As human beings, we learn much through metaphor, illustration, and example. We tend to mentally associate two different persons, events, or concepts, one better known than the other, in order to facilitate better understanding. This is natural and has its advantages.
Christians will often attempt to do such things with their own society in contrast to some culture described in the Bible. This can have great value and effectiveness, for if we can provide an accurate parallel between our own society/culture and a society/culture in the Bible, we can take God’s instructions to that particular society and find relevant applications for ourselves. Note that this can only be effective when the parallel is accurate; it cannot merely be not the parallel we want, either in order to make ourselves seem better or, sadly, to make ourselves seem worse off. It must be the parallel that works the best.
As American society has become increasingly secular, and immorality has become more public, many have established parallels between our own society and that of Babylon. Babylon, on the basis of its empire and what they did to Judah and Jerusalem, receives a great amount of criticism for its ways. Isaiah provides one such critique in Isaiah 47:7-15. Particular mention is made of their focus on astrology, their reliance in their military might, the sexual excess of many, and of course the rampant idolatry.
This parallel has some value: America trusts greatly in its military might and in its primacy in the world, there are many idols that people are worshiping, and there is a lot of sexual excess. Nevertheless, this illustration has its distortions, and it can lead us to false conclusions. Most Babylonians had little idea of who the LORD was; most Americans at least know something about Jesus, and most people are willing to even believe in Him. The Jews were entirely “the other” in Babylon; the books of Daniel and Esther provide many examples of the difficulties Jews encountered in the pagan lands. Christianity is not that foreign to America.
In the end, while America has its immorality and lack of knowledge of God, it can’t quite be compared to Babylon (or Rome, for that matter).
A person has made the case for a parallel between America today and Samaria of old. The author makes the case that just as Samaritans knew about the religion of the Israelites, held to a variant of it, and were suspicious of their claims, so America today stands as a nation that considers itself familiar with Christianity but is somewhat suspicious of those who live according to its precepts (cf. John 4:1-42, Luke 9:51-55).
This illustration can be quite seductive, and it has explanatory power for some elements of American society: secularists, atheists, agnostics, and others who bear some hostility toward Christians. Yet the illustration can’t really explain the majority of Americans who do profess to believe in Jesus and the claims of the Bible…but do not do as He says.
I would like to posit that the best parallel to modern America is, in fact, Israel: the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
The Kingdom of Israel was born out of the transgression of Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-43). Its first king, Jeroboam, son of Nebat, did not change the god who was worshiped (Yahweh), but changed the location, object, and other aspects of the service to God (1 Kings 12:26-33). He rationalized the change in terms of expedience and cloaked it in the events of the past: “Behold, your gods who brought you up out of the land of Egypt,” golden calves just as in Exodus 32. He did this for political purposes, and all of the kings who followed him walked in the same footsteps.
The vast majority of the citizens of the Kingdom of Israel followed after their king. Baal worship came and went; there were times of decadence and religious reform, but those calves and those temples stayed put.
Now, when we read about the Kingdom of Israel, we hear all the negatives: their idolatry, their iniquity, their faithlessness toward God. The parallel between Israel and America is hard to perceive in that light. We must not just consider the perspective revealed, but also what can be gained from the people of Israel themselves.
To the average Israelite living in the northern kingdom for the majority of its existence, everything seemed to be well. They were blessed with material resources; Israel was always more prosperous than Judah. They believed that they were Israelites, they worshiped Yahweh in temples erected for Him in Dan and Bethel, offering sacrifices there to the golden calves representing Yahweh who delivered them from Egypt. If you were to ask him who the God of Israel happened to be, he would answer that it was Yahweh, of course. His adherence to Yahweh as Israel’s national god, however, may or may not keep him from also providing due offerings to El, Baal, Astarte, or other Canaanite gods, just to make sure that the land would be fertile.
There were, of course, those gadflies: those prophets who had nothing good to say. The Israelites were of mixed minds toward these prophets: when times were bad, they would seek after them; if times were good, they were just downright irritating. Nothing was ever good enough: Jeroboam’s calves were wrong, the people worshiping on high places was wrong, and even Jehu in all his reforms still did not please Yahweh, according to these prophets. No matter how many other prophets spoke good news in the name of Yahweh, and no matter how clearly God had blessed the Israelites, these prophets, Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, and others, never stopped their complaints.
