability. Who can guarantee that a son will be as good as his father? Or if a father was bad, that his son will be any better?
Also, as Cristiano Grottanelli points out, “the choice of the royal successor” oftentimes “is only loosely prescribed, so that among the eligible members of the royal lineage a competition may break out. The period that follows the death of a king is thus usually a period of social (and cosmic) chaos, both actually and symbolically.”
Being a rule of one, the effectiveness of an absolute monarchy is dependent on the effectiveness of the one who is its ruler. His talents and strong points may be mirrored in his government but so also will be his weaknesses, limitations, and lack of knowledge. Even blue bloods are imperfect. Bad kings set up bad governments, good kings possibly set up better ones, but only a perfect king can establish the kind of government humanity longs for and deserves to have.
Parliamentary or limited monarchies also fall short. In the United Kingdom, this century has seen the figurehead kings and queens of England preside over the dismemberment of the greatest and most powerful empire the world had ever known.
A Different Kind of Star
Kings, like stars, both rise and fall—with one exception. Of himself, Jesus Christ says that he is “the root and the offspring of David, and the bright morning star.” (Revelation 22:16) Being a direct descendant of King David according to the flesh, Jesus qualifies to be King of God’s divine government. As “the bright morning star,” Jesus is also the “daystar” that Peter said would rise and cause the day to dawn.—2 Peter 1:19; Numbers 24:17; Psalm 89:34-37.
In view of these facts, just how wise is it to look to the falling stars of human monarchies for guidance? Rather, wisdom would dictate that we attach our hopes to God’s designated King, Jesus Christ, “the King of those who rule as kings and Lord of those who rule as lords, the one alone [above all human kings] having immortality.” (1 Timothy 6:15, 16) Already having risen as invisible King in the heavens, he will soon bring about the morning of a new world. He is a star—a king—who, now that he has risen, will never fall!
[Picture on page 17]
At death even the best human king leaves his work in uncertain hands