Theocracy

THEOCRACY (thē-ŏk'ra-sē, Gr. theokratia). A government in which God himself is the ruler. The best and perhaps the only illustration among nations is Israel from the time that God redeemed them from the power of the pharaoh by drying the Red Sea (Exod.15.13; Exod.19.5-Exod.19.6) and gave them his law at Mount Sinai, until the time when Samuel acceded to their demand, “Now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1Sam.8.5). During this period God ruled through Moses (Exod.19.1-Exod.19.25-Deut.34.1-Deut.34.12), then through Joshua (Josh.1.1-Josh.1.18-Josh.24.1-Josh.24.33), and finally through “judges” whom he raised up from time to time to deliver his people. From the human standpoint, the power was largely in the hands of the priests, who acted on the basis of laws passed by God, in which were united all the powers of the state—legislative, executive, and judicial. Such a government was, of course, possible only because of God’s special revelation of himself to the nation.


The term was coined by Josephus to express the concept of a God-governed state. The Hebrew people expressed a distinct belief in this type of government, although it took various forms during their historical existence as a nation. At Sinai they became the “holy nation” of the Lord (Exod. 19:6) and soon established an amphictyony-a religious confederation of tribes pledged to the service of Yahweh their king. Later, during the period of the monarchy, the king became the representative of Yahweh's rule, “the Lord's anointed” (Ps. 2:2; 20:6). Therefore God could use His prophets to dethrone even the king (1 Sam. 15:26; 16:1ff.). Still God remains the real King whom Isaiah sees as high and lifted up (Isa. 6:1). During the postexilic period, the mediation of Yahweh's spiritual rule was transferred to the priest, particularly the “high priest” (Hag. 2:2; Zech. 3:1). In the NT, the rule of God is more eschatological in nature, but this depends on one's interpretation of the Kingdom of God* concept. Islamic politics, Calvinism in Geneva, and Puritanism in New England are further examples of attempts at theocracy. It should be recognized that theocracy is always more idealistic than realistic and is an article of faith rather than a demonstrable system.


THEOCRACY thē ŏk’ rə sĭ (θεοκρατία, from θεός, G2536, God, and κρατέω, G3195, to rule, rule of God.

The term is distinguished from democracy, which places the ultimate power of the government in the hands of all the people; from hierocracy, the rule of the priests which relegates to a religious class unique insight into the will of God; and from monarchy, which has a human king to rule over a nation. The word does not appear in the Bible and seems to have been invented by Josephus. He uses the word to describe the unique character of the Heb. government as revealed to Moses, and as compared to other forms of government. He says, “Our legislator...ordained to be what, by a strained expression, may be termed a theocracy, by ascribing the authority and the power to God” (Against Apion, II, 165).

However, the idea is much older than the origin of the word as Josephus suggests in his statement. It goes back to the OT and to the time of Moses (Exod 19:4-9; Deut 33:4, 5). At the heart of the idea is Israel’s unique relation to God as His peculiar people. It is the Covenant which binds Israel to God in this relationship (Exod 19 and 20), and constitutes Israel “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). God claimed Israel for Himself by redeeming this people from Egyp. bondage. The great redemptive acts at the time of the Exodus and in the course of the wilderness wanderings declare God as the eternal Ruler (Exod 15:18). Moses was merely the man of God communicating God’s will to the people.

Gideon refused to accept the crown because he believed that God alone should rule over Israel (Judg 8:22, 23). In the period preceding the coming of the monarchy prophets, priests, and judges were the means of expressing the theocracy. In Israel’s war against Sisera, the prophetess Deborah and the judge Barak are said to be the agents of God’s deliverance (4:4-7). The priests frequently appear as the messengers of God’s will (20:28; 1 Sam 14:41). An institutionalized theocracy appears with the coming of the kingship in Israel.


