Put not your trust in princes

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes:

The last few months in Scottish politics have been challenging. The resignation of the First Minister, the contest for her replacement and concerns for our largest political party’s financial accountability give us pause. As in the wider backdrops of UK and international politics, the vituperation in the media, social and otherwise, often poisons the well of reasonable discourse. What are Christians to do in such times?

The words of the Psalmist come to mind: ‘Put not your trust in princes, in humans, who cannot save’ (146.3). Those words need a close reading. The Hebrew word for ‘prince’ (nādîb) means neither a prince (as in a royal) nor a politician (as in an official) per se. It means someone of good, even ‘noble’, will. It is a positive take on the Hebrew word for ‘human’ (ʾādām). My own colloquial translation goes something like this: ‘Put not your trust in good gals or guys, who are just humans, wherein there is no help.’ The whole of Psalm 146 is, indeed, about trusting God. The Psalm is not so much a philosophical or religious assertion as it is a description of reality. The Hebrews’ experiences of Egyptian and Babylonian leadership — not to mention the let-downs of their own leaders like Moses and David, whose naughtiness imperilled the purposes of God — proved to them that we fall short of ourselves if we trust too much in ourselves. Similarly, St Paul reminds us that ‘everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard’ (Romans 3.23). There is no real peace and security on earth other than in God (1 Thessalonians 5.3; cf. Jeremiah 6.14; Ezekiel 13.10; Micah 3.5).

That we are not gods and that we cannot save should come as no revelation to us. Has not God revealed it in Holy Scripture? Yet our behaviour belies such knowledge. We are continually surprised to find, as Robert Burns would have it, that ‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley’. Such misunderstandings are unbecoming of Christians. We acknowledge the reality of original and personal sin as much as we acknowledge the unmerited grace and salvation wrought for us in Jesus Christ. It is for that reason we have hope, namely, our ultimate end (individually and collectively) is the beatific vision. The Father has created us, the Son has redeemed us and the Holy Spirit has sanctified us. We Christians are to know God, to love God, to serve God in this life in order to be happy with God in the next life. To think differently is to believe in vain (1 Corinthians 15.2).

Though our hope is not in this life, it is in this life that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2.12). Political orders, whatever they may be, are means to that end, salvation, and not ends in themselves. Still, because our earthly lives are the fora for working out our salvation, they are of lasting significance. Just as Jesus’s words and deeds on earth had eternal consequences, so do ours. People in Jesus’s own day recognised this. There is a plethora of instances where folk ask Jesus what it is they are supposed to do. A lawyer asks him, for example, which is the greatest commandment of the Law? Jesus answers, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22.36–39; cf. Deuteronomy 6.4; Leviticus 19.18). Jesus never endorses a political philosophy, party or system. Jesus never tells us to trust in our own devices. Jesus tells us, instead, to love: to love God and one another. And to love radically in such wise as he loves: ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13.34; 15.12).

So, what are Christians to do in challenging times? We are to trust God by being obedient to his Holy Commandments in all that we say and in all that we do. We are to love our sisters and brothers in words and deeds of charity according to the sacrificial love of Jesus. We may only engage worthily in the things of this world, politics or otherwise, in imitation of Jesus who came to serve (Matthew 20.28; Mark 10.45; John 13.1–17). We may not engage in words or deeds that our Lord would eschew, nor ought we to put ourselves in the company or mindset of those whose words are viperous and whose deeds are violent. ‘The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever’ (1 John 2.17).

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is currently Director of Studies and about to become Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.