Perhaps the parallel is clearer now. How could the Israelites go so wrong? They were willing to follow after the dictates of the kings over the revealed will of God, and the people were ignorant of God’s will, as Hosea indicates in Hosea 4:1-9:
Hear the word of the LORD, ye children of Israel; for the LORD hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor goodness, nor knowledge of God in the land. There is nought but swearing and breaking faith, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery; they break out, and blood toucheth blood. Therefore shall the land mourn, and every one that dwelleth therein shall languish, with the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens; yea, the fishes of the sea also shall be taken away. Yet let no man strive, neither let any man reprove; for thy people are as they that strive with the priest. And thou shalt stumble in the day, and the prophet also shall stumble with thee in the night; and I will destroy thy mother. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I also will forget thy children. As they were multiplied, so they sinned against me: I will change their glory into shame. They feed on the sin of my people, and set their heart on their iniquity. And it shall be, like people, like priest; and I will punish them for their ways, and will requite them their doings.
The end of Israel is sobering: God delivers them into the hand of Assyria, and the people are exiled to other lands (2 Kings 17:7-23). Few, if any, return. The only remnant of ten of the tribes of Israel were the few left in the land and those who fled to Judah. Few states have ever been as obliterated as the Kingdom of Israel.
The parallels are many between Israel and America:
1. National religion. While America is officially religion-neutral, it is clear in practice that there is a variant of Christianity that represents Christian Americanism. In Christian Americanism, America is God’s land and Americans are God’s people. The condition of America is a direct reflection of God’s indication that this is His land, and its people are special to Him. In this Christian Americanism, it is enough to believe in Jesus, and to believe that He is a gun-toting, flag-waving American hero. (Well, maybe not necessarily the gun-toting, but it wouldn’t hurt). Since you’re an American, and God loves and blesses America, that is sufficient.
This mentality has its origins in the Christian nation theology of the Puritans, and it falls into the same trap as Israel fell into. The audacity of the claims of Korah in his rebellion can only be understood in light of this flawed logic: God is our God, we are His people, therefore what we do is pleasing to God. You can see how well that worked out for Korah and his compatriots in Numbers 16:1-50.
This also caused the downfall of the Kingdom of Israel. Just because Israel was God’s people did not give them the right to entirely adapt the religious observance to conform to their will. No Israelite was going to be saved merely because of his birth: it was going to require their obedience.
2. Religion as tool of the State. Jeroboam made it abundantly clear from the beginning of his rule that the religion would serve the interests of the state, and not vice versa. In order to conform to the new political reality, the religious observance was changed; religious observance did not change the political reality. God’s desires and intentions were thrust aside for the benefit of the state.
America does the same thing, even if not officially. God is invoked to bless this country in its conflicts and difficulties, even if they are Biblically unjustifiable. The USA would love to have a moral citizenry, but would not appreciate any who would strictly hold to the teachings of Jesus. By in large, Christian Americanism is American first, Christian second: it serves the interests of the State.
3. Shallowness and ignorance. The faith of the Israelites was undoubtedly shallow: it moved to and fro with the winds of change, sometimes focused only on Yahweh, including other gods at other times also. As indicated, they reached this level of depravity on account of not knowing God’s will.
This is clearly present in America. Far too many people will profess belief but have no idea about many of the basics of the Christian religion. There are far more people professing Jesus Christ than having Christ live through them (cf. Galatians 2:20). The shallowness of faith has led to an ignorance of the Bible to a heretofore unknown level.
Just as the priests were faulted in Israel, so too must many religious persons in America. All of the doctrines of the faith are not being taught as they ought in many places. We have no reason to expect denominationalists to preach the full counsel of God, but I fear that brethren don’t either. The conflicts in the brotherhood papers talk about “feel good preaching” versus “preaching the distinctives”, yet in the end, neither of these represents the whole counsel of God. Doctrines and practices, works of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit, Old Testament and New Testamentall of these things must be preached in balance to inform and encourage.
4. Comfortable, yet perverted, religion. How could Israel get everything so wrong? Many modern Bible scholars will go so far as to say that the idea of Jerusalem as primary and Yahweh as a god without an image are inventions of a later time period in an attempt to exonerate the Israelites for their misdeeds. “They did not know any better.”
