God’s Providence Among The NationsErwin W. Lutzer | June 1, 2003
Selected highlights from this sermon
Human leaders and demonic forces play a role in the history of nations, but ultimately, nations rise and fall at God’s will. Nebuchadnezzar faced this reality head on when God humiliated him and removed him from office for seven years.
While God’s providence may seem to deal us a poor hand, we can know that He loves us and has our best in mind.
When the Supreme Court of the United States decided to intervene in the logjam and chose George Bush as president rather than Al Gore, entailed in that decision was the demise of Saddam Hussein. Now no one knew it. The court didn’t know it. We didn’t know it. George Bush didn’t know it. God knew it. But there is a connectedness in history. History is actually going somewhere. In fact, sometimes some of the smallest events have spawned some of the most dangerous and huge global conflicts.
For example, World War I, it is generally believed, was actually begun because Ferdinand of Austria was visiting
Sarajevo. And there he and his wife were assassinated. What’s interesting is that as he was driving along in his car there were others who tried to assassinate him, and they either missed, or their bombs didn’t go off. And so the driver, in desperation, decided to go elsewhere, and as he turned down a side street there was another assassin there who accomplished the deed. And that was the key that started the engine. And in 1914 World War I began 30 days after that assassination.
So there’s a connectedness in history. We can’t predict what history is going to do because we know nothing. We know very little about all of the connections. But there is a cause effect relationship, and only God really knows.
Now when we think of history, there are three agencies that we have to consider, all impinging on what we read today in the headlines. First of all, there are the human leaders. Here we are talking about kings and presidents and those who would lead empires. We’re talking about George Bush and Saddam Hussein and Churchill and Hitler. These are the players that we know about. They are the ones who read the speeches. They are the ones who make the decisions for peace or for war. But I want you to know that behind those leaders there are also demonic forces.
In the tenth chapter of Daniel it is very clear that God just pulls back the curtain. Daniel is there praying and he’s saying, “Oh God, please help us.” And he fasts for three weeks. At the end of three weeks, Michael the archangel comes to Daniel, and says, “Daniel, I’ve been trying to get through to you ever since you began to pray, but the Prince of Persia withstood me.” In other words, as Michael was coming down as an angel, there were other forces, demonic forces, that were hindering him, that were really the forces assigned to Persia. And finally Michael got through. So back of the headlines, back of what we read every day in our newspapers, there are all of these forces – human beings and demonic forces as well.
But the third agency, and that which is most important, is God Himself because today we’re going to speak about the providence of God in nations. And what we will discover is that God is moving the nations along. That word providence means that God determines to move all things to an appointed end, and today we’re going to see this in Scripture.
To speak of the providence of God among the nations I could speak literally from hundreds of different passages in the Bible because it’s everywhere. Open your Bible and you are probably on a verse that talks about God’s sovereignty and providence in the nations. For example, Jesus made the statement in the New Testament. He said that the armies of Titus were God’s armies. Do you remember that parable in which Jesus said, “The Lord sent forth His armies to destroy the city”? Wow! The armies are God’s! Even wicked armies are God’s armies.
So what I’d like to do is to give you three assertions today, and I want you to take your Bibles and turn with me to the book of Daniel. This is the only book of the Bible that you’ll have to turn to. As you follow along this is Daniel chapter 4. We’re going to begin there, and then we’ll also be looking briefly at chapter 5.
Now keep in mind that Daniel had a vision here in this fourth chapter, and the vision is that King Nebuchadnezzar in all of his pride is going to be humbled. And God is going to do the humbling. It says in verse 16 (God is speaking), “Let his mind be changed from a man's, and let a beast's mind be given to him; and let seven periods of time pass over him.” For seven years Nebuchadnezzar is going to live like an animal. The word that we use today for this is Zoanthropy. It still happens today, by the way. It is a mental condition of insanity where people actually begin to think they are animals and live like them. But the reason for this is given in verse 17 of chapter 4. “The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end (now notice) that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest (or some translations say the lowest) of men.”
