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Q. Attorney General Jeff Sessions got the whole country discussing the Bible when he quoted from Romans, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” to defend the Trump administration’s policy (now discontinued) of separating the children of migrants from their parents. Was that a valid argument?
I’ll address the interpretation of that passage in Romans shortly. But let me make a preliminary observation first.
Sessions quoted the Scripture about obeying government authority not in support of a law, but in support of a punishment. Here’s what he said in his speech on June 14, 2018 to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana (text from the Justice Department website):
“Let me take an aside to discuss concerns raised by our church friends about separating families. Many of the criticisms raised in recent days are not fair or logical and some are contrary to law. First- illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
We can see that Sessions was trying to counter criticisms of the government “separating families” on the grounds that by doing this, it was prosecuting those who “violate the law.” As an aside of my own, I would observe that it’s an open question whether a person who enters a country without prior authorization specifically to request amnesty is breaking the law. But for the purposes of argument, let’s assume that it is. A government’s responsibility to enforce the law doesn’t give it the right to use any punishment it wants. The U.S. Constitution itself forbids “cruel and unusual punishments.” The question then becomes, what does the Bible say about the punishment that Sessions was defending for such cases?
One of the most poignant passages in the Bible is Jeremiah’s description of the people of Judah mourning over the children they were separated from when the Babylonians carried their younger generation off into exile:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
The New Testament says that these words were “fulfilled” (that is, they took on a further meaning in light of later events) when Herod executed all the baby boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus. So in terms of family separation as a sanction, the Bible identifies Jesus with those who have suffered this punishment, not with those who would inflict it. It portrays the anguish that it causes, rather than celebrating those who use it to control populations. So I would say, to begin with, that it was not valid for Sessions to appeal to the Bible to support the punishment he was defending.
As for the passage in Romans itself, while Sessions stated that it taught that God has ordained the laws of government “for the purpose of order,” it actually says that “the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” The Greek term is agathos; it’s also translated “welfare” or “benefit,” or “to help you.” In other words, the government is given power under God not to keep everyone in line with the way it wants things (to maintain “order”), but to promote the welfare of everyone under its control. Everything begins with God wanting good for people; God then creates governments as His agents to promote that good.
While not stated explicitly in Romans, the implication is that when governments fail in that responsibility, and particularly when they oppose what is good and become destructive of it, then God’s people no longer have an obligation to obey. Instead, they have a responsibility to disobey as a loyal protest, in order to call the government back to fulfilling its rightful role and original mandate.
(Incidentally, the American Declaration of Independence says essentially the same thing: “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends”—Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—”it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” And so if Sessions was instead promoting an unconditional obedience to government, whatever its actions, he was undermining the original foundation of the American government itself.)
A single verse of Scripture never contains the whole counsel of God. We must consider the teaching of the entire Bible on a given question in order to understand the answer to that question in a full and balanced way. And the Scriptures provide numerous examples of people who resisted and disobeyed their governments in order to be faithful to God’s purposes. These examples are informative, and they fill out the picture provided in Romans.
Moses’ parents hid him rather than obey Pharaoh’s order to kill him by drowning him into the Nile. Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refused the command to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, and they were thrown into a fiery furnace. Daniel broke the law that Darius passed that no one could pray to anyone but himself; Daniel continued to pray to God, and he was thrown into a den of lions. (In all of these cases, God miraculously or providentially preserved the lives of those who disobeyed for the sake of faith and conscience. We must recognize that this may not always be the case, and we must be prepared to suffer if necessary.)
Jesus himself was accused on many occasions of breaking the law, for example, when he healed on the Sabbath. His response was that it was lawful on the Sabbath to do “good.” In Mark and Luke, this is the exact Greek term that Paul uses in Romans (agathos); in Matthew, it’s a synonym (kalōs). Either way, the argument is the same: God’s desire to do good for people comes first; laws come second, to support that.
When the Jewish government authorities forbade the apostles from speaking about Jesus, they continued to do so anyway. When the authorities arrested them and demanded to know why they’d done this, the apostles responded, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” So according to the Bible, obedience to government is not an absolute, unconditional obligation. Instead, God’s people have a responsibility to hold the government accountable for fulfilling the purpose for which it has been constituted, which is to promote the welfare of everyone under its control. By this test, the policy of family separation was not a biblically valid exercise of government authority.
We may note, finally, that the apostle Paul, who wrote in Scripture that everyone should be subject to the governing authorities, was himself executed by the Romans as a lawbreaker. The charge was that he was promoting loyalty to Jesus rather than to Caesar.
