When Biblical Prophets Challenge Political Power
John C. Rankin (2009)
Adam, Eve and the Ancient Serpent
This biblical tradition begins with the very origins of human government, when Yahweh Elohim gave Adam and Eve stewardship over the creation, and authority to start building human civilization. This was part of the covenant of freedom Yahweh Elohim gave mankind – freedom to choose between good and evil, life and death, freedom and slavery. In choosing the good, life and freedom, Adam and Eve had authority to crush evil, death and slavery.
Prior to the introduction of human sin, the power to give and receive blessings was unlimited, as there was no broken trust. But once sin entered the picture, evil had to be restrained. In Genesis 3, Yahweh tested Adam and Eve with the presence of the ancient serpent. They had authority over the animal kingdom, so when Satan masqueraded as a serpent and counseled Adam and Eve to rebel against the Creator, Adam should have crushed the serpent’s head on the spot. But he did not, and sin entered the world. Then Yahweh prophesied a war between the seed of the ancient serpent, and the offspring of the woman that would lead to the Messiah. Satan’s strategy from that point forward was to kill the woman’s offspring, to abort the coming of the Messiah and the Messiah’s judgment on him. The admixture of totalitarian political power, with sorcery behind the scenes, was the devil’s means.
Abraham in the Face of Lawless Kings
In Genesis 14, Abraham had to rescue his nephew Lot who had been captured in a war between four kings on the one side and five on the other. Nation states did not yet exist, and there was a general lawlessness in the world of contests between various tribal kings.
In so doing, Abraham put down petty totalitarian powers, and honored the covenant of freedom reflected in the lawfulness of the king of Salem, Melchizedek.
Moses in the Face of Pharaoh
Joseph, as the descendant of the messianic line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, rescued the Egyptian nation, and his family in Canaan, from the great seven-year famine. He became de facto prime minister of the nation, second only to Pharaoh the king. But years later, his service to the nation was forgotten, and his Hebrew descendants were enslaved by another Pharaoh (see Genesis 37-50 for the whole Joseph saga).
Moses challenged this Pharaoh, and his sorcerers in the name of Yahweh Elohim: “Let my people go.” Thus, after signs and wonders to break the Pharaoh’s stubbornness of false political power, the Israelites were led to freedom in the exodus between 1446-1406 B.C. (see Exodus 4-14).
In so doing, Moses overcame sorcery and totalitarian power, as he served the covenant of freedom.
Samuel in the Face of King Saul
The Law of Moses set up a government of local judges. Moses exemplified it, and from Joshua to Samuel, this was the norm, all under Yahweh as King, where life, liberty and property were explicitly protected for all people as equals in the sight of the Law, in the sight of their Creator. Samuel was a judge, prophet and priest.
In this regard Israel was wholly distinct from their pagan neighbors where self-aggrandizing kings ruled in a top-down manner – in fear themselves of petty, finite, promiscuous, warring and enslaving gods and goddesses, and then putting that fear on the rest of the people. But Israel still often fell into their sins and pursued the ways of the pagan nations that surrounded them – the idolatries of sorcery, sacred prostitution and child sacrifice. But when they were desperate enough and cried out for deliverance, Yahweh would send a new judge to rescue them.
Israel had no national capitol and no national shrine like the pagan nations. Instead, Israel was a federation of twelve tribes, where their land and identity was protected from generation to generation by the Law of Moses. The Tent of Meeting, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, was located at Shiloh, but was still mobile in nature. The judges were all local people who were like circuit riders in administering justice and mercy according to the Law of Moses given by Yahweh.
But by the end of Samuel’s life, when his two sons failed in being honest judges, the cry for a pagan styled king was so loud that Yahweh agreed to let Israel go its own way, and indeed, to reap what they were sowing. It grieved Samuel deeply, and according to the word of the Lord, he warned Israel that such a king would enslave them – the de facto reality that their rights to life, liberty and property would no longer be inviolable. Yet they clamored for the pagan styled king all the more, rejecting Yahweh as their King.
So they got King Saul, who initially accepted the Law of Moses, but later usurped Samuel’s role as priest. Then later, Saul also disobeyed Samuel in a crucial matter of enforcing covenantal law, set up a monument to himself, having also the audacity to say he had obeyed Yahweh. Samuel thus declared that Yahweh had rejected Saul as king, and would raise up a new king who would honor the Law of Moses. At the very end of his life, Saul got so desperate that he resorted to sorcery (see 1 Samuel 8-31 for the whole saga).
Samuel thus opposed totalitarian power and sorcery, in service to the Law of Moses and the prior covenant of freedom.
