This famous phrase, made even more famous by Handel in his Messiah, comes from Psalm 2. The whole Psalm is about the nations, and their limited and temporary nature, in contrast to the everlasting God. The Psalm reminds us that there is only one eternal and invincible ruler, and that all mere earthly rulers are only there by his grace and permission.
The Old Testament speaks much to the subject of nations and human rulers. We are told that nations have a role to play in the purposes of Yahweh. Israel was just one of many nations, and while chosen by God to be his peculiar people, both Israel and the nations had responsibilities and obligations under Yahweh.
Indeed, the message of the Old Testament is quite clear: God is sovereign over the nations. In Psalm 72: 8-11 we are told that the rule of God extends to the ends of the earth. Psalm 2 spells this out clearly. Not only God’s covenant people, Israel, but all the nations, stand under the sovereign reign of God. When Israel disobeys and rejects Yahweh, she experiences divine judgement. But the foreign nations also experience similar judgement.
A familiar pattern emerges in the Old Testament. The covenant obligations of Israel to Yahweh are to be taken seriously. When they break these covenant responsibilities, God will often raise up foreign nations as an instrument of his judgment and chastisement. Even rebellious pagan rulers are described as those who serve God’s purposes.
Consider Assyria, long an enemy of God’s people. When the Northern Kingdom had become too disobedient and stiff-necked, God raised up the Assyrians as his tool of judgment. Isaiah 10 makes this quite clear, even calling Assyria the “rod of my [Yahweh’s] anger” (v. 5). Yet when Assyria has accomplished its divine task, it too is judged (v. 12).
Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of pagan Babylon, is called “my servant” (eg., Jer. 25:9). God uses Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon as his servants in judging Judah. Yet they are not exempt from the justice of God. Because of their sins and unrighteousness, Yahweh will judge them as well (Jer. 25: 12-14).
Cyrus the pagan Persian king is referred to as “my anointed” by Yahweh (Isaiah 45:1-7). Other examples could be mentioned. God therefore can and does use pagan rulers and nations for his purposes, but he also holds them accountable to his high standards.
Israel obviously had covenant obligations to God, as given at Sinai (spelled out in Exodus) and remade at Moab (detailed in Deuteronomy). But the surrounding nations also have obligations to the sovereign ruler of all the earth.
The fact that so much of the prophetic literature is comprised of prophetic words to the nations is an indication of this. Many of the prophetic books contain sections featuring oracles or prophecies against the nations. Sometimes a whole book (such as Nahum) is written exclusively to a pagan nation. Other times, large sections of a book (such as Jeremiah 46-51) are devoted to the nations.
These oracles are interesting for several reasons. Even though these pagan nations do not have the same covenant relationship to God that Israel does, Yahweh still holds them accountable to his standards of justice and righteousness.
If you compare the prophecies delivered against Israel with those against the nations, you will often find similar reasons for judgment, similar warnings of wrath to come, and even similar language employed. As an example, in Micah 3: 9-10, Jerusalem is warned of judgment because of its blood-letting: “hear this, you leaders of the house of Jacob, you rulers of the house of Israel, who despise justice and distort all that is right; who build Zion with bloodshed, and Jerusalem with wickedness.”
Quite similar sins and promises of judgment are made to Nineveh in Nahum 3:1, “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!” and Babylon in Habakkuk 2:12, “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime”.
So the foreign nations certainly do not escape the watchful eye and righteous judgment of God in the Old Testament. While the New Testament does not speak about the nations quite as often, at least in reference to the church, it is still clear that God is sovereign over the nations, and all nations will one day bow at the feet of Christ.
Indeed, Psalm 2 is one of the most often quoted of the psalms in the New Testament. The theme of Christ ruling over the nations with a rod of iron as found in Rev. 2:27; 12:5; and 19:15 all refer back to Psalm 2, and verse 9. And while Jesus was on earth he often spoke of his role in the coming judgment of nations, as in Matt. 24-25; Mark 13; and Luke 10 and 21.
Thus the concern of Psalm 2 finds its final fulfilment in King Jesus. It is that conviction which must give all believers hope today. It may seem like the nations have forgotten God and spat in his face. It may seem that the nations conspire and plot against God (Psalm 2:1)
And it often appears that the secular rulers show only contempt for God and his law. The kings and rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One (the Messiah) (v.2).
These secular rulers may seek total autonomy from the creator of the earth, and seek to be rid of all divine interference. They may say, ‘let’s break our chains and throw off our fetters’ (v.3).
But this scoffing, rebellion and lawlessness is only temporary. Soon enough the righteous judge will judge all the earth. The one who sits enthroned in heaven laughs, and the Lord scoffs at these vain rulers (v. 5).
God has appointed Jesus to be the sole, true ruler of the nations. He has given the son the nations as his inheritance (vv. 6-8). Jesus will rule with a complete and total rule, and the only wise thing the nations and rulers on earth can do is serve the Lord with fear and trembling (vv. 9-11).
They will either experience his full wrath, or if they humble themselves, they can seek refuge in him as judgment comes (v. 12). All in all this is a huge encouragement and word of hope to believers who at the moment may seem like they are increasingly becoming strangers in a strange land.
I often think of the many long decades, for example, that believers had to endure terrible persecution and death under the godless communist rulers. For seven decades it seemed like God was not on the throne. But to the amazement of the whole world, the cruel reign of atheistic communism came to a crushing end, as first witnessed at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Today the horrible thugs Lenin, Stalin, et. al., are but the dust of history. So too with every other rule on earth, be it atheistic totalitarianism or secular democracy. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. God is not unaware of, or indifferent to, what the nations and the rulers are up to, and everyone will one day stand before the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords to give account.
For the short term, it may seem like these rulers are getting away with murder, but this is very short-lived indeed. We need the eternal perspective as so forcefully presented in Psalm 2. For those who would lose heart or become weary in well doing, the best antidote I know of is to read and read again the first of the Royal psalms, Psalm 2. In it we will find that the purpose and destiny of the nations are ultimately tied up with the purpose and plans of almighty God.