The question, really, is one of authority. But what is “authority?” Authority refers to how we can trust something—or someone—it’s the reason we tend to view the Wall Street Journal as more reliable than Wikipedia. In the last century, the noted sociologist Max Weber noted that the concept of authority has shifted markedly in western culture. Once, he said, we believed in something called “traditional authority,” meaning we believed that we put our trust in a holy book or religious experience. Then came the “modern” period, and we increasingly believed in “rational-legal” authority, meaning we placed our trust in human reason and truths held to be “self-evident.” But, he says, we then shifted to “charismatic” authority. Now we place our trust in…well, whoever we want, really. Popularity reigns supreme. Authority now rests in the number of one’s Twitter followers.
In short, we’ve entered a world where feeling is believing. And we invariably find no shortage of voices and talking heads all primed to direct our thoughts and attitudes toward some particular agenda. If we’re not careful, we become numb to the constant barrage of information, the persistent siren song of a world off its hinges, in love only with new ideas and triumphant progress.
But for all the voices offering a variety of means, we remain lacking in ends. What is life about? What is my purpose? It’s not that these questions aren’t being answered—it’s that beneath all the chatter of political pundits, spiritual gurus and rock stars, it starts to seem as if the answers don’t matter. Authority, ultimately, rests only on my own shoulders.
Yet I wither beneath its weight.
REBELLION (Psalm 2:1-3)
These problems run deep. They predate us by centuries, even millennia. The question of who to trust first arose on the lips of a serpent, who tempted our ancestors into insurrection against God’s perfect goodness. The juice from the forbidden fruit ran down our chins, and we stood naked in our prideful autonomy. And then creation fell. All of the hurt, all of the shame, all of the mistrust, all of the tears that have fallen to the ground since that day—we’re reaping a harvest of our own self-centeredness.
God gathered to himself a people whose only common trait was having been chosen through his grace. Through Abraham was birthed the nation of Israel, starting a lifelong pattern of rescue and rebellion that would last until today. In 1500 BC, God rescued his people from Egyptian slavery, bringing them to the promised land where he established his rule in their lives.
But in 1000 BC, the people had realized the failure of God’s system of judges. The conclusion of the book of Judges reminds us that “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Looking to their neighbors in envy, Israel demanded that they be given a King. And while their first King—Saul—was a dismal failure, their hope soon lay in a humble shepherd-king named David.
And so songs of the earthly king gave shape to the nation’s hopes—hopes that one day they would all experience a world where God would rule over them through an earthly ruler.
So in Psalm 2, we see the need expressed:
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1-3)
In a very real sense, Israel understood what it was like to live in a world with no central authority. Instead, everyone continued to live his own life—and it was a disaster.
Even today we live in a world where true freedom is assumed to be the absence of all restriction. To place boundaries on another human being is unloving at best and bigoted at worst. It’s no wonder that Christianity is routinely mocked as morally backward and sexually repressive—for it represents a call to sacrifice our autonomy in favor of a life of devotion to God.
Thankfully, God’s plan remained undamaged.
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
This seems a strange statement—that God would mock his wayward people. But surely you can see the irony? If Christianity is untrue, then it only makes sense to “dabble” in spirituality. That is, if the gospels are mere legends, if Jesus never rose from the grave, if my forgiveness is less than sure—then life becomes only as meaningful as I make it. I can pick and choose what religious beliefs to hold dear, and which to soften and mold to cultural standards. But if the gospel is true, then that changes everything. I can no longer dismiss Christianity as a crutch for the weak-minded—at least not without agreeing that many ways of life offer crutches all their own. Sex, career, sports, fashion—these and a thousand lesser gods have the power to rule my heart but never offer me lasting joy. So while God’s derisive laughter may seem abrasive—perhaps insensitive—it’s only because God affirms the basic futility of living life on my own. I need a true king. I need the true King.
So the psalm concludes with a response to God’s authority:
7 I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Bob Dylan famously said that “you gotta serve somebody.” And it’s true. Everyone bows to someone else’s authority—whether based on specific credentials or the sheer force of charisma. Christianity says that your ability to flourish depends entirely on whose authority you choose to follow. So what good is a king? But perhaps we could ask a better question: does the “king” you currently follow bend you closer toward truth, or closer toward self? Does your current lifestyle empower you to love God and neighbor, or only affirm your prideful self-sufficiency? Do your beliefs offer you genuine refuge, or are they only a surrogate hope built on wish-fulfillment?
In the next series of posts, we’ll look at the ways that Israel’s hopes for a king find true fulfillment in the arrival of Jesus—and we’ll see how this arrival ushers in a fresh and wild hope for you and I.