The Statesman’s Dream – Of the people, by the people, for the people
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A century and a half ago, a governing official said, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In this statement he described a special kind of government and a special kind of people. The desire that this kind of government “shall not perish from the earth” seems like a distant dream. Certainly, before such a government can perish from the earth, it must first exist. Let us begin by considering: Can it exist? And how would we bring it into existence?
Let us consider, as a case study, the government that this official was referring to. Clearly, he dreamed that such an approach toward government could exist and that it would become so entrenched in human minds that it would never cease to exist. And it certainly was the dream of the founders of the republic that this man led. That man, of course, was Abraham Lincoln.
Let us reflect on those words describing this dream for Government: “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
“of the people” speaks of authority deriving from the people. This begins to define a covenant between God and a nation, recognizing that the authority of Government ultimately comes from God, but through the people. When Jesus was challenged by the governing official who had the right to give life or to take it away, He instructed “You would have no authority over Me at all if it hadn’t been given you from above” (John 19:11) – from God Himself. Thus, the authority to administer Government comes from God, but in a partnership with the people, operating on His behalf. This introduces us to the concept of a covenant between God and a people.
“by the people” refers to being administered by the people. Practically, this means to be administered by those drawn from the people, presumably who are so in touch with the people that they can operate on behalf of the people. It means to be administered by those who have the heart of the people. Certainly, they must come from the people but still retain the heart of the people. It also means not to be so isolated from the people that they lose the heart of the people and do not reflect that heart in their administration of Government.
“for the people” means to administer in such a way as to meet the needs of the people. It means to meet the needs, including the deep needs of the people, whether the people can identify their most important needs or not, as opposed to what will placate the people, even make them happy or to vote for these officials in the next election.
This all speaks to an agreement underlying the nation, which is properly recognized as a covenant. This covenant has been defined as a contract between a people and God where God serves as the guarantor.
What did Lincoln mean by the expression “the people”? Notice that he prefaced his famous words with the words “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Hence, when Lincoln refers to “the people” – “of, by, for … the people”, I do not believe he meant any people, but rather a people ready to be in a God-based partnership and ready to receive and accept the governance that would be delivered by leaders operating in obedience to God as His instruments. This is a people willing to commit to covenant with God. This means a God-obedient people.
The basis for Lincoln’s expectation may best be understood by considering the origin of his statement. Thirty years before Lincoln spoke, the Bible translator John Wycliff included in the introduction to his translation of the Bible the phrase “The Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.” The perspective Lincoln expressed came from understanding the Bible.
Lincoln’s expression “under God” expresses the covenant between God and a people group whereby if the people will obey God, He will supernaturally intervene and bless. This truth was expressed to one king in the ninth century B.C.:
- For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him (2 Chronicles 16:9).
The reality is that such a commitment wanes and the commitment must be renewed continually. Not only do we wane in our own commitment to God, but there are new members added to our nation that must be assimilated into our covenant commitment with God: the next generation; and those who immigrate. These newcomers must embrace the covenant, but, more importantly, the principles that underlie that covenant. Therefore, we must recognize each new generation as newcomers who have no knowledge of the covenant and the founding principles. All of these enter our society full of hope but without intimate knowledge of the foundation. If we are to survive in our covenant for which God is the guarantor, they must gain intimate knowledge of the covenant. In a similar way, we must each continually refresh our commitment to the covenant undergirding such a nation. We must also educate and encourage everyone within our reach – old and new alike – to make the same commitment. There must be continual renewal of commitment to the covenant and to the guarantor of the covenant starting with newcomers.
A thoughtful person will reflect that the nation Lincoln referred to did benefit from the covenant with God that he proposed. The nation reached amazing achievements. However, such a person will also reflect that this same people have not faithfully renewed that covenant and that the nation shows signs of loss of that blessing. We learn this lesson from the first nation Almighty God chose to make a visible demonstration of blessing through commitment to a covenant with God – ancient Israel, which He challenged:
Return to Me, and I will return to you (Malachi 3:7).
That should only serve as a reinforcement to understanding our need to experience God’s blessing through our commitment to His desired covenant with us.
Questions for the Statesman:
What can I do to strengthen that covenant in our nation with our most important Benefactor, namely God?
How does my commitment to that covenant affect my own life?