The Rule of
the Iron Rod
A familiar scripture to those who read the Bible and who look for the coming reign of Christ, is in the Second Psalm "Thou shall break them with a rod of iron; thou shall dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel". Many gentle disciples have felt a thrill run through them as they picture a day in which all opposition to the Kingdom of righteousness is relentlessly crushed. Many have solaced themselves in present distress by anticipation of a coming day in which the tables will be turned on those who set themselves against the Lord's Anointed, and the proud and mighty of this world are compelled to bow at the feet of earth's rightful Sovereign.
A number of Scriptures, mostly in the Books of Psalms and Revelation are habitually cited to buttress this idea of an all-powerful Dictator ruthlessly crushing all opposition and setting up his rule of absolute righteousness and justice by the exercise of brute force. The end is considered to justify the means, and the Scriptural assurance that as a result of Christ's reign all humanity will come into harmony with the Divine law of selflessness and love is held to stamp the means employed with the hallmark of Divine approval.
However, the whole tenor of Christ's teaching discountenances the use of coercion or force. He himself resolutely refused to employ any other agency than love, even although He faced death, the death for which He had come into the world. He refused to call upon the twelve legions of angels to come to his aid, and trod the winepress alone. When in surprise and mystification Pilate queried "Thou art a King then?" Jesus uttered those memorable words which have resounded down the ages, "My kingdom is not of this world (kosmos) else would my servants fight". Not for him the standards of kingship by which this world measures kings. It was in the passive and yet overpowering force of love that the early Church went forth conquering, and they conquered.
But if the teaching of Christ at his First Advent definitely repudiated the use of force as a means of accomplishing the work of his Kingdom, how shall statements of so definite a nature as Psalm 2.9 and Revelation 2.27 be understood? Certain it is that as students of the Divine Word, we can neither afford to ignore them nor to wrest them to mean the opposite of their plain implication. We can only approach them, armed first with a clear knowledge of the principles upon which Christ will deal with mankind in the future Age, and then look at these Scriptures in the light of their local meaning and the significance they had for the Israelites who lived in the day in which they were uttered. So we can deduce what prophetic indication is there given, in the guise of a familiar reference to some everyday incident or custom.
It is generally agreed that the work of the Age to come is portrayed in miniature and in principle by the life of Jesus Christ, by his words, actions, miracles, and so on. It is equally definite that He preached the overcoming of hate by love, of greed by selflessness, of force by persuasion, of selfishness by service for others. This then is the law of the Kingdom, and however the rule of the iron rod is to be understood it must in no sense do violation to the principles which underlie the teaching of Jesus. In a very real sense it must represent fairly and accurately the law of the Kingdom of God on earth. What then is this rod of iron?
The figure, like so many in the Psalms, is a pastoral one. The shepherds of David's day, in the unchanging East, went about their occupation provided with two implements, the pastoral staff and the iron club. The iron club was the shepherd's weapon of defence, not only for himself, but also for his sheep. The Palestinian shepherd followed his calling in very different circumstances from those that are associated in our Western minds with the care of the flock. The pastures were often found in mountainous and desolate places, and whilst roving bands of robbers threatened danger to the shepherd, wild beasts such as hyenas, jackals, bears, leopards and lions were liable to attack the flock, and the safety of the defenceless sheep depended entirely upon the watchfulness and strength of the shepherd.
A number of Scriptures attest the familiarity of Israel with the fact of wild beasts in their midst. For example, 1 Sam.17.34-36, 1 Kings 13.24, Jer.5.6; and to realise this aspect of the shepherd's work is to understand more clearly the import of our Lord's own words in John 10. 11-12 (RSV) "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling, and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep, and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them".
The rod of iron (Hebrew ‑ Shebet) was the shepherd's iron club, his weapon of defence and his means of defending the sheep. But since in the ordinary course of events the shepherd's care for his sheep transcended all thought for himself, the iron club became in a very special sense associated with the protection of his flock from every kind of danger. This is borne out by the Scripture in a very remarkable manner. The quotation in Rev. 2.27 "He shall rule them with a rod of iron" employs a Greek word (poimaino) which has the significance of 'shepherding' in the sense of 'feeding'; and the phrase would be more correctly translated "He shall shepherd them with the shepherd's club". In addition to its use for defence against robbers and wild beasts, the club was used for beating a way through jungle or undergrowth in the search for fresh pastures, and so its association with feeding as well as defence became obvious.
