The Sovereignty of God Over the Nations

You may not be aware that Memorial Day, celebrated on the last Monday in May, was formerly called “Decoration Day.” The day was originally established to Honor United States soldiers and sailors who have died in wars. The custom began soon after the Civil War. In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, named May 30 for decorating the graves of Union soldiers.

This past week, I officiated the funeral service of an 89-year-old man who was a long time attendee of the church which I pastor. Because this man was a veteran who fought in the Army Air Corps during WWII, he was given full military honors at the gravesite service. At the conclusion of the interment, two soldiers, fully dressed out in Class A Uniforms, stood at the head and foot of the casket. As a part of the protocol for full military honors, the two soldiers initiated a series of very precise synchronized movements which demonstrated the respect and esteem that all the witnesses surrounding that casket should have felt for this man who had put his own life at peril in military service some sixty years before. As the two soldiers began this ceremonial rite of honor, they first lifted the flag that was draped over the casket and very carefully, deliberately and with much dignity folded the flag. After folding the flag, both of them paused to stare at the flag and then saluted it with a slow motion cadence as the other soldier held it. After placing it in the hands of the widowed wife and offering some words of condolence and gratefulness, the quiet silence was interrupted by the sound of a trumpet playing a final taps.

A Biblical Premise
As I stood there gazing at old glory, the revered symbol of all the ideals of American religious freedom as they have been unfolded in our nearly 228 years of history, and as I reflected on the hundreds of flags which we have recently witnessed decorate the coffins of young men who have died in Military service in Iraq, I was reminded of something I had read the week before in the book of Job. The passage, found in Job 12:23-25, gives expression to God’s omnipotent power as it is wielded in His sovereign control over Nations.

“He makes the nations great, then destroys them; He enlarges the nations, then leads them away. He deprives of intelligence the chiefs of the earth’s people, and makes them wander in a pathless waste. They grope in darkness with no light, And he makes them stagger like a drunken man.”

You can immediately see that the latter part of these verses suggest that the loss of leadership, the loss of good sense, and the loss of direction takes place when a nation has lost the blessing of God. He deprives of intelligence. . . makes them wander . . . They grope in darkness . . . stagger like a drunken man.

It is to the first part of this verse that we take special note. First, because it makes a very telling statement about the establishment, the prosperity, and the development of entire nations. And Secondly, because it makes a very telling statement about the decline and destruction of entire nations.

These two points are so emphatic in the mind of God, that the Bible, in a style unique to Hebrew poetry, words it in such a way that the second line of this verse actually parallels and repeats the same truth stated in the first line. “He makes the nations great, then destroys them; (now note the repetition and parallelism) He enlarges the nations, then leads them away.

This repetition is God’s inspired way of emphasizing a truth that we really tend to de-emphasize. That truth, which we really need to reckon with, is that the fate of every nation, and the fate of our own beloved nation, is entirely in the hands of God. We have a hard time fully accepting this because in the natural course of national events, the Lord is pleased to hide and conceal his direct control and intervention in human affairs behind the cloak of his invisibility. But to Christians, who have been given the spectacles of faith, every major event which has a bearing on the security, well being, and overall blessing of a nation, is set into motion directly by the Lord of the nations.

An Historic Picture
Think about certain nations that have been caught up in the events of past history, and, at the time the events were unfolding, thought that they were controlled by nothing more than natural causes. Do you suppose that the ancient 8th Century BC King of Assyria, Sennacherib, dictator of the world’s greatest power, had any idea that the sovereign Lord was in total control when he mounted two unsuccessful invasions of insignificant Judah? This is the same Assyria, under the reign of Shalmaneazer, that had previously invaded and conquered the larger part of Israel (the ten northern tribes) and afflicted them with the most brutal forms of torture and cruelty. From a human standpoint, the weak little southern tribes of Judah were no match for the terrific might of the awful Assyrian army. It would be like Venezuela trying to defend itself against the Red Army of China. Yet as soon as the Assyrian forces were poised to destroy Judah they were diverted by a little skirmish with Libnah back in Assyria. And though totally unknown to the Assyrian commander, this happened because of the sovereign control of God over the nations. For right at the pivotal moment when Assyria stood to crush Judah to powder, II Kings 19:7 lifts the veil and allows us to see the real force that was ruling those nations: I will put a spirit in him so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own country . . . I will put my hook in your nose, and my bridle in your lips, and I will turn you back by the way which you came (II Kings 19:28). The little battle back in Assyria, that seemed just a natural obstacle which prevented the destruction of Judah, wasn’t just happenstance and coincidence. It was the sovereign Lord ruling in the affairs of nations.

Yet this isn’t all that is told us about the Lord’s sovereign rule over Assyria and Judah. For just a few years after the attempted invasion of Judah, this same great nation, Assyria, and its capital, the great city Nineveh, would fall to the Babylonian Empire in the summer months 612 BC. Judah, on the other hand, who by God’s sovereignty had avoided defeat by Sennacherib, would fall to Babylonian captivity in three successive waves of deportation in 605, 597, and 586 BC. Then, even the great Babylon, as predicted by the prophet Isaiah, would fall to the Persians in 539 BC. And the Persians to the Greek empire and the Greek empire to the Roman Empire.

All of these examples, and even modern examples illustrate the truthfulness of this verse: the Lord “makes the nations great, then destroys them; He enlarges the nations, then leads them away” If you think about it, this verse really captures the two extremes experienced in the history of any nation that rises to power and prominence. They struggle for independence and national sovereignty, oftentimes with very humble beginnings and then develop into something of great might and stature. But as the cycles of history have taught us, all great nations, which are made great and enlarged are eventually destroyed and led away.

