To think biblically about political matters, believers need to look both to the past and to the future:
There is a connection and a continuation between God’s original creation and what we will find in the new heaven and the new earth. So if we want to know something of the future, we need to know something of the original designs of God as found in the opening chapters of Genesis.
All believers should be intrigued and interested in what life will be like in our future state. And the Bible has much to say about it, and not just in the last book of the Bible – Revelation. The Old Testament prophets often spoke about these matters, often speaking in terms of a glorious future that Israel would one day experience. There are numerous such passages, including Isaiah 60.
Yes, Christians can have different understandings of just how these OT texts are to be understood. For example, do they apply only for Israel, or for all God’s people. Do they refer to some millennial state, or to the eternal state? Indeed, just what exactly does the Bible mean when it speaks about heaven and the like?
Twenty years ago Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary in California released a slim little volume called When the Kings Come Marching In (Eerdmans, 2002). It is based on some lectures he had given a few decades earlier, looking at Isaiah 60.
Before going any further, let me say this: If you like people like Abraham Kuyper and the notions of common grace and the cultural mandate, you will quite like Mouw, since he writes about these matters so very often. If not, well, look away now. But for those still interested, see some of my earlier articles on this:
But here I want to offer a few quotes from his 2002 volume. First let me draw upon his introductory chapter. Not only is there a connection between creation and new creation, but there is to be a connection with how we live NOW – in between these two periods. He writes:
Like the Old Testament saints, we Christians await the appearance of God’s city — we too “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). But while we are to be a “waiting” people, we are not to be passive in our lives of anticipation. The biblical visions of the future are given to us so that we may have the kind of hope that issues forth into lives of active disobedience vis-a-vis contemporary culture.
When I refer to “culture” in these pages I am not using the term in any narrow sense. This is not a book, for example, about “refined tastes” in art or music or literature. My focus here is on the broad patterns of social life, including political, economic, technological, artistic, familial, and educational patterns. It is my contention in these meditations that it is extremely significant that when Isaiah looks to the fulfillment of God’s promises, he envisions a community into which technological artifacts, political rulers, and people from many nations are gathered. God intended from the beginning that human beings would “fill the earth” with the processes, patterns and products of cultural formation. And this intention has in no way been cancelled by human sin. God will redeem and transform that which is presently perverted and distorted by human disobedience to his will.
That is good news in my books. And those who are familiar with Kupyer, Mouw and others will know what he is getting at here. Otherwise, see the links I offer above. But it is his chapter on political rulers – “Here Come the Kings!” – that I want to focus on more fully here.
He reminds us how often we find “obvious political elements in his description of the Holy City”: Isaiah 60:3, 10, 11, 16. He asks, “Why all this attention to political authorities?” Mouw says that kings back then were more than mere political figures: “In short, ancient kings served as the primary authorities over the broad patterns of the cultural lives of their nations.”
This again affirms the broader matter of culture that God was concerned about with the cultural mandate, is interested in now, and will still be concerned about in the age to come. And this entails setting things right, and bringing much needed judgment. He writes:
The ways of human government in a sinful world are perversions of the “subduing” and “dominion” that God intended as a part of the good creation. The curse of sin touches thrones and principalities, constitutions and legal systems. Tyranny, oppression, and manipulation are distortions of the good administrative patterns that God originally willed for his human creatures.
This wicked situation must be corrected, and it will be rectified in God’s transformed City. Over and over again the Scriptures make this plain: the political power that has been so corrupted and twisted in the hands and hearts of sinful rulers must be returned to its rightful source. There must be a general political reckoning in which those who have misused the authority that comes from God alone acknowledge their error and rebellion. The righteous rule of God must achieve public vindication.
Therefore, people from many nations will enter the transformed City, “with their kings led in procession” (Isa. 60:11). God’s people will someday “take captive those who were their captors, and rule over those who oppressed them” (Isa. 14:2) – and “the sons of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you” (Isa. 60:14). The nations of the earth will someday turn to the God of Jacob and ask him to “judge between the nations and … decide for many peoples” (Isa. 2:4).
Isaiah’s vision of the transformed City takes these elements into account: a political reckoning must occur, and the power that has been misused in political history must be handed back to its proper source. And this must be in some sense a “public” event. The corrupt rulers of history must stand trial – the unrighteous kings of Israel and Judah, the Egyptian pharaohs, the rulers of Assyria and Syria, the Roman Caesars, Hitler, Stalin, and the corrupt politicians of the so-called “free world.” Their abuses of power cannot go unchecked in the final settling of accounts.
This too is very good news indeed. And such an understanding helps us to better understand how we should think of and respond to governments and the state today:
[G]overnments are not merely a response to sin, but are also affected by sin. Governments can become “beastly”; they can function as objects of idolatrous designs. They can – even when they claim to be maintaining “law and order” – commit themselves to injustice, unrighteousness, and oppression…
Since we are already citizens of God’s commonwealth, we must find effective ways of living in political conformity to its norms and patterns. Because we know that all political rulers will someday be called to account for the only true Sovereign, we must not give them more than they are due in the present age. And from the perspective of the New Testament, what is “due” them is not blind obedience or uncritical submission — and it certainly is not worship or idolatrous trust. What we must show present-day political authority is honor, because we recognize that it is called to perform an important ministry. But as those who know the radicality of the sin that presently affects both individuals and structures, we can only properly “honor” political authority today by constantly calling it to perform the kind of ministry that God requires of all who administer human affairs.
Helpful thoughts those, not only on what we might expect in the age to come, but how we can better understand how we are now to live as citizens of earthly kingdoms but also the heavenly kingdom.