As of last night (at the time of this writing), the American presidential election has been decided, along with numerous state contests and local measures. In the modern world it’s considered a touchstone of democracy for there to be fair and free elections.
Elections are about equal opportunity for all to have a voice, which is why when voting goes awry particularly in developing countries, violence often ensues when elections are rigged or mismanaged.
Presumably God doesn’t need to vote or hold elections. Yet the Jewish and Christian Bibles both (which is to say, the Tanakh as well as the Old/New Testament together) speak of God “electing” certain people. He elected the Jewish nation; he elected followers of Jesus. “The Lord set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations,” God tells Israel in Deuteronomy 10:15. “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight,” writes the Apostle Paul to the believers in Jesus in the city of Ephesus (Ephesians 1:4).
Interesting. Israel didn’t campaign, explaining why God’s choice of them over other nations would be better for God. We wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, but no one said to God, “Are you better off now than you were 40 years ago?” The Ephesian Christians didn’t run for office either. No ads, no campaigns, no lies, no fact-checking. God simply chose, just like that.
So what was God’s election all about? Democracies choose leaders to best represent their national interests and forward the welfare of their countries. God’s election isn’t about national interests. It’s about the welfare of all of us, from every nation.
God’s election of Israel was in order for the nation to become a people who could be a light on a dark Earth, a vehicle for tikkun olam (repair of the universe, literally) in a broken world. God’s election of followers of Jesus was along the same lines: to be salt and light in the world, according to the gospel of Matthew.
All this though seems rather un-democratic on two grounds. First, it’s offensive for God to choose one group over another, because it seems to mean that there is no longer the possibility of equal opportunity. Even worse, electing one group over another can lead to oppression and violence, as the elect group perceives itself as superior to other groups, perhaps even with a divine mandate to exclude and destroy those who are not elected.
The idea of divine election can certainly be — and has been — perverted. So has the idea of democratic elections in some countries, but that doesn’t make democracy and election wrong. Biblical election can be used as a power play, but God’s intentions in electing one group is not to exclude others but to be a platform for “launching” a renewal of the world that includes all people. Most believers in Jesus who have read the verse about being “elected” to salvation find it a humbling and even mysterious idea, not a cause to feel superior to other people.
A tech company CEO may pull a think-tank group together to work on a new platform or product. Perhaps they even will get a few perks like free lunches/sodas/computers. But their “election” comes with a responsibility—what they work on in their offices is intended to benefit the wider group of consumers.
We’ve just elected a president who, many hope, will steer the country in positive directions. God’s election of people is meant to move humanity in the same way. No national interests there. No grandstanding either, about how the elected group is “the greatest group on the earth.” God’s election is meant as a summons to servanthood, a taste of tikkun olam, a preview of Paradise.
It doesn’t always work out that way, just as democratic elections don’t. But when it does work, which is far more often than some might think, it shows us a way to a better future, with God.
Postscript: Paradoxically, those who have chosen to follow God and His Messiah Jesus realize retrospectively that God has also chosen them.
What choices have you made regarding God?
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.