Richard Mouw. When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 131 pp.
Over 60 years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr published his seminal work Christ & Culture, which has influenced discussions of the church’s relationship to society ever since. Numerous complaints have been lodged against his taxonomy—Christ being understood as either “against,” “of,” “above,” “in paradox with,” or “transforming” culture. Christ, culture, and Christians themselves are far too complex to conform neatly to such labels. Nevertheless, Richard Mouw confesses that, if he were forced to pick one, he would accept the “transformationalist” label, but he would quickly want to qualify what that means. This is his primary goal in writing When the Kings Come Marching In, a series of meditations on the sixtieth chapter of Isaiah. This is not an academic work (there is only one footnote in the entire book), nor is it meant to be a knock-down proof for transformationalism. Rather, it might best be categorized as “sanctified speculation,” which Mouw offers as one plausible way of understanding the “transformed City” that Isaiah envisions at the end of history. However, Mouw’s reading has the advantage of accounting for the actual details of the text in a way that merely typological or hyperbolic readings cannot (12). The picture that emerges from Mouw’s reading is one that affirms the inherent goodness of culture, the comprehensive reach of Christ’s saving work, and the responsibility of believers to actively seek (not build) the City that is to come.
What will heaven look like? Many modern evangelicals are accustomed to thinking of heaven as a sort of disembodied existence, a state of ethereal bliss. More biblically rooted understandings might acknowledge the resurrection of the body, but beyond that most questions about heaven seem to stop at whether or not our pets will be with us. Mouw challenges us to take seriously the very concrete imagery of Isaiah 60 in its portrayal of the heavenly City. This is a place where the wealth of the nations comes flowing through its gates—from the camels of the desert to the ships of Tarshish (wherever that is). The picture of these nations offering tribute stands in tension with other biblical portraits of God standing in judgment over them. For example, Psalm 48:7 speaks of God “shattering” the ships of Tarshish. So which is it? Will these things be in the City, or will they be destroyed? Mouw’s answer is—yes. What he means is that the “stuff” of culture is naturally good, but as a result of the fall, these human achievements have become become distorted in their function. The distinction that Mouw draws between “nature” and “function” here directly parallels Al Wolters’ distinction between “structure” and “direction” in Creation Regained (Eerdmans, 2005). God originally commanded humanity to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:26-28), not leaving it as a wild garden, but cultivating it into a glorious city. Insofar as culture is rooted in the structure of creation, it is good and can be offered to the Lord as tribute. Insofar as culture is misdirected in rebellion against the Lord, it must be destroyed. Mouw suggests that when God “breaks” the pagan nations at the end of history, it will be “more like the breaking of a horse rather than the breaking of a vase” (29). They will be tamed and harnessed for service to the Lord.
Mouw then considers the meaning of the political imagery in Isaiah 60. What exactly is the role of the “kings” in the heavenly City? This is perhaps the most speculative part of Mouw’s account. He suggests that the kings, being representatives of their respective cultures, signify a “general political reckoning” that takes place within the City (56). And this isn’t merely a matter of settling private accounts (one might imagine a tallying up of all the personal sins committed throughout an individual’s lifetime). Rather, the kings’ presence points to a rectifying of systemic and corporate injustices in some kind of “public” event. Tyrants will answer to those whom they have oppressed, and nations will face judgment for their corruption and abuses. In other words, history itself will be judged in the City. Mouw characterizes this as a sort of temporary “episode” or “mopping-up process” that precedes the eternal order of things. Whether or not one is persuaded of the details of Mouw’s account here, he rightly encourages us to move beyond individualistic portrayals of the final judgment as a merely “apolitical” affair.
