From the September/October 2023 issue of Discern Magazine

Ruling With an Iron Fist vs. Ruling With a Rod of Iron

Tyrants, strongmen and dictators dominate the news. What can we learn by contrasting their brutal rulership with the leadership commended in the Bible?

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From the earliest pages of human history, we find rulers who have exercised a ruthless bloodlust for ever-greater power and domination. The desire to control others is an ingrained part of our human nature, but how is the godly perspective on rulership different?

The Bible clearly teaches that those who are called to a future of rulership assisting Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of God will be nothing like the dictators and autocrats of the world today.

Get there, stay there

Dictators invariably have two objectives. First, a dictator must do whatever is needed to claw himself into power. Then, even more important, he must do anything required to cling to supremacy.

To accomplish those goals, autocrats often wield a ferocious iron fist that blends fear, industrial-scale financial theft and the creation of colossal personality cults.

Different players, same game

Today’s dictators may reach office through the ballot box, but often their road to power is paved with corpses. Snatching power through a sudden, violent and unlawful coup is common.

There have been more than 486 attempted or successful coups carried out in the world since 1950. Africa has had 214—more than any other region—with 106 of them successful. During that period, 45 of the 54 countries on the African continent have had at least one coup attempt.

In the last hundred years, there have been a staggering 45 coups and attempted coups in Paraguay alone. Nonetheless, Paraguay appears to be the image of stability when compared to its South American neighbor Bolivia, which has witnessed nearly 200 coup attempts—an average of one a year—since declaring independence in 1825.

Field guide to tyranny

“Power seized through violence must be maintained by violence,” wrote Frank Dikötter, historian and author of How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century. So, once in power, despots establish legions of police, secret police, informants, spies, interrogators and torturers. Why? Because a population that lives in perpetual fear of arrest is a docile population.

“Successful leaders,” echoed international relations scholar Alastair Smith and coauthor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, “are not above repression, suppression, oppression, or even killing their rivals, real and imagined. Anyone unwilling to undertake the dirty work that so many leaders are called on to do should not pursue becoming a leader. Certainly, anyone reluctant to be a brute will not last long if everyone knows he is unprepared to engage in the vicious behavior that may be essential to political survival. If an aspiring leader won’t do terrible things, they can be sure that there are plenty of others who will” (The Dictator’s Handbook, p. 129).

Bashar al-Assad, though initially considered a shy physician, has shown the brutality required to cling to absolute power in Syria for decades. He is responsible for the deaths of over 100,000 of his own citizens—some of whom died by ghastly chemical attacks he ordered when his rule was threatened.

Some estimate 120,000 of North Korea’s citizens are imprisoned in concentration camps, subject to slavery, torture, shootings and human experimentation, for the real or imagined political “thought crimes” of distant family members.

Mao Zedong, who once governed over a quarter of the world’s population in China, showed a chilling disregard for the deaths of perhaps 42 million of his own people from needless famine and sadistic purges.

A dictator by any other name

Successfully creating a personality cult is essential for dictators. This produces an aura of invincibility and an illusion of popular support. Despots shower themselves with magnificent titles, each more outlandish than the last.

Joseph Stalin was called “the Great Driver of the Locomotive of History.” Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu fancied himself as “the Genius of the Carpathians.”

Longtime dictator of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko, assumed a grandiose moniker that meant “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to triumph, proceeds from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”

Messianic delusions

Many authoritarian strongmen start with a belief that they have been touched by divine providence and rapidly elevate themselves to the status of an infallible deity.

North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung, though dead for three decades, is still referred to as the Eternal President, and his portrait is displayed, by law, in every home, office and factory across the country.

In Cuba, followers of Fidel Castro were encouraged to describe him as “Jesus Christ incarnate, who came to put the affairs of Cuba—and other places—in order.”

The former president for life of Haiti, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, had the Lord’s Prayer rewritten to praise his exalted status above God.

Ali Soilih, who briefly governed the minuscule Comoro Islands in the 1970s, proved that the size of a nation has little to do with the dictator’s self-adulation. He proclaimed: “I am your God and teacher. I am the divine way, the torch that lights the dark. There is no God but Ali Soilih.”

Wallowing in luxury

Kleptocracy means rule by thieves. It describes governments whose corrupt and self-indulgent rulers steal from their people through bribery, embezzlement or misappropriation.

The staggering wealth drained by some despots can make the eyes glaze over. Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier of Haiti pocketed more than $300 million for himself. Sani Abacha, who seized power in Nigeria, made off with upwards of $3 billion. Ferdinand Marcos squirreled away more than $5 billion from the Filipino people.

Mobutu Sese Seko lined his own pockets with more than $5 billion, even as most of his population lived in poverty on an average daily wage of roughly $1.

According to a 2004 Transparency International list of the most corrupt state leaders, the former Indonesian President Suharto enriched himself by an estimated $35 billion.

And the list could go on and on.

