In two previous posts (here and here) I explained why Romans 13 does not refer to the institution of civil government, but rather to God’s providential empowering of particular people with the strength of the sword to rule/dominate people. This is without any regard to legal authority to do so. Their power is de facto not de jure. Tyrants who conquer other nations are powers that are ordained by God and must be subjected to. God’s ordination has to do with his decretive will, not his preceptive will (commanding that something called “civil government” must be established in every society and submitted to).
I offered the following paraphrase of Romans 13:1-7.
Let every soul be subject to the powers over them. For there is no power but from God and the powers that exist have been providentially placed there by God. Therefore whoever rebels against those powers is rebelling against what God has appointed, and those who rebel will bring judgment on themselves. (For rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you want to be free from fear of the one who has power? Then don’t resist him and you will receive his approval. For a powerful ruler is God’s instrument for your good. But if you disobey God and rebel, be afraid, for God has not empowered him with the strength of the sword in vain. He is God’s instrument to administer retribution on those who disobey (such as Jerusalem). Therefore you must not rebel, not only because of the wrath of the powers but also because of your conscience (because you know that God has providentially given them power for your good). For this reason you should also pay taxes, for they are God’s servants attending continually upon this very thing. Pay everyone what is due: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
I want to focus on verse 6: “For this reason you should also pay taxes”. Most translations say something like “For because of this you also pay taxes” (indicative) with the idea being “Taxes exist as a necessary part of the institution of civil government because government officials are servants of God, attending to this very thing and after all, they need to earn a living (the laborer is worthy of his wages).” However, as we saw in the last two posts, Romans 13 is not talking about God ordaining civil government by his preceptive will. It refers to God’s providential ordering of men into positions of power according to his decretive will. If that is the case, however, then the typical reading of v6 doesn’t quite make sense. Why does God need us to pay taxes to support mighty powers so that they can be servants of God according to his providence? That’s not why taxes exist. That is just another conflation of the two wills of God in Romans 13. God doesn’t institute taxes (preceptive) in order to support his ministers (decretive).
I believe reading v6 as an imperative (“For this reason you should also pay taxes”) flows much better with the logic of v1-5 (urging Christians not to participate in a tax revolt). Moses Stuart, the “Father of Biblical Science in America” said “Ye should also pay tribute or ye should pay tribute as well as yield obedience in other things. τελεῖτε I take in the imperative.” William Barclay translates it as “For this same reason you must pay your taxes too; for those set in authority are the servants of God, and continue to work for that very end.” Charles Hodge, likewise commented
For, for this cause, pay ye tribute also. This verse may be connected, by the words ( διὰ τοῦτο) rendered for this cause, with the preceding, thus, ‘Wherefore (i.e., for conscience’ sake) ye should pay tribute also.’ But it is better to consider this clause as containing an inference from the foregoing exhibition of the nature and design of civil government: ‘Since civil government is constituted for the benefit of society, for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of those that do well, ye should cheerfully pay the contributions requisite for its support.’
Robert Haldane argued
For this cause pay ye tribute also. — Some, instead of ‘pay ye,’ translate the words ‘ye pay.’ But it cannot be supposed that the Apostle first alleges, as a reason for rendering personal obedience, that they were already in the habit of conscientiously paying tribute, when, in the subsequent verse, he enjoins the duty of tribute as specifically as he did the duty of obedience.
But wouldn’t this just mean that God is commanding Christians to pay taxes in order to support the men he is providentially using as servants, an idea we just rejected? Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe the reason is not that we need to provide for their livelihood. Perhaps the reasoning lies elsewhere.
The Greek word translated “tax” in verse 6 is φόρους. It more accurately means tribute. It is distinct from the word τέλος in verse 7 translated as “revenue.” τέλος means custom. Robertson says that phoros refers “to the tribute paid to a subject nation (Lk 20:22), while custom (telos) is tax for support of civil government (Mt 17:25).” Phoros was a tax that subject people paid to their conqueror.
In Ro 13:6-7, Lk. 20:22, and Mk. 12:14 phoros means “tribute” paid to a foreign ruler. At issue is a land tax or poll tax as distinct from a toll or business tax (télē). The phóros poses for Jews the alternative of loyalty or treason to God as the only Lord. This is what confronts Jesus with a dilemma in Mk. 12:13ff. and parallels. The Pharisees support payment, the Zealots oppose it, but Jesus lifts the problem onto another plane. He abandons God’s claim in the restricted sense but raises it again in an unrestricted sense, anchoring the answer in eschatological fulfilment of the kingdom, and leaving it to responsible individual decision to fill out today the content of giving to God the things that are his. (Theological dictionary of the New Testament.: W.B. Eerdmans)
Webster defines tribute as
an excessive tax, rental, or tariff imposed by a government, sovereign, lord, or landlord; an exorbitant charge levied by a person or group having the power of coercion. An annual or stated sum of money or other valuable thing, paid by one prince or nation to another, either as an acknowledgment of submission, or as the price of peace and protection, or by virtue of some treaty. The Romans made all their conquered countries pay tribute, as do the Turks at this day; and in some countries the tribute is paid in children.
