Separation of Powers Illustrated from the Uzziah Incident

2 Chronicles 26:18-19 "It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Get out of the sanctuary, for you have trespassed! You shall have no honor from the LORD God. Then Uzziah became furious; and he had a censer in his hand to burn incense. And while he was angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, before the priests in the house of the LORD, beside the incense altar.


The story of Uzziah reminds us that the model we get for our own system of government comes from the Scriptures. The three major offices in the Old Testament were prophet, priest, and king. These were distinct positions each with their own responsibilities and spheres of power. The king was given the responsibility of governing over the affairs of the nation, including defense, oversight of certain projects, and, above all, honoring and enforcing the law of God. The prophet as God’s representative held the king and his people accountable to the law of God. The priest supervised worship and sacrifice at the Temple. Each one of these had its own sphere of authority and power (Abraham Kuyper, a theologian and former prime minister of Holland, called this "sphere sovereignty"). Our political system calls these "separation of powers." One branch of the government is not to trespass into another area and usurp the power of that sphere.


Uzziah was actually a good king (2 Chron 26:4) but his successes led to a serious lapse in wisdom and judgment. He took upon himself the office of the priesthood. ". . . for he transgressed against the LORD his God by entering the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense" (2 Chron 26:16). The law of God forbade him to do that, but he paid no attention to the courageous high priest and the other priests who confronted him. This took a great amount of moxie to stand up to a king. Uzziah had become powerful and had soldiers readily available for him to do whatever he wanted. No doubt Saul's slaughtering of the priests at Nob lingered in the nation's memory and conscience. (1 Samuel 22).


However, Uzziah learned his lesson rather quickly. The Lord instantly struck him with leprosy, and he was hurried out of the temple (he himself was eager to leave!). He spent the rest of his days in an isolated house. This brought his reign to a disgraceful end, and his son Jotham took over the responsibilities of the nation up to Uzziah's death. (Interestingly Uzziah's death marked the beginning of Isaiah's prophetic ministry, Isaiah 6:1).


Our founding fathers were wise to divide the power of our government into three branches, but unfortunately today these distinctions have been virtually erased. The executive branch writes laws (i.e., executive orders), the judicial branch also creates laws ("legislating from the bench"), and the legislative branch essentially does nothing except to impeach a president (2 times) and investigate fictional events. The President thinks he's a king. The justices think they are legislators. The legislators think they're detectives. This is a total mess.


We need to call our country back to its original model, which is the Scriptural method of governance: three powers with checks and balances, each sticking to its own tasks and responsibilities. If we don't do this, our nation will wind up like Uzziah and be in a condition of irreparable disgrace.



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