Wow! Notice that God gives the kingdom to whomever He wishes. It is God who rules. You say, “Well, did God give Hitler the kingdom of Germany for those 12 ½ years?” The answer is, “Yes, of course God gave the kingdom to Hitler for those 12½ years.” He also gave the kingdom to Nehru.
And he gave the kingdom to the actual ancient Chaldeans, who incidentally were Babylonians. In chapter 1 of the book of Habakkuk, Habakkuk is crying up to God and saying, “Things are so bad; why don’t you do something in Israel?” And God is saying, “I am doing something.” He says, “I am raising up the Babylonians (Chaldeans), that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth.” Doesn’t that take your breath away just to read it? God says, “I will raise them up.”
You say, “Well wait a moment now. I can’t handle this. You’re saying that they ruled according to the will of God.” Well, there are two understandings of the will of God in Scripture. The first is God’s revealed will – what He tells us to do. God is a God of justice and compassion and righteousness. They didn’t live or rule according to that will, to be sure. They opposed justice and righteousness and fairness and everything that God stands for. But they ruled according to God’s secret hidden will. The Bible says that God is the one who rules all things after the counsel of His own will. And in that sense God’s providence literally encompasses everything. They were part of the total scheme.
Well let me clarify very briefly. First of all, obviously God does not do evil. Wicked men and Satan do evil. So we’re not saying that God does evil. We are saying that God uses evil. We are saying that God allows evil. Obviously He could have chosen to not allow these evil rulers to exist and to live so that what we need to do is to understand (and this is a mystery that we cannot unravel; we simply have to rejoice in it despite the fact that it blows our minds) that you have three streams that flow into history. You have the human rulers, you have the work of Satan and you have the providence of God. And those three streams together are the river of God’s providence.
When Luther said that even the devil is God’s devil, he was right. And we can say that even Saddam Hussein is God’s Saddam Hussein, evil though he was, and inspired obviously by wicked and evil spirits. At the end of the day, it is God who rules. I can’t put it together that men do whatever they want to do. They are evil men because they want to be evil men, and they will be judged as evil men. In very specific and particular ways they will be judged, but in doing what they want to do, they are still accomplishing a higher purpose. God rules among the children of men, and no empire can arise without God’s help and without His aid, and without His providence.
Did you know that that was always believed here in America? Benjamin Franklin was not a Christian. As a matter of fact, before he died he said, “You know, my friend, Whitfield (You know he was good friends with George Whitfield, the great preacher.) wished for my conversion to Christ. But,” he said, “that has not happened.” And then shortly before he died, Franklin said, “Why should I believe on Jesus now? Soon I shall know whether or not it is so.” What an awful way to die, but Ben Franklin, along with all of the others of his time, were deep believers in Providence. You see, they believed in God but they did not believe in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
But it was Ben Franklin, who said, speaking about the contest with Britain, “When we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor. And had we not forgotten this powerful friend, or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can arise without His aid? And the answer is obviously it cannot.”
Do you know that in American history during this period of time, when they used the word providence, they capitalized it because really it was a synonym for God? People understood providence, that God directs the affairs of men. And the first assertion today is that no empire can arise, no king can come to power, no president can be installed apart from God allowing it, apart from God standing back of it, and God ultimately ruling in the affairs of men. I hope that you can rejoice in that because it has tremendous impact as to how you live your life.
You know, I remember the days when President Clinton was elected, and there were some people who were not in favor of him being president. And they went to the polls and they voted for someone else. But I remember a Christian leader saying, “God had nothing to do with President Clinton going into office. It was the American people that voted him in.” Yes, of course it was the American people who voted him in, but I want you to know today that no one can arise apart from God’s will. Just accept that. Do I have a witness, by the way?
Second, nations decline according to God’s will. The Bible says in the book of Job, “He makes nations great and destroys them. He enlarges nations, and disperses them.” As you know, this is a second message in a series entitled God and the Nations or The God of the Nations, and last time we talked about the origin of the nations and we saw that according to the book of Acts it is God who determines the time and the place and the duration of nations. That’s what Paul says. Today we shall see the demise of a nation according to the will of God.
