Everthing I ever needed to know about the kingdom of God, I learned from flannelgraph.
God’s early promises to his people are imprinted on my mind in flannelgraph images from my earliest days in bible class. In Abraham, God announced his intentions to bless all the people of the earth through Abraham’s children. But long before this covenant was ever made, God made another crucial covenant with Noah. In a creation awash in the violence of those who try to take control of the earth and its peoples for themselves, God’s first promise was that he would not himself be a destroyer.
The promise to Noah should not be dismissed lightly. Have you noticed how almost all of scripture takes place in a political context?
- It is in the earliest cities, possibly the first organized states, where, for the first time, God recognizes people’s seemingly limitless capacity to grow (and destroy?).
- It is out of the great civilization of Egypt where God rescues his people from the most powerful man in the world, his will yielding only after an unending stream of calamities, and his army pursuing them into the desert.
- During their entire existence, Israel and Judah struggle against their neighbors, particularly the Philistines.
- It is the great Babylonian empire that eventually conquers Israel and takes it captive.
- Even though it is not depicted in scripture per se, the inter-testamental period witnesses history-making interactions between Jerusalem and Alexander the Great, a greek conqueror who ultimatlely brought hellenistic culture to Judea.
- Jesus is born and lives during a tumultuous period in which Rome threatens to and, ultimately does, bring about the destruction of the Holy City itself.
No one ever presented it to me in so many words, but deep down I knew it very clearly: the Bible is about politics. It is about Lordships and Kingships. It is about the question of who is in charge.
Will it be Pharaoh? Or Jehovah? Will it be the engineers of the monuments of early men? Or their Creator? Will it be Nebuchadnezzar, who you might think had “won” because he conquered Israel, God’s people? Or will it be the God who can change him into a madman at will?
Scripture’s answer is always the same: men may possess power and authority for a short time, but ultimately God will be God.
Imagine George Bush suddenly issuing a decree in which he states that the Allah of radical, fundamentalist Islamic beliefs is the one, true God. That sort-of shocking statement is comparable to the remarkable declaration that Nebuchadnezzar makes in the latter part of Daniel 6:
At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.
His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?
Now, I’m getting a little ahead of myself in asking this, but here is an interesting question: God can bring Pharaoh to his knees and put praises on the tongue of Nebuchadnezzar the conquerer. So why not just set up shop in Egypt, or Babylon, or Jerusalem for that matter – and use the Kings and Kingdoms of the earth to re-assert his dominion?
The answer, I think, goes back to the things he promised Noah and Abraham. The revolution of God’s kingdom was not ultimately to be one of violence and politics, but one that happens “inside-out”, so to speak: one that “blesses” people. In the days to come, the nations of the earth would not be overthrown by an army of angels (or an army of people, or a flood, or a storm). Instead, they would be subverted by people’s blind trust in mere ideas. Ideas so powerful and divine in origin that they have influenced the course of history for the last two thousand years.
But, as I said, I am getting ahead of myself. Because before I can talk about those ideas, it is helpful to have a brief look at the one, bizarre instance of a true God-state that has been witnessed in history.
Next up: The Kingdom of Israel.