Today we follow in the shadow of Brueggemann’s, “Grief, Despair, Hope” (see “A book you will hate (but must read)” from Tuesday); tackling an idea on the fringes of his topic, but not explored in the book. It’s nothing new. In fact, the catch phrases are a bit worn down: America was founded as a Christian nation… we are one Nation under God… we are a Christian nation. At this point, most essays on these ideas move directly into historical debate: what was the nature of the founding father’s religion? Were they Christians, humanists, deists, or something else? Now, if you are interested in that conversation, good luck finding a discussion that remains Christian in tone. But first, before you go looking, please pivot with me and explore another side of this mountain.
Let’s assert, for the sake of argument, that our nation was founded to be a Christian nation. What, then, does the Lord expect of such a nation? What principles should stand at our core? And before we say, there’s not much in the Bible about that, let’s remember that the Bible does, in fact, tell us about such a nation: Israel. Now, it’s true that Israel was a theocracy (a nation in which the king and/or priests ruled on behalf of God) and we are not a theocracy. It’s also true that Israel wears clothing unique to their culture; requiring us to look behind specific commandments to the values or principles expressed. Even so, the expectations for a nation who claims to follow Lord are so terrifically unambiguous in scripture; just one glance sets me back-pedaling for the door.
We only need to look at one text from Deuteronomy, a passage that looks forward to the time when Israel will ask for a king (Deut. 17:14). The Lord says, okay, as long as God selects the king and Israel anoints a native-born Israelite (17:15): sorry Arnold Schwarzenegger, you still can’t be president. Nonetheless, when Israel anoints their king—the king must lead the nation according to the Lord’s expectations. In other words, here comes what God expects of a nation (Israel in particular) or any nation (in general) who wants to follow in Israel’s steps. So ready or not, here they come, four principles at the core of God’s nation:
- The king “must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses” (17:16). “Strange,” my students would say, “What does the Lord have against horses? Horse races? Track side betting? Horse riding?” To which the answer is: No, No, and For the ancient Near East, the import or sale of horses meant one thing: cutting edge military technology as in the typical phrase—“horses and chariots” (e.g., Deut. 11:4, 20:1, Josh. 11:4) or—“horsemen” as in cavalry (e.g., Judg. 5:22, 1 Sam. 13:5). The text consistently defines horses as weapons for war, not animals for pleasure (see Job 39:19-25, Jer. 8:6). You may remember that Solomon not only builds up his military through the acquisition of horses and chariots (1 Kgs. 4:26), but he goes a couple of steps further—sending to Egypt to import horses and then selling them to other nations: arms brokering and making money (1 Kgs. 10:26-29). We will return to the horses in a moment, but first, more of God’s expectations.
- The king must not acquire many wives (Deut. 17:17a). Another directive Solomon is infamous for not only breaking, but smashing with his 700 wives and 300 secondary wives (or concubines). We would be correct to point out that these women led Solomon into the worship of their national gods, a gross violation of the first commandment: no other god before the Lord (1 Kgs. 11:1-4). But there is more to this requirement, however, much more—and it has nothing to do with sex, polygamy, or worshipping other gods. Instead, it has everything to do with why a king would acquire so many wives in the first place (the command in Deut. 17:17). The best clue is in the description of Solomon’s wives: “Among his wives were seven hundred princesses” (in 1 Kings 11). Do you see it? Do you see what’s really going on here? In the ancient world, political treaties were often sealed with the exchange of daughters (for each king to marry). If my daughter Solomon’s, I am much less likely to break the treaty and attack Solomon’s nation. In other words, the issue of “many wives” has to do with making many political treaties to ensure national interests or the nation’s defense. Again, we will return to this idea in a moment.
- The king is also directed not to acquire, “silver and gold… in great quantity for himself” (Deut. 17:17b). An odd requirement to which the Lord adds one more.
- The king is to have a copy of scripture made for his daily reading and meditation, so that he will learn to “fear the Lord” all of his life, obeying the law, and not “exalting himself” above others (Deut. 17:18-20). Most recognize that “fear of the Lord” does not mean to be afraid or terrified of God, though an element of respect is certainly present. Instead, it means something like “the right kind of relationship with the Lord” or bluntly put: to respect, stand in awe, and primarily “to trust the Lord.” As in the Psalms, “You who fearthe Lord, trust in the Lord!” (115:11). And with trust in place, obeying the Lord is not an issue, but a given: we know that the Lord is looking out for our best interests.
Now we have enough on the table to sort out the principles, and the principle behind the principles. The king and the nation he leads will not “acquire many horses”—the principle: building up massive military strength because we trust in our military (see Ps. 20:7, 33:17, 147:10, Prov. 21:31, Isa. 31:1,3). The king and the nation he leads will not “acquire many wives”—the principle: building up massive political strength through diplomacy and treaty making because we put our trust in our foreign relations and foreign partners. The king and the nation he leads will not acquire silver and gold in massive quantities—the principle: building, maintaining, and energizing a wealthy and robust economy because we put our trust in the well-being of our economy (Job 31:24, Ps. 52:7, 49:5-7). Instead, the king and the nation he leads is to put their trust, fully and completely in the Lord—not in our military, our foreign relations, or our economy.
Now we have only one or four questions to answer: do we really (really) want to be a nation that follows the Lord? If so, will we let the Lord define what that looks like or means? (I warned you that you wouldn’t like where the text would lead us.) But if we are going to claim to be a Christian Nation we should at least know what is expected of us. And finally, anyone else headed for the door with me? I’m not sure I can shake the story passed down to me, since the first grade when I began to say the pledge, “One nation under God,” and read “In God we trust” on the coins in my pocket.
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.