When a king takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left.
Happy 800th Birthday Magna Carta!
It was June 15, 1215, in a Runnymede meadow alongside the River Thames between Staines and Windsor, that tyrannical King John acceded to the demands of 40 threatening barons to avoid a civil war. On that most historic day the king begrudgingly affixed his seal to the Magna Carta (Latin for “Great Charter”), drawn up so that kings would henceforth be subject to law rather than above it. The Magna Carta was intended to provide protection for church rights, access to swift justice, and protection of rights for barons.
By thirteenth century standards the Magna Carta went viral. Copies were hurriedly made, complete with spelling errors, and quickly dispatched throughout the kingdom. We take time this week to remember the Magna Carta as giving to “free men” the right to justice and a fair trial. Although “free men” were a minority then, the Magna Carta did become the precedent for subsequent charters and bills of rights.
As our nation’s Founders crafted our Declaration of Independence they looked to the Magna Carta as a precedent for asserting rightful liberties from King and Parliament. But even before looking to the Magna Carta our Founders first looked to today’s Scripture for a more binding and authoritative source for a nation’s justice and liberty.
In their deliberations America’s Founders quoted the Bible more than any document; the book of the Bible they quoted most was the book of Deuteronomy, the source of today’s Scripture. Significantly, the word “Deuteronomy” means “second law” (deuteros = second, nomos = law) as it is the second giving of God’s law to His people. As Israel was poised at the entrance to the Promised Land, God stated His law a second time in order to establish liberty and justice throughout the land.
Over 2,500 years before King John and the Magna Carta, God established the principle of lex rex, that is, “law is king”. Against the backdrop of the rest of world history in which it was rex lex, “the king is law”, God decreed that every king or sovereign must bow before the rule of law.
Picture for a moment how today’s Scripture played out. A king’s first official act after being anointed with oil and ‘sworn in’ was to “write for himself” a copy of God’s law. Then the king was to keep his hand-copied law close by so that he would “not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left.”
Centuries before a rudimentary democracy in Athens or assertions of rights in the Magna Carta, God laid down principles for liberty and justice for all. The law is king, not the king is law. No sovereign or ruler is to “consider himself better than his brothers.” In the eyes of God he or she stands alongside fellow citizens under the rule of law. James Madison, “the Father of the Constitution”, argued persuasively for the rule of law rather than the rule of men in “Federalist Papers”, No. 51:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. (Emphasis added)
I write quite a lot in this space about prayer and the need to be people of prayer. As we find ourselves already swept up into the 2016 election cycle, let us pray for the rule of law in America, lex rex. Let us daily ask God to raise up men and women who do not consider themselves better, and do not turn from the law to the ‘right’ or to the ‘left’.
Happy 800th Birthday Magna Carta!
Grace and peace,