Biblical Foundations of the Power and Politics

by Kim Yong Bock

Kim Yong-Bock (family name Kim), Ph. D., is President of Hanil University and Theological Seminary in Chonbuk, Korea (Wanju-Kun Sangkwan-Myun, Shinri, 694-1; Chonbuk, Korea 565-830).  He received his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton University.  He has been a teaching fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary, an international consultant to the Commission on Ecumenical Missions and Relations, National Board of Missions, of the United Presbyterian Church (USA), and is founder and Director of the Christian Center for Asian Studies,  and  Director of the Doctor of Ministries Studies, a joint program with San Francisco Theological Seminary.

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We find the most penetrating understanding of power and politics in the biblical literature. The vision of the politics of the people of God emerged in the form of the prophetic movement, priestly movement, and messianic movement. The apocalyptic literature should be regarded as the story of politically oppressed people about the dominating powers.

We find the most penetrating understanding of the power and politics in the biblical literature. Thus far we tend to suppress those biblical passages that expose radically the reality of the power such as Revelation 13. Churches have been preoccupied with Romans 13, which has often been misinterpreted.

There are three levels of power realities in the Bible: One is the Imperial powers, second is the power of kings in the history of Israel, and the third is the politics of the Messiah and politics of God(the Kingdom of Messiah and the Kingdom of God) among the people of God. The Sovereign Rule of God is a overarching theme of the Bible from beginning to end; and the imperial powers of the surrounding empires from Egypt and Babylon to Greece and Rome, is placed in the context of the govereignty of God. The powers of the kings in the history of the people of Israel was also set in the context of the Reign of God.

The people of God experienced the imperial power of the great empires as well as the rule of kings, in the history of Israel. They struggled to keep their faith in the Sovereignty of God, in the midst of their political experience of oppression and exile under the powers of the empires and kingdoms. The vision of the politics of the people of God emerged in the form of prophetic movement, priestly movement, and messianic movement.

Despotic Monarchy and Sovereignty of God

The establishment of monarchy in the life of the people of Israel was an ambiguous project, for its relationship with the Sovereignty of God could not be clearly spelled out and the only model of monarchy available was that of despotic rule, which was already established among the peoples surrounding Israel. There was a need for the security of the covenant community of the tribal people of Israel against the powers of the despotic kingdoms that threatened Israel militarily, as is recorded in Judges; but at the same time the establishment of a monarchy modelled after despotic rule or modified despotic rule subverted the very essence of the covenant community.

This is the reason why Samuel in principle opposed the establishment of a monarchy in Israel, for it would enslave the people, God's covenant would be broken, and the security and rights of the people would be violated.In God's Covenant with the people, the Sovereignty of God entails the sovereign rights of the people, which God has ordained, and which the kingdoms and empires are to protect.It is in this light that the kingship of David, the monarchy and the empires must be judged. This means that the Davidic kingship was understood as permissible only as he was the servant king of Yahweh, and as his kingship consisted of service to God and to the sovereign rights of the people. This is called the Davidic Covenant. The Davidic kingship was permissible only in the framework of God's Covenant with the people of God.

We quote here the full text of objections as it appears in I Samuel 8:10-18.

All that Yahweh had said, Samuel repeated to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, "These will be the rights of the king who is to reign over you. He shall take your sons and assign them to his chariotry and cavalry, and they will run in front his chariot. He will use them as leaders of a thousand and leaders of fifty; he will make them plow his plowland and harvest his harvest and make his weapons of war and the gear for his chariots. He will also take your daughters as perfumers, cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, of your vineyards and olive groves and give them to his officials. He will take the best of your man servants and maid servants, of your cattle and your donkeys, and make them work for him. He will tithe your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out on account of the king you have chosen for yourselves, but on that day God will not answer you."

Historically David the King of the people of Israel violated the covenant code, as illustrated in the story of confrontation between David and Nathan over the "robbing" of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. The confrontation between Nathan and David reveals the nature of the Davidic rule, which followed the way of despotism and broke the covenant, At the same time it reveals the true nature of political leadership as preserver of justice, on the basis of the covenant(II Samuel 12:1-15).

King Solomon was a typical despotic ruler in violation of the covenant, due to his building of the kingdom along the lines of a despotic monarchy. Chaney's following description is very apt: "Solomon's attempts to finish the transformation of Israel into a typical agrarian nation-state, complete with his erection of the Temple as a royal chapel to house Yawehism as a state established and state-legitimizing religion, were minus that flow of booty. To finance ambitious building programs, the importation of military materiel and luxury goods on a grand scale, and the maintenance of burgeoning military, court, and cultic establishment, Solomon pressed his agrarian economic base to the breaking point."

Subsequently all the kings of the people of Israel are judged by the same covenant; and the Deutronomic assessment of monarchs in the history books of the Old Testament reflects this understanding of the relationship of kingship and the covenant. King Ahab became the symbol of the king who breaks the covenant, through his appropriation of the vinyard of Naboth.

Exodus and Prophetic Politics

The protest movement of Elijah rises against this background. When the covenant framework of political life for the people of God had been completely broken, there arose a the vision for the restoration of the covenant political community.

The covenant community emerges from the Exodus movement of the Hebrew people out of Pharaoh's Egypt. The story of the Exodus is the story of the Sovereignty of Yahweh in the political life of the Hebrew people. The covenant is that Yahweh is the Lord of the Hebrew people and they are the people of God; and that therefore, under the covenant the people can have loyalty to no one other than Yahweh. The Sovereignty of Yahweh means denial, rejection and resistance against the "sovereignty" of the Egyptian Pharaoh.