The New Bible Dictionary explains
Tribute in the sense of an impost paid by one state to another, as a mark of subjugation, is a common feature of international relationships in the biblical world. The tributary could be either a hostile state or an ally. Like deportation, its purpose was to weaken a hostile state. Deportation aimed at depleting the man-power. The aim of tribute was probably twofold: to impoverish the subjugated state and at the same time to increase the conqueror’s own revenues and to acquire commodities in short supply in his own country. As an instrument of administration it was one of the simplest ever devised: the subjugated country could be made responsible for the payment of a yearly tribute. Its non-arrival would be taken as a sign of rebellion, and an expedition would then be sent to deal with the recalcitrant.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says that in the OT “tribute,” really meant “forced laborers,” “labor gang” (1Ki 4:6; 9:15, 21); also “forced service,” “serfdom”; possibly “forced payment” is meant in Esther 10:1.”
The Septuagint uses φόρους in the following passages.
27 Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 28 When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely.
29 And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them.
30 Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol, so the Canaanites lived among them, but became subject to forced labor.
In case you missed it, the New Living Translation makes it clear
When the Israelites grew stronger, they forced the Canaanites to work as slaves, but they never did drive them completely out of the land.
KJV translates it
And it came to pass, when Israel was strong, that they put the Canaanites to tribute, and did not utterly drive them out.
The Douay-Rheims Bible
But after Israel was grown strong he made them tributaries, and would not destroy them.
This was a common theme throughout the Old Testament. Whenever a power conquered a people, they made them pay tribute. If they didn’t pay tribute, it was considered rebellion and they were destroyed. Yes, it was a form of slavery.
1 Kings 4:6; 5:13-14; 9:15
After David conquered Israel’s enemies, Solomon made them his subjects/tributaries (a violation of the Mosaic Covenant that eventually led to his and all of Israel’s downfall Ex 23:23-33; 34:11-16; Deut 7:1-5; 1 Kgs 11:1-11).
King Solomon was king over all Israel, 2 and these were his high officials: Azariah the son of Zadok was the priest; 3 Elihoreph and Ahijah the sons of Shisha were secretaries; Jehoshaphat the son of Ahilud was recorder; 4 Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was in command of the army; Zadok and Abiathar were priests; 5 Azariah the son of Nathan was over the officers; Zabud the son of Nathan was priest and king’s friend; 6 Ahishar was in charge of the palace; and Adoniram the son of Abda was in charge of the forced labor (φόρους). (KJV: And Ahishar was over the household: and Adoniram the son of Abda was over the tribute.)…
20 Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea. They ate and drank and were happy. 21 Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt. They brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life. 22 Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl. 24 For he had dominion over all the region west of the Euphrates from Tiphsah to Gaza, over all the kings west of the Euphrates. And he had peace on all sides around him…
5:13 And king Solomon raised a levy out of all Israel; and the levy was thirty thousand men. And he sent them to Lebanon, ten thousand a month by courses: a month they were in Lebanon, and two months at home: and Adoniram was over the levy. (KJV)…
9:15 And he sent them to Lebanon, ten thousand a month by courses: a month they were in Lebanon, and two months at home: and Adoniram was over the levy. For Pharaoh king of Egypt had gone up, and taken Gezer, and burnt it with fire, and slain the Canaanites that dwelt in the city, and given it for a present unto his daughter, Solomon’s wife. And Solomon built Gezer, and Bethhoron the nether, And Baalath, and Tadmor in the wilderness, in the land, And all the cities of store that Solomon had, and cities for his chariots, and cities for his horsemen, and that which Solomon desired to build in Jerusalem, and in Lebanon, and in all the land of his dominion. And all the cities of store that Solomon had, and cities for his chariots, and cities for his horsemen, and that which Solomon desired to build in Jerusalem, and in Lebanon, and in all the land of his dominion. Their children that were left after them in the land, whom the children of Israel also were not able utterly to destroy, upon those did Solomon levy a tribute of bondservice [slaves] unto this day. But of the children of Israel did Solomon make no bondmen: but they were men of war, and his servants, and his princes, and his captains, and rulers of his chariots, and his horsemen.
