CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

God and the Nations

Jun 26, 2010

Life is complex, but it becomes even more complex when God is thrown into the mix. At the best of times, the old theological conundrum is always going to be raised: how do a sovereign God and morally-accountable human beings coexist? And how do we understand the rise and fall of nations in the light of God’s purposes and plans?

The divine sovereignty/human free will relationship is one of the more complex and difficult of biblical and theological topics to be addressed, and I cannot enter into it here. All that I can point out at this time is that Scripture clearly affirms both sides of the equation.

God is in control, he is sovereign, and he always accomplishes his purposes. Plenty of passages can be offered here. But also, humans are said to be morally accountable for their choices and actions, and are not mere puppets. There are likewise numerous verses one can appeal to here.

How these two truths can be reconciled is not an easy task. We may have to settle for some mystery and wonder here. Nothing wrong with that: while we have substantial truth revealed to us in Scripture, it is not exhaustive truth. There is much which we cannot and do not understand in our fallen and finite condition.

But these and related questions naturally arise for the believer when events like what just transpired in Australia take place. In a matter of hours, a nationally elected Prime Minister was replaced with an unelected one. The political machinations involved in this coup I have discussed elsewhere.

Here I want to look at some biblical and theological considerations. The Bible again gives us two seemingly conflicting angles here. On the one hand, nations are raised up and taken down by the sovereign Lord of the universe. On the other hand, nations are held to account for what they do, just as individuals are.

Once again, it may seem difficult to harmonise these two truths, and many attempts have been made at doing just that. But these twin truths are repeatedly and clearly proclaimed throughout both Testaments. Nations and rulers are said to be part of God’s overall rule. Consider just a few passages which affirm God’s sovereign hand over the nations:

Psalm 47:9: The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.

Psalm 75:6-7: No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another.

Is 40:23: He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

Daniel 2:20:19-21: Then Daniel praised the God of heaven and said: “Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them.”

Matthew 25:32: All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

But these nations and their leaders are fully accountable to God for what they do. This was certainly true of Israel and it was true of the pagan nations as well. Many passages might be considered here, but let me focus on just one. It is a very important text indeed in this regard. I refer to Isaiah 10:5-19.

It is a very revealing text. God will use the arrogant, ruthless and evil nation of Assyria to judge Israel. Because of Israel’s great evil and sin, God is going to use a pagan nation as the instrument of his judgment. It may seem incredible to God’s people, but this is God’s plan.

Indeed, Yahweh, speaking through Isaiah, informs them that Assyria is the “rod of my anger” (v. 5). So God clearly sees this wicked nation as simply his means of punishing his own people. But things do not end there. This passage is also Yahweh’s indictment on Assyria.

God in fact is going to punish Assyria for its own wickedness. How can this be? How can God use the pagan nation to carry out his divine purposes, and then turn around and punish it? The truth is, Assyria was not aware that it was God’s instrument, and it is still held accountable for the evil it has perpetrated.

In vv. 7-11, 15 we clearly learn that God is holding proud Assyria accountable for what it has done. It may have been God’s instrument, but it nonetheless is morally responsible for what it has done. As D.A. Carson says of this portion of Scripture, it “throbs with tension”.

Says Carson, “On the one hand, Yahweh’s sovereignty over the nations is highlighted in the most absolute terms. . . . On the other hand, Calvin’s warning is well-advised: ‘We must not suppose that there is a violent compulsion as if God dragged them against their will’.”

Alec Motyer comments, “How can a tool be an agent? At this point we come face to face with the biblical paradox: the Lord is sovereign, but his instruments are morally responsible agents. Isaiah goes out of his way to show us a real human agent at work.”

Or as John Oswalt remarks, “Yes, Assyria may come with all her engines of war, but she comes at God’s command, and unless she bows to the same morally consistent law which is incumbent upon all God’s creatures (9:7), she will disappear at the same command (10:5-35).”

And again, “God is at work in his world, even when persons in whom he is at work do not know him. There is no sin in ignorance, but the sin comes in when those persons take the praise for their abilities and accomplishments to themselves when in their deepest heart they know that praise is due Someone else (Rom. 1:19-21).”

