The chaos of history
Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. (Daniel 2:20-21, NIV)
Last week’s Economist included an article reflecting on the First World War. It blamed the ignorance of the leaders of the day, but also said this:
Yet the war was also a tale of forces beyond the power of any leader, however well-read; of nations and continents not as trains on history’s railway lines, run by drivers and switchmen, but as rafts tossed about on history’s ocean, dipping at most an occasional oar into the waves. Fate was the real grand homme of the “Great War”. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 would not have happened had his driver not taken a wrong turning in Sarajevo…
Is this intriguing view of history right or wrong?
It is right in the sense that history is full of events which were entirely unexpected, and well beyond the control of the decision-makers of the day. We’ve seen plenty of that in the last two years - with the Brexit referendum in the UK and Donald Trump’s election in the USA. As I write this, the UK faces profound uncertainty about our future. We have liked to think that we can explain, predict and control everything - but are discovering we cannot.
All this is a reminder to us to take James’s words seriously: Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. (James 4:13-14) Recognising the ‘chaos’ of history should infuse in us a certain humility.
But the view that history is ultimately controlled by chaotic forces, or, as the Economist puts it, by ‘fate’, is wrong. For the Bible teaches the ultimate sovereignty of God. As Daniel says here, He it is who raises up and deposes leaders. He it is who, ultimately, stands behind all events, including those which seem chaotic or unexpected to us.
This means that, rather than simply shrugging our shoulders helplessly, we should pray. For when we pray, we are speaking to the One Who has all under His control.
With the formidable challenges currently facing our nation, we should surely be asking Him for an outcome which favours the spread of His saving gospel, and which (even though it may be chastening) will encourage complacent people to seek Him again. God has the power to answer that prayer!
Furthermore, the Bible does not subscribe to a view of history which denies the agency of leaders. As the Bible tells its own history of Israel, the kings are held to be of great significance. For sure, there is an unexpected element; for certain, social forces play their part. But the movers and shakers really do move and shake.
So at this uncertain time, I’m reminded that we should be praying for our leaders: that they would act in the interest of others - as the title minister, in origin a Christian concept, suggests. May they act justly, do wisely and walk humbly before our God.
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