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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 1–6
Verses 1–6

We are here taught how to conduct ourselves towards magistrates, and those that are in authority over us, called here the higher powers, intimating their authority (they are powers), and their dignity (they are higher powers), including not only the king as supreme, but all inferior magistrates under him: and yet it is expressed, not by the persons that are in that power, but the place of power itself, in which they are. However the persons themselves may be wicked, and of those vile persons whom the citizen of Zion contemneth (Ps. 15:4), yet the just power which they have must be submitted to and obeyed. The apostle had taught us, in the foregoing chapter, not to avenge ourselves, nor to recompense evil for evil; but, lest it should seem as if this did cancel the ordinance of a civil magistracy among Christians, he takes occasion to assert the necessity of it, and of the due infliction of punishment upon evil doers, however it may look like recompensing evil for evil. Observe,

I. The duty enjoined: Let every soul be subject. Every soul—every person, one as well as another, not excluding the clergy, who call themselves spiritual persons, however the church of Rome may not only exempt such from subjection to the civil powers, but place them in authority above them, making the greatest princes subject to the pope, who thus exalteth himself above all that is called God.—Every soul. Not that our consciences are to be subjected to the will of any man. It is God’s prerogative to make laws immediately to bind conscience, and we must render to God the things that are God’s. But it intimates that our subjection must be free and voluntary, sincere and hearty. Curse not the king, no, not in thy thought, Eccl. 10:20. To compass and imagine are treason begun. The subjection of soul here required includes inward honour (1 Pet. 2:17) and outward reverence and respect, both in speaking to them and in speaking of them—obedience to their commands in things lawful and honest, and in other things a patient subjection to the penalty without resistance—a conformity in every thing to the place and duty of subjects, bringing our minds to the relation and condition, and the inferiority and subordination of it. “They are higher powers; be content they should be so, and submit to them accordingly.” Now there was good reason for the pressing of this duty of subjection to civil magistrates, 1. Because of the reproach which the Christian religion lay under in the world, as an enemy to public peace, order, and government, as a sect that turned the world upside down, and the embracers of it as enemies to Caesar, and the more because the leaders were Galileans—an old slander. Jerusalem was represented as a rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, Ezra 4:15, 16. Our Lord Jesus was so reproached, though he told them his kingdom was not of this world: no marvel, then, if his followers have been loaded in all ages with the like calumnies, called factious, seditious, and turbulent, and looked upon as the troublers of the land, their enemies having found such representations needful for the justifying of their barbarous rage against them. The apostle therefore, for the obviating of this reproach and the clearing of Christianity from it, shows that obedience to civil magistrates is one of the laws of Christ, whose religion helps to make people good subjects; and it was very unjust to charge upon Christianity that faction and rebellion to which its principles and rules are so directly contrary. 2. Because of the temptation which the Christians lay under to be otherwise affected to civil magistrates, some of them being originally Jews, and so leavened with a principle that it was unmeet for any of the seed of Abraham to be subject to one of another nation—their king must be of their brethren, Deut. 17:15. Besides, Paul had taught them that they were not under the law, they were made free by Christ. Lest this liberty should be turned into licentiousness, and misconstrued to countenance faction and rebellion, the apostle enjoins obedience to civil government, which was the more necessary to be pressed now because the magistrates were heathens and unbelievers, which yet did not destroy their civil power and authority. Besides, the civil powers were persecuting powers; the body of the law was against them.

II. The reasons to enforce this duty. Why must we be subject?

1. For wrath’s sake. Because of the danger we run ourselves into by resistance. Magistrates bear the sword, and to oppose them is to hazard all that is dear to us in this world; for it is to no purpose to contend with him that bears the sword. The Christians were then in those persecuting times obnoxious to the sword of the magistrate for their religion, and they needed not make themselves more obnoxious by their rebellion. The least show of resistance or sedition in a Christian would soon be aggravated and improved, and would be very prejudicial to the whole society; and therefore they had more need than others to be exact in their subjection, that those who had so much occasion against them in the matter of their God might have no other occasion. To this head must that argument be referred (Rom. 13:2), Those that resist shall receive to themselves damnation: krima lepsontai, they shall be called to an account for it. God will reckon with them for it, because the resistance reflects upon him. The magistrates will reckon with them for it. They will come under the lash of the law, and will find the higher powers too high to be trampled upon, all civil governments being justly strict and severe against treason and rebellion; so it follows (Rom. 13:3), Rulers are a terror. This is a good argument, but it is low for a Christian.