Vanity structures

Nimrod, Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar may have set the tone for rulers constructing narcissistic statues and enormous building projects to display their greatness, but recent tyrants are not far behind.

In Turkmenistan, the dictator Saparmurat Niyazov declared himself as Turkmenbashi, or “Father of all Turkmen,” and built a massive personality cult exemplified by the giant golden statue he had erected of himself. It towered 250 feet above the city and was designed to rotate so that it would bask in golden sunlight while reminding citizens of their all-controlling ruler’s watchful eye.

Despite being an impoverished hermit kingdom, North Korea is rich in shrines to the Kim dynasty, with an estimated 40,000 colossal, bronze monuments erected to venerate the rulers.

Seen now as the symbol of Ceausescu’s megalomania and extravagant lifestyle, Romania’s 1,100-room Palace of the Parliament may be the ultimate vanity building project. Despite a dreadfully anemic economy, Ceausescu callously relocated 40,000 people and leveled a large part of downtown Bucharest to build the massive structure to his glory.

It is outweighed only by the Great Pyramid of Egypt, and more than 700 architects and up to 100,000 workers struggled for 13 years to construct the outlandish building. It contains over 35,000,000 cubic feet of marble and 3,500 tons of crystal.

Biblical perspective on rulership

Several words are translated as “ruler” in the New Testament, and they clearly contrast the actions of dictators and tyrants with the leadership that God expects of those who follow His way.

In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus said: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave [or servant]—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

The Greek word translated in this passage as “rulers” is archon. Here, it negatively describes how human rulers typically act in positions of power—through cold-hearted domination and throwing their weight around. Jesus Christ will abolish this kind of leadership when He “puts an end to all rule and all authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24).

Echoing the messianic prophecy found in Isaiah 11:10, Paul’s words about Jesus Christ explain the result of ending the violence, propaganda and corruption endured throughout mankind’s history of tyrannical rule: “There shall be a root of Jesse; and He who shall rise to reign over the Gentiles, in Him the Gentiles shall hope” (Romans 15:12).

Christ, who demonstrated a perfect example of leadership and humble service to others throughout His life and death (Philippians 2:5-8), will powerfully demonstrate a government that brings true joy and prosperity to all.

Another Greek word explains this concept of rulership. Matthew 2:6 refers back to the prophet Micah’s God-inspired message of “a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.”

The word for shepherd here is poimaino, which means “to feed, to tend a flock, keep sheep”—showing an outgoing attitude of love, service and nourishment.

This kind of rulership—in contrast to that of Herod, who a few verses later murders innocent children to prolong his own evil reign—shows how Jesus Christ will lovingly exercise authority. He will be a loving ruler when He returns to reign on earth as King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 17:14; 19:16).

His goal will be the complete opposite of the goals of rulers today. As Christ said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

A rod of iron rather than an iron fist

When we understand Christ’s approach to ruling, we better grasp Revelation 2:26-27 and the initially puzzling instruction: “He who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations—‘He shall rule them with a rod of iron; they shall be dashed to pieces like the potter’s vessels.’”

This last part is a quote from Psalm 2:9, showing the power of the Messiah to defeat all enemies. This colorful metaphor does not mean merciless rule. There will be an essential place in God’s Kingdom for repentance and mercy.

The caring nature of Christ’s rule can be likened to a shepherd using a protective baton to correct and guide, but also to comfort and protect the sheep from wolves and other predators.

As Barnes’ Commentary puts it: “To rule with a scepter of iron, is not to rule with a harsh and tyrannical sway, but with power that is firm and invincible. It denotes a government of strength, or one that cannot be successfully opposed.”

Power or reward?

“Ruling,” observed Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, “is about staying in power, not about good governance.” Power is a potent drug, and eventually it addles even the longest-lived presidents, draining them of the impetus to do anything except cling to life and, therefore, to power itself.

The efforts to combat this hunger for power are aptly illustrated by the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The prize has a $5 million award (far exceeding the money bestowed for the Nobel Peace Prize) and is meant to recognize probity and commitment to democracy—given to leaders who have relinquished power with grace rather than outstaying their welcome.

Unfortunately, such rulers have been few and far between. Though intended to be awarded annually, the prize has been given only seven times since 2007. Many years no leader was deemed worthy.

Our world today has a de facto czar in the Kremlin, an unrivaled potentate in Beijing and multiple aspiring sultans in the Middle East. And, in the not-too-distant future, in Europe a leader likened to a “beast” in the Bible will shockingly eclipse all of the ancient Roman emperors.

But then, as promised in the Bible, Jesus Christ will return with a rod of iron to establish a rule—with His saints—vastly different from any mankind has ever experienced.

Read more about world events that are about to unfold and about the future of mankind under a refreshing and loving ruler in our free booklets The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm and The World to Come: What It Will Be Like.

About the Author

Neal Hogberg

Neal Hogberg is a member of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and attends the Dallas, Texas, congregation.

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