Q. What do you think of this recent comment by Paula White (spiritual advisor to Donald Trump)? “Many people have taken biblical Scriptures out of context on this [issue of immigration] to say stuff like, ‘Well, Jesus was a refugee.’ Yes, He did live in Egypt for three and a half years. But it was not illegal. If He had broken the law then He would have been sinful and He would not have been our Messiah.”
The concept of legal vs. illegal immigration, when applied to the ancient world, is anachronistic and irrelevant. Ancient countries didn’t forbid foreigners to enter if they didn’t have certain permissions. (As one Christian leader has already observed in response to White’s comment, the concept “hardly applied during Jesus’ time, centuries before the existence of modern nation-states that issue passports and visas to regulate migration.”)
Rather, the issue was how the local population would treat foreigners who came to stay among them. And the biblical Scriptures are very clear about how God’s people should treat them. God told the Israelites, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
Jesus was a very particular kind of refugee: an asylum seeker. That is, he fled for safety to another country because he would have been killed if he had stayed in his own country. The fact that this “was not illegal” is the whole point. Trying to criminalize asylum seeking, whether in law, or through the way government policy is carried out, or in the popular imagination, is a departure from a time-honored international standard of justice and compassion.
If Jesus had been killed by Herod, he couldn’t have been our Savior, either.
Q. My question is about the proverb, “The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?” What is a wounded spirit? I cannot find any other reference in Scripture to a “wounded spirit,” but it seems as though it would be important. Generally, the word “wounded” means an injury coming from a source outside the self. I have read commentaries that claim this wound comes from God—which, if true, is a wound to my own spirit. I need enlightenment and hope you can help. Thank you.
Given your concerns, I think it’s important to clarify right up front that this proverb isn’t saying anything about God. It’s an observation about the human condition. It’s saying in essence that emotional suffering is much harder to endure than physical suffering.
The proverb actually gives the reason for that. When we’re sick—the most likely meaning of “infirmity” here—our “spirit” allows us to “manage.” (That’s how I’d translate the term that the King James Version renders as “sustain.” The same term is used in Psalm 112 to describe those who “manage their affairs with justice.”) That is, if we have hope, courage, and determination, we can make it through an illness with grace and dignity. But if our spirit, the very faculty we depend on to make it through tough times, is damaged itself, this proverb asks, how will we ever manage?
The word translated “wounded” in the KJV refers to the condition a person is in after being struck or beaten. Other translations render it as “broken” or “crushed.” But since it’s referring to something that happens to our “spirit,” it should be taken figuratively rather than literally. It’s describing how the events of life can come along and “beat us down,” and then we are so discouraged and despairing that we feel as if we just can’t make it.
And so I think we do well to ponder the question this proverb poses: How will we ever manage? The implied answer seems to be that we need others to come alongside us and strengthen us from the outside, because we can no longer do that for ourselves from the inside. And while there’s a clear mandate throughout Scripture for us as people to help our fellow humans in this way, and to expect and accept their help ourselves, the Bible also portrays God as actively helping those who are in this situation.
I’m not sure, either, if there’s another reference to a “broken spirit” in the Bible, but there certainly are other expressions that seem synonymous. Psalm 147, for example, says that the Lord “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” The word translated “broken” here means “shattered,” and “heart” is roughly a synonym for “spirit.” So the Lord does not wound our spirits or break our hearts; just the opposite. He heals them.
Significantly, the “servant of the Lord” figure in Isaiah says that the Lord has anointed him, among other things, to “bind up the brokenhearted” and “comfort all who mourn.” Jesus applied this Scripture directly to himself at the beginning of his ministry when he read from the scroll of Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue. (The selection he’s portrayed as reading doesn’t specifically include the parts about binding up the brokenhearted and comforting those who mourn, but it was characteristic of the time to cite part of a passage as a way of referring to it all.)
So the mission of Jesus is intrinsically involved in ministering to a wounded spirit or broken heart. In his own teaching, Jesus promised that those who mourned would be comforted. He also said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” The proverb we’re discussing asks who can “bear” a wounded spirit; the image is of something too hard to carry. So the idea of Jesus wanting to lighten the load of those who are “heavy laden” applies directly.
