Observers of American high places, American idolatries, tend to cluster in two groups — narrow and true, and broad and false. We need a third operating category, which I would describe as broad and true.
Those idolatries would include consumerism, nationalism, paternalism — in short, pretty much all our isms.
Those who reject the idolatries do well, but when they are narrow they also reject things that Jesus bought and paid for with His blood. They are true in that they do not bow down, but they are hyperscrupulous about what might be brought into the service of Christ. Those who are broad and false are latitudianarian and are driven by a spirit of undiscriminating acceptance. We all travel by different paths, but we are all ascending the mountain. That kind of thing. We don’t need to spend a lot of time discussing the narrow and false option, which is the choice of a bigoted and sectarian idolater. He has just one graven image, placed on one tiny shelf.
So what do I mean by broad and true? I mean radical rejection of the idolatry itself, but principled acceptance of a transformed, previously idolatrous culture. I mean that Jesus came to transform the world, not to erase it and start over. I am a transformationalist.
“The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him” (Ps. 72:10-11).
Tarshish was most likely in southern Spain, and the ships of Tarshish became a symbol of great wealth and mercantile power. They may have carried ore, and were closely related to the industry of mining and smelting. Because wealth and glory are among the most obvious idols that unregenerate men can bow down to, it is not surprising that Isaiah uses the ships of Tarshish as symbols of a sleek arrogance coming under judgment.
“Howl, ye ships of Tarshish, for it is laid waste” (Is. 23:1).
“Pass ye over to Tarshish; howl, ye inhabitants of the isle” (Is. 23:6).
“Howl, ye ships of Tarshish; for your strength is laid waste” (Is. 23:14)
Wail, he might say, ye supertankers and pipelines! Howl, ye Dow Jones brokers! Rend your garments, ye managers of the global economy! Gnash your teeth, ye merchants of market share!
But wait a minute . . .
“Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them, unto the name of the LORD thy God, and to the Holy One of Israel, because he hath glorified thee” (Is. 60:9).
It turns out the New Jerusalem has a harbor, and our ships will sail into it. It turns out that Jesus didn’t sink them all.
“Recognizing that God still intends to renew his creation, we must wait confidently for the appearance of the transformed City, when the ships of Tarshish will sail into the harbor, bearing silver and gold to the glory of God” (Richard Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In, p. 38).
The transformationalist approach is broad and true.
What did the devil offer to Jesus that was a temptation to Him? One of the three great temptations was that he showed him the kingdoms of the earth, and the glory of them (Matt 4:8). Those who are narrow and true don’t see the glory at all, and they are kind of disappointed in Jesus for not seeing through such an evanescent ploy. Those who are broad and false don’t see the problem — why would Jesus turn down such a good deal? Jesus refused, not because He differed with the devil over the glory of the kingdoms, but rather because He refused to have them as a present from the strong man. He intended to conquer the strong man, and when He had conquered him, He intended to take all his things.
“Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house” (Matt. 12:29).
A question that we have asked too infrequently is this. Why would Jesus want the devil’s stuff? The answer is that the devil has a lot of good stuff, the kind of things that Jesus wanted. When Jesus conquered the world by dying on the cross, He was not overthrowing a run-down orc tower. He did not do this so that He might carry off some filty weapons and a few ratty old clothes. Jesus took away the glory of all the devil’s kingdoms. This is why the ships of Tarshish can be symbols of arrogance and slick wealth in the early part of Isaiah, and symbols of a chaste and reverent worship by the end of it. In between the two descriptions, we find chapter 53.
We see the same thing in the book of Revelation, the same attitude toward the kings of the earth. By the end of the book, what is happening?
“And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it” (Rev. 21:24, 26).
But why do we think kings are so hot? What was happening to the kings and nations earlier in the book? Well, a strong angel invited the birds of the air to eat as much kingly flesh off the bones as they wanted (Rev. 19:18). The kings of the earth were asking the mountains to hide them from the wrath of the Lamb (Rev. 6:16).
There are a lot of Christians who have a real contempt for American accomplishments. We should rather have contempt for the idolatry, and deep affection for the accomplishments. This is admittedly a high wire act, especially when the idolatry is of the accomplishments. But maybe the Lord wants us to grow up. Maybe He doesn’t want us straggling into the New Jerusalem in some kind of tatterdemalion fashion. When the nations stream into the New Jerusalem, it is not a refugee column. When the saints go marching in, they are not walking behind a bunch of push carts.
Those who are broad and false like what they imagine is part of this, but they are missing the whole point as well. They think the gates of God’s mercy are so absolutely wide that they can smuggle whatever they want. But the security there doesn’t consist of metal detectors, but rather of an all-encompassing holiness. “For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie” (Rev. 22:15). The gates are so narrow that not one lie can make it through, and so broad that an innumerable multitude can stream through in a column ten miles abreast.
“And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost” (Acts 12:21-23).
Here is wisdom. God doesn’t care where the glory is; God cares where the glory goes.