Monday, July 24, 2006

The Bible and Politics, 4.4

Here’s the last Old Testament lesson. Later in the week I’ll post two sections on the New Testament, dealing first with the Gospels and then with Acts-Revelation.

Old Testament Writings

The section of the Old Testament known as the Writings covers all the books not in the Torah or Prophets. They are books of history, poetry, song, and story. Because the Writings are so varied, I will make no attempt to cover all of them here. For our purposes, a quick look at Psalms will suffice.


There are two primary ways the Psalms reference Scripture: through discussions of the ‘commandments’ (or ‘law,’ ‘decrees,’ ‘teaching,’ etc.) and through stories that retell significant events in Israelite history. Good examples of the first can be seen in Psalms 19 and 119. Both speak of the commandments as guides to follow to achieve the ‘good life.’ Far from being purely ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious,’ these psalms point to the political life of the people of God—measured by the commands found in the Torah—as the locus of faithful worship. The psalms themselves indicate the political nature of following the commands: Psalm 19 is ascribed to King David and is addressed ‘to leaders,’ and the voice behind Psalm 119 is an exile who is persecuted by princes, but who nontheless speaks God’s decrees to kings (119:19, 161, 46).

Several psalms retell significant narratives from the Israelite past, especially the creation and the exodus. Psalm 136 is one example that tells both stories in order to remind God’s people that God is the one that delivers us from hardships—God’s faithful love vanquishes enemies, feeds the hungry, and ‘remembered our low estate’ (136:23-25). Though it’s hard to tell when any of the psalms were written, it’s feasible that story psalms like this one were especially important in the exile and at other times in which the political life of the people of God was imperiled. Singing the Lord’s songs in foreign lands was hard, as Psalm 137 tells us, but it also seemed to be a vital part of maintaining a distinct political identity.

Other Writings

As a guide book of wisdom, Proverbs admonishes rulers and all God’s people to a life of obedience to the commands of the Torah. The history books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about leaders who exemplify such obedience in their quest to restore Jerusalem after the exile. (Among other things, Nehemiah restores the practice of Jubilee commanded in Leviticus.) Alternatively, Job and Ecclesiastes depict rich and powerful people who have found that the path from obedience to success is not as direct as it may seem.

In summary, the Writings, like the Prophets, uphold the Torah as the basic template of political life for the people of God. Even when God’s people are in exile—having little or no political sovereignty—they are called to live out God’s commands within their communities.


1) In what ways are our political situations similar or different from those of the Israelites in exile? Are we ‘at home’ in a Christian nation? Or are we ‘in exile’ in a foreign land? Do you think the answers to those questions affects how we use the Bible in American politics? Why or why not?

2) Are there Bible stories that shape your own approach to politics? What are they and why?

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