Note that after the split of Israel and Judah, Judah had several wicked kings including Ahaz. Judah was attacked by Syria. Rather than trusting in the LORD to save them, Ahaz king of Judah asked Assryia for help.
2 Kings 16:7 So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” 8 Ahaz also took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasures of the king’s house and sent a present to the king of Assyria. 9 And the king of Assyria listened to him. The king of Assyria marched up against Damascus and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir, and he killed Rezin.
So Ahaz became the king of Assyria’s vassal. He was subject to Assyria and had to pay them tribute. Around that time Assyria went to war against Israel, conquered them and made king Hoshea his vassal as well.
2 Kings 17:3 Against him came up Shalmaneser king of Assyria. And Hoshea became his vassal and paid him tribute. 4 But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea, for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison. 5 Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it.
The result was the permanent exile and destruction of the 10 tribes – not because they rebelled against the powers that be, but because they had continually broken Mosaic law. Their being subject to Assyria was a curse for their disobedience. Note, however, that shortly before Hoshea’s rebellion against the king of Assyria, Hezekiah king of Judah rebelled against Assyria as well. However, the LORD blessed their rebellion because Hezekiah did what was right in the eyes of the LORD (obeyed Mosaic law).
2 Kings 18:1 In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign… And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done. 4 He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). 5 He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. 6 For he held fast to the Lord. He did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. 7 And the Lord was with him; wherever he went out, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him. 8 He struck down the Philistines as far as Gaza and its territory, from watchtower to fortified city.
9 In the fourth year of King Hezekiah, which was the seventh year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against Samaria and besieged it, 10 and at the end of three years he took it. In the sixth year of Hezekiah, which was the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel, Samaria was taken. 11 The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria and put them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes, 12 because they did not obey the voice of the Lord their God but transgressed his covenant, even all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded. They neither listened nor obeyed.
So subjugation by a foreign ruler (being forced to pay tribute) was an Old Covenant curse for disobedience to Mosaic law while successful violent rebellion against the forced payment of tribute was a sign of God’s blessing for obedience.
2 Chronicles 36:3
Egypt later conquered Jerusalem and imposed a tribute on them.
1 The people of the land took Jehoahaz the son of Josiah and made him king in his father’s place in Jerusalem. 2 Jehoahaz was twenty-three years old when he began to reign, and he reigned three months in Jerusalem. 3 Then the king of Egypt deposed him in Jerusalem and laid on the land a tribute (φόρους) of a hundred talents of silver and a talent of gold. 4 And the king of Egypt made Eliakim his brother king over Judah and Jerusalem, and changed his name to Jehoiakim.
When Jerusalem was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar and the faithful remnant submitted to his yoke, we read
How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
has become a slave (φόρους).
During Judah’s exile in Babylon, Babylon was defeated by king Cyrus the Persian. Cyrus proclaimed that the Jews were free to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1). Several rulers later the adversaries of Judah sent a complaint to king Artaxerxes. It read
Ezra 4:11 “To Artaxerxes the king: Your servants, the men of the province Beyond the River, send greeting. And now 12 be it known to the king that the Jews who came up from you to us have gone to Jerusalem. They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. 13 Now be it known to the king that if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute (φόρους), custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be impaired. 14 Now because we eat the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king’s dishonor, therefore we send and inform the king, 15 in order that search may be made in the book of the records of your fathers. You will find in the book of the records and learn that this city is a rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, and that sedition was stirred up in it from of old. That was why this city was laid waste. 16 We make known to the king that if this city is rebuilt and its walls finished, you will then have no possession in the province Beyond the River.”
17 The king sent an answer: “To Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe and the rest of their associates who live in Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River, greeting. And now 18 the letter that you sent to us has been plainly read before me. 19 And I made a decree, and search has been made, and it has been found that this city from of old has risen against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made in it. 20 And mighty kings have been over Jerusalem, who ruled over the whole province Beyond the River, to whom tribute, custom, and toll were paid. 21 Therefore make a decree that these men be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt, until a decree is made by me. 22 And take care not to be slack in this matter. Why should damage grow to the hurt of the king?” 23 Then, when the copy of King Artaxerxes’ letter was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their associates, they went in haste to the Jews at Jerusalem and by force and power made them cease. 24 Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.
