If the king fails to live up to his promise he can lose his right to rule by breaking the compact….Arbitrary rule, despotism, and tyranny amount to a material breach of the promise.
—Gary Amos on Lex Rex, Defending the Declaration (1989)
Not many parents name their child Jezebel. The reason is connected to the historical Jezebel whose story is told in the Bible. This Jezebel was a Phoenician princess, an Israelite queen, and the enemy of Yahweh and His prophets. Her end came beneath chariot wheels and in the teeth of wild dogs. Jezebel also had a daughter. Her name was Athaliah. While Jezebel was queen mother in the northern kingdom of Israel, Athaliah was queen mother in the southern kingdom of Judah.
When revolution came in the north and Jezebel was thrown from an upper window, smashed beneath chariot wheels, and devoured by dogs, Athaliah saw opportunity. You see, the revolution had also destroyed her son, King Ahaziah. When Athaliah received the news of her son’s death, she arose, went to the royal nursery, and slaughtered all the seed royal, all the descendents of David—or so she thought. She then ascended the throne and set about to impose the same Baalistic culture on Judah that her mother had tried to force on Israel. Her reign lasted six years. This history is recorded in 2 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 29.
The Princess and the Priest
One child escaped the nursery slaughter, however. His name was Joash. His aunt, the princess Jehosheba, rescued him from the nursery and, with her husband, Jehoiada the high priest, hid the boy away in the Temple. For six years they kept his existence a secret, knowing full well that his discovery would mean all their deaths, for Athaliah would stop at nothing to protect her throne.
When Joash turned seven, Jehoiada called together the leaders of the Levites and the palace guard and showed them the young king. Together they conspired to place him on the throne.
In the middle of the Sabbath day, when the priestly courses were changing, Jehoiada had both courses stay and, together with the palace guard, surround the king and guard the entrances to the Temple complex. Then Jehoiada brought out the young Joash, set the crown on his head, put a copy of God’s law in his hand, and anointed him king according to God’s promise to David. The people clapped and cheered, and shouted, “God save the king!”
At this moment, Athaliah came into the Temple courts. She understood immediately what was happening. She tore her robes and cried out, “Treason! Treason!” For her it was too late. Jehoiada ordered her taken out of the Temple and executed. No one interposed to save her.
And then Jehoiada continued the coronation ceremony. The writer of Kings tells us,
And Jehoiada made a covenant between the LORD and the king and the people, that they should be the LORD’S people; between the king also and the people (v. 17).
On this basis Jehoiada and Joash began a long work of reformation and restoration.
A Conspiracy of Light
Conspiracy is not the normal mode of operation for God’s people. Christianity isn’t a religion of esoteric truths, of mystical secrets carefully guarded by the initiated. It is a religion of absolute truth, publicly proclaimed. It is a religion of profession and confession.
Sometimes, however, God’s servants must conduct their preaching and teaching, even their charity, behind closed doors. Sometimes they must fall back on passwords, secret signs, and whispered instructions in order to guard their worship and their lives. We may think of the Roman catacombs and the original use of the ichthus symbol (the fish). But Christian participation in political conspiracies has historically been a rare thing.
In fact, the leadership provided by Jehoiada the high priest is historically unusual. The Old Testament, like the New, maintained an administrative separation between Church and State. But there were exceptions. Priests sometimes participated in the anointing of kings, and the kings of Judah, as adopted sons of Yahweh, had some responsibilities for maintaining the physical integrity of the Temple and the purity of its worship. In general, however, kings did not make or unmake priests, nor did priests make or unmake kings.
Jehoiada’s situation was unique. Athaliah was a true tyrant in the Greek sense: she had seized the throne by violence without any legal right. The boy Joash, who was in Jehoiada’s care, was the rightful king by divine covenant. And when it came time to stage the coronation, Jehoiada consulted with other religious and military leaders before proceeding. Finally, before Joash ascended the throne, Jehoiada worked out a covenant between the new king and the people: Joash had popular support, and he ascended the throne as a king under law.