Nathan in the Face of King David
David was raised up to succeed King Saul. Yahweh sought to redeem the kingship. He permitted a national capitol, Jerusalem, and a temple under Solomon, but only in service to Yahweh as King. David proved to be a man after Yahweh’s heart, and faithfully submitted to Yahweh as King. But he also sinned egregiously when he slept with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, she became pregnant, and David sought to cover it over by having Uriah killed in battle by a deliberate ploy. He violated the Law of Moses in adultery and murder, and sought a totalitarian means to cover it over.
But Nathan, a prophet, was given revelation of this sin by Yahweh. Nathan thus confronted David, and David repented, though still being accountable for his sin (see 2 Samuel 11-12). David wrote Psalm 51 in his penitence.
Nathan thus opposed the king breaking the Law of Moses and his resort to totalitarian power, and Nathan did so in service to the covenant of freedom.
Elijah in the Face of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel
David died ca. 970 B.C., and within one generation, the nation of Israel had a civil war and split into two kingdoms – the northern one with a capitol in Samaria, composing 10½ tribes; and the southern one with a capitol in Jerusalem, composing 1½ tribes (mainly Judah). Both nations had successions of various kings. In the south, many were faithful to the Law of Moses to varying degrees, many were unfaithful. In the north, most were unfaithful to one degree or another, and it was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.
Elijah was a prophet to the northern kingdom. King Ahab married a Sidonian queen, Jezebel, who was also a pagan witch. Ahab was never willing to embrace the Law of Moses, and exercised totalitarian power instead, with Jezebel holding the true power behind the throne. Jezebel killed as many prophets as she could find. Elijah rebuked them both consistently (see the whole saga in 1 Kings 16:29-2 Kings 9).
Elijah thus opposed the king breaking the Law of Moses and his resort to totalitarian power, he opposed the sorcery of Jezebel, and in service to the covenant of freedom.
Jeremiah in the Face of King Zedekiah
In the years prior to the fall of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah, to the Babylonians in 586 B.C., the prophet Jeremiah confronted a number of kings, especially King Zedekiah, and his supporters in the religious establishment. They had rejected fidelity to the Law of Moses. The nation had wholly devolved into the idolatries of sorcery, sacred prostitution and child sacrifice.
Jeremiah prophesied seventy years of exile and captivity coming their way if they did not repent. He thus counseled Zedekiah to yield to the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, in acknowledgement that they had forsaken the Law of Moses, thus in order to save the nation, to avoid the destruction of the city, and its descent into cannibalism during the final stages of the Babylonian siege, and thus, to avoid being reduced to only a small remnant who would survive.
But Zedekiah insisted on maintaining his totalitarian power over Judah even the face of overwhelming military odds, the false prophet Hananiah supported him (thus, being ethically the same as a sorcerer at the right hand of power), he refused, and the destruction and exile came. Jeremiah was open-ended in dealing with Hananiah, giving him liberty to be proven right, but in the end it proved otherwise. King Zedekiah thus watched his sons killed before his eyes by Nebuchadnezzar, then his own eyes were put out and he languished in prison until his death.
Jeremiah, too, opposed the king breaking the Law of Moses, he opposed his idolatry of totalitarian power and reliance on a false prophet, a/k/a sorcery, and he did so in service to the prior covenant of freedom.
Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar
The prophet Daniel had been exiled by King Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon in 605 B.C., as a young man along with other members of the Judahite nobility. Daniel was educated along with the Babylonian sorcerers, and he both rescued their lives at a crucial juncture, but was opposed by them nonetheless. His prophetic ministry and ethical character led him to become the prime minister over Babylon, second only to the king, even while still technically a Hebrew slave. In his power to interpret some crucial dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, he prophesied the king’s internal exile and humiliation. It came to pass, Daniel ruled the empire in the meantime, and upon Nebuchadnezzar’s restoration, the king repented and proclaimed Daniel’s God to be the true God. A central theme to Daniel’s book is that Yahweh “sets up kings and deposes them” (2:21), where we see divine sovereignty and human responsibility in biblical balance.
Daniel, in great wisdom, opposed the totalitarian rule of the king, and opposed the power of sorcery as well. Since Nebuchadnezzar was a pagan, Daniel did not challenge him on the grounds of the Law of Moses, but did so being rooted in the prior and universal covenant of freedom.
Mordecai in the Face of Haman; Queen Esther’s Approach to King Xerxes
Circa 460 B.C., some 80 years after the end of the Babylonian empire and some 70 years after the passing of Daniel, the Persian King Xerxes married a Jewess as queen – Hadassah by her Jewish name, Esther by her Persian name.
Behind the scenes, an Amalekite man named Haman (tracing back to a pagan nation rooted in sorcery that had opposed the Israelites in their exodus), being recently promoted to high political power, sought to have all the Jews in the empire killed. Esther’s cousin Mordecai, a member of high standing in the civil service, learned of it and asked Esther to intercede with the king.