You know, of course, that I should point out that Daniel mentions Nebuchadnezzar, and I failed to tell you how Daniel’s prophecy came to pass. You can read it for yourself. Nebuchadnezzar, you remember, did turn out for seven years living like an animal. As a matter of fact, it says that at the end of the time in chapter 4, verse 34: “I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored.” Did you know that if you think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, you are insane? It was Nebuchadnezzar who walked in his palace (in verse 30) and said, “Is this not the great Babylon that I have built as the royal residence of my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” And the Bible says that the words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven and said, “Nebuchadnezzar, you are going to be with the animals for seven years until you learn some humility.”
But I want you to know how well he learned it. Just listen to this. He says in verse 34, “At the end of the time my sanity was restored and I praised the most high. I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion. His kingdom endures from generation to generation. All of the people of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as He pleases with the powers of heaven, and the peoples of the earth, and no one can hold back his hand, or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” And in verse 36 it says, “At that time my sanity was restored.”
You know, when you go into a mental institution, what you find is people who oftentimes have gone through so much anguish that the only way that they cope with it is to think that they are someone who they aren’t. I have met people who have said they are Jesus Christ. There are people who think that they are great, and that’s insanity. And so what God did was He humbled this king. Do think that King Nebuchadnezzar is going to be in heaven? I think so. It says in verse 31, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of Heaven because every thing He does is right, and all His ways are just, and those who walk in pride He is able to humble.” That sounds like a converted man. Imagine being able to see Nebuchadnezzar some day in heaven, and say, “Wow! You built Babylon!”
Do you know that my eyes have seen the Ishtar Gate where Nebuchadnezzar lived? In the 1920s German archeologists went to various sites and did archeological work, and I don’t know whether they had permission or not (You’ll have to ask them), but they took many things from the ancient world and brought them to Berlin. For example, the Pergamum Museum has the Pergamum Altar, but it also has the Ishtar Gate. They took it apart brick by brick and shipped it to Germany, built a museum where you can see it today, and rebuilt it there so that you can walk along where Nebuchadnezzar walked and see what he saw – at least part of what he saw in his prideful days. But God humbled him.
Well, as I was mentioning, second, nations decline according to God’s will. In Daniel 5 you have his son falling into the sin of his father. His son did not learn from his father’s mistakes. I wonder if that’s ever happened before in history. Is this the first time? Is it the last time that a son has not learned from his father’s mistake? His name is Belshazzar. Belshazzar is calling a huge feast, and he’s asking for the vessels of the Temple of Jerusalem, which were brought to Babylon by his father, Nebuchadnezzar. And the reason he wants those vessels is to desecrate them, and show that he does not believe in the Lord God, Jehovah.
So there’s a huge feast going on, but it says in verse 5 of chapter 5, “Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall near the lamp stand in the Royal Palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.” And then he said, “Call someone.” And he called his advisors and his astrologers, and he said, “Interpret the words,” but they couldn’t.
So the queen (his wife) said, “I have an idea.” And she had a good idea. Blessed is the husband who listens carefully to the advice of his wife. Do I have a witness? I think I have a witness. Yes! She said, “Get Daniel.” So Daniel interprets the words and they are there in verses 25 and 26. “Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” These are Aramaic words. They are sometimes spelled differently depending on the form, but Mene means a weight of about 50 shekels. Tekel means a shekel. Parsin is a half mene and means to divide. God says, “Tonight for you, it’s all over.”
Now you have to get the picture. He’s sitting in Babylon, very confident that there’s no way that he can be taken. Do you know that the mighty Euphrates River flowed right under the city wall? Remember now, Babylon is about 50 miles south of present day Baghdad, and you remember King Hussein wanted to rebuild it, and he was rebuilding it. In fact, on the coins I understand that his picture was on one side and Nebuchadnezzar on the other. He wanted to be the next Nebuchadnezzar, but George Bush and God saw to it that that would not happen.
