Trusting God in a nasty neighborhood

In his recent book In God’s Shadow, famed philosopher Michael Walzer argues that the Hebrew prophets rejected both the “high theory of monarchy” (messianic kingship) and the “low theory of monarchy” (secular rule) in favor of religious resignation to God’s dominion in international affairs. According to Walzer, the prophets worshiped a God who wanted not just Israel’s devotion but awaited the day when all nations would “learn[] the truths of monotheism and…gather for worship and judgment in Jerusalem.” 

God’s ultimate desire was not necessarily for Israel to be more powerful or more secure than her neighbors. His desire was to “achieve universal honor and obedience by subduing all the other rulers—by ruling alone…so that all of them, in the end, accept him as their sole judge.” This, Walzer claims, was the crux of prophetic political philosophy.

A major part of the prophetic message was that God alone is the enforcer of international order. Over and over again, the Israelites were told to “stand still and be quiet” and trust their Creator to protect them in a nasty neighborhood:

Do nothing: this is the prophetic idea of a religiously sanctioned foreign policy, and it constitutes the prophetic challenge to the kings of Israel and Judah, who were as likely as Assyrian kings to rely on the strength of their hands and the wisdom of their counselors. Stay out of international politics, which belongs to God alone and to his instruments—who are also, mysteriously, his enemies. Only he can oppose and overthrow them, in his own good time[.]

This passive attitude is not confined to the prophetic books. As Walzer notes, “[I]t is a leitmotif of the Hebrew Bible that self-help is unnecessary.” Even in the face of an advancing army, God often commanded his people to stand still and witness his power. Walzer dismisses any attempt to explain away this passivity. The prophets are clear: God is the sole guarantor of Israel’s survival.

Walzer’s assessment of “biblical foreign policy,” which I believe is more or less on point, may be distressing for anyone who holds a strong belief in scripture. In his famous essay on “Jerusalem and Athens,” Leo Strauss drew a sharp distinction between two dissimilar worldviews that arose in these two ancient cities. Both worldviews–Hebraism and Hellenism–lie on separate trajectories, use disparate modes of reasoning, and arrive at opposite conclusions. 

Embracing either tradition is fraught with its own challenges, but the heaviest burden here seems to lie on the man who pursues Jerusalem. How to reconcile a passive biblical worldview with an ugly 21st century world? Surely God doesn’t expect his people to stand by while innocents are maimed and murdered . . .or does he?

First of all, the Bible doesn’t demand total passivity and God doesn’t always expect his people to “be still.” Throughout the Bible, he repeatedly used kings and generals–many, but not all of them Israelites–to chastise evil, reward good, and maintain order in and among fallible human societies. Indeed, scripture often portrays war and punishment as just and even sanctioned by God.

Second of all, Walzer never claims that the prophets were pacifists. In fact, he highlights their vocal opposition to injustice and notes their strident calls for public action.

The prophetic message is actually an activist one, just not in the self-help sense one might expect. Seek God with a pure heart; do justice among one’s fellow man; love righteousness—only by obeying these commands is the believer’s survival made sure. “[I]f the people of Israel meet these requirements,” Walzer writes, “they will be safe in international society—even in the age of empire.”

The message for the man of Jerusalem is not to withdraw from human affairs and allow the wicked to tyrannize the good. The message is to ignore one’s natural tendency to trust in himself and instead trust in God, above all else, to fight his battles.

Walzer’s analysis should give us pause to ask an admittedly uncomfortable question: where do we place our ultimate trust–in the sword or in an omnipotent God?

Answering this question honestly (easier to do in the abstract than in practice) will allow one to understand to which city he truly belongs, to identify his own theory of international affairs, and–if his answer is God–to engage the world with an attitude of profound, though not helpless, faith.

More than that, it will allow him to comprehend the real object of his existence. For the Athenian, the final goal is attaining “the good life” as defined by human reason. For the Jerusalemite, the final goal is attaining a world where universal glory and honor belong to God.

About the Author
Robert Nicholson is a recent Tikvah Fellow and former Marine who researches law, religion, and the relationship between Christians and Jews. He holds a JD and MA in history from Syracuse University and a BA in Hebrew Studies from SUNY Binghamton, and has published articles in, among other places, Mosaic Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Libya Herald. He lives with his wife Lyndsey and daughter Brooke in New York City.