The Politics of God and the Politics of Man
by Jacques Ellul


All the stories we shall read are set in the perspective of Jesus Christ. It is impossible to ignore the fact of the unity of revelation and its movement. Everything leads to Jesus Christ, just as everything comes from him. Hence Jesus Christ is not absent from the somber adventure of the Second Book of Kings. It also seems to be equally impossible to ignore at the commencement of these meditations the one in the narratives in whom we are to see a figure of Jesus Christ, namely, Elisha. It is true that some of the texts of Kings on which we shall be meditating refer to the period after Elisha’s death (2 Kings 16-18). Nevertheless he is still the decisive personage, and the orientation of the later stories is fixed by him.1

Elijah is traditionally represented as the one who will return, and whose return will intimate the end of times. He did not die but was transported to heaven, and he will return from thence in the last days. In Malachi 3-4, God declares that it is he who will be the herald of the Lord’s coming. Expectation of his return was so certain that those who saw Christ’s passion thought he was calling on Elijah.

Elijah is the one who precedes the Lord, and Jesus confirms that he has come already when he says that John the Baptist is the returned Elijah. But "they did to him whatever they pleased . . . "(Matthew 17:12). If, however, Elijah precedes the Lord as John the Baptist precedes Jesus, then one must admit that Elisha is a figure, a living one should remember that in the days of Elisha Galilee belonged to the Northern Kingdom and Elisha was the prophet of this kingdom?

We shall not insist further on this feature of Elisha, but we would have the reader keep in mind constantly as he meditates on these texts that Elisha is an image of Christ; in this light order and signification are given to everything else. It is not, however, the aim of the present study to show this.

Each book of Scripture has its own particular sense, emphasis, and perspective. Each reflects one aspect of God’s total revelation. Each imparts a unique and singular truth. Yet they cannot be rigorously separated from one another. On the other hand, they are not to be confused with one another. Each has its special character. We are not just to draw out the main lines. This would be of no particular value in the Bible. Naturally everything is in everything. But it seems to me that the idea of finding everything in every text serves no useful purpose.2

We believe that every book of Scripture should be taken for what it purports to be. This is the first principle of interpretation. In any biblical writing we can readily see other things than what it seems to be, but these ought to be secondary and relatively unimportant compared to what the writing itself says it is and seeks to be. For it is perhaps there that we shall find the meaning that God intends us to see in this work. Or, very explicitly, this Second Book of Kings describes for us God’s interventions in a period in the history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

It seems to me, then, that this Second Book of Kings is characterized by two aspects of revelation. The first is political in the narrow sense; the problems in most of the texts are political. The problem is Israel’s situation as regards political power in relation to the Syrians, the Assyrians, the Edomites, and the Egyptians. It is Israel’s decadence as a kingdom. And we shall see directly the place, the presence, and the action of God in this area of human life.

The Second Book of Kings is probably the most political of all the books of the Bible. For its reference is to Israel genuinely constituted as a political power and playing its part in the concert of empires. Furthermore, its reference is also to an age of crisis. Above all, we see here politics in action and not just in principle. We see ethical or spiritual orientations as in Paul’s Epistles.

All this is not unimportant in face of those who think the political problem should not be discussed in the church. The Bible shows us that the church is not just a spiritual matter, that politics is not just simply a human action of no concern to us. It may be that politics is the kingdom of the devil, but this certainly concerns us as Christians.

This meditation is also not unimportant in face of those who want politics to be the main action of men, and of Christians who think involvement in politics is essential and for whom everything is finally politics.

In fact these texts show the relativity of politics, which is the sphere of the greatest affirmation of man’s autonomy, of his revolt, of his pretentious attempt to play the role of God. And willingly or not God steps in again. Now politics raises a special problem. In Christian circles there has often been reference to the doctrine of the state. The theology of government is well known and has been much debated. But there is a world of difference between the state and political action. To recognize the legitimacy of power and the validity of authority does not imply at all that one does the same in relation to politics; I am using the term here in the most realistic sense. It is simply to take part in a collective movement which talks of politics and which is found at the popular level. We are in the world of the political illusion which is of neither value nor interest. If it is a question of divinely ordained submission in an attitude of explicitly Christian debate and wrestling of conscience, we have here an important function in relation to the state but we are not engaged in politics. Karl Barth himself confuses the state and politics when he says that since Christians recognize in the order of the sword, of constraint, and of fear a divine dispensation, they cannot be antipolitical or apolitical.

