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Political Saviors

In describing the events of Palm Sunday, St. Matthew wrote...

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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[Reprinted from Salvation and Godly Rule
(Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2004 ed.), 63-71.]

In describing the events of Palm Sunday, St. Matthew wrote:

4. All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet saying,
5. Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass. (Matt. 21:4-5)

This formula, “All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet,” appears in nearly the same words twelve times in Matthew’s Gospel, three times in Mark, six times in Luke, and eight times in John. It is also common in Acts and the Epistles. Even more common is an expression declaring that it was thus written by a prophet: such references are almost too numerous to cite.

In this case, the citation refers to Zechariah 9:9–10; although verse 10 is not cited, it is clearly in mind, and the joyful reaction of the people made it clear that they saw the self-conscious fulfillment of the prophecy as a declaration of peace, victory, and dominion:

9. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.
10. And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth.

Whatever else this and all other citations of the fulfillment of prophecy have to say, they do make it clear that history moves in terms of God’s plan and is predestined by Him. What He has declared, He brings to pass. Not only do the writers rejoice in every fulfillment of prophecy, but they also clearly rejoice in the fact that, whatever God has promised and declared, that He will perform. Predestination by God is implicit or explicit in all of Scripture.

Predestination by man, however, is implicit and explicit in humanism, scientific socialism, and in every doctrine of political salvation. Man seeks to supplant God’s eternal decree with his own total plan. The scientific socialist state is man’s predestination of man and his world.

The Triumphal Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem is directly related to this humanistic hope and in contradiction to it.

The world of Christ’s day was well aware of the Biblical faith and hope which, from Judea, was extensively taught and propagated by Judean missionaries. In 61 B. C., Cicero had rejected it as a “barbarian superstition.” Biblical faith all the same appealed to many who were “longing to believe that one day wickedness would be abolished, the arrogant would be punished, and a higher justice would be established.”1

In paganism, such a hope was normally essentially a political hope. Religion was primarily concerned, in its cultic form, with insurance against problems. Positive action towards justice and salvation was basically political. Only as the political hope in the form of the Roman Empire began to fade into cynicism did pagan cults offer salvation, and even then it was identified with security rather than victory.

Rome, as it developed from a City-State to an empire, presented itself as “the City of Justice, belonging to all humanity.” This Greater Rome was man’s vehicle of salvation. Cicero hailed Octavian as a savior. “In him we place our hopes of liberty; from him we have already received salvation (Philippics, V, vxiii, 49).” Cicero spoke of Rome as “the light of the world, the guardian of all nations (Philippics, IV, vi, 14).”2

Roman politicians saw their regimes as new eras, opening up salvation for a needy world. Julius Caesar, like others, instituted calendar changes and reform as Pontifex Maximus to indicate that time now had a new meaning. His assassins believed equally as much that their political assassination would renew the past and the present.

Almost as if they wanted to re-establish the ancient course of events, the conspirators chose March 15—the feast of Anna Perenna, which had been New Year’s Day in the old calendar—to murder the man who had subverted the very sequence of the days.3

Whether with Caesar, Brutus, or their predecessors and successors, salvation meant the power of the state and its sword. Salvation meant coercion.

The nature of political salvation has not changed since then. Whether in Marxist socialist states, Fabian socialist orders, or in the democracies, political salvation means coercion. The state has a plan, and man and society must submit to the predestined Procrustean pattern. Procrustes, the Greek robber of legend, amputated or stretched the limbs of his captives to fit a certain bed and thereby destroyed them. His victims were unwilling victims, but the modern citizens, believing in political salvation, demand a Procrustean bed for society and only complain when it is they who are stretched out upon it.

The predestination and salvation offered by humanism and socialism is coercive and destructive. The dream is of a great and noble leader on a white horse leading men into a new paradise, and, age after age, men have raised up to power their own murderers and cheered their parades to murderous power.

The Triumphal Entry had all this in mind and parodied it. Israel itself had succumbed to the political hope. The expectation of a world empire ruled by a Jewish messiah was present among the disciples themselves. The contrast between a conqueror riding on a white charger and an ass with its colt trotting along cannot be more marked. The one gives us a picture of power and might, the ability to compel and to destroy. The other is a picture, as Zechariah 9:9 makes clear, of one who is “lowly” or humble, with no apparent coercive power.

This difference is deliberate. The predestination of the state is brutal and coercive; it is on man’s level, in man’s time, and a pressure on man himself. The predestination of God is from all eternity, before time began; it does no violence to us, because we are what God created us to be, and all that He ordains is in conformity to our being because we are what He ordained us to be.