Esther did so, at risk to her own life, and succeeded. The result was that Mordecai was publicly honored, Haman’s plot was reversed, the edict to kill the Jews was thwarted, Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, his estate went to Esther, and Mordecai was given Haman’s office.
In so doing, Mordecai used political power to oppose the usurping totalitarian goals of Haman’s ethical sorcery against the Jews. And Mordecai was in service, as always, to the prior covenant of human freedom.
John the Baptist in the Face of King Herod (Antipas)
King Herod Antipas the tetrarch was one of the sons of King Herod the Great who ruled one of the four segments of his father’s kingdom. He was of Edomite descent (tracing back to Esau, Jacob’s brother), and a despicably cruel ruler. Contrary to the Law of Moses, he wrested his brother’s wife Herodias from his brother Herod Philip, to become his own incestuous wife. For this, John the Baptist rebuked him, Herod Antipas had him imprisoned, and at the insistence of Herodias, he had him beheaded.
John the Baptist thus opposed a petty totalitarian king according to the Law of Moses, with Herodias we see the ethical parallel to sorcery at the right hand of power, and John did this in service to the covenant of freedom.
Jesus in the Face of King Herod (Antipas)
Jesus was opposed by many religious enemies plotting his death, and he called them children of the devil in response. They were in league with King Herod Antipas, trying to find a political reason to have Jesus crucified by the Roman authorities. Jesus, as the Son of God and Son of Man, King of kings and Lord of lords, was not looking for temporal political power, but was ushering in the coming eternal kingdom of God with his first and second comings.
When some of his enemies sought to scare Jesus away from Jerusalem by saying that Herod wanted to kill him, Jesus made a rare human political statement, calling Herod a “fox” (i.e. who wants to eat the chickens, and thus Jesus took to himself the metaphor of the protective mother hen, see Luke 13:31-35).
The very nature of Jesus opposed totalitarian political rule as a means of the devil’s purpose in sorcery at the right hand of power, and as he came to restore the promise in the New Covenant of the original covenant of freedom.
Paul in the Face of Rome
The apostle Paul was tracked consistently by a number of Jewish religious elitists who were plotting his death, as they sought, just like sorcerers at the right hand of power, to influence Roman political authorities accordingly. They knew how the Christians were calling Jesus the King, as Yahweh was called King, and this they hated. In the midst of this, his enemies provoked a riot in Jerusalem so that Paul was illegally arrested. In the several trials he endured, Paul, being a Roman citizen, finally appealed his case to Caesar, and thus he was sent to Rome.
In Romans 13, Paul counseled submission to the governing authorities for the sake of social order, predicated on the power of overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21). Yet, too, in the Book of Philemon, Paul was diplomatically powerful in saving a runaway slave, Onesimus, from certain death according to Roman law. Onesimus had become a Christian in prison with Paul, and was now returning to his master, Philemon, who was also a Christian. He had the power to have him put to death, but Paul returned Onesimus as a “brother” and thus now, superseding the definition of Roman slavery.
Thus, Paul was in the rare biblical context of being a believer, while also being a citizen of the enslaving pagan political power. He was diplomatically wise in opposing the exercise of totalitarian power against him, always in opposition to sorcery, and thus in service to the renewal of the covenant of freedom.
John in the Face of Rome and Babylon the Great
The apostle John was imprisoned on the island of Patmos by Rome for his preaching of the Gospel. In the revelation God gave him there, John wrote down the testimony of God’s relentless opposition to totalitarian political power, and sorcery at the right hand of power. The entire history of political and spiritual evil was encapsulated in the image of the fall of Babylon the Great – no longer politically in existence – but now a metaphor for the whole history of human totalitarian power that served as “a home for demons, and a haunt for every evil spirit” (Revelation 18:2). When the new heaven and new earth come down at the end, the original covenant of freedom is redeemed, and all tears, death, mourning, crying and pain are forever abolished.
The United States
True political authority lies in the consent of the governed. Moses and Samuel, and the other judges, were rooted in a de facto consent of the governed. This is an informed choice process emphasized by Moses in Deuteronomy 30:11-20, and Joshua in Joshua 24:14-24 at the founding of the nation. Moses set up a system of local judges without a national capitol or shrine, with Yahweh as King over a free people. But eventually the nation yearned king in the pagan sense, they received it, and thus lost all freedoms.
Also, we, as a nation, were founded as the federation of thirteen local colonies, and the great strength of that, will prior parallel to the twelve tribes of Israel, is the local accountability and purpose of political power.
Have we too, as a nation, allowed ourselves to be spoon-fed by a top-down political class, abetted by a fawning top-down media and others in academia and business, into accepting the same folly that felled Israel at the end of Samuel’s life?