Authority That Gives
September 4, 2013

Even if Adam had never sinned, there would have been structures of authority and authority would have been invested in particular men and women. Authority is not a postlapsarian rescue operation; it’s essential to the good of human life.

Unfallen Cain might have wanted to build his new home on the slope of a hill, while Abel might have wanted the hill for a vineyard. Would they have gone to Adam for mediation? Why not?  After unfallen Jubal invented the lyre and pipe, he would quickly have decided to form a lyre and pipe band to go on tour. Concerts can happen only if there is concerted action of different musicians, and concerted action happens only if somebody or some group of somebodies have authority to make decisions. Jubal would have decided how many lyres and pipes he needed, what they would play, when they would practice and where. As they practiced, he would have decided on the tempo and phrasing and made other interpretive decisions that conductors make. He would have overruled musicians who wanted to play the piece differently.

Whatever would have been the case in an unfallen world, in our world certain forms of cooperative things don’t happen unless someone has and exercises authority. In an unfallen world, authority can damage rather than enhance social life. It is often abusive and desolating. If those with authority abdicate, the community will be confused and uncoordinated; it will drift and fail to accomplish what it set out to accomplish. For human life to flourish, authority must be exercised well.

Scripture frequently holds out the promise of a ruler who will rule in righteousness. All our great Christmas texts from Isaiah are about the coming of a new and better Davidic king (e.g., Isaiah 9:1-7, 11:1-10). The good news of Isaiah is the good news of a change of regimes, a new ruler elevated to take control, and in the New Testament this becomes the gospel of the kingdom.

Isaiah 32 is one such promise, where Yahweh promises to send a new Davidic king who will rule with justice (32:1). Yahweh has wielded the rod of the Assyrians against Judah because the land is filled with violence, oppression, innocent blood, because the rulers abuse the needy they are called to protect (Isaiah 1:10-17, 21-23). Judah has become an Egypt that preys on rather than protects the weak, a Sodom that rapes rather welcomes strangers.

Yahweh’s king will change all that.

Yahweh’s king will be surrounded by princes who also rule justly as agents and instruments for Yahweh’s life-giving authority. They will be Yahweh’s instruments because they do what Yahweh does.  Yahweh is a refuge for His people; He is a refuge from the storm (Isaiah 17:10; 25:4). One day, Isaiah says, Judah’s princes will protect from the wind and storm and heightened spirits of their enemies. Yahweh gives streams of refreshing and life-giving water, as the living River that gladdens Zion, the city of God. One day, Yahweh will spread out the water of His Spirit through the king and his princes, who will be streams of water in a dry country. Yahweh is Israel’s Rock, the shade for his people in a dry land. Someday, when the sun of adversity or the heat of enemies bears down on the people of Zion, princes will be there to give a cooling shadow.

As a result of this revolution of elites, Judah’s diseased body political will be healed (cf. Isaiah 1:5-6). The blind will see, the deaf will hear, confused minds will know truth, stuttering tongues will speak with clarity (32:3-4). This is Yahweh’s own work, but Spirit-filled rulers are His agents to accomplish this task.

Authority is life-giving, refreshing water. Rightly-exercised authority makes the world fruitful. Wives become fruitful vines by the side of the house, children like olive plants around the table. The land flows with milk and honey, green with wheat and barley and vineyards. Rightly exercised authority also gives health to a home, a church, a city, a nation. When authority is exercised well, people who have been stumbling in blindness learn to see and discern. When authority is exercised well, those who have been deaf to instruction suddenly hear and obey. Under Yahweh’s princes, people can think clearly. When Spirit-filled princes rule, Pentecost happens all over again, as the dumb are given voice. Authority gives, it gives life and performs miracles of healing.

Isaiah gives us a set of diagnostics to test whether we are ruling well. Do we teach our children to see, or do they need us to lead them every step like a seeing-eye dog? Do our employees have ears to hear us, or do they seem deaf? Do our parishioners think more clearly because they are under our authority, or do we leave them confused? Does our exercise of authority silence those we rule, or does it give voice to stammerers? Do we heal and fulfill the bodies we rule, or leave them twisted and non-functional? Do we give them full use of their faculties? Is our authority like the authority of Yahweh’s King and His princes? Is it authority that gives?

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.

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