2. We must be subject, not only for wrath, but for conscience’ sake; not so much formidine poenae—from the fear of punishment, as virtutis amore—from the love of virtue. This makes common civil offices acceptable to God, when they are done for conscience’ sake, with an eye to God, to his providence putting us into such relations, and to his precept making subjection the duty of those relations. Thus the same thing may be done from a very different principle. Now to oblige conscience to this subjection he argues, Rom. 13:1-4, 6,

(1.) From the institution of magistracy: There is no power but of God. God as the ruler and governor of the world hath appointed the ordinance of magistracy, so that all civil power is derived from him as from its original, and he hath by his providence put the administration into those hands, whatever they are that have it. By him kings reign, Prov. 8:15. The usurpation of power and the abuse of power are not of God, for he is not the author of sin; but the power itself is. As our natural powers, though often abused and made instruments of sin, are from God’s creating power, so civil powers are from God’s governing power. The most unjust and oppressive princes in the world have no power but what is given them from above (John 19:11), the divine providence being in a special manner conversant about those changes and revolutions of governments which have such an influence upon states and kingdoms, and such a multitude of particular persons and smaller communities. Or, it may be meant of government in general: it is an instance of God’s wisdom, power, and goodness, in the management of mankind, that he has disposed them into such a state as distinguishes between governors and governed, and has not left them like the fishes of the sea, where the greater devour the less. He did herein consult the benefit of his creatures.—The powers that be: whatever the particular form and method of government are—whether by monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy—wherever the governing power is lodged, it is an ordinance of God, and it is to be received and submitted to accordingly; though immediately an ordinance of man (1 Pet. 2:13), yet originally an ordinance of God.—Ordained of Godtetagmenai; a military word, signifying not only the ordination of magistrates, but the subordination of inferior magistrates to the supreme, as in an army; for among magistrates there is a diversity of gifts, and trusts, and services. Hence it follows (Rom. 13:2) that whosoever resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God. There are other things from God that are the greatest calamities; but magistracy is from God as an ordinance, that is, it is a great law, and it is a great blessing: so that the children of Belial, that will not endure the yoke of government, will be found breaking a law and despising a blessing. Magistrates are therefore called gods (Ps. 82:6), because they bear the image of God’s authority. And those who spurn at their power reflect upon God himself. This is not at all applicable to the particular rights of kings and kingdoms, and the branches of their constitution; nor can any certain rule be fetched from this for the modelling of the original contracts between the governors and governed; but it is intended for direction to private persons in their private capacity, to behave themselves quietly and peaceably in the sphere in which God has set them, with a due regard to the civil powers which God in his providence has set over them, 1 Tim. 2:1, 2. Magistrates are here again and again called God’s ministers. He is the minister of God, Rom. 13:4, 6. Magistrates are in a more peculiar manner God’s servants; the dignity they have calls for duty. Though they are lords to us, they are servants to God, have work to do for him, and an account to render to him. In the administration of public justice, the determining of quarrels, the protecting of the innocent, the righting of the wronged, the punishing of offenders, and the preserving of national peace and order, that every man may not do what is right in his own eyes—in these things it is that magistrates act as God’s ministers. As the killing of an inferior magistrate, while he is actually doing his duty, is accounted treason against the prince, so the resisting of any magistrates in the discharge of these duties of their place is the resisting of an ordinance of God.