The same word is translated "feed" in John 21.16 "Feed my sheep" 1 Pet. 5.2 "Feed the flock of God"; Rev. 7.17 "The Lamb which is in the midst of them shall feed them" and in several other places. In the Old Testament the same allusion occurs in Micah 7.14 "Feed thy people with thy rod", where rod again is translated from 'shebet'.
In the same connection also is the word of the Lord to the Israelites of Ezekiel's day "I will cause you to pass under the rod (shebet) and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant" (Ezek.20.37). "He will smite the earth" says Isaiah "with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of His lips shall He slay the wicked" (Isa. 11.4). This 'iron rod' is in very truth a means of sustenance and defence to those who are the "children of the Kingdom", who stand in need of that which the Kingdom is designed to provide.
What is the significance of that parallel expression in Psalm 2.9 "He shall break them in pieces like a potter's vessel", and its companion text in Rev.2.27 "As the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers"? Another every day eastern custom is alluded to here. A common occupation in the east was the making of 'homrah', broken pottery reduced to a very fine powder by constant grinding with heavy stones, and used in the manufacture of cement. The common use of earthenware vessels of all kinds rendered an abundant supply of broken pottery continually available. With painstaking care the makers of 'homrah' squatted upon the ground with a little pile of potsherds between their feet and rolled the heavy boulder to and fro until the fragments were reduced to the finest dust. Not until then was the 'homrah' ready for the next stage in the making of cement for use in lining water cisterns and aqueducts, and for many other purposes.
Here then is afforded an eloquent picture of the disintegrating forces which break down and scatter not only the kingdoms of this world but all that is lifted up in defiance against Christ. The vivid picture drawn by Daniel when he expounded to King Nebuchadnezzar his dream of the great image is similar. The image is broken to the ground and pulverised to dust by the 'Stone' Kingdom (Dan.2.34-35).
This disintegration is not of individuals, but of institutions, governments and organisations of man. "Everything that can be shaken will be shaken" says the writer to the Hebrews (12.27). Many students are thoroughly familiar with the lines of Scriptural reasoning which indicate that at the time when the reign of Christ begins, it is the institutions of man that crash to destruction. This is so that every individual member of the human race may be given the opportunity of ascending the "Highway of Holiness" to perfection of life.
With this destruction of every man-made institution the individuals comprising them are set free to be built into that new and universal Kingdom that is the New Jerusalem, come down from heaven to earth. This is just as the broken potsherds were ground into dust in order that they might be welded together in a new and indestructible 'cement' that should endure forever. The broken potsherds, having outlived their usefulness and like a "garment, waxing old, ready to vanish away" (Heb. 8.13) are converted into new and imperishable structure which shall serve the needs of man for all time. Could there be in all the range of Scripture allegories a more perfect picture of that "Stone" Kingdom which "shall break in pieces and devour all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever".
Thus the entire picture is one of the beneficent reign of Christ in which evil will be restrained and the "flock" defended from those wild beasts of iniquity and sin that would otherwise still lie in wait and dog their footsteps. The willing ones are led by "green pastures and still waters" of Psalm 23, where they may, in perfect confidence and security "obtain joy and salvation" whilst "sorrow and sighing will flee away" (Isa. 35.10).
Meanwhile the enlightening influences of this day will have played their part in bringing about that "time of trouble such as was not since there was a nation" (Dan.12.1; Matt. 24.21). In the course of that, all the broken potsherds of human government will be reduced to dust and upon their ruins will arise the fair edifice of that 'city' that has foundations, "whose builder and maker is God" for which Abraham looked so many long years ago (Heb. 11.10). The "iron rod" is a guarantee of Divine protection and sustenance to all peoples. The "breaking as a potter's vessel", predicts the final collapse of the power of man and the reconstruction work of God's Kingdom, founded upon love, peace, persuasion to good things, that the words of Isaiah so many centuries ago may at last come to rich fulfilment—
"And the work of righteousness shall be peace;and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever.