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No. 44: The Restrainer

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 44
December, 1992
Copyright 1992, Biblical Horizons

Many English versions of 1 Samuel 9:17 read, "This one will rule over My people," but that is a mistranslation. The Hebrew verb is `atsar, which means "restrain, hold back" and never means "rule over."

Saul was Israel’s first God-given king, and Samuel was the prophet who established him. Coming where it does, 1 Samuel 9:17 is crucial to understanding the role of the ruler in God’s kingdom. He is to be essentially a restrainer. The purpose of this essay is to explore the concept of the ruler as restrainer, and its implications.

Several times, the verb "restrain" is used of God’s closing up the womb, as in Genesis 16:2 & 20:18 and Isaiah 66:9. God restrains the rain in Deuteronomy 11:17, 1 Kings 8:35, 2 Chronicles 6:26 & 7:13, and Job 12:15. God also restrains the plague, bringing it to a stop, in Numbers 16:48-50 & 25:8, 2 Samuel 24:21-25, and Psalm 106:30. A concordance can be consulted for other passages where `atsar is used, and it will be seen that it always means to hold something back, to restrain something.

The duty of the king to restrain the people implies that they are prone to wander. The "sin of inadvertency" of Leviticus 4 and other passages would be better translated "sin of wandering." The Hebrew is bishgagah, related to the verbal root shagag/shagah, "to go astray" or "to lead astray." The sin of inadvertency is a sin of wandering away. [The best study of bishgagah I am aware of is C. Van Dam, "The Meaning of Bishgagah," in Riemer Faber, ed., Unity in Diversity: Studies Presented to Prof. Dr. Jelle Faber On the Occasion of his Retirement (Senate of the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches, 110 West 27th St., Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L9C 5A1; 1989), pp. 13-23.]

What the Bible teaches is that peoples’ guilt is relatively less if their sin is a result of wandering; that is, if no one in authority over them seeks to warn and restrain them. The first example of this is Eve. Adam was her appointed priest and restrainer, but Adam did not interfere when the serpent tried to seduce her. He stood by silently and allowed Satan to confuse Eve, and he made no attempt to restrain her from eating the forbidden food. His sin was self-conscious and high-handed—he wanted to see what would happen when Eve ate the fruit—and thus his guilt was full, while hers was only partial.

This sets up the distinction between sins of wandering and high-handed sins, a distinction that is all-important to the sacrificial system instituted in Leviticus (see Leviticus 4:2, 22, 27; 5:15, 18). There is no sacrifice for a high-handed sin, but Leviticus 6:1-7 [Heb. 5:20ff.] allows cases of high-handed sacrilege to be converted into sins of wandering if the sinner publicly repents and makes restitution. Then and only then will his sacrifice be acceptable.

Another important example of the ruler’s duty to restrain is found at the Golden Calf incident recorded in Exodus 32. Verse 25 reads, "Now when Moses saw that the people were let loose—for Aaron had let them go loose to be a derision among their enemies . . . ." The verb translated "let loose" (para`) literally means to uncover or make naked. It is used for uncovering the head in Leviticus 10:6, 13:45, & 21:10 and Numbers 5:18. It is used for loosening the bonds of wisdom, and thereby despising it, in Proverbs 1:25, 8:33, 13:18, and 15:32. And, importantly, is it used in Exodus 5:4 when Pharaoh accused Moses and Aaron of letting the people loose from their tasks.

The ruler is to cover the people in the sense of protecting them from their own foolish tendencies, and thereby protecting them from God’s anger. Aaron failed to do this. Aaron allowed the people to prevail upon him. Aaron removed the covering of restraint he was supposed to maintain, and let the people go naked and unhindered. Later, 2 Chronicles 28:19 says the same regarding King Ahaz: "he had brought about a lack of restraint (an uncovering) in Judah."

Moses, in contrast to Aaron, always restrained the people. Moses only sinned at Meribah, when he failed to restrain his own anger (Num. 20:10-12). Self-restraint as well as other-restraint is required of a ruler.

In 1 Samuel 3:13 we find that Eli’s sons committed sacrilege against the Lord, but Eli did not restrain them. In that verse the Hebrew verb is kahah, which means "grow dim." In fact, in 1 Samuel 3:2, we find that Eli’s eyes had become dim, even as the lamp of the Lord was going out. The eye is the organ of judgment in the Bible, as God in Genesis 1 looked at what He had made and pronounced it good, and as the eyes of the Lord go to and fro throughout the earth, His eyes assessing and His eyelids trying the sons of men. Moses’ eye did not grow dim, because he continued to act as a righteous judge and restrainer, but Eli’s eye did grow dim, as had sinful Isaac’s before him (Gen. 27:1).

Why does 1 Samuel 3:13 use this verb "grow dim" to refer to Eli’s failure to restrain his sons? The verb is here used in its intensive form, which implies that Eli did not frown on Hophni and Phineas. He did not shrink and diminish them by the force of his eye. We see from this that the frown of the ruler is one way he restrains the waywardness of his wandering subjects.

