Sep 1, 2022
Ultimately, the Kingdom of Heaven is the transfiguration of the historical realm into the eternal realm, according to God’s values.
The Old Testament Book of Psalms consists of 150 psalms, grouped into 5 books. The last 5 psalms of the 5th book (Psalms 146 – 150) are the climax of the entire work. They are the Psalmist’s Paradiso.
They recapitulate all that has gone before, and they give it a decidedly eschatological bent, ending with the final verse (150: 6):
“Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord. Hallelujah!”
This final line of the final Psalm by itself could be considered a summary of this entire Old Testament Book. Our prayer journey has led us through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23); we are now in the realm of ecstatic celebration.
Distinctively, each of these last 5 psalms begins and ends with the same single word, “Hallelujah!” In between, each moves from an initial statement of personal piety (celebration or exhortation) to a restatement of the same from the perspective of society as a whole or of the cosmos.
Compare the introductory verse of Psalm 146, the first of these final psalms,
“Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, my soul; I will praise the Lord all my life, sing praise to God while I live.”
With the final verse (146: 10):
“The Lord shall reign forever, your God, Zion, through all generations! Hallelujah!
Note that the focus has shifted from the activity of the mortal psalmist to the activity of the eternal God.
Between these two verses, Psalm 146 divides into two sections: a short section on the futility of mortal power and planning and a longer section devoted to the actions of God.
Compare verses 3 & 4:
“Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam, powerless to save, who, breathing his last, returns to earth; that day all his planning comes to nothing.”
With verse 5:
“Blessed the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord, his God…”
The historical realm is the realm of ‘perpetual perishing.’ Sure, it is also the realm of new beginnings, but whatever comes to be ultimately comes not to be, so...
“To be or not to be,” is not a choice, it is a sentence, as Hamlet quickly discovered; it cannot be appealed. No matter how fecund the world may be, time (entropy) always wins out in the end.
From the perspective of the historical realm, what ceases to be, never was in the first place (“all his planning comes to nothing”). We substitute ‘planning to live’ for ‘actually living’ and our planning comes to naught. We leave no footprints in the sand; it is as if we had never been.
Accused with the crime of being, we have been found not guilty. To die is never to have lived!
Therefore, hope cannot lie anywhere in the spatio-temporal universe. It cannot rest with “the children of Adam, powerless to save." We must not substitute politics for prayer. We must not seek to make ‘changes’ before we have fully appreciated and celebrated what we have already been given.
Rather, all hope must lie in the eternal realm, the realm of “the God of Jacob," because it is he who “shall reign forever…through all generations!”
We cannot find ‘actuality,’ much less hope, in the realm of perpetual perishing! To be ‘actual’ is to ‘actually be’ and actuality is rooted in permanence and permanence is rooted in eternity.
The Psalmist was not alone in this understanding. Contemporaneously, the Greek philosopher, Parmenides, had the same insight. He divided the world into Doxa, the ever-changing realm of appearances (history), and Aletheia, the never-changing realm of truth (eternity).
Don’t believe in the God of Jacob? That’s cool! But you might want to rethink your position…because there is absolutely no other hope! The final psalms echo Deuteronomy: “I have set before you, life and death…therefore choose life.” (Deut. 30:19)
They also suggest a version of Pascal’s Wager: if there is no God, it makes no difference whether you believe in him or not; but if there is a God, believing might quite literally be ‘everything.’ Or to borrow a line from a state lottery ad, “You can’t win if you don’t play!”
The main body of Psalm 146, for example, catalogs God’s actions in the world. We learn that God, “the maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever…”
“Secures justice for the oppressed,”
“Gives bread to the hungry,”
“Sets prisoners free,”
“Gives sight to the blind,”
“Raises up those who are bowed down,”
“Protects the resident alien,”
“Comes to the aid of the orphan and the widow,”
“Thwarts the way of the wicked.”
