It’s the Sunday before Independence Day, when we celebrate our country’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain and the tyrannical rule of King George III. In 1776, our Founding Fathers decided that kings should no longer rule us and that government by the people would forever be our system of independent self-rule.
Well, at least that’s what we’ve been taught. As with most things with American history, however, the truth is often a little more complex than our high school history textbooks reveal.
A recent book by Harvard University historian Eric Nelson, The Royalist Revolution, challenges the popular view that we’ll celebrate tomorrow, at least when it comes to our aversion to royalty. In examining the correspondence and writings of the Founding Fathers leading up to the Revolution, Nelson discovered that, at least initially, their real beef was with the British Parliament and not the king. In fact, Nelson says, the original patriots actually wanted the king to act more like a king!
The narrative goes something like this: In the 1750s and 60s, Britain was engaged in the Seven Year’s War with France (what came to be know here as the French and Indian War). That war placed a huge financial strain on the British Empire, which led parliament to initiate new taxes, like the Stamp Tax and the tax on tea. In reality, the British parliament had far more power than the Crown in the 1770s, due to the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 when King James II was deposed in favor of William of Orange and his queen, Mary (the famous “William and Mary”). The “Bloodless Revolution,” as it was also known, gave more power to the British Constitution and Parliament, with the monarchy’s power restricted. The King could no longer suspend laws, levy taxes, make royal appointments, or keep a standing army without the permission of Parliament. The British Army was thus technically and practically the army of Parliament and not the King’s Army. That’s important for what follows.
The early colonial patriots recognized that it was Parliament who was taxing them and sending troops in their midst, so their grievances were brought to the King. In fact, what the colonists wanted was for the King to take back the power that had been taken from the Crown in 1688—to overrule Parliament and to govern the colonies directly, thus turning back the clock on the English Constitution. In other words, they wanted the King to be the King and rule over them like it used to be!
The problem was, however, that King George III refused to do what they wanted. In fact, he essentially ignored their letters. George was widely known as being mentally ill, so it’s little wonder he didn’t take on Parliament in any case. When the King didn’t respond, the Revolutionary War was the result.
But that didn’t end the Founding Fathers’ desire for some form royalty. After the war, when it came time for the new country to establish its federal government and Constitution, those who had defended the idea of royal authority before the war—John Adams and Alexander Hamilton among them—began to advocate for the Presidency as a single office with sweeping powers that were far more extensive and expansive than any British monarch had had for more than a hundred years. In effect, they advocated for a royal Presidency. Legend has it that some wanted to make George Washington the king of the new nation, but there is little evidence for this. One of his aides, however, did say, quite correctly, “You are now a king under a different name.”
Nelson argues the power the President wields today is the result of the Founders’ constitutional bias toward royalty, so we shouldn’t be surprised when it is used by Presidents throughout history. As Nelson puts it, one one side of the Atlantic you wound up with kings without a monarchy, while on the other side you wound up with a monarchy without kings.
It’s a fascinating look at our history that flips things, doesn’t it? Given the slate of candidates for our Presidential election this fall, it’s tempting to want to go back to a monarchy. In fact, I saw an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that cited a poll where people were asked whether they would rather vote for Clinton or Trump or for a giant meteor to destroy the earth–1 in 8 chose the meteor! The truth of our history is that, at one time, we actually wanted a king to be the king. We’re not as free-wheeling as we think.
That seems to be the arc of history, too. I read another recent article that suggested that monarchy has actually been the most stable form of government. Even today, monarchies tend to have less governmental corruption, national cohesion and trust is better, they are generally more stable, and you get extra holidays off for the monarch’s birthday and their kids’ weddings. What’s not to like?
Ok, maybe you’re not buying it. After all, didn’t the Israelites ask for a king back in the Old Testament, and wasn’t God down on the whole idea? That’s true, in one sense. In I Samuel 8, the people ask the prophet Samuel for a king and he warns that what a king will do—tax them, draft your kids for military service, etc. But they want a king like all the other nations around them. They want a ruler. So, as God is wont to do, God punishes them by giving them what they want—they get a king who turns out to be crazy, much like King George. See? Monarchy doesn’t work.
But if you read that text closely, you see that it’s not the idea of royalty that God is down on. God’s concern, rather, is who the real king will be. God says to Samuel in 8:7 – It’s not you as the prophet they’ve rejected, he says to the prophet, “but they have rejected me from being king over them.” God doesn’t dispute that the people need a king—they just need the right one, who is God himself.
We know that the monarchs of Israel were largely failures. We’ve seen that in our study of the Minor Prophets. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom split in two and both kingdoms had their share of royal sociopaths. As we’ve seen, however, both kingdoms were eventually taken over by empires and the people taken into exile. The royal line of Israel and Judah was no more. As we learned last week in Haggai, the people returned from exile as subjects of Persia with little hope and little future of their own.