Which brings us back to Australia in late June, 2010.  There has been plenty of ugly political manoeuvring, blood-letting and back-stabbing. Moral and political treachery has occurred aplenty during the past week. Power trips, ego-trips and shameless hypocrisy and duplicity have all been in evidence.

And all of this arrogant evil has not gone unnoticed by the Lord of all creation. He is fully aware of all that has taken place. And yet these matters have not taken God by surprise. He is still on the throne, and he is still at work in the world.

Oswalt spoke about “those persons take the praise for their abilities and accomplishments to themselves when in their deepest heart they know that praise is due Someone else” back in Isaiah’s day. The same is completely true today. Ms Gillard, Mr Swan, and all the other plotters may be quite proud of what they have achieved, and may feel quite smug about the outcome of their political shenanigans.

But they will fully give account for their actions, if not in the very near future, then certainly come judgment day. So while our hearts may ache over all the arrogance and vainglorious power plays, it is not something which will escape the divine scales of justice.

As in all such matters, we must trust that God is in control, while also doing all we can to ensure that justice, righteousness and truth are enshrined in our land. And as always, the responsibility chiefly falls upon God’s people. We must lead the way here. And we must do it God’s way.

No better divine exhortation can be offered here, than that of 2 Chron. 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

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9 Responses to God and the Nations

  • Bill such mysteries keep us humble. I’ve wondered in the light of the above scripture truths if God is using Islam to punish Britain for turning her back on Israel instead of holding to their responsibilities and resettling the Jews back into their homeland. Britain secretly sided with the Arabs to protect her oil interests. And again is He using Islam awaken His lukewarm Church in the West. Islam is becoming a real threat to our culture in the West both by supplanting and by military means if these rogue nations do infact get their hands on nukes.
    Keith Lewis

  • Thanks for posting that Bill. In the middle of this mess it was really encouraging to read.

    Felicity Rachael

  • Keith, while the OT Bible says that through Israel all nations will be blessed, and that those who bless Israel shall be blessed themselves how much of that relates to today is questionable. I think Britain’s demise to be a simpler equation of a nation turning it’s back on God. The US and Australia are suffering the same fate as they turn their back on God. Sin is it’s own reward – ultimately it leads to death. Now, that is a fact that we can count on, and another is that God has clearly stated that when people & nations turn to Him he is ready and willing to accept them, hear their cries and lift them up.
    Garth Penglase

  • Bill, I find it so refreshing that you are not driven to resolve the theological issues here.

    Tony Abbott referred to this same paradox in his ACL speech saying something like, “Work like it all depends on you and pray like it all depends on God”. Paul in Romans chpts 9 & 10 explains the same paradox that could be very loosely summarised thus, “pray like a Calvanist and preach like an Arminian” (Wesleyan).

    I have long held that both views are true, and have ceased from trying to reconcile them into one scheme. In fact I have found the attempts to reconcile them unsatisfactory. Each doctrine has a power and glory of its own that should not be reduced by any compromise. I am quite happy to not understand how it works. I know that is not very Greek or Western of me. The Eastern/Hebrew pattern of thinking was much more accepting of mystery unsolvable by human logic.

    Not only is it God who is bigger than us, but also His thoughts and ways. Many years ago, when I came to that conclusion I felt that that there was a new dimension of freedom in my faith. Mind you, I don’t want to use that as an excuse to be lazy in my thinking. Hope that helps someone.
    Bruce Knowling

  • Thanks Garth. What you say is true without conflicting with my comments above. I believe God’s hand of blessing has been on Britain for centuries as the gospel started to take hold. She spearheaded the industrial revolution as God’s blessing went to other nations when the missionaries spread the Word. On a number of occasions God has delivered Britain from her enemies. I believe it was only by God’s hand that she was pulled out of the jaws of defeat when threatened by the might of Nazi German. In the defeat of Nazis she helped to rescue the Jews also from their destruction. Although a tiny island we saw how she became a large empire up until the second world war. After the 2nd world war Britain, through the newly formed UN was charged with overseeing the settlement of the Jews into their old homeland of Israel. It was a pledge she signed and promised to undertake but a rather distasteful one to her Government. Sadly she failed to honour this pledge for whilst making it look like she was honouring this pledge she made secret deals with the Arab nations in order to secure their oil interests. Palestine was born out of this treachery.
    Since then we have seen the steady decline of the British Empire. Britain herself has been on a moral decline for decades and today we see her culture being slowly strangled by the culture of those Arab nations she preferred to associated back then. I believe God has taken His hand off her until she repents. I don’t pretend to know how God does this in light of Bill’s article here. God seems have taken His hand off the West as well who in a large part were born out of Britain. The West also has followed Britain down this moral decline and likewise are being threatened by the same culture which is contrary to the Christian freedoms we have enjoyed and yet very few seem to care. Take a look at the programme going into our schools called “Learning From One Another” which will introduce our children to the superior all peaceful religion of Islam. People I spoke to today can’t see anything wrong with it! Don’t get me wrong here. I believe this will serve to purify the Church in the Western countries and that has to be a good thing.
    Kind regards, Keith Lewis