The coming of the kingship in Israel is the organization of the theocratic kingdom under a human ruler. In prophetism theocracy finds perhaps its clearest expression (Jer 1:1, 2; cf. Isa 7:7). The Messianic visions of the prophets are organically interwoven into the course of the history of the kings of Judah and the ultimate restoration of the kingdom in the dynasty of David. The kingdom is in its essence and intent an instrument of redemption to which Israel’s Messianic expectations are inseparably related. In its Messianic significance the throne of David stands at the center of Biblical theology with its acknowledgment of God as the eventual Ruler over the whole earth. In the progressive revelation of Biblical eschatology the theocratic conception of the Davidic kingdom supplied the pattern of the ideas concerning the coming of the kingdom of God. Through the restoration of the throne of David God was to accomplish Israel’s final redemption. But this event in history was to introduce the age of eternal peace and righteousness under the universal reign of the Son of David.

In the theocracy of Israel there is no room for secularism. Down to their minutest details all political, legal, and social regulations are essentially theological. They were the direct and supreme expression of the will of God. Even the detection of criminals and their punishment are the immediate concern of God (Lev 20:3, 5, 6, 20; 24:12; Num 5:12, 13; Josh 6:16).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

"Theocracy" is not a Biblical word. The idea, however, is Biblical, and in strictness of speech exclusively Biblical. The realization of the idea is not only confined to Israel, but in the pre-exilic history of Israel the realization of the idea was confined to the Southern Kingdom, and in post-exilic history to the period between the return under Ezra and the days of Malachi.

For the word "theocracy" we are, by common consent, indebted to Josephus. In his writings it seems to occur but once (Apion, II, xvi). The passage reads as follows: "Our lawgiver had an eye to none of these," that is, these different forms of government, such as monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and others of which Josephus had been speaking, "but, as one might say, using a strained expression, he set forth the national polity as a theocracy, referring the rule and might to God" (Stanton’s translation). It is generally agreed that the language here used indicates that Josephus knew himself to be coining a new word.

If, now, we turn from the word to the Old Testament idea to which it gives fitting and apt expression, that idea cannot be better stated than it has been by Kautzsch--namely, "The notion of theocracy is that the constitution (of Israel) was so arranged that all the organs of government were without any independent power, and had simply to announce and execute the will of God as declared by priest and prophets, or reduced to writing as a code of laws" (HDB, extra vol, 630, 1, init.). The same writer is entirely correct when he says that in what is known in certain circles as "the PC"--though he might have said in the Old Testament generally--"everything, even civil and criminal law, is looked at from the religious standpoint" (ibid., ut supra).

If the foregoing be a correct account of the idea expressed by the word "theocracy," and particularly if the foregoing be a correct account of the Old Testament representation of God’s relation to, and rule in and over Israel, it follows as a matter of course that the realization of such an idea was only possible within the sphere of what is known as special revelation. Indeed, special revelation of the divine will, through divinely-chosen organs, to Divinely appointed executive agents, is, itself, the very essence of the idea of a theocracy.

That the foregoing is the Old Testament idea of God’s relation to His people is admitted to be a natural and necessary implication from such passages as Jud 8:23; 1Sa 8; compare 12:12; 2Ch 13:8; 2Sa 7:1-17; Ps 89:27; De 17:14-20.

Upon any other view of the origin of the Old Testament books than that which has heretofore prevailed, it is certainly a remarkable fact that whenever the books of the Old Testament were written, and by whomsoever they may have been written, and whatever the kind or the number of the redactions to which they may have been subjected, the conception--the confessedly unique conception--of a government of God such as that described above by Kautzsch is evidenced by these writings in all their parts. This fact is all the more impressive in view of the further fact that we do not encounter this sharply defined idea of a rule of God among men in any other literature, ancient or modern. For while the term "theocracy" occurs in modern literature, it is evidently used in a much lower sense. It is futher worth remarking that this Old Testament idea of the true nature of God’s rule in Israel has only to be fully apprehended for it to become obvious that many of the alleged analogies between the Old Testament prophet and the modern preacher, reformer and statesman are wholly lacking in any really solid foundation.