There are some worship songs that I really get into. And there are some bands and writers that I especially get into. At the moment, one of the bands that I’m absolutely loving is Rend Collective. They have this funky, Irish-Bluegrass type feel to much of their recordings, and their songs are just great to sing along to.
I’ve used some of their Campfire Christmas versions of Christmas Carols at Christmas time, and their albums are on a high rotation in my iTunes playlists. And one of my favourite songs – and one that seems to be gaining more and more traction particularly within The Salvation Army here in Australia – is Build Your Kingdom Here.
Now, for the most part, I love the lyrics of this song. Particularly the second verse, which says:
We seek your kingdom first
We hunger and we thirst
To see the captive hearts released
The hurt, the sick, the poor at peace
That captures much of the heart of the gospel for me, and I love it.
However, there’s one line that I keep having issues with. And it was highlighted to me especially when attending a different church on Sunday, and they had a video that someone had made with the lyrics.
The line in question is in the chorus, where it says “Win this nation back” and the increasingly jarring aspect of the video was that the background for this line had the flag of the United States of America flying.
Now, for a band from Northern Ireland, I’m not certain that’s what they were meaning exactly. However, this idea of a Christian nation is not something that is biblical – and I increasingly feel unease at this single lyric. And I think the problem comes from a misunderstanding of “Kingdom” (in particular, God’s Kingdom”) and “Nation”.
In Genesis, we read of two promises made to Abraham (Abram). The First, found in Genesis 12:1-8, speaks of making a singular nation:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Now, in the times of the Hebrew Bible, a nation was a group of people who were self-governing, who laid claim to a certain area of land, and who lived by a set of rules that were made by a King. And around the time of Abram, there were many Kingdoms – and Abram’s family most certainly were not one. And we don’t see a physical King until much later, in 1 Samuel 8, where Israel demands a King to rule over them.
The second promise to Abraham comes in Genesis 17:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
Notice the shift between these two promises? First, Abram was told he would be made the ancestor of a great nation – singular. Now, he shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations – plural.
And this is an even more incredible concept – that Abraham should birth not just a single nation – in a land that had so many competing nations that would not look kindly on any group of people taking away their land – but that Abraham should birth multiple nations is something that would be quite impossible.
And this is the thing: There can be no singular “Christian” nation – in the human understanding of that word. Because, in order to be a nation you need two things: A set of laws to live by, and a King to rule over those laws. And if we were to set up either of those things, we take away from the power of the one True King – God.
In 1 Samuel 8, when the Israelites demand a king, Samuel (who was judge at the time – not a King, but someone to govern the laws that had been set down by God – their King) prayed to the LORD, and heard this response (1 Samuel 8:7)
“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”
When we set up human kings to reign over us, we reject the one true King over our lives. Samuel tries to show the Israelites what would happen if they appointed a King that wasn’t God (1 Sam 8:10-18), but they refuse to listen to him and demand a king. So Samuel, guided by the Lord, attempts to choose a king that will follow after God’s heart. And we get Saul, and Saul is a good king for a while, and then comes David. And David is a good king for a while. And we look through the histories as written in Kings and Chronicles, and we see a repeated pattern of good kings following the heart of God, and bad kings, who don’t follow God. And this is the issue with having a human king – no matter who we choose as our king, they will always fail. Because we are human. We are sinful, and we often reject God. And any king that we put up before us will – at some point – fail.
And this is my issue with the line, Win this nation back. It implies that a) we (Christians) had the nation at some point in time, and b) that it is a good thing to have a human King to reign over us. And that’s not right – there is little evidence that Christians ever really had a nation – yes, through Christendom (and Constantine), we were the state religion and have been the state religion in many places. However, were we ever really in power? And if we were, did we use that power appropriately – or did we use it to oppress others?
You see, a Kingdom is something that has power, and if you have power, it generally means you have power over someone. And people in power attract people who want to be in power, and they push away those who they feel don’t deserve to be in power. So you get this divide between the haves and the have-nots. But all through the bible – both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible – we see God reaching out to the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry. In Matthew 25:31-46, we read about who it is that will be blessed by God.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Side Note: I have crossed out part of verse 40, as there is some difference of opinion over what the Greek is actually trying to say. Some people use this to say that we should only look after Christians – that is, the members of my family. However, as the disciples would know all the members of their family, and they didn’t recognise who it was that they were doing these things to, the more likely understanding is that we are to look after everyone – as everyone is part of God’s creation, and part of God’s family. Here’s an article that looks at this more.
A human kingdom looks after those who are in power. God’s kingdom looks after those who are oppressed. A human kingdom seeks after personal wealth. God’s kingdom finds wealth in the poor. A human kingdom expects the finest food for itself. God’s kingdom seeks after food for all.
So maybe, this line, Win this nation back, isn’t so bad. Maybe we do need to win God’s nation back. But that isn’t a human understanding of a nation. That isn’t the United States, or Northern Ireland, or Australia. That’s not what we’re trying to win back. It’s not what we’re asking God to win back. We’re asking God to win back God’s nation – where God is king, where we live by God’s laws. And that nation isn’t defined by any physical boundaries. It doesn’t reside in any particular part of land. God’s nation resides in the heart of every believing Christian.
You made us for much more than this
Awake the kingdom seed in us
Fill us with the strength and love of Christ
We are Your Church
We are the hope on earth
We are God’s kingdom. We are God’s nation. When we sing this song – it’s not about winning back a particular country – it’s about changing our hearts and God winning our hearts back, so we can help bring about God’s Kingdom, here on earth as it is in heaven.