About the only place from which I can imagine someone might get the idea that God would wound the human spirit is the passage in Isaiah that says of the servant of the Lord, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” The term translated “smitten” here is basically the same root, with a variant spelling, as the one translated “wounded” in the proverb. But the whole point of the passage in Isaiah is that we were wrong to think that the servant was wounded by God. Particularly from a New Testament perspective, we can see that instead God was in Christ, enduring this suffering on our behalf—not inflicting it on us.
This post is the third and last in reply to a series of questions asked by someone who’s reading through the book of Jeremiah. The first post, about whether Jeremiah was a protester, is here. The second post, about what Jeremiah was doing in Egypt, is here.
Q. What happened to the Ark of the Covenant when the temple got destroyed? Did Jeremiah have any role protecting it?
As I write this last post in response to your questions about the book of Jeremiah, let me commend you again for reading through the whole book thoughtfully and asking good questions about it. That’s exactly how we should be reading the Bible.
Contrary to what movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark would suggest, the ark of the covenant was almost certainly destroyed when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. It’s not “lost” and waiting to be discovered somewhere.
We can infer this with a high degree of certainty from the biblical text itself, because it actually lists for us what the Babylonians took out of the temple before they destroyed it. We’re told at the end of the book of Jeremiah, “The Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars, the movable stands and the bronze Sea that were at the temple of the Lord and they carried all the bronze to Babylon.They also took away the pots, shovels, wick trimmers, sprinkling bowls, dishes and all the bronze articles used in the temple service.The commander of the imperial guard took away the basins, censers, sprinkling bowls, pots, lampstands, dishes and bowls used for drink offerings—all that were made of pure gold or silver.”
Later in the Bible we get an actual inventory of these articles, which “Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god.” This was the typical thing to do in the ancient world with articles taken from a conquered nation’s temple. They were displayed as trophies to show how much more powerful the conquering nation’s god was than the conquered nation’s god. (The Philistines followed a similar practice when they displayed Saul’s armor in the temple of their god after killing him in battle.) When the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed exiled peoples to return home, King Cyrus sent the articles from the Jerusalem temple back with the returning Judeans. There’s even a detailed inventory at the beginning of the book of Ezra: 30 gold bowls, 410 silver bowls, etc.
What’s significant is that there’s no mention of the ark of the covenant in any of these passages. The Babylonians probably understood that it was not meant to be a depiction of the God of the Israelites. If it had been, they would certainly have put it in their temple as a highest-value trophy. But they probably knew that the Israelites never had any idols representing Yahweh. Instead, the ark was a sacred object intended to represent his presence. As such, the Babylonians would not have put it in their own temple. Instead, they would have treated it as an object made of precious metal and cut it up or melted it down, the way they did the bronze objects. The Hebrew Scriptures don’t depict this destruction, probably out of reverence for the ark and its meaning.
But significantly, early in the book of Jeremiah, there’s a prophecy about the time when Israel will be restored and “all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honor the name of the Lord.” At that time,” Jeremiah says, “people will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.” Jeremiah is foreseeing the time when God’s redemptive purposes will open up to include all nations. The ark will no longer be referenced, because it was a symbol of the “particular” phase in redemptive history, when God was reaching out to the whole world through one single nation. In the “universal” phase, God reaches out directly to all nations. (There’s a symbol of this in the book of Revelation when an angel declares, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,” and then “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant.” The true ark is now in heaven, and it speaks of God’s redemption extending to all nations.)
So even if Jeremiah could have had some role in preventing the Babylonians from destroying the ark (which is unlikely, since Jeremiah was kept under guard by the Judeans until the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and set him free), he probably wouldn’t have tried to do so. That would have been working against his own prophecy!
This post is the second in reply to a series of questions asked by someone who’s reading through the book of Jeremiah. The first post, about whether Jeremiah was a protester, is here.
Q. When Jeremiah’s nation didn’t listen to him, the king of Babylon ensured his safety when he finally captured Jerusalem. What’s going on there? The dynamics of how God is working seem to be very complicated. God calls the king of Babylon His servant, even though he doesn’t seem to acknowledge Him. Then at another time in the book, Jeremiah goes to Egypt, even though Nebuchadnezzar had some personnel attending to him while he was in Jerusalem. What is he accomplishing in Egypt besides prophesying, and doesn’t that get him in trouble with Nebuchadnezzar? Is he trying to create a movement or revolution of somesort?
God had already determined to judge and punish the Judeans for their disobedience, particularly the wrongs that the nation did under King Manasseh. In Samuel-Kings, a narrative compiled over time by the prophets God sent to the people, when the Babylonians effectively subjugate Judea, it says, “Surely these things happened to Judah according to the Lord’s command, in order to remove them from his presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all he had done,including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive.”