But nonetheless what we find is that they had lots of water. The river was there. They had 20 years worth of food. There was no way that they could be taken. Do you know what the armies of Cyrus did? They actually diverted some of the water of the Euphrates River into a lake. And the people in Babylon didn’t know that it was happening, and when the river was lower, soldiers were able to get under the walls into the city. And they surprised the guards and they overtook the kingdom. And the Bible says that that very night Belshazzar was slain, and what happened was his kingdom was divided between the Medes and the Persians. In verse 30 we find that Darius, the Mede, took over the kingdom at the age of 62, but also in addition to that, Cyrus of Persia ruled, and his kingdom was split. Why? God said, “Enough is enough.” God numbered the days of the kingdom and it was over. And when God says it is enough, nothing else can cause that kingdom to exist for even so much as a single day.
There’s a third affirmation and that is that nations are worthy of our allegiance. Now for those of you who still struggle with the concept of whether or not God is actually ruling even in the midst of difficult rulers, in the 13th chapter of Romans Paul says everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. And remember that Paul wrote this when Nero was ruling, and he was not a big fan of Christians.
Now you say, “Well, does that mean that we always obey the government?” No, if that’s what Paul meant, then Paul would be putting government in the place of God. But what it does mean is that we have to respect the government. We have to obey the government in every possible way we can unless it is a matter of conscience, and then we draw the line and we say no.
The Apostle Paul says that we should pay taxes, that we should pay respect, that we should pay revenue. He says, “Give it to whom it is due.” We have an obligation of citizenship, which we will not talk about today, but that would be a good message for some future time.
How do we bring all of this together to make sure that our lives are changed because of what we are learning? Let me give you some conclusions. First of all, nations always move toward a purposeful end. Even when there is terrorism, we have to put that within providence, and we’ll speak about that when we talk about God and the United States. There is always a purpose. Now that purpose may be hidden from us. When you read the headlines of the Tribune I want you to know that behind every single headline is a purpose of God. If it were not so God would not be God. You say, “Well, how can that be because there is murder and there’s abuse?” Yes, even that, as we shall see in the next message, when we talk about the judgment of God, frequently is allowed to enhance God’s eternal judgment. And we’ll speak about that in the next message. But I want you to know that even though we don’t see God’s purposes, those purposes are there, and God is connecting events together.
Come with me to the first century, and there is a pregnant woman in Nazareth who has to get to Bethlehem because the prophet said the Redeemer would be born in Bethlehem. And so over in Rome you have Caesar Augustus who is sitting on this throne and thinking, “You know, it’s time that we had another tax, and in order for that tax to take place what we need to do is to get a good register of who we are talking about, so everyone must go back to their ancient roots.” And so Caesar is sitting there in Rome because Caesar is making that decision, and he has to cooperate with Jesus. And Rome has to cooperate with Bethlehem. Why? It’s because God said a Redeemer is going to come from Bethlehem. So Bethlehem it must be. And so Mary ends up in Bethlehem.
Now can’t you imagine the people in that day receiving word that taxes are going to be increased? Do you think they read their newspapers, so to speak, and said to themselves, “Boy, taxes are going up; this is really a God thing, isn’t it?” That’s not what they were saying. They were saying, “Oh, taxes!” Murmuring! Remember, as Malcolm Muggeridge said, “News is just the same old thing happening to different people.” So what you have is people complaining and saying, “Yeah – higher taxes! Look at how wrong it is.” They had no idea that God was doing something.
Just in the very same way you and I read the headlines, but behind those headlines is the purpose of God. History is going somewhere. It’s not true, like Henry Ford said, that history is just simply one thing after another. He added an adjective, which I conveniently left out.
So first of all, nations move toward a purposeful end. Second, our individual lives move toward a purposeful end. I can imagine there’s someone here saying, “Yeah, well God is interested in the affairs of the nations. He’s interested in the G Summit. He’s interested in the Palestinian Israeli conflict. He’s interested in the rise of empires and the demise of empires. But is God interested in the fact that I lost my job last week? Is He interested in the little things?”
