[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given at the United Church of God congregation in Portland on June 10, 2017. It had been previously given at the UCG congregation in Hood River on June 3, 2017.]
I have a confession to make that may be something a lot of you will be able to relate to. I often find myself to be far too interested and involved in the conflicts and drama around me. Whether this has involved juicy gossip about interpersonal problems or harsh and intensely critical conversation about matters of church or secular politics, far too much of my own life has been spent in tearing down and reviling those whom I viewed to be corrupt and illegitimate leaders within families, schools, churches, and governments. From what I have observed over time, this is a common problem in our world today. Whether in social media or fake news or talk radio or break room conversation, it is all too common for us to listen to and participate in tearing down leaders of one kind or another. Today I would like to look at the biblical history and contemporary application of a short and straightforward law  that presents our age with an intensely difficult challenge in treating leaders, even those leaders we happen to despise, with the respect and honor that God commands.
This law is found in Exodus 22:28. The law is only one verse long, and was given at Mount Sinai shortly after the ten commandments were proclaimed. It is a part of what religious scholars call The Law of the Covenant, that give the most obvious and important applications of the Ten Commandments to the lives of believers. Exodus 22:28 reads: ““You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” This law speaks about God’s commandment that we respect and honor those authorities that God has placed over us. For various personal reasons, this law has always presented me with a deep personal challenge, and I imagine that is true also for you. This particular law can be considered as an extension and application of the commandment to honor our fathers and mothers in a larger and more public sense. As our parents are the first divinely appointed authorities we deal with and are commanded to honor and respect, so too our honor of these authorities at home can be extended and generalized to a respect of all divinely appointed authorities in our lives. And since we are commanded to honor such authorities, we are forbidden from dishonoring them in our speech and conduct. To curse God and revile our earthly leaders, no matter how wicked or corrupt they may be, is to sin against God.
What does the Bible mean here when it refers to cursing God and reviling earthly authorities? The word used for curse in this verse is Strong’s word H7043, qalal, which has the meaning of cursing, despising, making light of, or viewing with contempt. We do this when we insult or ridicule something or someone. The word for revile is Strong’s word H779, ‘arar, which usually means to curse someone or something or treat something with bitterness. Surely these words can describe our own political discourse, the way that we sometimes treat others with caustic and sarcastic wit, to make light of other people, to tease them, to ridicule them, to insult them, to disrespect them. I do not speak to you as a judge of those tendencies, merely as someone who struggles perhaps more than most to control my own fierce tongue and pen and keyboard and whose struggles in this area are known to you all. This is an immensely difficult law to keep, and it is one that we constantly see broken around us if we are at all aware of our surroundings.
We find this law quoted directly one time in the rest of scriptures, and it does so in precisely the sort of context that we might expect. Let us turn to Acts 23, and we will read the first five verses to give how this law is both quoted and interpreted in the life of the apostle Paul. Acts 23:1-5 reads: “Then Paul, looking earnestly at the council, said, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?” And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?” Then Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”” In light of our own contemporary discourse, we may find this application of the law about reviling those in authority to be somewhat shocking. Let us look at the context. Paul, while seeking to defend himself in a trial before the Sanhedrin was hit on the orders of a corrupt high priest. How many of us would be furious and upset at such an abuse of authority? I know I would, without a doubt. And Paul’s response is fierce but not as fierce as our response could easily be, in that he calls the high priest a whitewashed wall and says that God will strike him. I can easily imagine myself saying far worse. And yet what Paul said here to a corrupt authority who had abused his power and physically assaulted him by proxy violated God’s command, which Paul quotes as forbidding us to speak evil of a ruler of our people. Any evil speech about an authority, be it a husband or a father or a minister or a politician or anyone else in any position of authority is a violation of God’s commandment, and Paul is placed here in the awkward position of having to cite God’s law against his own conduct, after which he continues his able defense and splits the Sanhedrin by appealing to his belief in the resurrection.
Why is it that God is so strict about our speaking evil against authorities? Let us turn to another immensely difficult scripture that gives us the reason why. In Romans 13:1-7, we read some very challenging words from the apostle Paul concerning our duties towards authority. Romans 13:1-7 reads: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”
For leaders, this passage presents a dual-edged sword. Let us remember the context of this message, in that Paul was speaking to a Roman audience ruled over by the corrupt Nero, one of the worst Roman emperors who ever lived, a man responsible for Paul’s own death some years after Paul wrote this epistle, and an emperor whose persecution of Christians by feeding them to the beasts and turning them into ghastly candles to light his evening entertainment is horrifying. Given that context, it might strike us as remarkable that Paul gives so broad and sweeping a command about our duties to authorities like that. Because God has placed those in authority over us, we are duty bound to honor them and to obey God’s laws, come what may, and to be loyal to the regimes that rule over us. Yet while being God’s ministers also gives all authorities a legitimacy that many of them quite frankly do not deserve, it is also an immense burden and immense danger. Since those who rule, in whatever office they hold, do so as God’s servants, they are accountable to God for how they rule. Those leaders who abuse their power and authority, who take advantage of and exploit and mistreat those whom God has placed under their authority, can expect a much more severe sword and a much harsher judgment than they inflicted on others. It is all too easy for us as people to forget that God’s justice is sure, even if it is not often very swift, and it is all too easy for leaders to forget that they too are servants of a higher authority whose character and conduct they are commanded to emulate in exercising their own positions of authority.
We may see, therefore, how easily this is relevant to us. We are commanded to view God with honor and respect. We are commanded in Exodus 22:28 to avoid dishonoring those placed in authority over us, a command that is repeated elsewhere, as we have seen, in the New Testament for believers today. Hopefully we may see the reasons for this command. If we are placed in positions of honor and authority, a part of the burden and responsibility of those offices is to demonstrate in our behavior the loving and just God whom we worship and serve. Those who lead, through their service to God, are to be treated with respect because they provide us with earthly models of how God is to behave. For all of us who are subject to authority, our responsibility in that position is to learn how to honor and respect authority, even when it does not always act towards us as we might wish. On the flip side, those of us who hold offices of authority are accountable to God for how we model His behaviors. It is easy to forget this high honor and responsibility when we are imperfect human beings dealing with other imperfect human beings who are in positions of authority in our social and political institutions. It has always been so, and it will always be so as long as human beings rule over everything. Let us therefore commit ourselves anew to treating authorities with honor and respect as servants of God and being authorities whose conduct and behavior is a just and fitting image of God’s own rule over the universe, and who are worthy of the honor and respect that is given to us by God’s command.
 See, for example: