I remember sitting in one of my Church History classes as my professor talked about the double “pillars” of Western Civilization. The point he was making is that what we know as "Western Civilization" is a blending of two pivotal civilizations, namely Greece and Israel. From ancient Greek civilization we get at least the rudimentary beginnings of such ideas as democracy (“rule by the people”) and some notion of separation of church and state. From ancient Hebrew law we get ideas like the sanctity of human life. This doesn’t mean that either society always lived up to their ideas and ideals, but they at least introduced them into the bloodstream of human thought. I submit that the most underrated innovation that the Torah introduced--which modern people tend to take entirely for granted--is the idea of Lex Rex.
This phrase literally means “The law is king.” Being raised in a westernized nation, this is something that is so momentous and affects almost every aspect of our relationship with government, and we rarely (if ever) think about it. The most common form of government in history has been some form of monarchy, usually absolute monarchy. This meant that the law was whatever the king says it was. If he woke up one morning and decided that all red-headed people should be executed, then that was the law of the land (until he or a later king changed his mind). A fair trial was whatever he said it was. He didn’t need anyone’s permission to go to war, levy taxes, or or otherwise change the laws on a whim.
And of course the king and noble people were held to a different standard than common folk. If he wanted someone’s property or woman, he'd simply take them. There might be laws against something on the books, but no one would be crazy enough to arrest the king for a crime that would end the freedom and life of a commoner.
This was not to be the case for Israel under God’s law. As today’s passage makes clear, the king was under God’s law just as much as the lowliest slave in the land. In fact, the standards were higher for him in at least one way: He alone was commanded to write out the entire Torah by hand for himself, and read it every single day. The whole purpose of this was so that he would “not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left."
As I mentioned, this concept of Lex Rex affects us in almost every dealing we have with our government. The police can’t simply enter your home without a warrant, nor stop you on the street without probable cause, and if they did, the outcry and bad publicity would be a nightmare for the offending officers. The Constitution has a “Bill of Rights” which is really a list of restrictions on the federal government, telling it what it can't do. We’ve had two presidents impeached in our history, and a third was forcibly resigned from his office by the threat of impeachment. All of this would've been unthinkable throughout most of human history. I mean that word literally: It would've never entered the imagination of most people how government could be so restricted.
Now, do we still see abuses, even in our society which is so (relatively) free and open? Do people with little power still get oppressed by governmental abuse? Of course. We still live in a fallen world, and even the best, most god-fearing and honest government official is still a sinner. But the whole idea of Lex Rex and all that entails is something for which we need to be more grateful than we usually are. Without it, we wouldn't even be having conversations and debates about the occasional abuses, since they'd be the exception, not the rule.
This concept flows over (or should flow over) into our church governments. Often the world's "Golden Rule" is "He who has the gold makes the rules." People with money, good looks, or power are frequently held to a different standard. But as our Savior so forcefully put it, "Not so with you." Church leaders aren't above God’s standards; in fact, they're held to a stricter standard than the rest of the congregation. In God’s system, we're all sinners who desperately need his grace, and no one is higher than his sibling in Christ.
Lord Jesus, please forgive me for thinking I’m higher or more important than anyone else, especially my brothers. I’m their servant, and I need to remember that.