  • I, like so many Christians have reflected much on Romans 13 – the governments ARE ordained by God. When I ponder this, the old adage about “people getting the government they deserve” always seems to come back to me. I think that the decline in the West is what we the people have brought upon ourselves, just as Britain was once Great. We do reap what we sow. And Bill is right, that civil disobedience has it’s roots in Scripture (Acts 4) at least when the religious leaders try to oppress us. Romans 8 tells me that those that are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons (and daughters) of God.
    Ian Brearley

  • I can see the hand of God in our politics. I think the Lord put K Rudd there amongst other things, to apologise to the Aboriginal people. J Howard wouldn’t – he feared a huge legal flood of claims and a divided nation – neither has happened. If you look at the 2 most advanced nations in the world in these matters (Canada and NZ), we can see how 2 possible models would work, which would rid our collective national soul of the nagging, weeping sores of indigenous disadvantage. And I happen to thank God for J Howard. I think he was one of the best PMs we have produced, and Peter Costello one of the best Treasurers. I think Father God waits for us to get fair dinkum and really face this issue once and for all, in love and reconciliation.
    Ian Brearley

  • Garth I did not respond to your first point above re Israel’s relevance in our NT era. If Israel in fact had no or little relevance today then this would compromise God’s honour. Throughout the Bible Israel has been the centrepiece of His plans. He chose this tiny nation of stiff necked people to show His love and integrity in keeping His own promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their offspring. God certainly has punished Israel severely for turning away from Him in the OT days of the Kings. But God would not be angry forever. There was a time set in God’s plans to end this punishment. According to some schools of prophesy 1947 marked the end of that period of punishment. God is now fulfilling His promise to restore her fortunes. It is hard to understand God’s ways as we look at a secular Israel today but she still has many who are anticipating the coming the King OT style. Many Jews are also receiving Christ. These are exciting times as we witness the blossoming of the fig tree Israel indicating to time of the soon coming King to earth to sit on a literal throne in Jerusalem. God deals with nations whilst building His spiritual Church, a job only He can do. Come to think of it though, individually we were all secular and dead in our sins before we received the Christ and God did not turn His back on us. These are exciting days Garth so keep Israel in your prayers.
    Keith Lewis

  • In 2010 I did a cursory study regarding God dealing judgement to modern nations in incriments of 70 years. I used God’s dealings with the nation Israel in the old testament as my model. I’m not a scholar but I think I found some interesting evidences.

    1. In 1791 Thomas Jefferson had the opportunity to begin publicly addressing the issue of slavery. He could have used his office and his influence to affect major change. He refused. 70 years later we had a “civil” war. We killed each other. 70 years after that we had the great depression, the wall Street crash, and the dust bowl. 70 years later we suffered the 9/11 attacks. Maybe this is all just coincidence but I don’t think so.
    2. In 1917 the Bolshivieks brought down the Czar and started communism. 70 years later the Berlin wall came down and the cold war ended.

    3. In 1941 Japan attacked many nations around the Pacific rim. They were brutal. They also attacked the US. 70 years later they were devastated by an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown, all in one day.

    4. In 1945 America dropped 2 nukes on Japan. I believe it was the quickest way to end the war. It probably saved over half a million American lives as well as millions of Japanese lives. 70 years later is next year; 2015.

    These are some of the most obvious examples. I wonder how many more I could find. A friend asked me about Hitler’s Germany. I suppose they got instant judgement since most of their country was destroyed and they became a ‘byword’ for the next generations.

    Do you have an opinion on this?

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