by David Hamstra | 13 August 2018 |
Recent American presidents are known to have spritzed their worldview with a whiff of rhetorical essence distilled from biblical prophetic themes. Jimmy Carter worked for peace in the Middle East out of his conviction that the “establishment of the nation of Israel” was “a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.” Ronald Reagan repeatedly sampled the language by which Puritan preacher John Winthrop invoked a future of covenant blessings and curses on colonial America. Barack Obama later followed Reagan’s lead, evoking the “city on a hill” aspiration. Even Bill Clinton, in a gush of realized eschatology, applied the heavenly promise, “eye has not seen …” (1 Corinthians 2:9), to the unimaginable potential of an American “New Covenant” of cooperation. And George W. Bush reportedly once sent French president Jacques Chirac’s advisors scrambling for an expert in American apocalyptic interpretations when he slipped a “Gog and Magog” reference into their deliberations during the run-up to the second invasion of Iraq.
So, perhaps it should not be surprising that, given all his other unconventionalities, Donald Trump is known, not for interpreting his place in history by reference to biblical prophecy, but for others who interpret biblical prophecy as referring to his place in history. Unflattering anti-Christ comparisons made by certain so-called “Never Trump” conservatives come to mind, but we do not have the space to open that particular can of worms here.
Instead, consider the opposite view: President Trump as a latter-day Cyrus.
The Cyrus of history, Cyrus the Great, is credited with founding the first Persian Empire. He is remembered today for policies that seem to some like an ancient precursor to modern humanism. In distinction to neo-Babylonians (Nebuchadnezzar’s people), whom the Persians conquered, Cyrus sponsored the repatriation of displaced peoples and the re-establishment of their local worship centers.
In Isaiah 44, Cyrus is declared to be the Lord’s anointed or “messiah,” a king with a divine commission—in this case, a commission to end the exile and restore the Jews to their Promised Land. Whether you take this to be an actual prophecy or an after-the-fact interpretation depends on your view of how (or whether) God was involved in the formation of the canon. Regardless, Cyrus has the distinction of being the only non-Jewish person in the Bible to be accorded this messianic status.
It has been said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. A ruler who does not fear God but nevertheless is chosen by God to restore his people to their rightful position among the powerful stakeholders of a vast empire? Certain Evangelicals thought they heard the second line of a prophetic couplet developing as early as 2016 when evidence and allegations of immoral behavior came to light surrounding the presidential candidate who promised to return them to power in America. This echoed the “sinful messiah” theology by which some Christian cults have excused their leaders’ moral failings, including those of David Koresh (“Koresh” being a transliteration of Cyrus). But perhaps, thought some, the work of God was manifest in the improbable rise of the unseemly Trump in the same way as when he elevated the pagan Cyrus—and to reject his candidacy would be to reject the blessing of God through a quasi-messianic anointed of the Lord.
Donald Trump’s surprise win, his Supreme Court picks, and especially the opening of the US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem have validated this providential interpretation of the Trump presidency for many of his American Christian supporters, many of whom, like Carter, read the biblical prophecies of restoration as having indefinite, literal application to the Jewish people. From the Jewish side, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly made the association between Trump and Cyrus in a speech thanking the United States for the diplomatic gesture of solidarity. A commemorative coin featuring the busts of Cyrus and Trump was struck, and for the first time in a long time the ways of God in history seemed to be clear.
Or are they?
Other Christians and Jews, who remain unimpressed by Trump’s performance or disgusted by his character, take this prorupted prophetic parallel to be nothing more than a rationalization of political expedience. For them, those who supported Trump have lost the moral ground on which they could have credibly made such claims. Others point to the destructive effects of Trump’s politics on the vulnerable and ask how one could tarnish the reputation of a loving God by association with such deeds.
Does that mean biblical prophecy is a wax nose that can be bent any which way for political purposes? Or is there a way to assess the present in light of the past through a prophetic lens with integrity? I would argue we can, but it depends on our being open to correction on two points.
The first is the frame in which we hold the lens. All interpretation takes place against a background of tacitly and cognizantly held assumptions—in this case, mostly about the way God and humans interact in history. For example, whether a Christian frames prophecy in a dispensational evangelical or an Adventist typological salvation history narrative will make a major difference on how they relate the modern state of Israel to the purposes of God.
The second is where we allow the light to shine. When we overly identify our self-interest with the purposes of God (remember “The temple, the temple …,” in Jeremiah 7:4?) we tend to shift the light of prophecy off of our own faults and onto the faults of others. This is not to say that God never intervenes in history to condemn the wicked and vindicate the righteous. But, when God does judge the nations and his people, he as often as not reveals more repentance among the wicked and more hypocrisy among the righteous than we care to admit.
When a popular, prophetic take on current political events demands no character development on the part of our divinely favored group or its leaders—whether the properly pious or the socially oppressed—we would do well to review our assumptions and self-interest in light of the totality of the Scriptures’ witness to see if God’s purposes are different, wider, or just more obscure than we originally thought.
David Hamstra is a ThD student (theological and historical studies) at Andrews University. He previously served as a pastor to Seventh-day Adventist churches in northern Alberta, Canada. David is married to Heidi, and God has blessed them with three sons and a daughter.