The prophet Zechariah was a contemporary of Haggai, but whereas Haggai’s concern was about rebuilding the temple as the center of Jewish life, Zechariah gets the people thinking about royalty once again—the king who is to come and bring God’s glory back to Jerusalem.
Zechariah’s prophecies come in a series of visions. There are some scholars who actually think this is two books with two different authors, with the division between chapters 8 and 9. They are consistent, however, in their focus on Israel’s future and the return of the monarchy through the coming of a Messiah—God’s anointed king who will lead her back to safety and prosperity and make the way for God’s return to his temple in glory.
In chapter 6, for example, God instructs Zechariah to collect silver and gold from the exiles to make a crown (or two crowns)—one will be placed on the head of the high priest, Joshua, as a commission to rebuild the temple, but the other will be placed in the temple itself, waiting for the one who is called “Branch” who will build the temple and and sit upon the throne and rule the people—one who is both priest and king. This is a messianic image of expectation— the real king is coming. Be ready for him!
And then there is the text we read today from chapter 9. If you’re mindful of the Gospel stories, this is imagery we see used during Palm Sunday as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. This is no coincidence—Jesus understood that his action would call to mind this royal imagery from Zechariah of the king returning to the Jerusalem, as did the people who spread their palm branches in the road. This was the sign that the prophet’s vision was actually becoming a reality—that the Messiah, Israel’s promised king, had come to make the way ready for God to return in glory. What they didn’t realize, however, is that this messiah was actually God himself—the one who was really king of Israel and king of the world.
When Jesus came on the scene, his first sermon was about proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God. As Americans who are culturally conditioned to reject kings and royalty, we like to think of the kingdom of God as someplace else far away; a heavenly kingdom that has little to do with the earth. But that’s not how Jesus used that term, nor anyone else in first century Israel. “Kingdom of God” is a term connected back to the prophets, who looked for God’s reign and rule to come on earth, centered in Jerusalem and the Temple. The people were not looking to go away to God, but rather for God to come to them; they were not looking for God to take them away, but for him to come back and take over.
Jesus embodies God’s return and Zechariah’s image of the king who will return to build the temple, but Jesus will do it in an unexpected way. Notice that in the Synoptic Gospels, after Jesus makes his triumphal entry into the city, following Zechariah’s script, he next goes to the Temple and begins turning over the tables of the money changers. This is not a hissy fit about people selling things in church, but like the triumphal entry it is an acted parable—a prophetic action. By stopping the money changing, albeit temporarily, Jesus is actually suspending the work of the temple—its sacrifices and its rituals for which the money needed to be changed from Roman to Jewish coin.
In short, by turning over the tables, Jesus pronounces God’s judgment on the Temple—that it’s time is nearly over. It will be thrown down, just as it had been by the Babylonians nearly 600 years before. But a new one will be built in its place—and he, the Messiah, the Lord, will be the one to build it. But it is not a temple made of stone for God to dwell in as the others had been. No, this was the temple of his own body—God had come to dwell with his people. That temple would be destroyed, too, on a cross—but raised again three days later to stand forever. The king had come, and he wins.
It’s so easy for American Christians to cling to all sorts of images of Jesus as a kindly, winsome, loving pushover who just wants everyone to be happy. We think of Jesus as friend, shepherd, spiritual mentor, guru, and guide. Yes, Jesus is some of those things—but first and foremost he is Lord and King of the universe and our lives. Until we let the King be the King in us, for us, and through us, then we will always be subjects of our own sinful, dead-end desires. We like to think we can do it on our own—that we’re independent and free to do what we please—but the truth is that we need a king.
Unlike King George, King Jesus acts on our behalf. He hears our hurts, our complaints, our grievances. He doesn’t ignore them. He has the power to rule nations and governments, and yet he is humble. All the resources of the kingdom belong to him, but he uses them for the benefit of his subjects far and near. He needs no army, for as Zechariah tells us, “He will cut off the chariot and the war horse, and he shall command peace to the nations.” His law is fair and just, and his grace is boundless.
His reign is free of corruption but full of faithful love. He is trustworthy and his reign is forever. And, we get his birthday off as a holiday to boot!
To be subjects of the king, however, means that we agree to a different sort of Constitution. We give him rule over our lives in every way—our choices, our money, our time, our thoughts. We obey his Word and we strive to be like him. We give up the illusion of control and place our full trust in him and his grace. We resist the temptation to think we’re independent of our fellow humans, but recognize our dependence on him and on the community he created for us. We recognize that we cannot do life on our own. We recognize that, with him, our rights are subservient to the responsibilities of being his representatives, his people. We submit to his authority in our lives, recognizing that we live his way or the highway—namely, the highway to hell.
We will celebrate our freedom tomorrow, but even our Founding Fathers knew that we were going to have to serve somebody. Christians know that we have always needed a king—just the right one. So, shoot off your fireworks, eat those hot dogs, and grill those burgers. But while you’re singing “God Bless America.” Keep in mind where the real power and authority ultimately lies.
Long live the King!