Theology of Nations in the Bible

This entry is part 36 of 44 in the series Christian Theology of Public Policy Course

This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy. This column is the second segment of a five-part series dealing with Christian perspectives on nations and nationalism.

In the Bible, a nation simply does not refer to a political apparatus demarcated by territory. When the Bible says, “Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled” (Isaiah 43:9), it does not refer to the inhabitants of the various political boundaries set by men throughout history but to the ethnic lineage of people groups and cultures. The Lord told Rebekah that, “Two nations are in your womb, two peoples shall be separated from your body; one people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23)—showing that one nation can become divided into many. Her son Jacob (Israel) was to become “the one nation on the earth whom God went to redeem for Himself as a people” (2 Samuel 7:23), as opposed to other ethnic groups and peoples.

Human rather than political attributes are ascribed to nations. More than metaphorically, nations have “eyes”, “mouths”, and “ears”. They can “drink” or be “drunk”, can “hear”, can bear a “yoke of iron”, can “shake” from fear, can “know” God, can be enraged, can “abhor” or “hate” others, and can “be ashamed” (Isaiah 52:10; Micah 7:16; Revelation 14:8; 18:3; Jeremiah 6:18; 25:15; 28:14; Ezekiel 31:16; 36:23; 38:23; Psalm 2:1; Acts 4:25; Proverbs 24:24; Matthew 24:9; Micah 7:16). They can “assemble and come” and “gather together all around”. They can be “deceived” and become “ungodly” (Joel 3:11; Revelation 18:23; 20:8; Psalm 43:1).(1) Such traits can hardly be applied even figuratively to states.

In Daniel, the phrase “peoples, nations, and languages” is repeated five times (Daniel 3:4, 7; 4:1; 5:19; 6:25; 7:14). Similar phrases are engaged seven times in the book of Revelation—combining the words tribes, tongues, peoples, multitudes, and nations (Revelation 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15).(2) The Apostle John is likely alluding to the prophet Daniel, and both writers make clear that people groups rather than political constituencies are signified by the word “nations”. The other words in these phrases also refer to individual human beings classified according to their ethnicity or culture, rendering any understanding of nation as a political structure incongruent with the immediate context.(3) Accordingly, when the Bible states that, “men of all nations, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom, came to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:34), it means that men from all races and ethnic groups, including those of high political office, learned from Solomon.

Such biblical usage of the word nation is exemplified elsewhere. First century Jewish elders acclaimed a Roman centurion as being one who “loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5). They did not use “our nation” to signify that the centurion built it because he loved the political boundaries, citizenship rules, or dominion of the Roman authorities over Palestine. They meant that the centurion loved the Jewish people and therefore built them a synagogue. Likewise, when the Jews accused Jesus of “perverting the nation, and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar” (Luke 23:2; cf. John 7:12), they did not mean that Jesus perverted the Roman political system or its constituency. They meant that He stirred up the Jewish people to disobey Caesar and not pay Roman taxes.

Similarly, the first century high priest had “prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad” (John 11:51-52). This prophecy did not indicate that Jesus was going to die for all the people within chosen political jurisdictions. Instead, it meant that Jesus would die for all of “His people”, from His “chosen generation” (Matthew 1:21; 1 Peter 2:9), snatched from every ethnic group on earth. Pilate also demonstrated this understanding when he said “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me” (John 18:35), indicating that Jesus’ ethnic group—what Luke calls “the nation of the Jews” (Acts 10:22)—had delivered Him up. Jesus’ nation was neither Rome nor any Roman province. He was of the nation of Israel, in the country of Palestine, which was then being subjugated by the Roman civil authority. Paul too admitted his ethnic alignment with the Jews, twice calling them “my own nation” (Acts 26:4; Galatians 1:14). Thus, a biblical nation has everything to do with ethnicity and nothing to do with territory or political boundaries.

(1) The Israelites desired that Samuel would give them “a king to judge [them] like all the nations” so that they would be “like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5, 20)—not because they lacked the political boundaries that other nations had but because they wanted a territorial ruler akin to theirs.

(2) These are: “tribe and tongue and people and nation”, “all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues”, “many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings”, “peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations”, “every tribe, tongue, and nation”, “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people”, or “peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues”.

(3) It might seem curious that the political word “kings” is once included in Revelation 10:11 except that the word also refers to an individual’s profession, making it congruent with the other synonyms in the set.

Originally published in The Times Examiner on September 7, 2005.

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