And though this “rags to riches” and then “monument to rubble” syndrome seems to be the inevitable outcome of all nations which exist in a fallen and corrupt sinful world, it is not because something in the nature of God’s sovereign rule demands it, but because the spiritual, moral, and social degradation to which nations stoop require it.

An Urgent Question
So, with these thoughts in mind, we Christians need to raise a very important question. Is there some law or governing principle in the sovereign rule of God over the nations that determines their tranquility and blessing? Is there something that dictates whether God moves to bless a nation or whether he acts to destroy it?

To answer this question, please consider the sermon that was preached by Samuel McClintock before the New Hampshire (NH) Legislature in 1784. Samuel McClintock was a graduate of New Jersey College and he served the Greenland New Hampshire Congregational Church for almost fifty years. He was a Chaplain in the French and Indian War for the New Hampshire Regiment during the Revolutionary War. The sermon was preached before the NH House of Representatives on the commencement of their adoption of the NH Constitution. The text he selected for that occasion was Jeremiah 18:7-10.

“At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring upon it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in my sight by not obeying my voice, then I will think better of the good with which I promised to bless it”

Again, noting McClintock’s comments, what is there in the sovereign reign of God over the nations that determines whether he “pulls down to destroy” or whether he “builds up and plants”? McClintock makes some astute observations which answer the begging question.

“Two things are principally taught in this text: First, that God exercises a sovereign dominion over the nations and kingdoms of this world, and determines their rise, growth, declension and duration. Second, that His sovereign power is invariably directed by perfect and infinite rectitude (moral uprightness). In plucking up and destroying, and in building and planting them, he treats them according to their moral character”

Can you imagine our own Senate, House of Representatives, our President being admonished in such a fashion? When we say that the destiny of nations, and the destiny of our own beloved nation, is entirely in the hands of God, we are admitting to the sovereign rule of God over the nations. But by God’s sovereign rule, we understand and we mean to imply that the destiny and blessing of any nation is in direct proportion to their willingness to obey the spiritual, moral, and civil laws dictated and put in force by His sovereign will. Indeed the Lord does treat nations according to their own moral character. “Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).

The Divine Standard
God’s sovereign rule is after the likeness of His own Righteous character. Therefore, it should be no surprise to us that he blesses righteousness and he makes a sinful people full of reproach. The fact that God’s sovereign rule over nations is regulated and governed largely by the purity of the general populace, ought to be of great concern to Christian’s who are citizens of the United States. It goes without saying then, and I certainly have no desire to be a prophet of doom and gloom, that the descent of our nation into the abyss of moral, spiritual, social, and religious degradation of the most unthinkable sort suggests that God, in accordance with the fundamental laws by which he rules over nations is destroying and leading away the United States. That we have been deprived of intelligence (though it is admitted that the present administration does furnish some reason for optimism). That we wander in pathless wastes. That we grope in darkness with no light. That we stagger as a nation like a drunken man.

Several years ago a well-known fundamentalist preacher in America made the observation that you can read the spiritual temperature of a nation by the moral condition of its women. I’m afraid that particular indicator does not look good for America. Alan Cairns, in his book on the Ten Commandments, Chariots of God, makes the following observation:

“A generation ago most people in Europe and America made judgments on the basis of a general acceptance of the Ten Commandments, but not any more. Today the usual framework for making such decisions is thoroughly secular and humanistic. Rebelling against the moral absolutes of God’s law, Western civilization is adrift on a sea of relativism and is reliving the disastrous experience of Israel in the days of the Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in is own eyes” (Judges 21:25).”

The Christian Responsibility
Now while the fundamental laws by which God’s sovereignty determines the state of nation ought to strike a note of concern in our hearts, there is hope for our nation. Numerous civil and spiritual responsibilities the Christian has in regard to the nation could be enumerated as the keys that might insure a restoration of God’s blessing. We can argue about a “social” or “cultural” mandate and the need for Christians to be “salt” and “light” in every sphere of society. Yet it seems to this preacher that a number of fundamental biblical motifs hold the answer for Americans who long for a land blessed of God. Three may be noted as being especially important:

1. Christ Is The Only Hope For Our Nation. For it is “in thee that all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”

2. The Exercise of Christ’s Sovereign Rule and Lordship Over Nations Is Primarily Concerned With The Salvation of Individuals Who Make Up Nations.

This sovereign rule of Christ commands us to enlarge and advance His Kingdom as His primary concern by preaching the Gospel to lost sinners. He affirms his sovereignty over nations by confessing that “all authority is given to me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18-20). Therefore His sovereign Lordship assumes that we are going to win converts at His command and behest. That after we have won them that we identify them with His body through the waters of believer’s baptism. And finally, that we “teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded thee”. Furthermore, it should be noted, in a message meant to measure the fundamental laws of God’s sovereignty which determine the degree of national blessedness, that the numerous popular, well known, and much followed conservative neo-evangelical preachers must bare their share of guilt in the prevention of God’s sovereign blessing over our nation. For they simply refuse to teach “ALL THINGS whatsoever I have commanded thee.” The limited message espoused by many of God’s choice spokesman sadly flies in the face of the sovereignty of God over all nations which is implicit in the specific mandate given to the church in the great commission.

3. Finally, Christian Growth In True Holiness Is The Surest Way To Positively Affect Your Nation.

The best way to make this point and to conclude this patriotic message highlighting the Sovereignty of God over the Nations is to let the Word of the Lord make the point with the power of a relevant inspired text.

“Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the son’s of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse NATION, AMONG WHOM YE SHINE AS LIGHTS IN THE WORLD; Holding forth the word of life” (Philippians 2:14-16).

July 2004

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