So at this point you and I are just together enjoying a cup of Assyrian tea and talking. My dear friend, don’t you realize that everything is a little thing to God? The nations are a drop in the bucket. Do you really think it is more difficult for God to make you successful in business (or less difficult) than it is to have some person ascend as the president of the United States, or the ruler of Europe or whatever? Do you really think that one is more difficult than the other? For God, the word difficulty is not in his vocabulary. And that’s why he can see a sparrow fall to the ground. And that’s why he knows the number of hairs on our head, even though some of us lose a few rather regularly. Can’t you just imagine it? You wash your hair and God’s computer just goes blank for a second, and there’s a new total up there (laughter), a brand new total.
I want you to know today – those of you who are dealing with health issues – God is not saying, “Well, what do I do now? This cancer is just so difficult.” No, God is using it. It’s His purpose. Accept it as His plan. Yes, pray that you might be healed, but recognize that God may have even a higher purpose for you than healing, as a friend of mine who is dying of cancer has told me, because God moves in the affairs of men. And He has particular interest in the lives of His people. And you who are in despair and discouragement, who knows but that like Abraham, God might have for you a ram in the bush? God might have something waiting for you just around the corner that you cannot see. Please don’t accept the harshness of life and its providential mysteries as a lack of God’s love and concern for you. I can assure you God is very interested in the particulars, in the details, in the (quote) small things, all of which are small to Him. Small but important!
Third, it’s not necessary to know the “why” if we trust the “Who.” At the end of the day, we live, as you’ve heard me say, not by explanations, but by promises. Do you remember the story of Joseph? He was, of course, sold into Egypt, and his brothers didn’t know that he was still alive, and then they needed food and they went there. And they were in Joseph’s presence and didn’t know it. And Joseph really gave his brothers a hard time. I mean, he locked one of them up, and then sent them back. And he wanted to see what was in their hearts. And he dealt with them very sternly and harshly, the Bible says. But then, as he was dealing with them, the Scripture also says that he was so overcome by emotion that he left the room and he went into a private room and wept. On the one hand what they saw was his harshness, but if only they could have seen his heart, they’d have seen love, because after all he was one of them. They were brothers.
I speak to those of you today who have had a hard time accepting the bitter injustices of life. You’ve had difficulty with providence because it seems as if God has led you in one direction and the door has been closed. And another door has been closed, and some of your dreams lie on the floor. I speak to you today from my heart to yours and say that behind the harsh face of God’s providence is a loving, caring (catch this now) purposeful heart, who is taking you along in life. And the things that happened to you that you thought were so evil are actually things for your good because God’s agenda is different than our own.
I’ve introduced you to William Cowper on many occasions, quoting his hymns and quoting his poetry. You remember he said, “God works in a mysterious way.” Now remember he’s a man who tried to commit suicide four times because of his depression. But he said:
God works in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform.
He plants His feet upon the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
But then he added:
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.
Are you willing to bow to that providence today, to give up anger and bitterness and discouragement and hopelessness, and say, “Father, today, I give it up in Your presence because behind the frowns of providence, there is a God who loves, a God who cares, and (remember now) someone who is now my brother.” Would you believe God that way? And if you will, let us pray.
Our Father, today we want to thank You for the fact that You do rule among the affairs of men. We thank You today, Father, that everything ultimately is indeed in Your loving hand. Grant, oh God, today that we might have the faith to trust You, the faith to say, “Yes, we are in Your hands, and we are in Your hands for our good.”
We pray today, Father, for those who struggle, those who fight against circumstances, who want to control but You will not let them control. I pray today, Father, that they may say, “I am content to be in Your hand.”
Whatever it is that you need to say to God in this moment, would you say it to Him?
And now, Father, we ask in Jesus’ name that You will give to us the grace and the strength to submit to Your Lordship. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.