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.”