Since God had already decided to punish the Judeans through the Babylonians, God sent Jeremiah with the message that they should accept vassal status (i.e. being subjugated) and the exile of their king and many of their nobles and artisans. God promised through Jeremiah that he would bring the exiles back in a generation or two. In the meantime, they were to accept that their home would be in Babylon, and they should make a new life for themselves there.
However, after initially becoming vassals of the Babylonians, the Judean kings then betrayed them and tried to make an alliance with the Egyptians. False prophets claimed that this would “break the yoke of the king of Babylon” and bring the exiles back right away. This led Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian emperor, to lead an army against Judea and besiege its cities, notably Jerusalem. Jeremiah urged the people to surrender peacefully, in keeping with his earlier messages. But they continued to resist, and ultimately the Babylonians defeated them, destroyed Jerusalem, and sent most of the rest of the people into exile.
However, since Jeremiah was known to have counseled peaceful surrender, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t regard him as an enemy. He gave his officers instructions to protect Jeremiah, provide for him, and allow him to return to his own home. Shortly after this Jeremiah was apparently rounded up to be sent into exile anyway, but one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officials recognized him among the captives and set him free once more. I hope this answers the first part of your question, about why the Babylonians ensured Jeremiah’s safety.
The question of why God would call a pagan emperor his “servant” highlights how that term is used by the prophets with a variety of meanings. The usage here in Jeremiah is similar to that in Isaiah. On the one hand, the people of Israel and Judah are called God’s servants because God has chosen to use their nation to further his redemptive purposes in the world. God also refers frequently to “my servants the prophets” because he has sent them to bring his word to that people and call them back to their chosen role. But God also calls pagan emperors his “servants” (or something similar) because he is using them to fulfill his purposes. God calls Nebuchadnezzar his servant in Jeremiah, and in Isaiah he calls Cyrus “my shepherd” who will “accomplish all that I please.”
In the case of these emperors, the servants may not have known that they were actually serving God by carrying out his purposes. We learn in the book of Daniel that Nebuchadnezzar was actually quite defiant and resistant at first towards the God of Israel, until he was humbled and he acknowledged him. Maybe the take-home message is that God accomplishes his purposes through human agents, as I’ve said in other posts on this blog, and it’s best if we human agents seek to discover those purposes and cooperate with them intentionally!
As for what Jeremiah was doing in Egypt, he actually didn’t want to go there. As you noted, the Babylonians appointed a governor over the Judeans who were left in their land. But this governor was assassinated by some men who apparently wanted to keep resisting the Babylonians any way they could. After this, the remaining Judeans were afraid of reprisals, and they wanted to flee to Egypt for safety. But they asked Jeremiah about this first, promising to do whatever he said. When he told them they could stay safely where they were, they fled to Egypt anyway—and forced him to come with them! So Jeremiah ended up among people who were rebelling, but he wasn’t trying to do that personally.
As a result of this forced departure from Judea, Jeremiah’s final oracles come to us from Egypt. (The image above depicts one of those oracles.) There, as far as we know, he completed his career as a prophet and died. These final oracles continue to challenge the people’s disobedience and call them back to the worship of the true God.
Q. What was Jeremiah’s status in his society? Was he like a protester, as we think of our modern-day societies? Or he was something else? We know as readers that he was a prophet of God, but it seems somehow Judah didn’t see it that way. Reading the book of Jeremiah, it would seem that he didn’t care about his social class, but if I try to imagine, it seems that he was a vocal individual and that this got him in trouble with the authorities on many occasions.
When his nation didn’t listen, the king of Babylon ensured his safety when he finally captured Jerusalem. What’s going on there? The dynamics of how God is working seem to be very complicated. God calls the king of Babylon His servant, even though he doesn’t seem to acknowledge Him. Then at another time in the book, Jeremiah goes to Egypt, even though Nebuchadnezzar had some personnel attending to him while he was in Jerusalem. What is he accomplishing in Egypt besides prophesying, and doesn’t that get him in trouble with Nebuchadnezzar? Is he trying to create a movement or revolution of some sort ?
And a side question, what happened to the Ark of the Covenant when the temple got destroyed? Did Jeremiah have any role in protecting it?
Thank you for these questions about Jeremiah. I commend you for reading the book so thoughtfully. I’ll answer your first question in this post and the others in follow-up posts.
