I’ve heard a lot of evangelical leaders in America compare Donald Trump to the Persian King Cyrus from Isaiah 45 who, as a non-Jewish ruler, played a key role in allowing the exiled Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the temple.
The argument has been termed “vessel theology,” suggesting that God ordained Trump as a non-Christian to carry out God’s will in America as God’s “vessel” despite his character or religious shortcomings. This approach has many flaws, including the fact that America is not God’s chosen people (a sort of new Israel as adherents to this approach like to think) and King Cyrus was not the king over Israel (so the analogy would really require Trump to be a leader of a foreign nation who brought about good for America).
Contrary to the focus on Cyrus, I think if we desperately want to compare Trump with biblical leaders, I think he more closely aligns with a different non-Jewish king: Nebuchadnezzar. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is heavily featured in the book of Daniel, and he was one of the key subjects in the talk at church this past Sunday.
Among other things, Nebuchadnezzar was a narcissist who was obsessed with people praising him. When he has a dream and his advisers are unable to interpret it, he wants to have them all killed (Daniel 2). Later, he decides to make a massive gold monument to himself and demands that everyone in Babylon bows down to it and worships him (Daniel 3). When three boys stand up and refuse to worship him, he becomes “furious with rage,” demands that they be thrown into a blazing furnace, and mocks God (“Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”). When he asks questions of his advisers, they reply with ultimate submission: “Certainly, O king.”
God comes through in both instances, providing an interpretation for his dream and saving the three boys from the fire, Nebuchadnezzar praises God briefly in, at best, half-hearted attempts to court God’s favor.
Nebuchadnezzar is crazy (and in a later chapter actually loses his mind temporarily) and full of immense power as king. Now for the comparison. Trump is perhaps the most powerful man on earth, but he (as of now) does not have full powers of a king. He doesn’t have the authority to have people put to death, although he does have the authority to fire a lot of people. Those he does not have the ability to fire, he commands a public mob that is readily willing to end their careers. And in some cases (thankfully extremely rare to this point), there have been followers willing to bring about threats on the lives of Trump’s opponents.
But Trump regularly demands the unreasonable or impossible of his staff and followers (like, for Nebuchadnezzar’s advisers, interpreting a dream). When they fail to follow through (or, on occasion, even stand up and refuse), he typically fires them and replaces them with more willing aides.
I’m not sure if any man has more towering monuments bearing his name across the globe (with gold playing a significant role in the décor), and he takes every possible opportunity to get people to do the modern equivalent of bowing down: booking a room and staying in his hotels. Just in the past few weeks, he’s prompted his vice president to do so on a trip to Ireland (despite the fact the hotel was several hours away from the location where the VP’s official duties for the trip resided) and mused about hosting a conference of world leaders at one of his resorts.
It might take a bit of imagination – but not very much – to hear VP Pence respond to Trump’s “suggestion” that he stay there with a submissive “Certainly, O king.”
And while there is (currently) no blazing furnace, Trump’s demand for total compliance has ranged from reports of his “expecting loyalty” from government officials in non-partisan roles to his Twitter rage poured out on anyone and everyone who dares to cross him with any sort of disagreement or word (regardless of truth) that suggests he is anything less than perfect and absolutely right. All the while, his words and actions reflect nothing short of the opposite of the message of Christ.
In a recent message at the church I attend, our pastor referred to the “sway of they” as the overriding pressure to give in and do what culture around us is doing. In the story of Nebuchadnezzar and the blazing furnace, the sway was to bow down and worship him. Yet three teenage boys stood tall and refused. When the king became “furious with rage” and called them before him with the threat of the furnace, their response was powerful:
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” – Daniel 3:16-18
The focus of the message was to see the boldness of the three boys as an example and to stand up when everyone else around is bowing, to not give in to the “sway of they” no matter the consequence. In the story, the boys were thrown into the furnace, but they were completely protected. In fact, the presence of God joined them in the furnace, and they walked out untouched by the flames. That prompted one of Nebuchadnezzar’s brief moments of repentance.
Today, we have the same opportunity. It might cost us our jobs, our friends, or something else to stand up against a man who has the support of the majority of white evangelical Christians. But perhaps that’s the “vessel” God is using Trump to determine: who proclaims the name of Christ actually bowing to the god of political power, and who will trust God, defy the “king’s” command and choose to give up their life (or whatever else) rather than serve or worship any god except their own God (Daniel 3:28).
For everyone who wants to view Trump as their King Cyrus, that’s up to you. I’ll stick with the comparison that fits more cleanly, even if it ends up with me in a furnace. The God I serve is able to save me from it, and even if God does not, I will not bow down.