Rule by Covenant
What we see played out in this ancient history is the biblical doctrine of civil government by covenant. God delegates real authority to the civil magistrate, who then rules in submission to Him and in terms of His law. But rarely in history has God appointed any man to office by name; never has He handed any nation a ready-made constitution with thoroughly developed bylaws. God leaves the selection or election of kings and magistrates and the administrative details of civil government to the people or to their representatives. The king becomes king, the magistrate takes his office, when he swears a covenantal oath to protect and serve the people in terms of God’s law. Gary Amos writes:
A covenant or compact is a formal agreement between two or more persons, sworn by an oath and ratified by a public ceremony. Each part to a covenant promises to perform certain tasks or fulfill certain conditions. A covenant includes mercy so that if a party fails to keep the covenant perfectly, it is still valid. However, a particular kind of failure—a material breach of the terms or conditions—frees the injured party from any further obligations under the agreement.
What constitutes a material breach depends on the nature and terms of the agreement . . . . Tyranny is a material breach of the covenant of government (2 Chronicles 23). [Amos, 130]
Civil rule by covenant necessarily means a civil government under law. That is to say, a ruler who holds his office by virtue of a covenant with his people is a ruler who can be overthrown and replaced when he materially violates the law he is supposed to enforce. When the civil ruler becomes a tyrant, an oppressor of his people, and an enemy of the law, he has forfeited his right to rule.
A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants, a sixteenth century Huguenot tract, sets down this conclusion with these words:
There is ever, and in all places, a mutual and reciprocal obligation between the people and the prince; the one promises to be a good and wise prince, the other to obey faithfully, provided he govern justly…. Therefore, if the prince fails in his promise, the people are exempt from obedience, the contract is made void, the right of obligation of no force. (199)
Qualifying the Revolution
Not all failures in a ruler constitute grounds for lawful revolution. All men sin. Many rulers rule badly. Bad rule is not, in and of itself, sufficient grounds for revolution. Scripture repeatedly calls us to submit to the king, even when the king in view was a Tiberius or a Nero (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).
Incompetent rule must be endured, and merely bad or somewhat unjust rulers must be honored. But if the king goes beyond being a merely bad king to becoming a tyrant, he may be deposed, if the people have tried all lawful means short of revolution to solve the problem. At that point, it becomes the duty of lower officers and representatives of the government to interpose against the king and suppress his tyranny. (Amos, 138)
Notice three things here in Amos’s summary of Defense of Liberty: 1) The people may lawfully depose a tyrant. 2) They must first try every lawful means at hand to end his tyranny. 3) The people must work through and under the authority of “lower officers and representative of the government.” The Puritans spoke of these as “lesser magistrates.” These same principles are echoed in the American Declaration of Independence.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. . . . But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
. . .
In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. . . .Nor have we been wanting in attentions to our British brethren.
We have warned them . . . . We have reminded them. . . . We have appealed . . . we have conjured them. . . .
. . .
We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America. . . .
As Americans, we find it easy to justify any sort of violence or revolution that takes out the bad guys. As Christians, we find it easy to justify complete submission to the worst sorts of tyranny and despotism. But the law of God enshrines neither human weakness, but demands a loyalty to God and His holiness rather than to our own economic or psychological comforts. There is a time to bear patiently. There is a time to use normal, lawful methods of protest: public discussion, petition, ballot box. Finally, there may be a time for those who value justice and liberty to rally behind civil authorities who will stand up to tyrants. There is never a time, however, for assassination, terrorism, and anarchy. The law demands that it be enforced… lawfully.
For Further Reading:
Gary T. Amos, Defending the Declaration, How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989).
Junius Brutus, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, or A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants (1579).
Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex or The Law and the Prince (Harrison, VA: Sprinkle Publications,  1982).
Rousas J. Rushdoony, This Independent Republic, Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American History (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1964).
Rousas J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the Sate (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1986)