(2.) From the intention of magistracy: Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil, etc. Magistracy was designed to be,

[1.] A terror to evil works and evil workers. They bear the sword; not only the sword of war, but the sword of justice. They are heirs of restraint, to put offenders to shame; Laish wanted such, Jdg. 18:7. Such is the power of sin and corruption that many will not be restrained from the greatest enormities, and such as are most pernicious to human society, by any regard to the law of God and nature or the wrath to come; but only by the fear of temporal punishments, which the wilfulness and perverseness of degenerate mankind have made necessary. Hence it appears that laws with penalties for the lawless and disobedient (1 Tim. 1:9) must be constituted in Christian nations, and are agreeable with, and not contradictory to, the gospel. When men are become such beasts, such ravenous beasts, one to another, they must be dealt with accordingly, taken and destroyed in terrorem—to deter others. The horse and the mule must thus be held in with bit and bridle. In this work the magistrate is the minister of God, Rom. 13:4. He acts as God’s agent, to whom vengeance belongs; and therefore must take heed of infusing into his judgments any private personal resentments of his own.—To execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. In this the judicial processes of the most vigilant faithful magistrates, though some faint resemblance and prelude of the judgments of the great day, yet come far short of the judgment of God: they reach only to the evil act, can execute wrath only on him that doeth evil: but God’s judgment extends to the evil thought, and is a discerner of the intents of the heart.—He beareth not the sword in vain. It is not for nothing that God hath put such a power into the magistrate’s hand; but it is intended for the restraining and suppressing of disorders. And therefore, “If thou do that which is evil, which falls under the cognizance and censure of the civil magistrate, be afraid; for civil powers have quick eyes and long arms.” It is a good thing when the punishment of malefactors is managed as an ordinance of God, instituted and appointed by him. First, As a holy God, that hates sin, against which, as it appears and puts up its head, a public testimony is thus borne. Secondly, As King of nations, and the God of peace and order, which are hereby preserved. Thirdly, As the protector of the good, whose persons, families, estates, and names, are by this means hedged about. Fourthly, As one that desires not the eternal ruin of sinners, but by the punishment of some would terrify others, and so prevent the like wickedness, that others may hear and fear, and do no more presumptuously. Nay, it is intended for a kindness to those that are punished, that by the destruction of the flesh the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

[2.] A praise to those that do well. Those that keep in the way of their duty shall have the commendation and protection of the civil powers, to their credit and comfort. “Do that which is good (Rom. 13:3), and thou needest not be afraid of the power, which, though terrible, reaches none but those that by their own sin make themselves obnoxious to it; the fire burns only that which is combustible: nay, thou shalt have praise of it.” This is the intention of magistracy, and therefore we must, for conscience’ sake, be subject to it, as a constitution designed for the public good, to which all private interests must give way. But pity it is that ever this gracious intention should be perverted, and that those who bear the sword, while they countenance and connive at sin, should be a terror to those who do well. But so it is, when the vilest men are exalted (Ps. 12:1, 8); and yet even then the blessing and benefit of a common protection, and a face of government and order, are such that it is our duty in that case rather to submit to persecution for well-doing, and to take it patiently, than by any irregular and disorderly practices to attempt a redress. Never did sovereign prince pervert the ends of government as Nero did, and yet to him Paul appealed, and under him had the protection of the law and the inferior magistrates more than once. Better a bad government than none at all.

(3.) From our interest in it: “He is the minister of God to thee for good. Thou hast the benefit and advantage of the government, and therefore must do what thou canst to preserve it, and nothing to disturb it.” Protection draws allegiance. If we have protection from the government, we owe subjection to it; by upholding the government, we keep up our own hedge. This subjection is likewise consented to by the tribute we pay (Rom. 13:6): “For this cause pay you tribute, as a testimony of your submission, and an acknowledgment that in conscience you think it to be due. You do by paying taxes contribute your share to the support of the power; if therefore you be not subject, you do but pull down with one hand what you support with the other; and is that conscience?” “By your paying tribute you not only own the magistrate’s authority, but the blessing of that authority to yourselves, a sense of which you thereby testify, giving him that as a recompence for the great pains he takes in the government; for honour is a burden: and, if he do as he ought, he is attending continually upon this very thing, for it is enough to take up all a man’s thoughts and time, in consideration of which fatigue, we pay tribute, and must be subject.”—Pay you tribute, phorous seleite. He does not say, “You give it as an alms,” but, “You pay it as a just debt, or lend it to be repaid in all the blessings and advantages of public government, of which you reap the benefit.” This is the lesson the apostle teaches, and it becomes all Christians to learn and practise it, that the godly in the land may be found (whatever others are) the quiet and the peaceable in the land.