This constant back and forth between Israel and foreign enemies throughout the Old Covenant was not about who gets to build the roads and punish criminals. It was about who gets to dominate. As Eerdman’s dictionary noted above “The phóros poses for Jews the alternative of loyalty or treason to God as the only Lord.” In the book of Ezra we see a reversal in Artaxerxes. He later proclaimed that the temple should be rebuilt and he provided abundantly for it.
Ezra 7:23 Whatever is decreed by the God of heaven, let it be done in full for the house of the God of heaven, lest his wrath be against the realm of the king and his sons. 24 We also notify you that it shall not be lawful to impose tribute (φόρους), custom, or toll on anyone of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the doorkeepers, the temple servants, or other servants of this house of God.
To avoid God’s wrath, Artaxerxes forbid any tribute from being imposed upon God’s servants.
Tribute to God
Consider the other mentions of tribute in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word used in 1 Kings 4:21 for the tribute the conquered people brought to Solomon, as well as 2 Kings 17 for the tribute Hoshea paid to the king of Assyria is min·ḥāh. Strong’s defines it as “a gift, tribute, offering.” Note its use as a tribute made to God.
Genesis 4:3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering [tribute] of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.
Many argue that the problem with Cain’s offering was that it was not a blood sacrifice, but Bruce Waltke does a good job of showing that the word used here (min·ḥāh) corresponds to the grain offering in the Levitical system.
In nontheological texts it designates a “gift” from an inferior to a superior person, particularly from a subject to a king, to convey the idea of homage. The Israelites, for example, who despised Saul “brought him no present” ( minha ) (1 Sam 10:27), that is, as Carr explained: “did not acknowledge the new king.” 18 The kings submissive to Solomon brought “tribute” ( minha ) (1 Kgs 4:21 [Heb. 5:1]; cf. Jdg 3:15-18; 2 Sam 8:2, 6). “Gifts” to Solomon included articles of silver and gold, robes, weapons and spices, and horses and mules (1 Kgs 10:25). A person brought a gift appropriate to his social standing and vocation (cf. Gen 32:13ff. [Heb. vv 14ff] ). Appropriately, Abel, a shepherd, brought some of his flock (that is, from the fruit of the womb of sheep and/or goats), and Cain, a farmer, brought from the fruit of the ground.
Thus the original tribute was the one made to God by his image bearers and was an integral part of the Levitical system. Compare also Numbers 38:28 with Genesis 14:20 and Deuteronomy 14:22.
Note also that Psalm 72 praises Christ through the typology of Solomon and says
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!…
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River[b] to the ends of the earth!
May desert tribes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust!
May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!
Compare with Jacob’s prophecy of Christ.
“Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons shall bow down before you.
Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
So this back and forth continues, with the temple signifying rebellion and independence from foreign rulers demanding tribute, up until Jesus inaugurates the kingdom of heaven. Jewish zealots continue to campaign for rebellion against Rome (as Hezekiah had successfully done by the LORD’s help against Assyria). I believe this is the appropriate context of Romans 13. I don’t think Paul is simply addressing the institution of civil government and the annoying need to pay their wages for benefits we receive from them. Rather, I believe Paul is addressing the fact that a pagan foreign ruler who claims to be a god is oppressively demanding that Christians, citizens of the kingdom of heaven, worship him by paying tribute as his loyal subjects. And this is precisely why Paul answers in the way he does. These kings who dominate you and demand tribute are not god. They are not supreme. They are God’s vassals! He rules them and they serve Him. They do His bidding whether they know it or not. The earthly theocracy has been destroyed, but God providentially reigns from heaven over your pagan rulers. With the coming of Christ and the nearing end of the Old Covenant, you need not seek to overcome your oppressors and restore an earthly theocracy. In fact, to do so would be disobedience. God commanded Israel to be subject to the Gentile nations (Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome). Their disobedience shortly after Romans 13 was written brought the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, marking the final end of the Old Covenant.
But the command to be subject and submit to the yoke of Gentile oppressors now applies to Christians as well insofar as the kingdom of heaven is not of this world. We wait patiently for the re-establishment of the theocracy (in the new heavens and the new earth) just as the faithful remnant of Israel waited patiently in Babylon for the restoration of the theocracy in Jerusalem – seeking the peace of Babylon in the meantime. Christ reigns spiritually and He will return physically at the end of the age. In the meantime, be subject to these mighty men. Do not rebel. Pay their tribute. It is not a sign of disloyalty to God. You should pay their forced tribute because they are not supreme. They are God’s servants, continually attending to His bidding. So do what they say. Pay what they demand. Do not resist. Do not take vengeance upon them, but leave it to the Lord.
Romans 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.