The Kings Came Marching In draws together two themes: eschatology and a Christian view of culture. To what degree ought Christians work towards the transformation of culture? What will happen to the human culture at the return of Christ? How much continuity will there be between the development of culture in history and the new heavens and earth?
Richard Mouw addresses these questions by considering one specific text: Isaiah chapter 60. In Isaiah 60 we find an eschatological vision of the holy city. Mouw’s thesis is that “it is extremely significant that when Isaiah looks to the fulfillment of God's promises, he envisions a community into which technological artifacts, political rulers, and people from many nations are gathered.” (xvi) The significance of this is that (1) the engagement of Christians in the transformation of culture is legitimated and (2) we can expect continuity (as well as discontinuity) between culture now and the Holy City which is to come.
Mouw develops his thesis in four points, derived from Isaiah 60.
Firstly, the wealth of the nations is gathered into the city. The Holy City is a place of commerce: camels of Midian & Ephah, flocks of Kedar, rams of Nebaioth, the ships of Tarshish etc. are brought in to serve the Lord and his people. This points to the transformation of human culture. Significantly, the same ships of Tarshish appear in Isaiah 2 where they are objects of judgment. God’s attitude to the instruments of human culture is ambivalent: they can be tools of rebellion and idolatry, but it is the rebellion that is judged, not the things in themselves. God reclaims “that which humans have used against him.” The original cultural mandate is fulfilled in God’s turning the objects of culture to His service: “the Holy City is the Garden-plus-the-‘filling’”
Secondly, the kings of the earth march into the city. Mouw sees these references as suggesting that there will be a settling of political accounts, a reckoning in which the kings of the earth give account for their misuse of power.
Thirdly, people from many nations are drawn to the city. People of all nations, without distinction, are converted and gathered in to the city.
Fourthly, light pervades the city. Moving to Revelation 21, which picks up the same holy city imagery, we see that the Lamb is the light of the city. There are cultural dimensions to Christ’s atoning work: "As the Lamb of God he will draw all of the goods, artifacts, and instruments of culture to himself; the kings of the earth will return their authority and power to the Lamb who sits upon the throne; Jesus is the one whose blood has purchased a multi-national community, composed of people from every tribe and tongue and nation. His redemptive ministry, as the ministry of the Lamb, is cosmic in scope." (63)
Mouw concludes by asking how we ought to live in the light of this. We can affirm that Christ will transform culture, someday, but are we ourselves to transform culture? Mouw argues 'perhaps', but culture-transformation is not explicitly mandated in scripture. So, we are to wait for the transformation that is to come. But this is an active waiting: “we must seek the city that is to come.” And we do so by pouring ourselves out in service.
One of the key questions is a hermeneutical one. What is the function of the ‘holy city’ language that Isaiah uses in his eschatological vision? That the new creation is in view is in no doubt. The question is what status does the city metaphor (and attendance cultural wealth metaphors) have in relation to the new creation. In what ways is the new creation like a city?
Contrast Alec Motyer (Prophecy of Isaiah), who argues that the ‘city’ language is no more than part of an elobarate metaphor:
Since Isaiah is thinking of the future in city terms, the gathering of the world into the embrace of the people of God is naturally seen in pilgrimage and tribute motifs. The reality is the winning of the nations by the gospel and the gathering of all into the heavenly Zion when the Lord Jesus returns. [on 60.5]
in this verse, as in all similar verses, Isaiah is stating the truth within the political terms dictated by the metaphor of the city. [on 60.14]
So while for Mouw, Isaiah “envisions a community into which technological artifacts, political rulers, and people from many nations are gathered”, Motyer envisions a community into which people from many nations are gathered, but the technological artifacts and political rulers are incidental, merely part of the metaphor.
Mouw suggests that Isaiah (and John in Revelation) saw (in vision) a real city i.e. what the future new world will actually be like. That may be so, but it is not necessary to carry the point that the city and cultural language has significance beyond being merely a metaphor. Perhaps that point cannot be established for certain, as so much hinges on your overall hermeneutical approach. However, I am very much attracted to Mouw’s view and I would say that Mouw’s basic thesis holds good. It fits with broader biblical theological themes such as the renewal of the cosmos and the resurrection of Jesus vindicating the created order (cf. O’Donovan). It also correlates well to the Holy City language in Revelation 21-22.
Thinking of my own context of working with students, what help does When the Kings Come Marching In offer?
- I would want to help students to appreciate the inherent value of culture as fulfilment of God’s creation mandate, along with understanding the idolatrous and rebellious uses to which culture, that Christ’s redemptive work is cosmic in scope and that we can look forward to a new heaven and new earth (not a disembodied heaven) which will include some kind of transformation of culture. Isaiah 60 could be a useful chapter for working through some of these issues, although I would maybe go to Revelation 21-22 and other passages first.
- This has pastoral implications in relation to issues of guidance and vocation. Simply, we can see that all kinds of jobs, that engage in all kinds of aspects of human culture (including, for example, commerce and politics) are legitimate vocations for Christians. We can glorify Christ in all kinds of work, not just so-called ‘spiritual work’. Students can be helped to think through their own future in this way. A book such as Glory Days by Julian Hardyman is helpful here. (and probably a better starting point than When the Kings)
- Finally, a caution from Mouw’s conclusion about following the clear mandates we do have in scripture. Some discussion about the transformation of culture is mysterious and perhaps even speculative. And it can certainly be easy to get carried away with a new understanding of something so that you ignore or even disparage other areas that are equally important and which the new teaching was intended to balance not replace. So, for example, an emphasis on the cosmic implications of Christ’s atonement should never replace the personal implications of substitution & forgiveness for the individual sinner. So it is helpful to remember that the transformation of culture awaits the return of Christ and therefore, whatever our engagement with culture now, it ought never to replace the business of loving our neighbour, proclaiming the gospel message etc – tasks that many brothers and sisters with a less adequate view of culture (as we would see it) get on with, with great commitment and faithfulness and with God’s blessing.