(The verb kahah is very close to the verb kahan, "to serve as priest," and its related noun kohen, "priest." There is a clearly intended pun in 1 Samuel 2-3. Eli’s sons were failing as kohens because Eli did not kahah them. Eli’s eyes were becoming kahah because he was failing as High Kohen to kahah his sons. Is it possible that the near identity of these two words indicates that a priest, kohen, is one who frowns on sins, and uses his eyes to diminish the sins of men?)

Eli’s failure to restrain his sons, and Samuel’s subsequent failure along the same lines (1 Sam. 8:3-5, the sons did not "walk in his ways," that is, they wandered), is directly in the background of the appointment of Saul to be Israel’s restrainer. The people’s demand for a king, as recorded in 1 Samuel 8, was sinful. Judges 17-21 make it clear that Yahweh was the king of Israel, and that the pastors (Levites) had the duty of making His kingship visible and present to the minds and hearts of the people. When the Church thus did her job, the judges would be able to do theirs. When the Levites failed, so that there was effectively no king in Israel, then the people ran riot, were unrestrained, and every man did what was right in his own eyes.

The right answer to the problem of Samuel’s corrupt sons would have been to ask Samuel to appoint other judges, and to ask God to restore the fullness of worship to the land. (Remember that the tabernacle had been dismantled a generation earlier.) Instead, however, the people ask for a central authority to be set up as judge and warlord.

I believe that this passage (1 Samuel 8) fits in with what common sense and all the rest of the Bible also teach, namely that when men will not exercise self-restraint, and when the Church does not restrain men through preaching and church discipline, then God will set up a powerful civil authority to restrain men. Still, God showed grace to the people and gave them the best man available for the job of restrainer, Saul ben Kish.

Saul initially proved a good restrainer. He restrained those among his followers who wanted to punish the people who had not voted for him (1 Sam. 11:12-13). But then we read about the Three Falls of Saul in 1 Samuel 13-15. In 1 Samuel 13, the people were scattering from Saul. He should have restrained them, as king, by encouraging them to wait for Samuel. Instead he decided to seize the priestly prerogatives and restrain them by offering sacrifice. The result was that the people were scattered more fully than before and the battle was lost.

In 1 Samuel 14, Saul’s foolish vow, which cut the people off from the battle-strengthening benefits of the land of milk and honey, provoked the people to such great hunger that they broke through the boundary of God’s law and began to eat meat with the blood still in it (v. 32). After this shocking incident, Saul did restrain the people (v. 34), but the damage had been done.

In 1 Samuel 15, Saul made no attempt to restrain the people from taking the spoil of the battle against the Amalekites, and when Samuel cross-examined him, he blamed the people in the same way Adam blamed Eve. The result was that he lost the kingdom.

David seems to have restrained Israel all right. His failures as a restrainer had to do with his immediate family. He was unable to restrain vicious Joab, his cousin, and he failed to restrain his children. In this latter regard, he repeated the failures of Eli and Samuel.

1 Kings 1:6 says regarding Adonijah that "his father had never grieved him at any time by asking, `Why have you done so?’" Since Adonijah had never been restrained, he never learned self-restraint, and his unrestrained ambitions got him killed. Beyond this, though, it is clear that David had not done much restraining with his other sons either. Amnon was copying his father when he took Tamar, and when David did nothing about it, Absalom slew Amnon (2 Samuel 11-13).


We have seen that one of the most important duties of a ruler is to restrain the waywardness of the people, using the power given him. To the magistrate is given the sword, to the church ruler is given excommunication, and to parents is given the rod. Those who are given these powers, and who refuse to use them to restrain those under them, become partially guilty when those under them wander into sin. I see several general implications of this teaching.

First, it tells us that people are wayward and prone to wander unless they are under authority. People who are outside the church, for instance, have put themselves on the path that leads to heresy and destruction. This is just as true of theologians and Bible teachers (and wannabe theologians) as anyone else. Today we see a number of outspoken Christian pundits who refuse to be restrained by coming under the government of any church, and who (in my opinion) are advocating stranger and stranger ideas, wandering from the kingdom. It is surprising sometimes to find out that certain prominent authors and spokesmen (and spokeswomen) refuse to come under the government of any church. These people refuse to be restrained by anybody. The Biblical teaching at this point says caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. Not everything such wandering stars teach is wrong, but as time goes along they become more and more quackodox, and perhaps even heterodox.

(At this point, I should name names, and warn you against certain well-known people. I have decided that this is not the place to do so.)

Second, this teaching tells us that the sinfulness of the ruler is such that he will tend not to restrain the people under him. The civil government of the United States today has to a considerable extent forsaken its restraining work, with the result that our citizens are wandering more and more into crime. Parents tire of using the rod, and seek to excuse their children instead of restraining them. Elders in the church seek any excuse not to restrain wanderers and discipline those who are causing others to wander. The message of the Bible is a serious warning to all those in authority to make sure they take the duty of restraining seriously.

