[The following is an excerpt from John Calvin’s Sermons on Deuteronomy (1:13), updated into modern English.]
We must also observe this saying of Moses: Choose ye men of wisdom and of good skill, men well-tried, that they may be set over you according to your tribes, even over thousands, over hundreds, and over fifties, as we shall see afterward. Hereby it is shown to us that when we have to elect men to hold public office, we must chose them with discretion and not take on the fly those who thrust themselves in first. Neither must they be taken for favor or for some vanity that appears good, but that God presides over the election and that such men may be selected as are known to be appropriate to exercise the estate to which they are called.
We must especially observe that which is rehearsed in Exodus 18 (as already mentioned), for there Jethro says that we must take men that are virtuous, fearing God, lovers of the truth, and haters of avarice. Who is he that speaks this? A poor pagan man, as I have said already. Yet God governs his tongue in such a way that we cannot have a better teacher than him when we are about to choose men to govern a people. First of all he requires men that are virtuous,1 such as are not effeminate, but have the capacity to be provided with such a charge, and have good zeal, courage, and magnanimity.
And because that bribes do blind the eyes of the wise, and make good men swerve from uprightness, he says that if we will have men fit to bear authority, they must hate covetousness and despise the goods of this world, so that they can find in their hearts to forbear them. Seeing then that such a lesson is told to us by a heathen man, I pray you what a shame shall it be that we which profess ourselves to be brought up in the law of God and in his Gospel, and have our ears so much beaten with it, should still be novices in the doctrine, or at least practice it so poorly among us? And yet for all that, if we do not use it to our profit, it is written to be kept to our great confusion and to make us inexcusable.
So then, let us weigh well this saying where Moses exhorts the people to choose men of understanding and wisdom, and proven men. For if we put a man in office upon nothing but hope, without good knowledge and experience of him, is it not a defiling of the seat of God and of justice? Indeed, God reserves to himself principality over all men, as he is also worthy to have, and yet notwithstanding he will be served by mortal men as by his ministers and officers. Therefore, the seat of justice is (as you might say) consecrated or hallowed to him, as shall be showed in the next lesson. Now, there is taking of men at a venture, and they know not what they ought to do, nor how to behave themselves. Well, such a one needs to test what he can do, and when he is once set in his seat, he will have regard for himself. Shall he that would not take a cowherd or a shepherd into his house upon bare hope, without knowledge or understanding of him what he is, shall he, I ask, go set a man in God’s seat, of whom he has no knowledge, and of whom he has no experience to judge what that man is?
Now then, let us be well advised, when God gives this grace, or rather privilege, of electing men who govern (which is not common to all people), let us not abuse that gift of God in any way, or else we shall be amazed to see ourselves bereft thereof. And behold the reason why so many tyrannies have come into the world that the liberty was lost in all nations, that there is no more election, for which reason princes sell the offices of justice, and things are in confusion and it is a horror. And why has this come about but that when the people had the election in their hands, they abused it, and so were worthy that God should deprive them of the honor he had done them. For is it not as good as willfully provoking God’s wrath, and spiting him, when people having free election, who should choose men to serve God and to be his officers, instead make corrupt bargains in taverns, and even as it were in scorn and mockery of God, choose such as are most dissolute and out of bounds? Do you not see this is to pervert all order?
To be short, it should seem that we wish to expel God out of his seat when we set his enemies in it after that sort, and such as despise him, and such as seek nothing else but to tread his name and majesty under their feet. When this is how it is, is it any wonder that God sends such disorder into the world as we see? Now then, we could all the more stand to note well this doctrine, where it is said that when God gives a people liberty to elect officers, they must not abuse it, but must use discretion in choosing them. Yes, and for as much as we may often times be deceived, we must resort to God that he may give us prudence and govern us with his Holy Spirit, as though he had pointed out with his finger whom we ought to choose. And that is the cause why I said that elections shall never be well ordered except God preside over them by his Holy Spirit.
- The French vertueux translates intuitively as “virtuous,” but the idea carried a broader meaning in the sixteenth century than perhaps today, ranging from moral honesty and integrity to physical traits of manliness and comprehending spiritual qualities such as courage, confidence, and grace. Based on the description that follows, Calvin seems to have had the full range of meaning in mind.(↩)