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Ron Sider

Sider's Ideal King

 

By Joel McDurmon

(An excerpt from God versus Socialism: A Biblical Critique of the New Social Gospel)

Christian socialist, Ronald J. Sider attempts to justify a socialist-style Welfare State by pointing to “the biblical materials that describe the ideal monarch.”[1] Where does Scripture describe the “ideal monarch”? Sider says, “Both the royal psalms and the messianic prophecies shed light on this ideal ruler.”[2] Sider then covers some typical Old Testament passages used by social-gospelers to make a connection between the king and “justice” for the poor. These include Psalm 72, Isaiah 11:1–4, 32:1–8, Jeremiah 22:15–16, and Ezekiel 34:23–24 among others. In my book, God versus Socialism: A Biblical Critique of the New Social Gospel , I respond to each of these mishandled passages and much, much more. In this article I will focus on just one of these favorite passages for Christian Socialists, Ezekiel 34:23–24.

At the outset we must note one general problem: the royal psalms and messianic prophecies are just that, messianic. The passages almost to the verse apply to and describe the Messiah—not your earthly civil ruler, not even an “ideal” king. These passages describe Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, who can heal all his people miraculously, who can create and distribute bread abundantly, who can omnipotently plan and manage society, who is Savior, healer, benefactor, shepherd, etc. These passages refer to our divine King—the one Israel rejected when they asked for an earthly king like other nations (1 Sam. 8:5, 7)—not human institutions of civil government. By turning to these passages to justify his version of a socialistic welfare State, Sider essentially admits that he wants civil government to be messianic. If not, he must abandon his application of the royal psalms and messianic prophecies. Let us look at his specific instances.

Ezekiel 34:23–24

Ezekiel 34 contains the prophet’s denunciation of the civil rulers of his day. He speaks of them as “shepherds” and condemns them for fleecing and killing rather than “feeding” the flock. Here more than any other place Sider appears to have justification for making his “ideal ruler” into a messianic bread-giver. Aren’t rulers supposed to “feed” their “flock” after all? This is Sider’s argument:

This ideal ruler will act like a shepherd in taking responsibility for the needs of his people. “He shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezek. 34:23 NRSV). Ezekiel 34:4 denounces the shepherds (i.e., the rulers) of Israel to “feed” the people. Then in verses 15–16, the same phrases are repeated to describe God’s promise of justice.…[3]

Sider rightly sees the messianic aspect of this passage: “This promise will be fulfilled by the coming Davidic ruler (vv. 23–24).”[4] But this does not stop him from arguing that it applies to every other civil ruler as well. Let us examine this passage in light of Sider’s claims.

Does the “feeding” that God requires of these “shepherds” refer to literal food? Many reasons mitigate against this. First, the “shepherds” were not simply the normal civil rulers of Israel. In Ezekiel, Israel’s rulers were the Babylonians. The “shepherd” metaphor for these rulers first appears in Jeremiah 23:1, quickly after God had promised to deliver His people into the hands of another King, Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 21), and condemned the corrupt reign of Jehoiakim (Jer. 22, see above). God calls the flock “my” flock in Ezekiel 34:10. He is the true Shepherd. Since they rejected His ways, however, God turned against them, and delivered them to false shepherds—shepherds who did not love the flock—for judgment for a time. When these shepherds oppressed the people, God pronounced judgment upon them. The Babylonian shepherds suffered invasion and defeat by the Persians, under whom the shepherd theme continues to have messianic prophetic significance (Zech. 9–11). To tie this together, only God is the true Shepherd (Ps. 80:1), the flock is His; only He can truly feed the flock in every sense of the word. The “office” of shepherd, if we can call it that, is once again a messianic appointment. When earthly rulers attempt to carry out this office, it turns to tyranny.

Secondly, in light of the tyranny, the text makes it clear that the feeding cannot be literal. Part of Ezekiel’s condemnation of the shepherds involved the shepherds feeding themselves on the flock: So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them (Ezek. 34:10). If the feeding spoken of in these passages were literal, then we must understand this particular condemnation to involve literal cannibalism. Were the shepherds literally eating the people? No. Therefore, we should not understand their obligation to feed the people as literal either.

