Thoughts on the Bible, international relations, and self-defence:
Biblically speaking, individuals have a right to self-defence. Nations do too. Generally speaking, there is a place for resisting outside aggressors and defending home, family, and country. Just war theory looks at the place for just wars, which are usually defensive in nature to maintain justice, protect the innocent, and repel invaders.
But what happens when God tells his people to not resist an international enemy, but to basically put up the white flag of surrender? This has happened. Notably, it happened with the three Js: Jeremiah warning the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem that because of their great sin and apostasy, God was raising up the pagan Babylonians to judge them.
He had warned the people for decades about this coming judgment, and as things got closer to the event, he warned the people NOT to resist in any way. He told them that their only option was surrender. Consider Jeremiah 37:6-10 for example:
Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet: “Thus says the Lord, God of Israel: Thus shall you say to the king of Judah who sent you to me to inquire of me, ‘Behold, Pharaoh’s army that came to help you is about to return to Egypt, to its own land. And the Chaldeans shall come back and fight against this city. They shall capture it and burn it with fire. Thus says the Lord, Do not deceive yourselves, saying, “The Chaldeans will surely go away from us,” for they will not go away. For even if you should defeat the whole army of Chaldeans who are fighting against you, and there remained of them only wounded men, every man in his tent, they would rise up and burn this city with fire.’”
More of the same is found in Jer. 38:1-6:
Now Shephatiah the son of Mattan, Gedaliah the son of Pashhur, Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur the son of Malchiah heard the words that Jeremiah was saying to all the people: “Thus says the Lord: He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out to the Chaldeans shall live. He shall have his life as a prize of war, and live. Thus says the Lord: This city shall surely be given into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon and be taken.” Then the officials said to the king, “Let this man be put to death, for he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” King Zedekiah said, “Behold, he is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you.” So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.
Jeremiah made it clear that if the people wanted to live, they should not resist the Babylonian (Chaldean) invaders. The leaders of course saw this as treason, so they took steps to silence Jeremiah. Imagine siding with the enemies of Israel? Imagine championing a bloodthirsty, ruthless and pagan nation like Babylon?
But God is the God of nations, and if he wants to use a pagan nation to judge even his own people, that he will do. He of course did the same with the northern kingdom, using the Assyrians to judge Israel a century earlier. But bear in mind that in both cases, God also then judged the Assyrians (see Isaiah 10, eg.), and Babylon (see Jer. 50-51, eg.).
However, the question arises, is that command to surrender some sort of template for all peoples at all times? What if Communist China or Islamic Indonesia were to invade the nominally Christian Australia today? Are our marching orders to sit back and allow it to happen? Should our leaders simply surrender, based on what Jeremiah had told Judah?
Hopefully the answer should be clear. What God through his prophets had instructed ancient Israel to do was NOT always a pattern for all of us. Israel was in a special covenant relationship with Yahweh. Moreover, God communicated specifically and precisely to his people through his prophets. So they knew exactly what God was up to back then – and why.
Do we have that same clear knowledge and understanding today of what is going on? We certainly do not have the same inspired and inerrant prophetic words that Israel of old had. In other words, we can often only guess as to what exactly is happening on the world stage today – and why.
Let’s say China does one day invade Australia. Can we say for sure that this is God’s way of judging Australia for its many sins, idolatry, and its wholesale abandonment of God? All we can say is, ‘Maybe.’ We just do not know for sure, because we do not have that same sure word from God.
Yes, we can seek some general principles and guidelines from what we find in these Old Testament passages, but we do not have a prophet going around Canberra today saying, ‘Thus says the Lord. China is my servant. Submit to your Communist invaders and it will go well with you. Resist them and you will die, and be carried off into captivity in Beijing.’
In other words, it would likely be a wise thing for our leaders to do what they should do: resist the aggression of Communist China, or anyone else who seeks to invade our land. After all, defending your borders and protecting your citizens is a main rationale for civil government.
