When Political Power Is Lost

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The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in 2022 will be seen as the last great public acknowledgment in the West of a transcendence that limits temporal power. In our secular age, religion is reduced to a privatized experience. The public square declares, “No heaven above us and no hell below.” The Queen’s funeral, replete with the language of temporal power being given by God, threw down a challenge to the rulers of this age: there is a God in heaven.

Such a challenge isn’t new. And neither is the idea.

We meet it most significantly in the book of Daniel, the exile template par excellence of the Old Testament. Daniel specifically states to King Nebuchadnezzar, “There is a God in heaven” (Dan. 2:28). This theme is repeated throughout the book, particularly in the narrative chapters 1–6, as are synonymous titles such as “Most High” and “King of heaven” (e.g., 2:18, 37; 3:26; 4:2, 37; 5:18).

Daniel’s message of God’s transcendent rule is a timely word for us today as the West polarizes politically with a left and right divide, a divide mirrored in lamentable ways within the church.

Political Divide

We’re being pressed with two extremes in the political realm. First, there’s the seemingly ascendant progressive political agenda that, as Mark Sayers puts it, “seeks to gain the fruit of God’s kingdom—such as justice, peace, prosperity and redemption—but without the King.” The left craves human rights that are the fruit of the gospel throughout history but despises the roots.

Daniel’s message of God’s transcendent rule is a timely word for us today as the West polarizes politically with a left and right divide, a divide mirrored in lamentable ways within the church.

Yet there’s an equal and opposite push. Perhaps we could call it “Christendom without Christ.” This is a move from the right that even some in the church espouse. It’s a call for a return to the supposedly golden age of politics past, in which a Christianized culture set the political tone and agenda. We don’t need everyone to be saved. That’s not possible. But we should use temporal power to make the culture as “Christian” as we can—all within a democratic setting, of course. The trick is how to sell the product at a time when the percentage of church attendees is in decline and the percentage of “nones” and “dones” is on the rise.

The movements have more in common with each other than adherents would care to admit. Their actions either refute or negate the central truth that there’s a God in heaven—an eternal Ruler above their temporal rule. The book of Daniel challenges both the growing hubris and overreach of secular progressives and the growing anger and frustration among conservatives, including religious conservatives. It does so by placing political power and political impotence within the reality of God’s sovereignty.

Irony of Sovereignty

The great irony in Daniel, concerned as it is with the physically and historically bound exile of God’s people in Babylon, is that the book is shaped by God’s transcendence. Six ripping yarns set within history, offset by a further six apocalyptic chapters. And even those first six give off apocalyptic fumes.

This is a prophetic challenge to those who hold the levers of temporal power: use them wisely. But it’s also a pastoral comfort to those who realize those levers may never come our way again: lose them joyfully.

Daniel’s lengthy life spanning several kings, and indeed kingdoms, reminds us the cultural exilic experience of God’s people in the West may be a long-term reality. Cultural exile is the standard for God’s people—our recent Western experience is merely the aberration that proved the rule. If this is the case, we need to gird our loins.

The remainder of this short article will explore one timely truth from the book of Daniel: that despite our cultural exile, the God of heaven is the ultimate reality. This truth enables us to sail between the political Cyanean rocks threatening to crush the life out of our witness to our transcendent King.

Ultimate Reality

Long before we reach the famed Son of Man in Daniel 7, it’s clear God rules over history, especially when his people seem to be on the wrong side of it. The book starts with the dreadful events of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar. Tragedy! Yet there’s comfort amid it all: “The Lord gave Jehoiakim . . . into his hand” (1:2).

Heaven, it turns out, is less about God’s postcode and more about his power. Even the dismantling of Jerusalem’s worship system (v. 2), the capture of its political elite (vv. 3–4), and the reconstituting of it for Babylon’s purposes and identity (vv. 5–7) come under his remit. All this before we ever read these words about earthly leaders in the book’s second half: “As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away” (7:12).

Heaven, it turns out, is less about God’s postcode and more about his power.

Which is a reminder, of course, that their dominion was first given. That’s where the rubber hits the road for Christians in the political sphere. All dominion is given. And if given externally, then taken away externally too. Not simply at the ballot box but by the God of heaven.

Christians shouldn’t rage against the rise of political leaders with whom they disagree. They mustn’t hate and scorn them. They need not. Even if there were no New Testament advice on how to pray for pagan leaders, there’s the cast-iron truth of Daniel chapter 1: the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.

This has two implications. First, Christians can call secular leaders to account with grace and humility. Even the tone and shape of our political disagreements must adorn the gospel. Second, Christians who are in political power must maintain the tension of holding moral certainty with political reality. It cannot be the case that the winner takes it all.

The fact that God is in heaven is a liberating reality for Christians as political exiles: it spares us the overreach we’ll be prone to when we hold political power and spares us the despair we so often see in the evangelical subculture when power is lost.

Editors’ note: 

This article is adapted from Faithful Exiles: Finding Hope in a Hostile World, edited by Ivan Mesa and Elliot Clark (TGC, September 2023). Purchase through the TGC Bookstore or Amazon.

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