Q & R: Ruling with a Rod of Iron

Here’s the Q:

Dear Brian, One of my joys of late is praying through the lens of Jesus and His Love as true theology. I have had the pleasure of reading many of your books and they have influenced my thinking a great deal. I know that you lean toward the idea that it is incongruous to view Jesus as a wrathful, destroying King upon His return when nothing of His life’s interactions resemble that. I agree. I am troubled though by continual references from other Christians who turn toward the wrathful perspective of His return as the angry God based upon the reference to His ruling “with a Rod of Iron”. I wonder if you have any thoughts about what that term really means and how we can better lean into a joy/hope centered approach to praying for His return? With gratitude!!

Here’s the R:

Great question.
“The Rod of Iron” image has roots in the Hebrew Bible, especially Psalm 2. This chapter is quoted frequently in the New Testament.
Psalm 2 is of obvious interest to New Testament writers because it speaks of God’s anointed one (Christ) and God’s Son. According to the Psalm, he will “rule the nations with an iron scepter” and “dash them to pieces like pottery.” Psalm 2 language is picked up in Revelation 2 and elsewhere.
Closely related is the stone language of Daniel 2, where a stone brings down an image of despotic human empire.
Here’s the question implicit in your question: Does the Kingdom of God replace human despotism with divine despotism? Does the kingdom of God replace a regime based on terror of human rulers with a new regime based on the terror of the divine ruler?
If we only had Psalm 2, Daniel 2, and Revelation 2, we would lean towards a “yes” answer. But the Gospels give us a radically different picture. Jesus is born in a stable, not a palace. He is unarmed, not violent. He speaks of forgiveness, not revenge. He comes into Jerusalem not on the predictable white steed swinging a sword, but on a donkey, shedding tears. He judges (exposes, sets right, confronts with justice) not with a sword but with his word. (In Revelation, significantly, Jesus is not pictured holding a sword in his hand; the sword is in his mouth – obviously figurative.)
So the “rod of iron” must similarly be interpreted as a metaphor for effective, unbreakable power. But contrary to nearly all expectations, this power is not the power of domination and violence. It is the power of sacrifice and service, as Philippians 2 says so beautifully:

Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

God defeats human evil and violence through their opposites – through service and love, through suffering and sacrifice, through self-giving and surrender to God.
Just as Jesus shows himself to be “Lord of the Sabbath,” I think he shows himself to be Lord of Psalm 2 and related Scriptures – He doesn’t merely fit in to them: he transforms them into something more beautiful, redemptive, and capacious than the poets who originally penned them could fully imagine.