Mouw also reflects on the heavenly City’s multinational character. Jews and Gentiles alike will flock to this City to enjoy the benefits of “the milk of nations.” Mouw connects this to the startling prophecy of Isaiah 19, in which the Lord addresses the Egyptians and the Assyrians (formerly Israel’s arch-enemies) as “my people” and “the work of my hands” (76). This picture contrasts sharply with caricatures of the Old Testament’s supposed ethnocentrism. God did indeed set Israel apart as his treasured possession, but election was never an end in itself. Israel experienced the privilege of election precisely so that through Israel all nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3). The heavenly City thus reverses the curse of Babel, with its confusion of tongues and division of peoples, and brings to a climax the international reunion begun at Pentecost. Mouw interprets this as a call for the church to pursue racial reconciliation “at the very least” within its own walls (92-93). This is not to deny the importance of confronting racism in wider society. But it is to recognize that, in principle, it should be easier to eliminate injustice within the Christian community. Likewise, the church has a special responsibility to model what life will be like in the Eternal City.
Mouw then observes the connections between the images of the heavenly City in Isaiah and Revelation. John adds an imporant layer of meaning to this prophecy, specifying that the source of the City’s light is none other than Jesus, the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 21:23). And it is important to note that Jesus is here described as the Lamb—not as the Lion of Judah, nor even as the divine Logos. It is precisely through his humiliation that Christ is exalted and merits a name above all names. This demonstrates that the City is not merely a static repristination of Eden. Rather, as Mouw argues, “God takes historical development seriously. Just as the City is, in a sense, the Garden-plus-the-‘filling,’ so the Lamb is the Logos-plus-the-Cross” (105). Mouw laments the sad fact of history that, more often than not, Christians with a high Christology have been so unconcerned with cultural issues, while the most culturally engaged Christians have the weakest Christology. We theological conservatives tend to gravitate toward the individualistic aspects of Christ’s work, such as legal penal substitution, but we ignore the more cosmic implications of the Cross. Now this may partly stem from legitimate concerns over a Rauschenbusch-style social gospel. But surprisingly, Mouw contends, “The Bible does present us with a ‘social gospel’” (109). What he means is that the gospel is just as much concerned with institutionalized sin as it is with individual sins. It is not either/or, but both/and. There are in fact many theologies of atonement, and we Christians do ourselves a disservice by reducing Christ’s work to only one of its aspects. For more on this point, I would direct readers to Salvation Accomplished by the Son by Robert Peterson (Crossway, 2011) or Derek Rishmawy’s article at The Gospel Coalition on Calvin’s multi-faceted atonement.
Mouw concludes with a related critique of the 17th-century Christian classic, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. His problem is, again, not so much with what Bunyan affirms as with what he ignores. In this story, the main character Christian embarks upon a spiritual odyssey that is depicted in individual, pietistic terms. Now much of Bunyan’s classic is immensely valuable and spiritually edifying, but we must be careful not to over-emphasize the “vertical” dimensions of Christianity at the expense of the “horizontal” (121). Mouw connects this with some closing thoughts on the call of Hebrews 13:14 to “seek the City which is to come” by following in Christ’s footsteps, being willing to suffer abuse “outside the gate.”
So where does all this leave us on the question of “transforming culture?” Is this our goal and responsibility as Christians in the present age? “Not, I think, in any grandiose or triumphalistic manner,” says Mouw (129). There are no explicit commands in Scripture for us to change the culture around us. However, the Bible is replete with commands to do good to our neighbors and to practice justice. In doing such things, we may not be “building” God’s kingdom as such, but this is certainly the appropriate manner of awaiting his kingdom. Anticipating the coming of the King means living here and now, as much as the Spirit enables us, as we will live at the end of history. Like Mouw, I’m not yet willing to give up the “transformationalist” label, provided that one makes the appropriate qualifications. It is not a matter of redeeming the culture around us so much as it is a matter of engaging in the culture as redeemed citizens of the heavenly City.
Unfortunately, Mouw does not say much about what cultural engagement might look like concretely. This leaves many questions unanswered—for example, should Christians become actively involved in politics, or is it ever prudential to “be silent for a season,” as James Davison Hunter advises? Mouw leaves it to others to explore such issues. Even so, When the Kings Come Marching In is an excellent introduction to the basics of transformationalism. And at only 131 small pages, it is a very quick read. I highly recommend it.