We can, I think, understand this litany on three levels. First, God occasionally intervenes unilaterally in history via miracles and when he does, he does so to bring about precisely these results.
Second, God regularly intervenes in history through the agency of human beings. When we undertake the good works enumerated in Psalm 146, we perform God’s work in the world.
Finally, I believe that this litany is meant to describe life in the eschatological realm, the Kingdom of God. These are the values that mark a just social order. This is precisely what we are referring to when we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Therefore, whether God intervenes in history or whether we intervene on God’s behalf, it marks the in-breaking of the eschaton. Ultimately, the Kingdom of Heaven is the transfiguration of the historical realm into the eternal realm, according to God’s values.
Whenever God acts, or whenever we act in God’s name, a corner of the historical realm is transfigured, and we catch a fleeting glimpse of the eschaton beyond. The Kingdom is made manifest.
We also learn something else about God from Psalm 146. The God of Jacob “loves the righteous." This aspect of God’s nature is very different from all the others. There’s no mention here of correcting injustice or altering the course of historical events. In every other aspect, God is acting physically and unilaterally, but love is not like that at all.
Love is inherently relational and ideally mutual. Sure, we read all the time about ‘unrequited love’; but the reason we read about it is that it is the aberrant case (man bites dog). Love is meant to be reciprocal.
In Psalm 146, it is the ‘righteous’ (or just) person that God loves. What does it mean to be righteous? It means to embody in your being and in your doing the values that characterize God’s Kingdom (as enumerated above, for example).
Unfortunately, God is no stranger to unrequited love. But in the case of the truly just man, there’s no such risk. The evangelist John quotes Jesus:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments… Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” (John 14: 15, 21) Bingo!
The righteous person is the person who does God’s will, and the person who does God’s will loves God. QED
When we love someone, we recognize ourselves in our beloved, and we recognize our beloved in ourselves. When love is mutual, we see ourselves through the eyes of our beloved.
In The Presence of the Kingdom, Jacques Ellul, an existentialist French philosopher and theologian, writes of the Christian mandate to be the Kingdom of God in the world, not to work for the coming of the Kingdom, not to build the Kingdom, but to be the Kingdom. “Don’t dream it, be it!” (The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
The one absolutely real and certain thing about the world is not death, not even taxes, but the Kingdom of God. When we live the values of the Kingdom in the historical realm, we reveal the Kingdom for all to see.
When we praise God’s values, we demonstrate faith; when we praise God’s actions, we demonstrate hope. But when we perform the works of the Lord, we demonstrate love. It is through the actions of the just person that the Kingdom of God is made manifest: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (John 12:13, et al.)
Literally, ‘blessed’ means ‘wounded.’ When we act “in the name of the Lord," we are blessed (wounded); but our wounds are transparent. Through our wounds, the world can catch a glimpse of the Kingdom. Our acts of justice are windows on eternity. When we act justly, we are a sign to the world of the Kingdom to come.
Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and later to Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 11:25 & 14:6)
The Kingdom is not built from the bottom up. Our acts of justice, important as they are in their own right, do not build the Kingdom. Rather, the Kingdom is built from the top down.
More accurately, the Kingdom of God draws the world to it. When our actions reveal the Kingdom to the world, they function as a model, as a lure.
Whenever, and to the extent that, the historical realm conforms itself to God’s values, it is transfigured; heaven and earth become one.
Just as the perpetual perishing of the historical realm threatens to erase every trace of our being, so the ongoing transfiguration of that realm promises to preserve every such trace.
“The world and its enticements are passing away, but whoever does the will of God remains forever” (1 John 2:17), not because they have earned eternal life but because they are eternal life. That is our one and only hope, and it rests squarely on the Lord, the God of Jacob… “Who keeps faith forever."
Image: British artist John Martin painted this bucolic vision, "The Plains of Heaven" (1851-3), part of his "Judgement Series." Public domain.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.