“[God] 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, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”
Providence, one of the two overarching works by which God executes His eternal decree (plan for all creation), includes both our Lord’s preservation of His creation and His governing of His creatures and their actions (WSC 11). We have considered God’s providential preservation, so we now move on to what Scripture says about God’s providential governance. God’s Word has much to say on this topic, and it leaves us without a shadow of a doubt that divine governance controls and directs everything from the largest, most historically significant events to those events that seem insignificant and random.
Today’s passage emphasizes the Lord’s providential governance of the biggest things. Any basic overview of human history will discuss the rise and fall of significant historical empires. This is because the courses of nations and imperial powers have shaped and reshaped human civilizations since the beginning of time. What the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and other significant powers accomplished continues to influence us even today.
Acts 17:26–27a tells us that histories of world empires and nations are not ultimately decided by their leaders and citizens, though divine providence does not render such figures inconsequential. Instead, nations and empires, cities and countries receive their territories and their periods of power according to the plan of God Himself. Starting with one man—Adam—God has steered the course of human history, allotting specific periods and territories to various earthly powers according to His good pleasure.
The concept of God’s allotting or determining the course of these nations and empires is vital. As we have noted, the Lord’s sovereignty is not passive permission but active control. God did not simply gaze into the future, see what would or might happen, and then stand back and let it go. No, the Roman Empire came to power because the Lord decreed that it would come to power. And the same thing is true of every other nation, whether that nation rules over large portions of the world or controls only a few square miles. John Calvin makes much of this active control of the nations, commenting on today’s passage that it is “not that the times were only foreseen, but . . . they were appointed and set in such order as pleased [God] best.” Nations and empires gain, retain, and lose power according to God’s sovereign decree.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Scripture frequently condemns empires for thinking that they come to power through their own efforts (Isa. 10:5–19). Nations do not rise and fall by their own design but succeed and fail only according to the Lord’s will. We should therefore not be afraid of what any nation or government may do to us. God is sovereign even over the greatest powers, and He will preserve His people no matter what happens to nations and empires.