There are many once great cities that now lie in ruins, some of their histories completely lost to us, their armies, influence, and wealth now immaterial. Man proposes and God disposes. Not even the states of Israel and Judah were so important to God's purpose that He couldn't dissolve them and still accomplish His promised salvation.
Community or Disunity?
Great cities and empires represent both their builders and their cultures. The first recorded city was built by Cain, who "went out from the presence of the Lord," that is, he did the opposite of men like Enoch and Noah who walked with God. Both Cain's first son and the city he founded were called Enoch, or "rejuvenation." Cain was trying to restore paradise without God, to create an order, a culture for fellow fugitives and vagabonds from godly order. Five generations later, Lamech's family advanced this culture's economy to the point of specialization in animal husbandry, music, and metallurgy. Lamech personally extended his family empire by means of vengeance, including murder (see Genesis 4).
We tend to call our cities communities, but they are often anything but that. Community carries with it the root concept of communion, which is a religious, and specifically Christian, idea of a unity in faith. The union of Cain and all non-Christian cultures since is a union of unbelief, and their social order inevitably reflects the rebellion inherent in their common bond. Such places often have no real community because they have no bond or communion in terms of a benign ethic. All men have in common then are casual discussions about the weather or sports (the latter being as close as many come to a religious unity). They are then not part of a community but disunity.
The prophets often condemned even the apostate Hebrew cities for the evil they institutionalized in their social, legal, economic, and political systems. The book of Amos was written to announce the complete destruction of Samaria, the capital of Israel. Jerusalem, called a city of murderers by Isaiah (1:21), was the subject of a similar pronouncement by Micah at about the same time (though the fulfillment of these prophecies took place at different times). Great cities of the ancient world that stood opposed to God were the subject of prophecy, including Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, Babylon, Rome, and many lesser cities or regional powers. One after another they were dismissed as power centers and reduced to historical and archaeological curiosities.
The Nature of Statism
Humanism is the religious/philosophical estimation of man as the supreme being. The emphasis of humanism varies. Some humanism regards each individual; anarchism is a pure form of such humanism. A much more common form of humanism in history is one in which some group or entity speaks for collective man. Statism, whether democratic or oligarchic in structure, has this common logic of justification: "We represent all, we speak for the people, we govern in the name of the masses because we're the government." Not long ago a spokesman for the Obama administration responded to a challenge to the Constitutional authority for a proposed action with the dismissive statement that it "was in the nature of government authority."
To those under the direct power of statist government the power or threat they wield is intimidating. Yet the prophet Nahum used a word for the "wicked" Assyrians (1:15) that is elsewhere translated "Belial." This is not a proper name, but rather the appellation "worthless." Elsewhere, the term "vile" is used. To our ears it means something loathsome, but the word merely means light in weight, as in Psalm 62:9, which says of men both of high and low status that "in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity." From God's perspective, if man was put on a scale, he would be lighter than light, he would register zero!
Men and nations are such lightweights that they do not register, but that does not preclude either God's judgment or grace to them. Some empires have opposed God and His people beyond the point of simple unbelief or even contempt. Some have challenged God by challenging His people. This is to challenge God's sovereignty itself. Obadiah told the Edomite people of their coming doom (Obadiah 8-14). Their contempt of the Hebrews stemmed from envy. They believed everything possessed by the Hebrews should have been theirs as the descendants of Esau the firstborn, and they lost no opportunity to take advantage of Judah by allying with its enemies. Nahum asked the Assyrians, one of the most vicious and feared nations of history, "What do ye imagine against the Lord?" (1:9), before answering his own question, for they "imagineth evil against the Lord" (1:11).
I Wanna Be Like the Marquis
In his book, To Be As Gods, my father starts his overview of modern thought with the Marquis De Sade. De Sade avowed his hatred for God and declared God his enemy to the point of saying the greatest crime would be to murder God. He was largely rejected by his contemporaries for his criminal perversity, but later Darwin's naturalism so completely destroyed the Enlightenment faith in natural law that man was left an animal emerged from meaningless chaos. To that, Freud added a mythological primordial history to explain our basest impulses. The result has been that modern thought and culture has returned to the perversity and contempt of God shown by De Sade.
When Michael Jordan was the most famous athlete in the world, a popular ad campaign drew in youth with the slogan, "I wanna be like Mike." Since Darwin, modern man is increasingly saying, "I wanna be like the Marquis."
Evolutionary dogma has not merely declared whatever man conceives as natural to be normative, it has also declared war on everything supernatural as by definition illegitimate and unacceptable to its naturalistic worldview. Man after Darwin is far advanced in what Van Til called his "integration into the void."
Judgment and Deliverance
Cities, empires, cultures and peoples have repeatedly disappeared from history. Scripture was the only mention of some of these until modern archaeology rediscovered them. Some modern academics questioned the historicity of both the Assyrians and the Hittites until verified by modern archaeology.
When Christians see disaster it is normal to think of it in terms of the judgment of God. It is also easy to find some blatant sin and link it with the disaster as cause and effect. Thus hurricane Katrina was said by some to be caused by the immorality of New Orleans and just recently I heard someone assert the hurricane which hit New York City was judgment for a statement by that city's mayor.
Such association was forbidden by Jesus, who used the example of a Siloam tower collapse (Luke 13:3-5). Jesus warned against assuming those victims were worse sinners than others. He did not say we ought not to see judgment in such disasters, but to think of our own guilt and liability to judgment. God never asks us to focus on the guilt of others, but to acknowledge our own and repent.
