Tuesday, April 13, 2021

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (14)

Garrett Jones wants to straighten out a very important scriptural misconception.

Perhaps you have read that the Lord Jesus will one day “rule the nations with a rod of iron” and have always understood the rod metaphor to convey irresistible might and the instantaneous crushing of all rebellious impulses.

That’s an immature take, says Garrett, a caricature of God’s intentions for our world, the equivalent of your kid’s refrigerator artwork. You are reading the passage as if it speaks of an angry God who is going to “spank everyone with a long metal stick”, in ignorance of its real meaning.

An Unusual Take

Okay, I’ll play. What would that real meaning be exactly?
“A shepherd’s staff was used to guide his sheep. His rod (of iron) was used to protect the sheep from wolves or other predators. Under the shepherd’s tender care and fierce protection, the sheep feel comfort and confidence. This is the metaphor. Jesus will rule the nations with a rod … like a shepherd …

Feeding the nations.
Giving rest to the nations.
Guiding the nations.
Warding off wolves from the nations.
Loving the nations.

This is the gospel. This is the same good news that Paul preached. The nations are not the enemies of God. They are the beloved of God and are included in the provision of his Son’s sacrifice.”
Wow. That’s an impressive reversal of what I have always thought was a rather straightforward passage. But is that really what either Psalm 2 or Revelation 2 is telling us: that the rebellious nations of the world will be placed under the Lord’s “tender care and fierce protection”? Let’s look at those passages a little more carefully.

The Second Psalm

First, Psalm 2. In the second psalm, the Lord’s Anointed is pictured settled firmly on Zion, “my holy hill”. The nations in question are raging and plotting. They have gathered together, as the psalmist puts it, “against the Lord and against his Anointed”. Their problem is not a little misunderstanding that needs to be remedied with gentle correction, “rest” and “feeding”. Their problem is deliberate, calculated rebellion against Christ and the eternal God he represents on this earth. They resent his rule. They have no interest in his sovereign edicts. They say instead, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”

Moreover, the Son’s response to their insolence is not love and gentle shepherd care. It is wrath. He will not “ward off the wolves” from the nations; rather, he will “terrify [the nations] in his fury”. God does not tell the rebellious nations of the world through the psalmist that he intends to tuck them into bed after a nice meal, but rather he counsels them, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way.” They are putting themselves in danger of annihilation.

In Psalm 2, the nations have indeed positioned themselves as “enemies of God”. That is precisely how they are described for us.

The Second Chapter of Revelation

Revelation 2, which quotes from the psalm in question, is much along the same lines. What the passage adds to our knowledge is that not just Christ but all who conquer in him and keep his works until the end will receive authority over the nations, and — here comes the quote from Psalm 2 —
“… he will rule [shepherd] them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces.”
First, we had better allow Garrett Jones a word about the earthen pots broken in pieces so we don’t misunderstand that too:
“Try not to read these verses as a child who is constantly afraid of his dad’s temper, and try instead to read them with God’s heart of empowering the disenfranchised against oppressive rule.

Not ‘destroy.’ But rather ‘break apart’ or ‘splinter into smaller pieces.’ That’s the image given. A large, unified pot, getting broken up into small bits and pieces.”
What Garrett neglects to explain to his readers is what exactly a tiny shard of a “large, unified pot” might be useful for after the Lord Jesus or one of his servants has splintered it into smaller pieces. Maybe scraping a boil or two, but that’s about it. A pot reduced to shards is no use to anyone. You cannot cook in it. You cannot store things in it. It is ruined, dare I say “destroyed”, in that it is no longer fit for its original purpose.

In fact, the words “dash them in pieces” in Psalm 2 is a single Hebrew word, nāpaṣ. It is the same word the psalmist uses in Psalm 139 in his famous invective against Babylonian oppression, “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them [nāpaṣ] against the rock!” It is the same word used by Jeremiah the prophet to describe God’s judgment upon Judah, which would involve violence, death and the dispersion of the nation throughout the Babylonian empire: “And I will dash them [nāpaṣ] one against another, fathers and sons together, declares the Lord. I will not pity or spare or have compassion, that I should not destroy them.”

So then, far from being an “empowering of the disenfranchised”, as Garrett Jones is teaching, destruction is precisely what both passages have in view. That does not mean that nobody from these nations would survive, but that no trace of the arrogant leadership that presumes to rebel against the rule of Christ will be left to raise its head. The nations that choose to rebel against him will cease to function as nations, just as a pot smashed into shards ceases to function as a pot.

In summary then, both passages speak of violent destruction, not shepherd care.

The Rod of Iron

In fact, let’s have a go at the “rod of iron” while we’re at it. The “rod of iron” in Psalm 2 is šēḇeṭ, meaning a branch. The same word is also translated “tribe”. A tribe “branches off” from the family, just as a branch divides the tree into distinguishable segments. One goes one direction, one goes another. The average shepherd’s šēḇeṭ in Israel would not be forged of iron; rather, it would be carved from a tree. In fact, the only reason it would have been necessary for the psalmist to note that the rod of Psalm 2 is a “rod of iron” is because the idea of a rod of iron is so exceptional. An ordinary shepherd’s rod requires no such disambiguator. The same word is also translated “scepter” many times in the Old Testament, and speaks of rule and authority. So we have one word with two distinct but related meanings, serving two distinct but not unrelated functions. Done right, kingship is shepherding, after all.

The word šēḇeṭ does indeed occur in Psalm 23 in the context of shepherd care, but we must ask ourselves whether the connotation of “rod of iron” in Psalm 2 is tender ministration or authoritative rule. Both meanings are legitimate uses of šēḇeṭ, so Garrett Jones would like to make the Psalm 2 “rod of iron” a traditional shepherd’s crook with which Jesus gently ministers to his people and wards off the wolves.

But wait … if these so-called wolves are not the rebel nations of Psalm 2, then who are they? Jones speaks of the shepherd’s “fierce protection”. Fierce protection of whom, exactly? If the nations are the sheep, then who might be left to harass and threaten them? I am unfamiliar with Jones’ eschatology, but perhaps his prophetic view does not envision the nation of Israel under God’s protection and the nations as its enemies. In any case, he casts the rebellious nations as sheep and leaves himself in a scenario with no real villain.

That is not the picture described to us in Psalm 2 and appropriated by John in Revelation. Even Jones cannot contemplate a situation in which there are no enemies at all. And if there are still bitter enemies, “wolves” to be warded off, defended from and even put down, then the rebellious nations described in the first few verses of Psalm 2 make the best possible candidates.

Opting for a More Traditional Reading

In short, the traditional reading of these passages is the best and most accurate. The moment we turn to any other passage concerned with the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus, we will see it confirmed. Isaiah, for example, says this:
“For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you [Zion] shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste.”
“Loving the nations” indeed!

There is no good reason to bring the gospel into our interpretation of either Psalm 2 or Revelation 2 unless it is Peter’s gospel to a rebellious Jewish nation, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” The good news is that there is a place to which even the members of the most corrupt generation in history might flee for salvation, though there is no possibility of smuggling in with them even the slightest vestige of the old, rebellious world order. There will thankfully be men and women from the nations who escape the wrath of the Lamb by, as Psalm 2 puts it, kissing the Son. But to the extent that the nations from which these refugees come have taken their stand against the Lord’s Anointed, they will be utterly laid waste and perish from the earth.

No, the gospel is not “Every nation shall be saved,” but rather “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” There is a difference, and the difference is not trivial.

Just because one’s understanding of a passage is at a Sunday School level does not mean it is in need of correction. Not if you went to a good Sunday School.

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Photo: Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0

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