The 19th-century political theorist Ludwig von Rochau invented the term Realpolitik to describe his program for unifying Germany, at the time a gaggle of squabbling nation-states. Drawing lessons from the failure of the French Revolution, Rochau argued that idealism and passion simply aren’t enough: successful political actors must know when to cut deals and make compromises in pursuit of the larger goal. For example, Rochau rejected pervasive anti-Semitic sentiment in favor of including Jews as full citizens of the new Germany, on the grounds of their considerable wealth and influence. Ideological purity — in this case, old-fashioned notions of who is properly German — get in the way of more important and practical objectives.

Since the 19th century, Realpolitik has evolved to mean a certain way of thinking about politics, one that deemphasizes ideology and even ethics in favor of cold, hard power dynamics. Realpolitik becomes especially feasible when national survival is at stake. When the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the virulently anticommunist Winston Churchill signaled his support for Stalin, noting, “If Hitler invaded Hell I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” Decades later, another noted anticommunist, Richard Nixon, normalized American relations with the People’s Republic of China in a bid to diplomatically outflank the Soviets.

Although the term might be of relatively recent coinage, Realpolitik has likely been around ever since there have been more than one tribe of humans. The Bible is no stranger to the concept, particularly in the historical narratives of Israel’s monarchies. 1 Kings 1, for instance, relates the story of Bathsheba’s careful maneuvering to ensure that her son, Solomon, becomes David’s heir to the throne. The next chapter records how Solomon, having assumed power, consolidates it in a manner that isn’t exactly nice. Per usual, the narrator is pretty unsentimental about the whole thing.

In other places, though, Scripture enthusiastically identifies God’s guiding hand behind the machinations of ruling elites. An important case in point is the Bible’s treatment of Cyrus the Great (d. 530 BC), conqueror of Babylon and founder of the Persian Empire. Cyrus rose to power through a combination of military prowess and a remarkable ability to exploit the dissatisfaction of his opponents’ subjects. By the end of his life Cyrus had established the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

He also received highly favorable mention in Scripture. The first chapter of Ezra records how Cyrus, citing direction from Yahweh, granted Judean exiles taken in the Babylonian Captivity the freedom to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple (that homeland, now a province dubbed Yehud, was such a backwater that many decided to stay put in Babylon).

We now know that the Judeans weren’t particularly noteworthy to Cyrus. Recovery and decipherment of the famous Cyrus Cylinder in 1879 depicted the Persian monarch bestowing similar religious freedom to his new Babylonian subjects, this time in the name of Marduk and other members of the Babylonian pantheon. It’s not hard to see what’s happening here: Cyrus, himself almost certainly some kind of polytheist, was instituting a policy of religious tolerance as a means of placating conquered peoples, a policy more or less copied by the later Roman Empire. His edict recorded in Ezra 1, for all of its seemingly pious language about the God of Israel, was a solidly Realpolitik move.

It’s also a move that Isaiah 45 does not hesitate to ascribe ultimately to God, who shockingly refers to Cyrus as his “anointed one” (his christ!). Though Cyrus does not know God (v. 4), he is the chosen instrument of God’s will on earth. The Lord cuts off anticipated critics at the pass:

Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making”? or “Your work has no handles”? (v. 9)

God is adamant that he can do whatever he pleases by whatever means he pleases, and that the final result will be Israel’s prominence over the other nations. Even so, his choice of an idolatrous king as a “christ” is more than a bit startling, and leads to the confession: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” God’s activity in the world at large is not immediately obvious.

And what was true then is, if anything, even more true now. The United States has just stumbled through an insanely close and divisive presidential election. The war in Armenia, a nasty combination of WWI-style trench fighting and ultramodern drone warfare, rages alongside other, older conflicts. Good old-fashioned geopolitical jockeying continues unabated: Russia and China have been forming a “strategic partnership” for the last several years, which the USA is seeking to counterbalance with a similar relationship with India. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of an ongoing global pandemic that seems to be getting worse with each passing day.

Christians confess that “God is sovereign in the affairs of men,” but it’s not exactly clear what he’s seeking to get done on the global stage. And in this case we have no prophet like Isaiah to tell us, which makes the Lord’s hiddenness all the more difficult to live with.

One thing is clear enough, however: were we able to consistently and accurately divine God’s intentions and activity in the world, we’d become insufferable. We’d fall madly in love with our own insight, an attitude inimical to truly knowing the Lord:

Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom […] But let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord. (Jer 9:23-4)

St. Paul quotes this passage from Jeremiah at the end of a meditation on a very different Christ, one killed by Realpolitik. In this Christ, God has hidden himself from our wisdom — our notions of how God can and should behave — so that by turning from it we might be saved (1 Cor 1:21). Our failure and inability to understand what he is specifically doing in US politics, the international chess games, the wars, the pandemic, or whatever else, fades to insignificance as we reflect on the God who has proven decisively that he is for us and our salvation.

Following election week, the national mood ranges widely: elation, cautious optimism, vindictiveness, despair, terror, incredulity, indifference, and cynicism. I think it highly likely that neither a golden nor dark age is upon us, but the only thing that’s truly certain is that the new Biden administration will eventually disappoint or frustrate everyone in some way. Our collective and personal problems will remain intact, or else others will come and take their place. God’s plan and purpose in the world will remain hidden — and the good news about the Christ who saves in and through all circumstances will remain true.