In the same way, I do not think there were too many people claiming that 80 years ago Hitler was God’s servant and his attempt to take over Europe and the world was a divinely mandated action that we were all to submit to. The Allies were quite right to resist Hitler and the Nazis. Resisting that diabolical aggression and great evil was the right thing to do.
So it would not have been wise for any Christian leaders back then – or today – to seek to use texts like Jer. 37 and 38 as some sort of blueprint for how our leaders should respond to aggression from other nations. Yes, the generic principles found in Jeremiah still hold, but teasing them out in specifics is another matter.
And it was not just generic bits of advice (‘You have been bad so God is angry with you’) that Jeremiah had given to the people, but quite detailed and specific prophetic words as to what exactly would happen, including a 70 year period of captivity in Babylon.
So as always, especially when it comes to biblical prophecy, we must find out the primary interpretation of a text, while looking for possible secondary application. In this case, Jeremiah clearly teaches us that God is holy, sin is deadly, and God must judge sin.
And when we look at the big sweep of history, we see this playing out time and time again. Babylon is no more. Assyria is no more. The old Roman Empire is no more. Nazi Germany is no more. God will judge the nations. And he will do so according to his own perfect timing.
In the meantime, we must be so grateful that the main way that God has dealt with the sin question is by having his own Son die in our place at Calvary, so that those who repent and put their trust in him can find forgiveness of sins, and the judgment that we certainly deserved removed.
Let me close with some helpful commentary on all this by Philip Graham Ryken:
It is not hard to figure out why Shephatiah, Gedaliah, Jehucal, and Pashhur were so upset. They were patriots trying to defend their homeland, but Jeremiah was hurting the war effort with his defeatist attitude. Not surprisingly, when they heard what Jeremiah was preaching, they cried “Treason!”
Here is the real question, however: Was their accusation true? Listen again to the charge the “Gang of Four” leveled against Jeremiah: “This man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm” (v. 4). Was the accusation true? Was Jeremiah a traitor to God’s people or not? Was he seeking their ruin or their good?
News of divine judgment is always bad news. It is unpleasant to hear that God punishes sin rather than overlooks it. But the only thing that really matters is whether or not the bad news of divine judgment is true. When the bad news is God’s news, it needs to be heard.
In this case, Jeremiah was no traitor. He was speaking the very words of God. When God’s prophet speaks God’s judgment in God’s name, he is no traitor to God’s people. Furthermore, Jeremiah was preaching sweet grace as well as sure judgment. He was telling God’s people how they could save themselves. The real traitors were the members of the “Gang of Four.” When they rejected God’s prophet, they were rejecting God himself, setting themselves up as the enemies of the living God. That was not courageous; it was foolhardy.
The accusation these coconspirators actually leveled against Jeremiah was that he was not seeking the peace, or shalom, of Judah. Ironically, Jeremiah had warned about leaders who make such claims:
They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say
when there is no peace. (8:11)
“‘Shalom, shalom,’ they say, when there is no shalom.”
Shephatiah, Gedaliah, Jehucal, and Pashhur were the liberal theologians of their day. They wanted a God of mercy, but not a God of justice. They wanted a God who gives victory, but not a God who allows suffering. They wanted a Father of love, but not a Father of discipline. The “Gang of Four” were willing to sacrifice the lives of God’s people for only half a god.
This story is a parable for post-Christian times. The church of Jesus Christ is like Jeremiah to a postmodern culture. We do not say, “There, there, everything will be all right.” Instead we say, “It’s not all right with you until you get right with God.” We do not say, “Peace, peace.” Instead, we say, “You will be troubled until you make peace with God.” We proclaim God’s judgment, speaking out against greed, pride, false worship, sexual immorality, and all kinds of sin. And we proclaim God’s grace to this world, announcing free pardon from every sin in Jesus Christ.
Amen to that.