The use of the ass marked a renunciation of political power as the way of salvation. After Solomon came to the throne,

[H]orses became the distinctive riding beast of the nobility (I Kings 10:25, 28–29; II Kings 9:18–19, etc.). From this time onward the use of asses was characteristic of persons without rank. If the Messiah appears riding thus He must be of a humble rank and station.4

The crowds who hailed Jesus saw the prophecy fulfilled, but they insisted on seeing it in terms of their political hopes. They did this because the prophecy spoke of dominion. In Leupold’s translation, “And He shall speak peace to the nations; and His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”5 Thus, however humble the Messiah’s appearing and entry, He would still exercise world dominion.

The question, of course, is simply this: what does dominion mean? For the world, dominion is in essence the ability to exercise power and force over persons and things. What men mean by dominion is apparent in the connotation the word domination has. The expectation thus was that the appearance of the Messiah meant the domination of the world by a Jewish monarch. Jesus, recognizing their false hope, wept over the city, saying, “If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace!” (Luke 19:42). As Stauffer wrote,

Many of them waved palms, thus making plain the political meaning of their demonstration. For the palm was the key emblem of Palestine in national heraldry and in the international emblematic language of the day. Palm trees and palm leaves are to be found on the Palestinian coins of the early Maccabees, the Hasmonaeans, the Herodians, the procurators, and the partisans; they are found also on Flavian coins celebrating victories and, above all, on the coins celebrating the advent of Hadrian. On these last coins we see Judea kneeling or sacrificing, surrounded by children bearing palms and marching in solemn procession to meet the approaching Emperor. This is how we must understand the palms of Palm Sunday: Jerusalem was celebrating the epiphany of her messianic king. Even the children crying Hosannah are included in this description of the coming of a king.6

The dominion which Christ came to establish was not political, although it would have political repercussions and effect as men came under Christ’s dominion. Humanism speaks of man’s goodness, but, practically, it moves in terms of man’s depravity, because its plan for paradise is to coerce men into goodness as the state defines it. In effect, man is compelled, if he resists, to choose between the state’s definition of goodness or to be an outcast, or even to be executed. Political dominion and coercion are the humanistic means of coping with man’s sin. In such an order, the state exercises dominion over man, so that it is not man who exercises dominion, but man who is dominated by a ruling elite.

In Christ’s Kingdom, dominion is restored to man, who lost it by his fall, by man’s regeneration through Jesus Christ. Christ by His resurrection destroyed the dominion of death (Rom. 6:9). Therefore, “sin shall not have dominion over you” (Rom. 6:14). Man is freed into dominion. The state exercises dominion over man by means of coercive power: the gun and the bayonet are its compelling and persuading power. Christ the King leads His joint-heirs into dominion by His grace.

Christ marched into Jerusalem in humble manner, in a parody of statist might. “All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet.” He is declared “just, and having salvation.” He will “cut off” or eliminate the “battle bow” and the chariot, the weapons of war, and “the horse,” the symbol of the proud conqueror, will give way to His peace. Micah, as well as Isaiah, spoke of this peace:

And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Micah 4:3)

9. Thine hand shall be lifted up upon thine adversaries, and all thine enemies shall be cut off.
10. And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the LORD, that I will cut off thy horses out of the midst of thee, and I will destroy thy chariots:
11. And I will cut off the cities of thy land, and throw down all thy strongholds:
12. And I will cut off witchcraft out of thine hand; and thou shalt have no more soothsayers:
13. Thy graven images also will I cut off, and thy standing images out of the midst of thee; and thou shalt no more worship the work of thine hands. (Micah 5:9-13)

Christ, too, eliminates that which opposes His Kingdom, not by coercion but by the judgment of history, by means of that great shaking of the things which are, so that the things which cannot be shaken may alone remain (Heb. 12:27). His word to the nations is peace. But “war will cease on earth only when wickedness ceases, and wickedness will cease only when Christ’s universal empire begins.”7

Christ’s Kingdom comes by grace, and it restores man, whereas political salvation suppresses. Rome sought to be the City of Justice and became a city which even its emperors abandoned for other havens. But of Christ Zechariah says, “He is just.” His law gives men the means to liberty, dominion, and prosperity, and He, as the just ruler, is faithful to His word (Deut. 28).

