“This article was first published by the Gospel-Centered Discipleship ministry.”
By one account, there were twenty nations already at war before Russia made it twenty-two. This latest aggression has produced daily heart-numbing scenes of death and devastation, leaving us in speechless grief over man’s brutality to man.
Yet I marvel over Russian citizens emboldened to take to the streets in protest against their leaders, fully aware that there likely will be a high retaliatory price to pay. And I’m amazed at the video of a steel-spined Ukrainian family singing the Ada Habershon and Keith and Kristyn Getty hymn “He Will Hold Me Fast”—all the while in the crosshairs of super-power aggression.
A PROPHECY FOR THEN AND NOW AND ALWAYS
Isaiah 40 was written for ancient Israel and for every believer ever since who has ever been threatened by evil powers. Originally proclaimed to God’s people when violently displaced by a wicked nation (Isa. 39:5–6), Isaiah 40 comforts us (Isa. 40:1–2) by reminding us that God dwarfs the nations in at least four ways.
First, the nations matter nothing to God’s existence. Every nation—whether of the geopolitical sort or of the ethnic and tribal variety—is an inconsequential drop that dribbles from the rim of a ten-gallon bucket (Isa. 40:15). The spillage is so trivial that it isn’t even noticed. In other words, to note the prophet’s changing metaphor, God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth while all the nations on every continent crawl about the planet like the grasshoppers they are (Isa. 40:22).
Please do not misunderstand: to say that the nations do not matter to God’s existence does not imply that they do not matter to God’s heart. God cares deeply about and yearns for the nations (see Isa. 2:2–4; 19:19–25; 49:5–7; 52:10; 60:1–3; 66:18–23). In truth, he will one day ensure that people from every nation will join him in his eternal home (Rev. 5:9–10; 7:9; 21:22–26). He so loves the world that he gave his only begotten Son for its salvation (John 3:16).
Since he is awesome in his love, the nations matter to the heart of God. But they do not matter to his existence. He is and was and always will be—whether they ever exist or not. And he will exist long after they have perished and vanished from the earth. This is a distinction that needs to be made as we face angry and arrogantly evil nations in our world today. God loves the nations, and we are to love the nations like God does. But because they are mere drops from a bucket, we need not ever fear them.
Second, the nations are less than nothing compared to God’s existence. Through the prophet, God mocks the nations, saying, that they “are as nothing before him [and] are accounted as less than nothing and emptiness” (Isa. 40:17). This is open divine scorn, for nothing means no thing—which is bad. But while being nothing is bad, being less than nothing is worse. If something is less than nothing, then it’s not really something or anything at all. It’s sub-nothing, which is as bad as it gets.
That’s what nations are. When placed on a balance, their side of the scale goes up—even if the other side is empty. Compared to the weightiness of the Lord God Almighty, nations are lighter than a breath (Ps. 62:9). No wonder the Almighty laughs in holy derision when the nations fuss and fume (Ps. 2:1–4).
Third, the nations contribute nothing to God’s existence. We humans like to think that we matter and have something indispensable to offer. Nations—including the United States and all her allies and enemies—have massive collective egos; considering themselves essential, the last best hope for mankind, God’s best answer to all that’s wrong in the world.
But “Lebanon [i.e., the famous cedars of Lebanon] would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering” (Isa. 40:16). This means that Lebanon had nothing that God needed (see Ps. 50:7–11), and that her nation’s best was not enough. God doesn’t create nations because he needs them or cannot do without them. Nations are dispensable and disposable.
Dependence moves one way from earth to heaven. “The God who made the world . . . [is not] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:24–26).
All this is more than a little humbling for all nations. God doesn’t depend on any nation in any way. When they all crash and burn, God’s world will proceed just fine without them. Let all those of us who boast of national greatness or dread international attack take a long, deep, humbled breath. We’ve got nothing of which to be afraid, and even less of which to boast.
Finally, the nations are nothing without God’s existence. Ultimately, campaigns don’t produce candidates. Votes don’t decide presidents. Politicking doesn’t win elections. Coups don’t transfer power. Overthrows don’t topple dictators. Might doesn’t take thrones. Invasions do not expand territory.
It is God who plants rulers on thrones and then uproots them at will (Isa. 40:22–24). He sets them in place and then blows them down. God was no less in charge when Donald Trump became President than when we elected Joe Biden. Nations—and those who rule them—do not exist apart from God’s will and cannot rule without his permission. They govern if and as long as he chooses. And when in power, they do only what God permits and determines that they do.
I do not know God’s purposes behind the rulers he appoints. I’ve made it my life-long rule not to delve into matters too deep for me (Ps. 131:1–3). And since national and international intrigue, together with the spiritual powers operating behind it all, are a million fathoms over my head, I do not bother to speculate. But this I do know: rulers are not chosen by vote or might or coup or invading armies; they are chosen by God for secret reasons which he alone knows (Deut. 29:29). And they are discarded by God when his purposes for them are complete.
WHOM, THEN, SHALL WE FEAR?
In light of all this, why do we fear so much? I ask the question, not because I am fearless, but because my fears need an answer, and this is it. Here is comfort for all God’s people in a violent and war-ravaged world. God rules the nations. He was sovereign when slave-holding rulers dehumanized their fellow man, when Hitler raped Europe, when Stalin brutalized Russia, when jihadists attacked the Trade Center, and when Vladimir Putin murders Ukrainians.
Faith needs all of this when belligerent nations roll in on T-72 tanks, when missiles are raining down, and when Satan’s sin-and-shame-poisoned darts aim to seek and destroy (Eph. 6:16). When we are faint, weary, and exhausted by the roaring evil of the nations, we need to know that God is a God worth waiting for and relying upon. He will give us strength to walk, grace to run, and wings to soar (Isa. 40:28–31).
This might sound like tone-deaf theological cliché were it not for the testimony of countless martyrs, the endurance of the long-enslaved, the courage of Russian protestors, and the seemingly indomitable faith of Ukrainian believers. God is God over all nations, cities, and towns—and all these have known it—and then lived and sometimes died in the good of it.
And we need to know it, too. God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth (Isa. 40:22). And he will hold his people fast even as all the nations continue to rage, just as he has for all the millennia gone by.