Few biblical tales are more instructive in today’s fraught social and political climate than ones about rulers whose lack of moral strength catapulted them into what can only be described as moral madness.
The ancient Greeks defined such madness as hubris, a delusion of grandeur that refuses counsel or correction. The biblical authors called it the sin of claiming God-like, unreviewable sovereignty for oneself.
Ordinary folks like you and I can fall victim to this moral madness, and when we do, we’re capable of inflicting a good deal of damage in our limited spheres of influence. Think of the martinet boss, the overbearing teacher, the dictatorial pastor, or the bullying spouse. But as the biblical authors recognized, moral madness in rulers is especially dangerous. When they succumb to it, the havoc they wreak is truly catastrophic.
Take Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonian empire, who throughout his entire half-century reign warred against neighboring states with perfect indifference to the misery and carnage his mania for conquest inflicted. Nebuchadnezzar’s megalomaniac refusal, as the Hebrew scriptures say, to “recognize that the Most High is ruler over humankind” eventually broke his mind and left him, the erstwhile demi-god, crawling around on all fours devouring grass.
In the Christian scriptures, Herod the Great is another king gone morally mad. A man of hair-trigger temper and conscienceless violence, he brutalized his subjects for forty years and even slaughtered members of his own family when the rage was upon him. Had the three magi revealed the whereabouts of the Christ-child, Herod would’ve murdered him too. As it was, he settled for butchering Bethlehem’s male infants.
Herod’s son and successor Herod Antipas seems to have inherited the moral madness that corrupted his namesake. How else to account for his lustful pledge to the young girl Salome that resulted in the murder of John the Baptist? What ruler in his right mind would’ve promised up to half his kingdom for the sexual favors of his own stepdaughter? The ancient author Josephus tells us that his subjects so loathed Antipas that they believed him a divine punishment for their sins.
And then there’s King Saul, whose spectacular rise and ignominious fall in the Hebrew scriptures is an object lesson for all rulers.
Designated by God to lead the Israelites against their enemies, Saul appears to have started out as a dedicated and thoughtful sovereign. But as his fame increased, so did his delusion of grandeur, until he ultimately refused to obey a divine directive.
This flaunting of God’s will was Saul’s plummet into moral madness. He became increasingly paranoid, jealous, prone to fits of blind fury, deceptive, petulant, and utterly unpredictable. He refused to heed the advice of counselors—after all, how could they be wiser than he?—and became so entangled in fantasies of plots and betrayals that he distrusted even his own children. Everyone, Saul concluded, was “conspiring against me, whispering behind my back.”
Saul’s moral madness fixated especially on David, wildly popular slayer of Goliath and consequently, in Saul’s mind, a threat to his own power. Extravagantly praising David one moment and railing against him the next, Saul’s mercurial paranoia caused him actually to hurl spears at the youth on two occasions. When his poor marksmanship failed to do the trick, he connived to have him assassinated.
David, rightfully fearing for his life, fled the palace into the wilderness. Saul, manic for the youth’s destruction, pursued him, at one point in his frenetic search ruthlessly murdering over 80 priests because one of them had sheltered David, and then putting to the sword every living creature in the town of Nob, beast as well as human, for the same offense.
The king’s madness eventually threw the nation into civil war. Israel’s enemies, sensing the instability caused by Saul’s moral madness, seized the opportunity to invade. Saul’s death in the Battle of Gilboa finally rid Israel of its mad king, but not before he’d nearly destroyed the nation.
Like all kings who go morally mad, this biblical foursome arrogantly believed themselves to be centers of gravity when they were actually epicenters of disaster. All present-day rulers, be they kings or presidents, would do well to take their sorry examples to heart as a warning against the sin of abusing power.
But given their moral madness, they’re not likely to do so without the prodding of fearless prophets. Daniel chastised the mighty king of Babylon; the magi defied Herod the Great; although it cost him his life, John the Baptist took on Herod Antipas; and Samuel, the same man who anointed Saul king, later denounced him.
Many Americans—not to mention the citizens of other nations—fear that President Trump is suffering from moral madness, and that the colossal power he wields as leader of the United States makes his affliction unspeakably frightening. He’s shown no inclination to listen to reason; his paranoiac accusations of betrayal and conspiracy—the chief culprits, so far, being the media and the intelligence community—increase almost daily in range and intensity; and his delusions of grandeur swell with each passing hour.
He’s in need of a prophet—thousands of them—to call him out, to remind him that he’s not God, and to urge him either to repent or step down before he brings disaster upon the nation. Christians across America must accept that we’re called to be prophetic in our resistance to the president’s madness, just as our Hebrew forebears were in relation to their own madmen. Like Isaiah did so many centuries ago, it’s our turn to say to God, “Here we are. Send us.” Refusing the call is inviting the destruction that inevitably occurs when kings go mad.
Kerry Walters pastors Holy Spirit American National Catholic Church, with services in Lewisburg and Sunbury, Pennsylvania. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org