Jeremiah was a priest. That was his social status. However, he belonged to a group of priests who’d been forbidden to offer sacrifices in the temple and who’d been banished from Jerusalem to the city of Anathoth. Let me explain the background to that, and then I’ll describe its implications for Jeremiah’s status.
While all Israelite priests were descended from Aaron, there were actually two lines of priests. One line came from Aaron’s son Eleazar, and the other came from Aaron’s son Ithamar. We learn in the book of Samuel that a priest named Ahimelek, who was descended from Ithamar, was the priest at the tabernacle at the time when Saul was pursuing David and trying to kill him. Saul killed Ahimelek and his family because he thought they were helping David, but Ahimelek’s son Abiathar escaped and joined David. Abiathar stayed with David until Saul was killed in battle by the Philistines and David became king. Then David made him the high priest.
However, David also made a man named Zadok, who was descended from Eleazar, another high priest alongside Abiathar. This may have been to acknowledge both priestly lines. When David later had to flee from Jerusalem to escape an attempted coup by his son Absalom, these two men wanted to go with him, but he told them to stay in Jerusalem. This enabled their two sons to serve as his agents, carrying messages back and forth based on information the priests supplied. So both men proved their loyalty to David.
However, after David died, Abiathar joined a coup that David’s son Adonijah was attempting. Zadok, on the other hand, remained loyal to Solomon, who was David’s choice to succeed him as king. When Solomon claimed the throne, he told Abiathar, “You deserve to die, but I will not put you to death, because you carried the ark of the Sovereign Lord before my father David and shared all my father’s hardships.” However, he did tell him, “Go back to your fields in Anathoth.” That meant that Abiathar and his descendants would not be allowed to offer sacrifices in the temple any more.
The Bible says that when Solomon did this, it fulfilled a prophecy that God had spoken against their ancestor Eli when he did nothing to restrain his wicked sons. However, that very prophecy suggested that Eli’s descendants might still fulfill some other priestly functions and so be entitled to support from the contributions that were made to the temple. It may well be, therefore, that the priestly descendants of Ithamar who lived in Anathoth could have been seen in Jerusalem from time to time performing some of the same functions as the other priests.
This would have included Jeremiah. And so to return to the question of his social status, we might compare him to someone today who was a leader or former elected official of a national political party that was now out of power. He would not have a formal position, but he would still have a platform based on his own record of service and on the heritage and accomplishments of his party in the past. This would at least win him a hearing, and from that point it would be up to his own words to make an impact.
This would explain why Jeremiah was able to deliver one of his most controversial but influential sermons from within the temple itself. As a priest, he would have had access to the temple, even though his branch of priests wasn’t allowed to offer sacrifices there.
In the end, Jeremiah’s words, both spoken and written, seem to have created quite a sensation. Shemaiah, one of the Judeans who’d been taken into exile in Babylon, wrote back to Zephaniah, the high priest in Jerusalem, complaining about a letter that Jeremiah had written saying that the exile would be prolonged. Shemaiah told Zephaniah, “The Lord has appointed you priest . . . in charge of the house of the Lord; you should put any maniac who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons. So why have you not reprimanded Jeremiah from Anathoth, who poses as a prophet among you?“
I think Shemaiah’s reply reveals a lot about Jeremiah’s perceived and actual social status. One the one hand, Shemaiah is implying that Zephaniah is a legitimate priest, while Jeremiah is just one of those castoffs “from Anathoth.” He’s also suggesting that Jeremiah is at most a priest, and that he’s only posing as a prophet. On the other hand, Zephaniah’s response to this letter aso shows what great respect Jeremiah commanded as he spoke from the platform he did have. Rather than putting Jeremiah in the stocks, he read Shemaiah’s letter to Jeremiah to see what he had to say about it. In reply, God gave Jeremiah a prophecy of doom against Shemaiah for being a false prophet.
One final thing we should note is that while being a priest from Anathoth gave Jeremiah something of a platform, the other priests there actually told him at one point, “Don’t prophesy in the name of the Lord or we’ll kill you ourselves.” In other words, when we use the platform we do have to speak God’s message to our own place and time, that platform itself may disown and threaten us. So ultimately it’s our faithfulness to God and our courage in speaking for him that give our words their ultimate impact.
We can trust God to preserve us for as long as we’re needed to speak for him when we’re faithful in this way. God revealed to Jeremiah that the people of Anathoth were plotting against his life, and so he was able to escape. This proved that Jeremiah was a genuine prophet!