The real problem is that of active participation in real political action, that is, the discharge of a directive function in a party or a state organism. In this alone one is engaged in politics; the rest is a matter of opinion, obedience, or debate, but it is in no sense politics. Now the problem that is posed in the Second Book of Kings is exclusively the problem of political action and not that of the state.

It is from this first perspective of politics that we shall select our texts, although we shall certainly not forget that Elisha’s work is a close intermingling of political action and the individual witness of love. Between his actions in relation to Moab and Naaman come the miracle of the oil and that of the raising of the small child. Between the siege of Samaria and the drama of Hazael comes the act of justice on behalf of the disinherited woman. This close intermingling of the public and the individual is the specific testimony of the prophet Elisha. Our present concern, however, is only with his political action.

Now it must also be understood that there is no question here of trying to arrive at a politics taken from Holy Scripture. One might even say that the very reverse is the case.

In these stories we shall see an intervention by God in political action as men devise and pursue it. The order is that of history and not of principles. We shall also see God’s judgment on politics. The order is that of prophecy and revelation, not of ethics and political procedures.

This introduces us to a second aspect of the Second Book of Kings, to its specific revelation. More than anything else, it seems to me, it displays concretely the play of what Karl Barth has called the free determination of man in the free decision of God. We are constantly in the presence of the relation between man’s action and God’s. The trend of history in political situations brings us to one of those cruces theologiae well known in metaphysics and rationally insoluble. If God is omnipotent, he cannot allow man any freedom, and man, when he acts, can only execute mechanically what God has ordained. On the other hand, if man has freedom, if he makes his own decisions, God is simply a theoretical, abstract, or impotent God. Now in the present stories this academic problem is certainly not resolved in global or intellectual fashion. Rather, it is transported into living reality which cannot possibly be schematized. This is why it is so important to keep the stories as they are. On the one hand we must firmly refuse to make of them a contingent illustration of a doctrine of God. On the other hand we must not make of them a simple historical record, the object of external exegesis and dull science. We are in the presence of life itself at its most profound and most significant. We must not let it slip away from us. At every point we shall see the affirmation of a divine will, but it never acts directly. It transmits, expresses, and executes itself through human intermediaries. These do not have to be Israelites, believers, the righteous. God also acts through others.

Furthermore, this divine will never constrains man directly to execute literally what it represents. We are in the presence of a kind of proposition or project which God makes known with full respect for the independence of man.

God does not mechanize man. He gives him free play. He includes issues of every possible kind. Man is at the time independent. We cannot say free. Scripture everywhere reminds us that man’s independence in relation to God is in the strict sense bondage as regards sin. This man is not free. He is under the burden of his body and his passions, the conditioning of society, culture, and function. He obeys its judgments and setting. He is controlled by its situation and psychology. Man is certainly not free in any degree. He is the slave of everything save God. God does not control or constrain him. God lets him remain independent in these conditions.

And these are the conditions which the Second Book of Kings describes for us very practically in each incident. We see man deciding on a great number of actions freely and alone. Many of them fail. They are nonsensical. They misfire. They are lost in the sand. But some succeed. And when this occurs, these deliberate acts which men do for their own reasons and according to their own calculations are the very ones which accomplish just what God had decided and was expecting (even though the men often do not know this or are not aware of it at first). These acts enter into God’s design and bring about exactly the new situation which God planned.

But in this relation between God’s decision and man’s we must not be content with too simple a schema, for we sometimes see in the stories that none of man’s decisions enters into God’s project, that none of the choices he makes in his independence is able to advance the situation or achieve God’s plan. Man can create new situations which God did not will. And since the Lord does not give up, i.e., does not give up doing not his tyrannical will, but what is good for man and man’s salvation, he changes his plans, he accepts the new situation and enters into it, and he draws from it certain consequences which man certainly did not expect or foresee but which will finally work for the actualizing of God’s love.

For if God’s ways are higher than our ways, we must also remember, as Ephesians 3:10 tells us, that his wisdom is multiple, that is, the modalities of his government are without number.

Although it does not fall within our text, we may recall the most familiar example of what we have just said, namely, the establishment of the monarchy in Israel. The chosen people feels the sociological pressure of neighboring peoples. All nations have a certain type of government, namely, monarchy.

