Representative government in a free society is God’s preferred form of government for man in the present age. How do we know? It was the form God chose for the commonwealth of Israel … that period of time that stretches from their entry into the Promised Land to the anointing of Saul. Participating in representative government therefore is not “of the world” … but of God.
Deuteronomy 16 begins by describing the Holy Days (vss. 1-17) The theme for the chapter is established in verse 12: “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall be careful to observe these statutes” A contrast is made here between the slavery of the past and the freedom of the future. The Holy Days picture the passage of man from bondage to death on account of sin … to his ultimate liberation into eternal life and the family of God.
Notice how verse 16 continues the theme of “freedom”. God is the lawgiver and as such was their “Ruler”. But God did not institute a powerful, top down form of administration to compel the people to obey His law. People were free to choose for themselves whether to obey or not. They would suffer the consequences, good or bad, for whatever choice they made. This contrasts from the “top down” form of government of the day, most common being “rule by king” … which they had left behind in Egypt.
The form of government God gave Israel was addressed earlier in Deuteronomy 1. “Wise and knowledgeable men” were chosen, representing the tribes, and appointed as judges and officers (vs. 15) Merit rather than privilege determined qualification for office in a “bottom up” form of administration. The distinction made between “judges” and “officers” suggests a separation, or dispersion of power. The expression “all your gates” hints at what in later years in early America would be called “federalism”.
Who determined the identity of those “wise and knowledgeable” enough to become public servants? Since God’s commands to “observe”, “remember” and “appoint” are addressed to the people, it must be “the people” reaching a consensus as to who best should serve.
Choosing and appointing their public servants was not a choice for people in the commonwealth of Israel, but a specific command from God. People were not free to disobey the command and withdraw from the selection process, any more than they were free to withdraw from the Holy Days. People were not free to complain (for example) that “the system had become corrupt” and wanted no part of it. When decent citizens withdraw from a process that determines “wise and knowledgeable” men, they enhance the very danger of corruption.
Evil despots are always waiting to seize power. We need look no further than the attempted usurpation by Abimelech, son of Gideon. God’s system of self rule (people striving to be godly) plus representative government (appointing wise and knowledgeable men as civil servants for each tribe) was the perfect government God gave Israel to assure political prosperity and help thwart their rise.
America’s founding generations considered this form of government the perfect model for their own republic. Certainly, the founders were inspired by many secular writers and thinkers such as John Locke and Montesquieu … but the Book of Deuteronomy remained their most often quoted source and the republican model they found there validated and reassured their plans with a divine stamp of approval.
No matter God’s role in the founding of America (I personally believe it to be significant) His command to appoint wise and knowledgeable “judges and officers in all your gates” remains the wisdom, if not the command, of God applicable to all free societies. This command extends a civic duty to Christians and all citizens today. For someone who believes in the wisdom the Old Testament, obeying such a command today in a free society is not participating in “the ways of this world” … but rather in the ways of God.