Third, following on this, the Bible teaches that almost as soon as someone comes into a position of authority, God will test his resolve to see if he will be a good restrainer. Adam and Aaron were tested immediately, and failed. Saul was tested three times, after two years, and failed all three times. God causes children to drive their parents crazy, to test the parents. Parents not only have to put up with the grief their children give them, but also with grief from other Christians who don’t believe in spanking. God requires that we keep on doing what is right, trusting Him.

Similarly, God brings before the elders of the church cases that test their resolve to govern righteously. These tests are hard enough, especially when they come one right after another (as they so often do), but God can make them harder still by bringing across your path "theologians" who hate church discipline and who assume in every case that you are evil for daring to restrain the sins of your parishioners. Certain Christian Reconstructionists and Theonomists are notorious for their assaults on various churches whose crime, in their eyes, was that they were compelled to discipline some members who were in gross sin. Men like them exist in every church circle. In the face of rebellion from the Korahs, Dathans, and Abirams, and in the face of outside threats from Amalekites, the church elders have to stand firm and do their duty of restraining. (I have replied to Chilton’s public attacks on church discipline in a private paper, available upon request from Biblical Horizons .)

A fourth implication of this study is that the ruler’s essential task is to restrain people from wandering from what the Bible commands, not to direct people into what he thinks they should do. For instance, parents should restrain their children from marrying, and therefore from dating, those outside the church. This does not mean that parents should arrange their children’s marriages, for the Bible never teaches or shows that parents have such a duty or power. Matchmaking is, of course, a possibility, but the children have the right to reject the match. Sadly, some fanatics in the "Home Everything Movement" have begun to advocate arranged marriages, as if such were a Christian idea. Similarly, parents may encourage their children in a certain line of work, but the power of rule does not mean that parents can force children into certain occupations.

The same applies in the church. It is tyrannical when church elders try to force marriages on people, or require them to work at certain jobs, or order them to relocate, or demand that they engage in certain works of charity, etc. And occasionally this kind of thing has happened (though not very often). But there is nothing tyrannical in rebuking people for sin, or if forced to do so, excommunicating them for rebellion.

A fifth implication is that when God gives bad rulers to a society or church, those rulers will not restrain sin. In fact, they may act to restrain righteousness. According to the Bible, when the people wander into sin in such a situation, they are still at fault, but their guilt is lessened. They are committing sins of wandering, because their rulers have not restrained them and have not taught them correctly. An example today is abortion. It is unjust to say that abortionists are committing murder, because murder is the intentional killing of a human being, and abortionists do not believe that the fetus is a human being. Psychologically speaking, this is at present a sin of wandering, and the primary responsibility lies not with those doing the killing but with the magistrates who refuse to restrain them, and who refuse to educate them by passing laws defining the unborn child as a fully human being.

When God is pleased with us, however, He will give us good restrainers. The law will be changed, and since the law is a teacher, Americans will be without excuse if they kill their unborn children. In such a situation, it would be just to call abortion murder.

A sixth implication is that God has given the duty to restrain only to certain people: officers in family, church, and state. When these rulers refuse to restrain, God will step in and do so. That is particularly true in the gospel era because Christ is the king of the world, and His duty as king is to be the Restrainer. Christ is restraining the wicked at present by promoting AIDS among them. He has put into office magistrates who advocate prophylactics as a means of preventing AIDS. We ask, how could anybody be so stupid as to believe this? The answer is that God has given them over to folly. We must do our duty and bear witness to them, urging them to advocate chastity, but so far they refuse to hear us. Thus, they promote AIDS and other venereal diseases through their sex education programs, etc. By this means, God is wiping out many Canaanites, making room for His people to have greater influence in the next generation.

Similarly, Christ is restraining the wicked by causing them to kill their children. If thirty million babies have died since 1973, that is 30,000,000 fewer pagans our children will have to deal with. Over time, the percentage is running favorable to the Kingdom, since Christians don’t kill their babies. Also, many women who have abortions are unable afterwards to conceive, either because of physical damage, or because of deep-seated guilt. Either way, God is sterilizing the pagan culture and wiping out the Canaanites, making room for us. Here again we must do our duty, calling on the magistrate to reform the law, and calling on the wandering people to come into the Kingdom and spare their children. But having warned them, if they do not repent, we should not be surprised if they and their seed perish.

Seventh and finally, if we want to see a return of true restraint in our society, with Godly restrainers in office in our land, we need to pursue that goal in a Godly fashion. Since we have not been ordained as restrainers, we may not take up the sword. And in light of 1 Samuel 8, we must not look an earthly ruler to change the situation. Rather, we must appeal to God, the heavenly Restrainer. God’s restraint is made manifest first in the church, which is why church discipline must be restored first before any other social discipline will be restored (and this is why Satan sends his agents to fight true church discipline at every level). Liturgical warfare and a life of obedience will please God, and He will give us good restrainers in every area of life.