The Exodus movement was the historical beginning of opposition to any despotic and imperial rule over the people of God; and the covenant community is the first political and socio-economic expression of the Sovereignty of Yahweh, who liberated the Hebrew slaves from the land of Egypt.

This covenant politics was expressed in the prophetic movment. The prophetic movement was the political resistance against all despotic or imperial rule, and it was the witness to the Sovereignty of God and its political expression, that is, the restoration of the covenant community.

The Deuteronomic view of kings and their rules is a manifestation of the covenantal view of the politics of God with the people of God. It is in this context that the prophetic movement of politics should be understood. Prophetic politics is not only the criticism of the despotic powers that have violated the covenant with God in oppressing the poor and the weak; but also and specially a projection of the shape of the Sovereign Rule of God, which does not allow any absolute despotic powers, but which subjugates the powers into the form of "Servant" to the Sovereign God. This is the only form of power allowed under the Sovereignty of God the Servant, who protects the rights of the poor and oppressed, as prescribed in the covenant with God.

In prophetic politics the Sovereign Rule of God is just, in that the poor and the weak are protected against imperial and despotic rule, both of which are rebellious against God the Sovereign. The prophetic movement was to restore the faithful relationship between God and the people of God, which means the restoration of the covenant community. Therefore, prophetic politics is not merely critical and negative politics. not merely transcendent politics, but politics for the concrete resoration of the covenant community. It is not legalistic but dynamic(Jeremiah 31:31-34). Nevertheless, the prophets reminder that the true Sovereign is God means that the people of God had to have concrete legal provisions of do's and don't's.

The people of Israel wanted the restoration of Davidic rule in its ideal form, not in its historical form. For the Davidic kingship was permitted in the form of Servant King to Yaheweh, not in the image of the despotic and imperial powers, which were by definition rebellious against the Rule of Yahweh. What this means is that there is necessarily a polity of the Davidic king as Servanthood to the Sovereign and to the sovereign will of the people. And this polity is radically different from the despotic and imperial polity, which is authoritarian and absolute.

Imperial Powers

The people of God experienced the various kind of imperial powers in tragic and dramatic waya. The imperial powers of Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome are regarded as powers of darkness and chaos in the Biblical literature, especially in the Apocalyptic writings. Any reverence shown to these powers is seen as religious idolatry and politcal prostitution.

In Genesis chapter one, the chaos and darkness represent the rebellion against the Sovereignty of God by the empires; there is a rejection and absence of God's Reign in the imperial rule, under which there is no life, no justice and no shalom of God.

God's Sovereign Rule means the created order and the garden of God in it. In the garden there was the tree of life; and as the limit to human sovereignty there was placed the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Human rule violated the prohibition and claimed the place of God, who knows good and evil. The power that claims the knowledge of good and evil is in itself a rebellion against God, who is the very source of the Wisdom and knowledge of good and evil. But such is the truth-claim of the absolute powers.

The human power that is rebellious against God's Sovereign Rule, finds itself naked(self-knowledge of self-contradiction) and defends itself through its own rationalization before the Sovereignty of God.

This rebellion of human power is manifested in the vicious cycle of violence and enmity in human community, where the koinonia of Adam and Eve has been realized in their household. Not only Adam and Eve were chased out of the garden, but there were conflicts between the serpent and the woman, and later in Cain's killing of Abel. Adam and Eve and Cain defended themselves before God, for they could not stand naked before God. The naked power must hide itself with the veil of self-justification and rationalization, which is the ground of self-legitimation.

In the story of Noah the people of God were under the threat of the flood; and the Tower of Babel as the symbol of empire rose for the first time to defy God's sovereign rule. A monolithic language, the ideology of modern day power, was established for the erection of the Tower of Babel, the Babylonian Empire. The monolithic language and ideology of the Babylonian Empire did not create communication, but imposed the will of the power upon the people. The consequence was confusion between what the people wanted and what the imperial power wanted; and there was a contradiction between what God willed and what the empire willed.

In Daniel and Revelations, the principalities and powers are referred to as animals and mythical beasts which form a jungle of killing and death. These political perceptions show a profound understanding of history as is dominated by ruthless imperial powers that claim to be absolute. Historicism and rationalism in their understanding of this apocalyptic literature, have completely lost such a depth of understanding about power. We need to recover these apocalyptic stories as a way of understanding the reality of power today.

The stories of the victims of the oppressive political powers possess keen and penetrating political perceptions about the reality of the powers of domination. The apocalyptic literature should be regarded as the story of politically oppressed people about the dominating powers.

The author of the Book of Revelations sees the Roman Empire as Babylon and as Leviathan. Empires are described in a mythical and symbolic language, as Behemoth and Leviathan, which are monsters of evil and chaos. Several characteristics of the empires are shown in these symbolic and visionary descriptions: 1)The most important characteristic is their rebellious character against the Sovereignty of God. The religious character of the rulers of the empires as gods is the absolutization of political authority. The second most important characteristic is their power of violence. Behemoth and Leviathan are mystical powers, which are most violent against the people of God. These beasts are the main players in jungle. The third but most most significant reality of these powers is revealed by the suffering of their victims, the oppressed and persecuted people. These characteristics are not merely symbolic realities, but the very concrete, inner, dynamic realities of the imperial powers. It is noteworthy that the reality of the imperial powers is "revealed" rather than analyzed, although concrete facts about the powers are not lacking in the description of them. 

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