PSALMS — So Is This Christendom?

Anyone who has read this blog regularly should know I am no great fan of Christendom. That is, the effort by the Church and by Christians to order the world, to create “Christian” societies and/or “Christian” civilization.

The reason is fairly simple — Jesus, as he comes to us in the Gospels, says almost nothing about his followers exercising the kind of power they are, as occupied people, subject to. Rather, the Gospel is a response to occupation — how to live faithfully as God’s people knowing you do not have the kind of power to rule or even effectively resist in any way we understand resisting. In this understanding, one way to look at the Gospel is to see it as a set of instructions on how to live faithfully under someone else’s rules. Without any hope that we will ever get to make those rules.

Even in the Old Testament, which — at face value — seems to involve itself more in the dirty work of governing and ordering the world, Israel is far more an object, subject to the power of others (sin, idolatry, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and above all, YHWH, Israel’s God), than it is a subject, one who exercised power. The Old Testament has little to say about government, or order, save that the inability to adhere to the faithful teachings of God will result in suffering, conquest, enslavement, and exile.

And that is Israel’s history.

There is no recipe for good government or proper order in Israel. Figures are raised up by God to save in Israel — Moses, Joshua, the Judges — and kings are appointed. But this is all personality dependent, not system/structure/institution dependent. A wide variety of characters, from the upright and virtuous Othniel to the serial fornicator Samson and the tainted Jephthah, are raised to rescue Israel. There is no rhyme and reason to the who, except that God chooses them and they are good at what they have been called to do.

Even when Israel comes and demands a king “to judge us like all the nations.” (1 Samuel 8:5) God tells Israel, through Samuel the prophet, that Israel should not want a king — YHWH is Israel’s king, whatever that means, and this demand is a rejection of God’s kingship over Israel. And yet God gives Israel a king anyway, and then proceeds to bless Israel, and makes promises to all humanity, through this gift of the king that Israel should not have.

At any rate, I’ve never been a great fan of Christendom. It requires the followers of Jesus to take a stake in the violence of the world and its outcomes — to do violence, and to justify that violence. With all that means.

But in the last year or so, I have been reading Andrew Permian’s blog P.OST An Evangelical Theology for the Post-Christendom Age and have come to be persuaded by both the way he reads scripture, but also increasingly by his conclusion that Christendom itself represents some kind of promise that Jesus makes to his disciples that the nations — גוים goyim in Hebrew and εθνος ehtnos in Greek — will be subject to Christ as part of Christ’s judgment of the Empire.

(In this, I am not doing Permian’s thesis justice, and I apologize for that. It’s still only something I beginning to wrap my head and soul around, and I really don’t like the implications. I am more Hauerwas then Leithart, and the idea of earthly rule for the church — a church that does violence and is right and justified in doing so — is not a prospect I am really comfortable with yet.)

So what to make of Psalm 2, then? Because as I read this — especially if the “Son” mentioned in this psalm is Christ.

1 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

Who is the King of Israel that anyone should pay attention to him? Even at the kingdom’s height, under David and Solomon, it was powerful, but not as powerful as its much larger neighbors.

No, I think some other figure is being described here. This about Christ — the anointed one, המשׁיה — and it is he who is “King on Zion” (מלך על–ציון). It is against Christ that the nations and peoples, and their kings and rulers, rage and plot. It is from him they seek the “freedom” of no longer being bound.

And God holds them all in contempt. In fact, the setting of a King in Zion — upon that hill — is itself an act of fury and wrath. And that makes me wonder, is this, could this be, a reference to the crucifixion? To that awful day on Golgatha when Jesus the Anointed carried the cross to his death?

I’m not speaking here of classical atonement theology, that Jesus bore the wrath of God in our place. I’m not sure yet really what I’m speaking of, save that God’s wrath and anger and sorrow were present on that day as God showed the world the extent to which God incarnate as Christ would go to judge the world.

Because I do believe the crucifixion represents some kind of judgment of the world. Judgment of us. Our violence. Our fear. Our hatred. Our anger. Our despair. An unflinching judgment. It isn’t so much God acting as God surrendering utterly, by doing nothing but dying, God is showing us who we really are. Accuser and accused. Betrayer and Betrayed. Torturer and tortured. Executer and executed.

God judges us by giving himself utterly to us and not resisting. That’s the wrath and fury of God.

7 I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Verse seven sounds like every Gospel proclamation at the baptism of Christ — Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22, even John the Baptist’s second-hand account in John 1:34.

God then goes on to make the Son an interesting offer — ask of me, and I will give you the nations. It sounds a little like the offer Satan makes to Jesus in Luke 4. Jesus refuses the devil’s offer, of course, but that’s because the nations already belong to him. And rules them, he breaks them utterly.

That’s an interesting image. What does it mean to broken like this? It brings to mind the words of Christ in Matthew 21, in the parable of tenants, which Jesus ends by comparing himself to the rejected cornerstone of Psalm 118, noting that whoever falls upon the cornerstone “will be broken,” and whoever the cornerstone falls upon will be crushed.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not a bad thing here to broken, to be dashed to pieces, to be shattered. But I speak an individual. What does it mean for an entire people to be broken? How does Jesus do that? Whether he rules or breaks with a rod of iron (either reading is possible), what does it mean that the Son does this to whole nations?

(What on earth does it mean to be crushed? And can that be a good thing?)

And is that breaking and/or ruling Christendom? Or is it something else entirely?

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This is where this psalm really troubles me. Because this becomes the Jesus you need to behave yourself around or he will get you. Be nice to the Son, the psalmist says, or else. Anger, and wrath, and perishing. It’s everything the church has tried to walk away from in the last decade or two.

And yet, I also see something of Christendom in here. Because whoever speaks here is speaking to kings and rulers of the earth. And not to the likes of you and me. God has given the peoples of the earth to the Son, the Anointed, as a possession, and the Son has the power to do as he chooses. Best serve the son with fear and trembling and joy. Lest wrath follow.

But what does that mean if the wrath of God is God surrendering to us? Yes, Babylon was God’s judgment upon faithless Judah, and Babylon paid for its role in that judgment. I’m not sure, though, that’s what’s going here. I think there’s something deeper, more profound, an understanding — maybe — that the unwillingness (or inability) on the part of the kings and rulers of the world to serve the Lord or even “Kiss the Son” (in fealty, no doubt) leads to a wrath of emptiness, a God who is willing to watch while we inflict suffering and death upon ourselves. A God who is one with suffering, in the Son, the Anointed one, and whose clear and obvious suffering on that cross planted upon that hill is somehow God’s wrath.

A wrath of emptiness. We stand by, on Good Friday, and watch, powerless save to condemn and demand death, as we re-enact the passion of Christ. His trial. His torture. His execution. The wrath of God, emptied. If we court the wrath of God by disobedience and lack of love, that wrath is visited upon us by our own hands. God’s judgment is to watch, and thereby force us, compel us, to watch as well.

It is not God’s wrath in the way that Babylon besieging Jerusalem was God’s purposeful judgment upon Judah, packed with deliberate meaning. It is a judgment empty of meaning. There is no moral purpose to this wrath, this violence, this destruction. It is not punishment. It is not just. It is not deserved. It is empty. It has been emptied. And we perish. At our own hands. Just as the Son did.

And we watch. Powerless. Just as the Father did.

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