A month ago some news sources offered passing comments about a June, 1914, assassination in Sarajevo—a century ago—that launched the wars of the twentieth century.
The first stage of warfare was called the Great War because of its breadth and ferocity. Some—the optimists of the day—called it the War to end all wars. Instead it was just a first round—World War I—to be followed by an even broader and more destructive round, World War II.
Then came a set of conflicts—smaller but still terrible wars—that filled the balance of the century. It’s said that more people were killed by war in the twentieth century than were killed, in total, by all the prior wars of human history.
A question we might ask, then, is “what’s next?” And, even more directly, could 2014 be a year that mirrors 1914 in a terrible irony of cyclic human behavior? It’s at least a possibility. The very dry economic and political tinder of the world today could be enflamed by any of the many lightening storms now brewing.
Some in Russian, for instance, seem hungry to reacquire the lands and powers lost in the collapse of the Soviet state that itself was formed out of the upheavals of the last century.
And the Chinese are claiming the South China Sea as their realm—with the oil sources they hope are there—even when those waters are much nearer to the Philippines and Vietnam than to China. The same sort of economic appetites led to the holding of Southeast Asian colonies by the West and the counter-colonial ambitions of Japan in the twentieth century.
And the growth of radical Islam has been stirred by Persian Gulf conflicts at the end of the last century. These Jihadists look to set up a broad and powerful Islamic state that recalls the great Islamic Ottoman Empire that was broken up by World War I.
At the same time Europe and the United States—the dominant powers of the last century—have been weakened and distracted by economic plights that make them less ready and effective in challenging the ambitious Russians, Chinese, and Jihadists.
I hear a question some might be thinking: why is a blogger who writes about Trinitarian spirituality now taking on global economics and politics?
Here’s why. Our spirituality only works if God is God overall—that he rules over the nations as much today as he did in the times of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. We are too near-sighted if we only think about God’s work in our hearts and in our near circumstances.
It comes from reading the Old Testament prophets just named, and the Bible as a whole. It comes from Jesus’ warning that the end of the age will be accompanied by wars and rumors of wars. He told his followers that lawlessness will increase and the love of many will grow cold (both in Matthew 24). Even if these warnings have other applications—opinions differ—at the very least Jesus is telling us to take world events seriously.
Isaiah and Daniel are especially intriguing. Daniel was warned of a sequence of kingdoms—each displacing the former. He started with the Babylonians, then the Medo-Persians, followed by the Greeks, and ending with a collection of rulers representing the Roman era. History followed Daniel’s predictions.
Isaiah is especially intriguing because he framed this sequence of nation-states rising and then collapsing within God’s overall providence. Let me say, in passing, that I see the entire book of Isaiah as the work of one author—its namesake figure.
Here’s a snapshot of what I mean. Isaiah’s sweeping coverage includes the first breach of God’s bond with humanity—Adam’s fall and the cursed earth—“The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth” (24:5).
Isaiah also pressed on to the end of this creation: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (65:17). In between he promises that God will “swallow up death forever” (25:8) and tells God’s people how this is done by his own right arm—the suffering Servant—whose “soul makes an offering for guilt” (53:10).
Now let’s turn back to the question of history—to the cycle of the centuries. In the first half of Isaiah a set of oracles—prophetic declarations—should catch our attention. God, through Isaiah, confronts all the powerhouse nations along with the less potent pretenders of that period: Assyria, Babylon, Syria, Egypt, Philistia, Tyre-Sidon, Moab, Israel, and Judea.
What does God have to say?
“The LORD of hosts has purposed it, to defile the pompous pride of all glory, to dishonor all the honored of the earth” (23:9).
This is a guiding refrain that offers a glimpse of how God views nations that think they can ignore his sovereign rule. Babylon, the great nemesis kingdom in Isaiah’s day is told, for instance, “I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and I will lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless” (13:11).
The great kingdom of Assyria—from which Babylon emerged—was also told, “I will break the Assyrian in my land” (15:25).
God also made it clear that he uses evil nations to confront the evil in other nations—showing his rule over evil even as he is righteous in all he does. Assyria, for instance, was “the rod of my anger” again Israel, yet also a nation that would soon be judged: “When the LORD has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria” (10:5&12). And so on.
The point is that God is still in control even when the nations plunge ahead in hideous wars. He allows evil to confront evil. But his purpose is for good. Pride has no place in heaven. So the pride of Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Israelis, Americans, and Brits—to name a few—will be confronted by God’s fearsome mercy.
Listen, then, to God’s heart amid the disruptions of cyclic wars:
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock. For he has humbled the . . . lofty city” (26:3-5).