Thirdly, the Ezekiel 34 passage prophesies the Good Shepherd to be David, but we know this is not a literal David who was dead, and who remained dead even after Christ was raised to the throne (Acts 2:25–36). Therefore, this again is not a literal prophecy. We should certainly not take the feeding of the shepherds as literal either.

Finally, the promised Good Shepherd to come settles the feeding as spiritual as well. Ezekiel 34:23 promises this Shepherd: Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. Jeremiah had promised a messianic shepherd as well (Jer. 23:5–6). These clearly refer to Jesus, the righteous branch and son of David (Matt. 1:6; Luke 3:31). Jesus Himself applied the passage to Himself: I am the good shepherd, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11, 14). Moreover, Jesus said, All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. All shepherds who came before Christ, including the pseudo-god-Kings of Babylon and Persia—all who have attempted to set up a divine-feeder State—have actually robbed and thieved the flock rather than fed it.

Only Jesus could feed the flock, and this He did. He demonstrated this miraculously twice: once with 5,000 and again with 4,000 people (Matt. 14:20–21; 15:34–38). But this feeding only pointed to his divine office, not to any alleged function of civil government. The people, however, wished to make Jesus an earthly welfare King on account of this:

Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone (John 6:14–15).

Jesus refused to be made King in connection to his distribution of wealth and resources. Yet the people continued to follow him. He warned them:

Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal” (John 6:26–27).

Furthering the point—which we should understand here as well as the “feeding” of Ezekiel—Jesus answered a pointed question:

 So they said to Him, “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.’”  Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:30–35).

Gary North aptly comments:

Jesus understood the lure of free bread. Rome was a society built on free bread and circuses. Any political order that promises to deliver free bread to the masses will find followers. Jesus warned His listeners against any such faith in any such promise. Such a promise has nothing to do with the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it is an extension of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. “And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:3–4).[5]

These very people eventually rejected the Good Shepherd, and crucified him. This fulfilled a prophecy of the rejected Shepherd that had come from Zechariah during the Persian captivity (Zech. 9–11). So dangerous is the lust for a socialist welfare State.

The feeding, therefore, means spiritual feeding. This is why, just before Jesus went away, he commission Peter, as “the Rock” and head representative of the Church, to feed my sheep (John 21:15–17). Christ gave the feeding responsibilities to the Church, not to the civil State. This is one reason all acts of charity taking place in the New Testament involve church members giving, and church officers distributing food and resources to the poor and needy.

In summary, then, none of the passages Sider presents for his doctrine of the “ideal monarch” support what he claims. This is because there is no such thing in Scripture as an “ideal monarch.” There are civil rulers, who should execute justice according to God’s revealed law, and then there is the Messiah, who stands in a class all by himself. These are all the text reveals. The “ideal monarch” Sider has abstracted from the texts is a construction of his own imagination, laced with liberal political policy.

Conclusion

Like the other outspoken Christian socialists Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, it becomes clear that the texts Sider appeals to do not teach the system of government that he claims; rather, he allows his political agenda to drive his interpretations of Scripture.

In the end, after a lot of cherry-picking of Scripture, Sider arrives where his political beliefs had him all the time: “the traditional criterion of distributive justice that comes closest to the biblical paradigm is distribution according to needs.”[6] The biblical critic must respond, “Not if this distribution is carried out by forced taxation and redistribution by civil government.” The astute reader will recall such a paradigm from the communist slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Here Sider started, here Sider ends.

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Endnotes:

[1] Ronald J. Sider, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 87.
[2] Ronald J. Sider, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 87.
[3] Ronald J. Sider, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 88.
[4] Ronald J. Sider, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 88.
[5] For this quotation and several of the ideas in relation to Ezekiel 34 and some of the other prophetic texts, I have been privileged to have an unpublished manuscript copy of Gary North, Restoration and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on the Prophets (electronic version: GaryNorth.com, Inc., 2008). For this quotation see p. 155.
[6] Ronald J. Sider, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 91.

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