The crowd which on Palm Sunday hailed Jesus as the Messianic King, the Great King coming “in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 21:9), cried out savagely, before the week was over, “Crucify Him” (Mark 15:12–14). Their attitude had not greatly changed in those few days and was in essence the same. Their expectation of Jesus was an empire which would kill their enemies, in particular, Rome and its legions, its rulers, and tax collectors. When they thought of deliverance and salvation, they thought of death, death for their enemies, and death for those of their own race whom they hated. Again and again in the history of political saviors and salvation, deliverance has meant a blood bath, a reign of terror, concentration camps, and endless bloodshed. If hopes of political salvation are offered by the left, they mean death for capitalists, reactionaries, Christians, counter-revolutionaries, Ethiopians, Jews, or whomever they are opposed to. If hopes of political salvation are offered by the rightists or conservatives, again it means war and death, death for communists and for all who fit their definition of traitors. Political salvation means the elimination of an element in the life of the state, and it is a program of social regeneration by means of death, the death of all offending individuals, followed by the rigorous regimentation of the life of all the rest.

Biblical salvation means the elimination of sin and, finally, death by the atoning and regenerating work of Jesus Christ, and it is a gospel of individual and finally universal regeneration through His sovereign creating and recreating power. It offers grace to the guilty through Christ’s vicarious sacrifice and it sets forth God’s law as the way of sanctification, so that society can flourish and prosper under God.

God having created man in His image, man, even in his sin, inescapably bears the stamp of God and moves in terms of godly categories which are perverted to man’s lawless ends. Man is a law creature: because he is a man, he must have law, direction, in his life. However much he hates God, fallen man still echoes God’s law. As a result, when fallen, sinful man faces the wrongs wrought by sin, everything within him cries out against it. The demand for justice was no less present in Rome, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and elsewhere than it is today. The cry for justice is as old as man. As God’s creature, man cries out against injustice, and his being longs for a just order even as the plant seeks the sun.

All through the ages, as man has confronted the havoc wrought by sin, he cries out in passion, “Someone must pay for this!” This is the cry of the law, vengeance, restitution. It cannot be evaded. Men may talk about eliminating judgment and restitution, but such an era is usually most ruthless about inflicting it. When fallen man begins to demand that “Someone must pay for this!,” it means that sin is followed by unremitting death. The Fall is all the more enforced by man himself. His activities become sadistic and masochistic. Being himself guilty, he passes the death sentence on himself with masochistic, suicidal actions and impulses. Indignant at the guilt of all other men, he turns on them sadistically, savagely, and murderously, laying upon them his guilt and also his wrath at the omnipresent evil he sees. The law becomes death, and a means of atonement and justification. Society and history become a long story of death-dealing as the way of salvation, so that, the greater man’s edifices, the greater his ruins. His hopes like his structures crumble as his salvation-death overtakes them all. Revolutionists have again and again seen that their reigns of terror will sooner or later overtake them, but they have no other way of salvation, and they pursue death until it destroys them.

The death of man cannot justify, redeem, atone, or regenerate. Jesus Christ, as man’s only Redeemer, parodied the death march of world conquerors in His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The city rejected Him and looked to their own power to inflict death as the way of salvation. The Jewish-Roman War resulted (Luke 19:41–44), the greatest disaster of history (Matt. 24:21). As a result, Jesus, after having been whipped almost to death, and after a long night of agony,8 could still declare, on His way to the cross, to the weeping women,

28. Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.
29. For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the paps which never gave suck.
30. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us.
31. For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry? (Luke 23:28–31)

Salvation is not death, but every attempt at political salvation means death on a wholesale basis, massive, brutal death. Because Jesus Christ came to offer life, in fulfillment of prophecy He denied and parodied political salvation. Political saviors, He declared, are false men, murderers, thieves, and robbers. “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

The Kingdom of God comes, not by theft and murder, not by political saviors, but by the grace of God unto salvation, and by obedience to His law. The ass was the symbol, not only of a humble status, but of work. Not conquest but work, not coercion but patient labor in the Lord, establishes man’s dominion under God.

1. Lidia Storoni Mazzolani, The Idea of the City in Roman Thought, From Walled City to Spiritual Commonwealth (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1970), 76f.

2. Ibid., 97, 120, 129.

3. Ibid., 121.

4. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Zechariah (Columbus, Ohio: The Wartburg Press, 1956), 175.

5. Ibid., 163.

6. Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus and His Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960), 110.

7. Thomas V. Moore, Zechariah (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1958), 151.

8. See C. Truman Davis, M.D., “The Crucifixion of Jesus, The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View,” Arizona Medicine (March 1965): 183–187.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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