Such a justification is entirely unnecessary. History has provided plenty of examples of religion going quite astray when layers of tradition supersede what God previously revealed. When one compares the New Testament revelation to Roman Catholicism, or most Protestant churches, the distinctions are quite apparent.
Mankind, in their search for expedience and comfort, has always looked for shortcuts and easier ways to be religious. Conformity is easier than separation. It was easier for the Kingdom of Israel to have their own temples with the images that were familiar to people of the day and even to worship the gods of the other nations: after all, everyone else was doing it!
The same is true in America. Religious traditions are held as sacred, even if they come with no Biblical authority, or even when the Bible contradicts the tradition. There is no logic or rationale necessary for practicing Christian Americanism, because the tradition itself is self-justifying. It’s not comfortable investigating deeper and actually knowing what God reveals in the Bible, and what Jesus actually expects from us. It’s a whole lot easier to say that Jesus is real and that we should pray to Him when things get bad, and then sleep in Sunday morning, go to Wal-Mart in our SUVs Sunday evening, and to keep the kids active in school events on Wednesday evening, giving as little thought to God as possible. After all: everyone else is doing it!
5. True believers as enemies of the status quo and thus the state and its religion. Ahab called Elijah the “troubler of Israel” in 1 Kings 18:17. When we read the account of the events, we can understand, on a spiritual level, how the reverse is true. We must also understand why Ahab would say such a thing: after all, Israel was “fine.” Things were going quite well until Elijah brought forth this terrible drought, and he is the source of these difficulties. Elijah did trouble Israel: he was willing to question the status quo.
While it is appealing to look to Babylon or Samaria for parallels, Israel is really the place to go, and this is the reason: it is not because Americans are thoroughly ignorant of Christianity that causes the difficulty, but because they have a distorted view of Christianity that is promoted in the media and in other places. Christian Americanism is a nice status quo for the government: we have the appearance of having a god, we can claim to be a religious country, and yet not need to spend any time on it. We become the “troublers of America” when we stand up and speak the truth: God is bigger than America, God will judge America for what it’s doing, God is not content with people merely professing, but expects people to follow His commands (1 John 2:1-6). We go out and promote the truth in contrast to other religious claims (Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Peter 3:15); that’s troubling to the champions of tolerance and ecumenism who think “proselytism” is a four-letter word. We go out and say that there is right and wrong, and that sin will lead to condemnation (Galatians 5:19-23, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9): that’s troubling to all the people who think that truth is subjective and we all must establish our individual moral compasses. We go out and establish that God expects Christians to function as communities of believers, working to encourage one another and to strengthen His Kingdom (Acts 2:42-47, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Hebrews 10:24-25): and that’s troubling to all those individualists who find little worth in the church and don’t want to have yet another time commitment in life. We go out and say that it’s not enough to just believe, but one must obey (James 2:14-26): and that’s quite troubling for Christian Americanists. So also is the idea that God’s priorities and desires are not necessarily America’s priorities and desires.
So what happens? Those who teach the truths of the Bible and seek to live its message daily are branded as intolerant, quaint perhaps, but definitely obsolete, never happy about anything, always willing to chastise. They are looked upon with suspicion, since they are troubling the national status quo and bringing up uncomfortable concepts that may prove detrimental to many people. Better, of course, to ignore them and hope that they go away.
Yet the LORD testified unto Israel, and unto Judah, by every prophet, and every seer, saying, “Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets.” Notwithstanding, they would not hear, but hardened their neck, like to the neck of their fathers, who believed not in the LORD their God. And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified unto them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the nations that were round about them, concerning whom the LORD had charged them that they should not do like them. And they forsook all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made them molten images, even two calves, and made an Asherah, and worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. And they caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire, and used divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do that which was evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight: there was none left but the tribe of Judah only (2 Kings 17:13-18).
Such was the end of Israel. They neglected God, they did not heed the warnings, and they were cast off.
The fate of America is not known; America is not actually Israel, and we cannot treat Americans ignorant of the Gospel as the prophets did the people of God. We cannot make such judgments about America as God did about Israel, but we sadly know the eternal fate of all the Americans who are seduced by Christian Americanism and not the true Gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).
May we be like the prophets of old, and do what we can to proclaim God’s truth in the hope that some will hear, repent, and obey.
Ethan R. Longhenry