From a human standpoint Israel feels that monarchy would be an organizational advance, that it is both more efficient and more secure, that it allows of political plan-fling in a way that the system of the judges did not. All this is at the level of political judgment and it leaves out of account the fact that the prior regime was divinely given. From the standpoint of political efficiency Israel was undoubtedly right.

Sociologically monarchy is an advance on a feudal or tribal system. Israel takes the most advanced nations as its model. It wants to assimilate itself to them. But God does not want this form of government, for it will introduce confusion between Yahweh and his "incarnation" in the king. God objects, but Israel insists, demanding this reasonable advance. So God warns his people. We are given an extraordinary description of what centralized political power inevitably means: more taxes, military conscription, arbitrary police, the impossibility of limiting power. This is the price the people will have to pay to have efficient political power and to reach the level of progress of other nations (for is it not inadmissible that God’s people should be the most retrograde and should be the representative of antiquated political structures?). In spite of the divine warning the people is obstinate. It will not accept this warning as a prophecy but treats it as an idle threat. Looking at other peoples, it sees on good evidence the excellence of a glorious king and centralized power. Hence God does not press the point. He accepts this disobedience. He says to the judge: "They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me" (1 Samuel 8:7). We need to catch the pain of God, his mortal suffering, in this simple phrase when he relieves his servant of the wound of being rejected by his people, takes it on himself, and bears the burden of being the God who is rejected by the man he had chosen and loved. But still God does not give up. He does not give up saving the people in spite of itself. He does not give up remedying the progressivist infatuation of this people. Israel wants a king? Even at the cost of rejecting God? Even at the cost of being enslaved? Very well then! God will not oblige or force it to remain in the existing situation.

God will turn to account the new situation created by the stiff-necked independence of the people.

The first king, then, will be Saul, but to show clearly what monarchy really is this king will finally be rejected by God. The second will be David, and so God uses the disobedience of Israel to fashion out of the result of the rebellion the sign, the prophecy, and the ancestor of the one who will come to fulfil all obedience. We see here the mysterious strategy or adaptation of God, and we shall find this again and again in the Second Book of Kings.

But again and inversely, if God finally accomplishes his purpose at the heart of our disobedience, we must also acknowledge the opposite situation, which is no less troubling. The very fact of fulfilling God’s will, of entering into his project, of doing what he wants, is no guarantee that God will approve of us and save us and bless us.

Because we do in the political order, in the world’s administration, what is needed in God’s plan, this does not constitute a claim we can use in God’s presence. The man who acts thus may be condemned temporally just because he has done what God expected of him. And this man, or a people, becomes God’s instrument and cannot not do what God required. Nevertheless, they are rejected for having done it, perhaps because the domain of politics is also a domain of Satan. Let us turn again to an example outside our own book, namely, in Isaiah 10-11. Because Israel has passed all bounds, because it has been guilty of monstrous injustice, oppressing the poor and exalting its pride without limit, God punishes it. The Assyrian is the rod of his anger: "I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets" (Isaiah 10:6) And this is just what the Assyrian does. Yet this Assyrian does not see that he is an instrument in the hands of the Lord (how could he see it?). This Assyrian has a mind only (v. 7) "to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few" (and why not, since this is just what God sent him to do?). This Assyrian thinks his king is the king of the gods since he has destroyed the nations that trusted in their gods, including the people of Israel. This Assyrian has not understood that although Israel could be treated like Syria or Egypt, yet the God of Israel is very different from the gods of Egypt and Syria. And God gives him time to do all his work. But when this is done, God will judge him too. "Under his glory a burning will be kindled" (v. 16). Certainly the Assyrian will understand none of this. He will no more understand why he collapses than he understood why he achieved universal domination. He will become the very essence of weakness. He will be consumed body and soul. And Israel? A small remnant of Israel will remain, and from this remnant will come the shoot of Jesse in the midst of destruction. This will be at one and the same time both the promise and the fulfilment. At this moment peace and justice and truth will all reign. And the end of this adventure will be that "him shall the nations seek," Assyria included (Isaiah 11: l0f.).

This is why we referred to temporal rejection. The Assyrian will be punished in time and history for having devastated Israel and boasting of it, for not having understood the true meaning of its historical enterprise, for having finally obeyed God’s will without knowing it was obeying. But he is not damned eternally; he, too, is saved by Christ.

