All The Kingdoms of the Earth

I was reading scripture, particularly the proclamations of Cyrus as we have them at the end of Chronicles and the beginning of Ezra, and something occurred to me.

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up.’” (2 Chronicles 36:23 ESV)

Ezra relates a similarly worded — but longer — version of this same proclamation which includes specific instructions that the exiles of Judah should return to Jerusalem to rebuild the house of the Lord, in Ezra 1:2–4, and re-establish regular worship inn the desolate and abandoned capital of David.

3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:3–4 ESV)

But key to both of these versions of Cyrus’ proclamation is the status and position of Cyrus, the king of Persia. He is the recipient of a gift from “the God of heaven (כָּל־מַמְלְכ֤וֹת הָאָרֶץ literally “all the kingdoms of the land/earth”) have been given to him, and it is therefore in his power give Judah and Jerusalem back to the exiles. The Lord, the God of heaven (יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם), has also commanded Cyrus to rebuild the shattered temple.

But it’s that boast Cyrus makes of himself — “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth” (LXX — πάσας τὰς βασιλείας τῆς γῆς ἔδωκέν μοι; Tanakh — כָּל־מַמְלְכוֹת הָאָרֶץ נָ֣תַן לִ֗י) that reminds me of something in Matthew and Luke.

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world [πάσας τὰς βασιλείας τοῦ κόσμου] and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,“‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” (Matthew 4:8–10 ESV)

And …

5 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world [πάσας τὰς βασιλείας τῆς οἰκουμένης] in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:5–8 ESV)

Now, the offer isn’t quite the same, not even in the two gospel passages. The LXX has Cyrus using γῆς (physical earth/land) in both Chronicles and Ezra, while the Devil in Matthew refers to the κόσμος (the well-ordered created world) and in Luke speaks of the οἰκουμένη (the civilized world of Greco-Roman culture and government). Even as we render them all “earth” or “world” in our translations, and there are differences here that could be parsed (especially in the two gospel passages), I’ll deal here with the implication that all the kingdoms on the earth, from both to south and from east to west (and, implied in Luke, from the beginning to the end), are on offer. Have been given to the one making the boast, and thus, gifted again.

Cyrus’s boast is easiest to deal with. God has clearly not given him “all the kingdoms of the earth,” no matter what he might think. His is a vast empire, spanning from North Africa to the Indus River Valley, from Macedonia to the Arabian Gulf, but he isn’t even master of all he sees and knows. The city states of Greece evade his rule, and there is still much he doesn’t see that he cannot rule, such as southern India and China. He rules much of what could be called civilized 2,600 years ago, but he doesn’t rule it all.

He doesn’t rule the world. Not even close.

Still, he boasts of being given “all the kingdoms of the world” by the Lord, the God of heaven, who is also the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He has been given Judah, and its conqueror Babylon, and they are his to dispose of as he wishes. The statement is not true but it is true enough.

I never doubted Διαβολος, either in Matthew of Luke, when he shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” and then boasts “these are mine to give you.” The kingdoms of this world — whether we speak of God’s good creation or the well-ordered and civilized Greco-Roman imperium — belong to Διαβολος and are his to give as he sees fit. In Luke, he echoes Cyrus by noting these kingdoms have been given to him, so they didn’t start out as his, but they are his now, and they are his to give to whomever he sees fit.

Cyrus rules a vast collection of kingdoms that are all very different, and he boasts not to give them all away, but merely to show he can give a single nation back to its disinherited people. In the gospels, there are no distinctions. All of the kingdoms of the world are a kind of undifferentiated mass that belong to Διαβολος. Not just some of them. And, if Luke is to be believed, not just at some points in history. There is no in and no out, no distinction here between civilized and barbarian, between dar al-Islam and dar al-harb. All of it, every polity from the tribes of the Andaman Islands the bureaucrats of Brussels, belong to Διαβολος, the Devil, the tempter who whispers into the hearts and minds of men and women.

But this means, as well, there is no realm outside of Christ either, no place where Jesus is not, no place not subject to him. Every knee bowing and every tongue confessing is not an aspiration for a “Christian” empire seeking to organize the world, but rather is a confession of what we know to be true — that God’s sovereignty, that Christ’s rule, is not bounded by our world. The kingdoms of the world, in and of themselves, belong to Διαβολος, and they are — as kingdoms — not redeemable. That God acts through them and in them is clear. But the way of dominion and violence that marks the empire belongs not to God but to Διαβολος.

And are his to give. Not God’s.

3 thoughts on “All The Kingdoms of the Earth

  1. I wonder if maybe you could flesh out a little more your views on violence. Is the Old Testament “violent” in the same ways as that nations are? Did Jesus destroy our reasons for violence? What is the difference between violence, war, conflict, self-defense or is there any? Is violence a huge problem or just the natural state of affairs? Sometimes I’m not sure quite where you stand.

    • I like these questions. You ask such good ones, and my blog ideas list is full of them. Yes, I will flesh this out this week, I promise!

  2. That’s great! I think you could write a book about violence and the Gospel. It’s a weighty topic and you like to write.

Leave a Reply