God is sovereign over the nations? On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded the country of Ukraine. Since that time, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been killed. Motivated by a desire to stop this conflict from escalating further, some American anti-war activists have even gone so far as to make excuses for or defenses of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s conduct. They’re joined by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill who presented Russia’s invasion as a spiritual battle and thus Putin as a representative of God’s judgment.
This view of political leaders acting on behalf of God has an unfortunately long pedigree in church history, with claims that it’s grounded in God’s inspired Word (namely Romans 13) which all Christians are obligated to affirm. But is that true? When Christians say with Paul in Romans 13:1 that “there is no [government] authority except that which God has established” (NIV), what precisely do we mean by that? Does God ordain and approve of everything which every state does? Did He establish Vladimir Putin in Russia and is He standing behind the invasion of Ukraine?
God’s Will? How is God Sovereign Over the Nations?
A number of biblical passages have suggested to many readers that God meticulously plans everything that takes place, including who will lead nations. For example, in Daniel 2:21 the prophet Daniel praises the God who “removes kings and sets up kings” (ESV).
But another passage in this same book says that even though “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will,” He also delegates His authority to others, for instance His angelic servants: The sentence [of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar losing his mind and being deposed] is by the decree of the watchers [higher level angelic beings], the decision by the word of the holy ones. (Daniel 4:17, ESV).
Surprisingly, the ability to raise up political leaders is also described in Scripture as having been delivered to Satan:
And the devil took [Jesus] up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours” (Luke 4:5-7, ESV)
How can it be that both God and Satan control the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms? The answer seems to be found in the complex relationship between the sovereign God and His free creations: we make our choices, but nothing can happen without God’s permission. He acts and allows according to the goal of His ultimate plan and purpose.
Human rulership before the fall
According to Scripture, God’s first plan was that humans would rule over the earth with Him, sharing His authority as members of His family. This was God’s original form of government—people reigning alongside God over a harmonious creation. Through an act of treachery, this structure was temporarily set aside for another, an inferior structure under sin: the institution of purely human governments.
Per Restoration Movement leader David Lipscomb, the purpose of this new plan was to punish evildoers:
[God] ordains one class of institutions through which to bless his obedient servants; he ordains a different class for punishing the disobedient. Each is good for the work for which it is ordained. Each is equally the ordinance of God.
For Lipscomb, government is an ordinance of God like hell is an ordinance of God—it exists only to punish the disobedient.
Scripture tells us that God uses state power to punish in other ways besides the fear that criminals have of the executioner or jailer. For instance, Isaiah 10:5-19 tells us that God sent the king of Assyria to punish the northern kingdom of Israel while 2 Kings 24:2 says that God sent Babylon to punish the southern kingdom of Judah.
Neither of these pagan nations, nor their monarchs, knew that they were God’s instrument for justice but wanted only to destroy for selfish gain. This principle of different intents between God and humans still resulting in God’s plan being accomplished can be found throughout Scripture.
For instance, Genesis 50:20 informs us that an event that men meant for evil God meant for good and that God’s purpose was accomplished by their selfish sin. See also Matthew 26:24 where Jesus says He will die just as God foretold, “but woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man,” thus establishing man’s responsibility for sin even when God uses it for good.
Because Assyria and Babylon meant evil and not good, God promised to judge them just as He had judged Israel and Judah for their disobedience:
[My people’s] enemies have said, “We are not guilty, for they have sinned against the Lord…” Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured him, and now at last Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has gnawed his bones. Therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing punishment on the king of Babylon and his land, as I punished the king of Assyria. I will restore Israel… The Lord has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the Lord, the vengeance for his temple (Jeremiah 50:7, 17-19; 51:11, ESV).
If God wills government for a good end (the punishment of evildoers), but men in power use the state’s monopoly on governance (protection and enforcement of property rights) for an evil end (to kill and destroy innocent people), whose will wins out?
While Scripture informs us that God can achieve His own good purposes through man’s evil ends, passages like Isaiah 47:5-15 also tell us that the men God uses as instruments of punishment can go too far—what men do is not always what God’s perfect Holiness requires, but God can still use them as an instrument for His purposes. Keep this in mind when reading Paul’s words in Romans 13.
Paul did not see the Caesars of his day as conscientious administrators of God’s good government. No, they were like the wicked Assyrian king used by God in a broad sense but whom God would utterly destroy when the time had fully come. God’s sovereignty does not mean that everything which takes place meets God’s perfect standards, but that God is ultimately in control even as He allows men to make meaningful choices in their world.
We conclude then that God instituted human government as a check on the wicked and that He sovereignly interacts with the governments of men for His own goals and purposes.
A widely held in the second temple period
But there is also a link in the chain of government below God and above men—spiritual beings known as the sons of God who were given authority over nations and peoples when God chose Israel as His special possession. In Deuteronomy 32:8-9 we read that “when the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God [angelic beings]. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage” (ESV). While a more thorough treatment of these beings can be found in my book Fight the Powers, it’s worth briefly explaining how they came to be given superintendence over the nations.
The following view is not well known in modern Christianity, but it was widely held in the second temple period and it was even affirmed by a number of the church fathers. To provide an example, Jerome, in commenting on Daniel 10’s discussion of the Prince of Persia, wrote:
“this was the angel to whose charge Persia was committed, in accordance with what we read in Deuteronomy.”
This suggests that the view was so widespread that all he had to do was reference the name of the book that those two verses were in. It largely fell out of favor until more recently thanks to the work of scholars like Michael Heiser who wrote about it under headings like “the Deuteronomy 32 worldview,” “the divine council,” and “cosmic geography.”
My reason to revive this view is that it underpins a more libertarian lens of the state since it places it under the control of rebellious spiritual beings.
God’s Sovereignty: Placing the state under the control of rebellious spiritual beings
The event when God gave the nations over to the sons of God was the tower of Babel incident (see Genesis 11). At Babel, God disinherited the nations, apart from Israel, and temporarily abandoned them. He of course remained sovereign over the world, but He allowed the sons of God direct oversight in the direction of the other nations and their peoples.
God’s sovereignty over these sons of God is demonstrated in Psalm 82 when He charges them with terrible mismanagement over the kingdoms of the world—the wicked flourished and became powerful while the weak were oppressed. Though they, along with the human rulers, had been given the freedom to do what was evil, God promised that He would judge the sons of God along with the wicked kings “for all the nations are [His] inheritance” (82:8, NIV).
The rest of the Bible also presents their influence as largely negative. Daniel chapter ten pulls back the curtain to show that the machinations of war and empire are grounded in the actions of the corrupt sons of God. Daniel’s seventh chapter describes the empires which the rebellious sons of God prop up as vicious monsters that God will eventually slay and throw into the fire. Revelation chapters 12-13 presents Satan as the head of the spiritual powers over the kingdoms by picturing him as a dragon having seven crowns (suggesting complete dominion over the world) who gives authority to a great empire to rule the earth.
All of this points to one inescapable truth: that notwithstanding God’s ultimate authority, political power emerges through the devising of evil supernatural beings and the appetites of violent men like Vladimir Putin.
Conclusion: God is Sovereign Over Russia and Ukraine
Scripture presents God as ultimately sovereign over the world, but also speaks to the freedom and responsibility of human beings and of other spiritual powers whose aims are less than honorable. What does this say to Christians struggling to know how to respond to the crisis in Ukraine brought about by Russian aggression?
It says to us that we must not give up praying for God to “break the teeth” of “rulers [who] devise injustice” (Psalm 58, NIV). God may have called Christians to peace, but He is a warrior against evildoers and our prayers must be for God’s justice through whatever means He sovereignly decrees.