The Hebrews of early Old Testament times were governed by leaders of their twelve tribes, with a central leader over all the tribes. Later, kings such as David and Solomon ruled the Hebrews. In 587 B.C., Babylonian forces devastated Jerusalem and subjugated the Hebrews. Later, the Jews were ruled by Persia, Greece, and the Roman Empire. In Jesus' time Palestine was ruled by the Herods, who were governors under the Roman Empire.
Despite centuries of often oppressive foreign domination, both the Old and New Testaments stress the importance of government for protection and for maintaining order. We should support our government, pay its taxes, and obey its laws, even though they may be imperfect:
Fear the LORD and the king, my son, and do not join with the rebellious, for those two will send sudden destruction upon them, and who knows what calamities they can bring? (NIV, Proverbs 24:21-22)
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (TNIV, Romans 13:1-7)
Jesus also said we should obey the demands of both God and government. He was asked if one should pay taxes to the Roman Empire and this was his reply:
"Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?" And they said, "Caesar's." And He said to them, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (NAS, Luke 20:24-25)
The people were expected to respect their governments, and, the same time, the kings or other rulers were expected to rule with wisdom and justice. The Old Testament contains story after story of wicked, greedy and oppressive rulers who brought disaster on themselves and their people. Many of the Old Testament prophets, such as Elijah, Elisha and Daniel, delivered their messages of reform to Israel's kings.
Those of us who live under democracy elect our own "rulers." Our votes decide whether our government will be benevolent and just or harsh and oppressive. The Bible's advice and reproaches to the ancient rulers provide us wisdom to help us make wise choices in our own times.
Both the Old and New Testament writers were deeply concerned with the rights of the poor and oppressed. A recurring theme in the Bible is that we should provide equal justice for all, not favoring the rich or powerful. Also, because all the peoples of the world are God's creation, we should not discriminate against foreigners:
He who oppresses the poor reproaches his maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him. (NAS, Proverbs 14:31)
Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous. Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (TNIV, Exodus 23:6-9)
Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, So as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of My people of their rights, in order that widows may be their spoil, and that they may plunder the orphans. Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help? And where will you leave your wealth? (NAS, Isaiah 10:1-3)
The Bible often speaks of almsgiving or charity as an individual-to-individual act of generosity. The law of Moses and the Hebrews, though, provided an institutional way of providing for the poor that did not depend on the good will of any individual. Not only was individual generosity encouraged, but, as a matter of law, part of everyone's produce or income was to be set aside to aid the poor:
"And you shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. (NAS, Exodus 23:10-11)
"When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns, and be satisfied. (NAS, Deuteronomy 26:12)
See also Matthew 25:31-46.
The ancient Hebrews lived in extended families or clans and could generally take care of their own. In modern industrial societies, though, families are often fragmented and many of the truly needy have nowhere to turn except to public assistance programs.
Everyone, both rich and poor, benefits when a government respects the rights of all and provides for the needy. Crime and drug abuse breed in areas of poverty and unemployment, where people may feel they have nothing to lose. Likewise, apathy and violence breed where people perceive injustice and feel excluded from the benefits of society. To the extent every individual feels empowered as a valuable, productive member of society, then society becomes healthier and more secure for everyone.
Related verses: Leviticus 19:9-10, Leviticus 19:15, Leviticus 24:22, Leviticus 25:35-36, Deuteronomy 27:19, Psalms 9:9, Psalms 72:1-2, Proverbs 17:7, Proverbs 22:22 Proverbs 28:3, Proverbs 29:2, Proverbs 29:4, Proverbs 29:12, Proverbs 29:14, Jeremiah 21:12, Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah 58:10, Ezekiel 45:9, Matthew 23:2-4, Mark 12:14-17