We thus see how complex this relation between man’s independence and God’s liberty can be. To be sure, during the course of events, when political decisions must be taken, man does not recognize in advance whether or not he is entering into God’s plan. What comes out constantly in these stories is that the preliminary question of knowing what is God’s will in advance is not the question put by the man of action, by the politician. In the moment of action man follows his own reasons, and this is legitimate. Only afterwards, when the action has been carried out and produced its results, can one see that God’s action was done through it, or was not done. There is thus nothing automatic about it. Man chooses his own action. But between this decision by man and God’s decision we find the prophet. This man has received a revelation of God’s intention either before or during the course of the enterprise. He announces and can bend or provoke, but there is necessity or determination. One is in the presence of n possibilities here. This man also understands what the politician is wanting. He understands it in depth. He sees reality behind the appearance of the action, and he loses to the politician his true intention, his situation.

Finally this man gives the meaning of it all, the true significance of what has happened. He brings to light the relation that exists between the free determination of man the free decision of God.

Thus the prophet plays a role which is radical and decisive and yet also independent, ex-centric, and disinterested.

In this schematic description of the special features of Second Book of Kings we see that God does not express his will to us, nor what he has decided to do, in a way which is theoretical, general, and abstract, or, in a word, theological. He acts in the unique course of human lives, of the history of nations, of the pretensions of political powers. He acts, and it is his action itself which is the Word of God. But because this action is not clear, perspicuous, and without ambiguity, because it allows for man’s independence, the action of God has to be explained.

We have to demonstrate it to man. We have to put it into language, theory, and theology. There is no other option. The action of God can be grasped indirectly only by the unique one to whom God reveals and declares it himself. This unique one is the prophet. He alone knows there is an action of God there. He alone is divinely qualified to declare it. He, then, must explain it. He must engage in the translation into language with all the risks involves. But at the same time this translation conforms strictly to God’s intention, for it is this which serves for God’s action its respectful and noncompulsive character as regards man.

When God himself appears and speaks, whether to Moses, Isaiah, or Paul, there can no longer be any question of autonomy, independence, or liberty on man’s part. This is why this mode is rare. When God’s act is translated into human words, the hearer can always contest it. He can always declare: This is a myth, an error, an invention, a prophecy post eventum.

We discern here an aspect of God’s wisdom, of his art of governing the world, the divine action which is made up of respect for man, of finesse, of subtlety, of pedagogy, of choice, of successive adaptations. Yet all this is also inserted into God’s omniscience and omnipotence which has prepared everything in advance no matter what may be the solution that each man finally adopts, that God leaves each man free to adopt.

Thus God’s action in politics will continually have for us the appearance of vocation, appeal, and address, and then judgment, outburst, and wrath.

It will continually have for us the appearance of grace, of timid approach, of liberation, then of rigor, of inflexibility in attaining its specific end, and sometimes, if rarely, of a miracle which intervenes to overthrow the course of events, of history, and of life.

But in each instance the miracle is related to the man, to the man of God. It does not fall down directly from the sky. It is inserted into the nexus of human actions. It does not have a significance all its own. At the commencement of the miracle the man is associated with it by prayer, and at the conclusion of the miracle he is associated with it by witness and explication. This testimony to the immense love of God which not only creates and saves but which also in its incomprehensible humility wants to associate man with its work, is what is finally set before us from the political standpoint by the Second Book of Kings. This is a remarkable illustration of the fine formula of Pascal that "God has established prayer to communicate the dignity of causality to his creatures."


  1. Note that in what follows we are simply repeating what W. Vischer pointed out already.
  2. We are not pretending here to give a full commentary on the Second Book of Kings. We are simply choosing out certain types according to what seems to us to be the unique and decisive Orientation of this book, according to the intention which it seems one can gather from it.We are not pretending to be doing scientific work. There will be no minute exegesis nor division of the work into strata according to probable dates of composition.

3. There will be no attempt to discover what stage the book represents in the spiritual history of Israel nor why it was written at this period in political history. Neither the forms nor the spirit of form criticism will be adopted. Such are now the usual objects of biblical science. We shall not ignore them, but in our view these inner researches, though they are of value, are definitely restricted in scope, and only very relatively offer a deeper exposition of the text of the Bible. We shall adopt the simple attitude of the believer with his Bible who through the text that he reads is ultimately trying to discover what is the Word of God, and what is the final meaning of his life in the presence of this text.

4. We are at the level of the kind of meditation which does not seem to be any the less important exegetically because it is not scientific.

5. If we have, of course, certain hermeneutical presuppositions, this is not the place to defend them. They are at least as well founded as those of different schools.