Reading Telford Work’s book Living and Active, I’m recognizing the amount of breathing room available within the biblical tradition. We often speak as if there were only one way to be “biblical” people. We imagine that there is one cookie cutter mold for how to be faithful (and not surprisingly, that cookie cutter looks an awful lot like our own silhouette). But even within the Bible there are traditions at tremendous tension with one another, and in the world that Scripture describes, there is room for many different sorts:
Wisdom literature portrays a world where the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer. The wise are blessed and saved, the wicked judged and condemned. God’s mercy is then a kind of converse of God’s justice. The apocalyptic vision turns this conception of salvation on its head. In a world where the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, one is not saved from God’s eschotological judgemnt. Rather, one is saved from injustice and wrath, through God’s eschatological judgment. God’s justice is itself a dimension of God’s mercy. (159)
There is a breadth to truth that acknowledges the validity of many perspectives. What a relief that God speaks through many voices. The “American Dream” wisdom of Proverbs (work your tail off and you’ll do alright) stands side by side with Daniel’s very different version of wisdom. Daniel reminds us that beastly and inhuman empires have their way on the earth only for a time, but that in the end, God’s power and God’s judgment are ultimate. As Ghandi says – every oppressor dies someday.
Isn’t that the way it is? We live in the tension between “wisdom” and “apocalypse.” In many times and many places hard work and living at peace with your neighbors is the best way to prosper. “Eat, drink, and be merry.” Simultaneously, it is true that in many times and places the systems of the world reward the wicked and exclude those who are merely seeking a simple and peaceful life. God’s word speaks both necessary truths.
Another example Telford gives is the tension between the prophets and the monarchy. Despite some reservations, God set a king over his people Israel, a visible sign and mediation of his rule. David, the king after God’s own heart, soon gave way to leaders somewhat less attuned to God’s reality. Israel’s kings divided the nation, led the people into idolatry, and ignored the poor (these are not as unrelated as it may seem). Does the apostacy of the monarchy revoke God’s blessing and God’s plan altogether? No, the king is still accountable to God and recieves power from God, whether or not he recognizes it.
The Davidic covenant was a check on royal power as well as a source of it. The divine right of kings comes with divine strings attached, and as long as Israel’s throne was justified theologically, the prophetic and priestly schools retained powerful footholds. (147)
To this end, God raised up a small but vocal group to call the visible-but-corrupt form of God’s people back to the invisible-but-true commands and intentions of God. The prophets held kings accountable, exposed their misdeeds, and preached truth from street corners in subversive and provocative ways. In these days of corrupt empire, thank God for prophets (let the reader understand).
The prophets’ speech-acts reveal the sovereignty and initiative of Scripture’s ultimate speaker. The Spirit of Yahweh will not be tamed. When earlier media of divine presence [i.e. God’s intention for kingship] are domesticated, God breaks out beyond their old boundaries to create an urgent new conversation. (146)
But prophets are prone to self-righteousness and cynicism. It is easy to be faithful to an invisible truth. Putting flesh on that truth and trying to run an actual system is always messier, always more difficult. The kings undoubtedly failed, time and time again. But the institution of the monarchy also gave us the Psalms, the histories of Israel preserved in scripture, (and the wisdom literature mentioned above for that matter). The kings preserved a measure of order that allowed day-to-day life to go on. God watched out for his people through the kings even as he raised up prophets to call them to account for their wickedness.
We are in desperate need of prophets and politicians. God works through both. There is a lot of room for humans in the words of God. There are many true perspectives. We need the voices of others to hold us in check – the bible is a perfect example of this polyphony. The many voices of scripture – all in tension with one another – are altogether the Word of God.