We are to see the hand of God in history, but we are not able to read the mind of God. Job's "friends," remember, tried to tell him his reversal of situation had to be because of his sin. Such an explanation seems so theologically logical. Unfortunately, it was not only wrong, it was theologically off-base. Such logic presumed Job was the central character and God was merely reacting to him. It neglected the possibility that God might have a greater purpose and focus to His Providence than Job. His trials were not about him at all.
We must extend this view of judgment beyond individuals like Job to men collectively. Judgment is generally a reminder that men are not the center of anything but vanity. Temporal judgments ought to remind us of divine judgment and, as such, they are always a type of the final judgment. Yet the worst judgments in history are never the final and complete judgment of the last day. As such, they involve grace, deliverance, and salvation; they remind us, like the tower of Siloam, that we ought to repent of our sins.
Lesson to Moses
When Moses asked God to reveal His glory, the first words God said to him referred to both judgment and deliverance:
The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth
Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty ... (Ex. 34:6b-7a)
When Nahum prophesied the fall of Nineveh he referenced both the mercy and wrath of God: "The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked ..." (Nahum 1:3a). Jonah, in fact, angry that God had spared the Ninevites generations before Nahum, had dared throw God's mercy in His face when he justified his hesitancy to preach to Nineveh by referencing those words to Moses: " I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and of great goodness, and repenting of the evil" (Jonah 4:2). Jonah was a missionary upset that his message had been well received; his cry to God was, in effect, "See, I knew you would be longsuffering and show mercy, and this proves it!"
It is a sad commentary that Christians sometimes seem more eager to see God's judgment on sinners than His grace. We are called to preach judgment as the ultimate wage for sin, not our preferred outcome: or we make Christianity a vehicle for our own evil desire. Our proclamation of the righteousness of God must always be in the hope of repentance and faith by the hearer or it will easily morph into an arrogant self-righteousness. Jonah's sin was his desire for God's judgment to the point of being angry at His grace; it ought not be ours.
The Lessons of History
We ought, as believers, to see the lessons of history as more than the mistakes and accomplishments of men. Our worldview ought to place the Biblical narrative over all history. God has not changed nor can He change from what He was before Adam, Noah, the prophets, or Paul.
We are wrong to see eschatology as about the end time. If we do, it becomes a subject of curiosity and speculation. Rather, eschatology is about end times. The flood was an obvious end time, as was the crossing of the Red Sea, the destruction of Nineveh, and the end of the prophetic messages to the people of Judah. All involved judgment but also grace, mercy, or deliverance of some kind.
All judgment and deliverance points to the final judgment and eternal salvation; it reminds us that the great division of mankind is the redeemed and the lost. Because God is one, His Providence is one, His judgment is one, His salvation is one. All point to man's accountability before Him in terms of His Messiah.
Human kingdoms have often been anti-God and have stood ready to oppose the righteous and righteousness in general. Each judgment of history points us to our accountability, each deliverance to His depthless grace. Even so, it is not about us, but rather His eternal will. In the multitude of examples of judgment and deliverance we must see the righteousness and justice of God revealed, but we must never presume that God owes those He has called the righteous or just vindication in time and history.
The Creation Groans
The "simple gospel" has often degenerated into the "easy gospel" where only the pleasant attitudes of God are proclaimed and salvation is said to be all about blessing. In fact, we live in a world that often hates God and His people. Sin has produced pain and conflict. Even the creation has fallen under the curse. Designed for man's blessing, God has involved it in His judgment on sin. Paul said the creation groans under sin (Rom. 8:22) as do we (2 Cor. 5:2-9), desiring both to see the promise that "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the seas" (Isa. 11:9).
The Flood is a good example of how the earth groans under the curse. We refer to what we see as "the creation," but everything we see, as beautiful as it is, is the aftermath of the Flood's destruction. The entire geography of the earth changed during the Flood.
Cain, the founder of the first city and the man who hoped to "rejuvenate" his environment by walking away from God, was, after all, the one who first polluted the earth with shed blood, that of his brother Abel. That blood cried to God from the ground (Gen. 4:10). The sin of Cain has been repeated innumerable times since, often in the name of the most sanctimonious of motives. As men, like Cain, build monuments and empires dedicated to sin and warfare against God, they have, one after another, fallen to eventual judgment. These anti-God powers are the Old Testament form of what is called Antichrist in the New. They are all epitomized by references to Babylon which was the enslaver of God's covenant people and the destroyer of His temple.
Statism as a Worldview
Assyria's worldview controlled its drive for empire and is a good example of how religious faith shapes far more then ideas. Assyrian religion saw the universe organized as a state with the gods representing a higher order, but man controlling the historical process. This dictated how they viewed history and social order. Might and order belonged to the gods and corresponding might and order in the political realm was seen as evidence of union with the gods. The Assyrian monarchs thus claimed to be kings not just of their empire but of all the universe.
The Assyrians' worldview thus saw unity and power as a metaphysical goal which justified their quest to expand and exercise control by any means. Order required authority to impose its will. As a consequence, the Assyrian empire was one of the most studiously cruel of history. Their records brag of the corpses they left behind and speak proudly of their goddess Istar as a relentless destroyer. In their wake they left skinned corpses, mutilated foes and mounds of human skulls, all to inspire terror so that none would dare to oppose their quest for power. Their mindset, based on their worldview, was that authority, no matter how brutal, represented a divine order. Freedom in such a worldview was unthinkable and non-existent. Life under this form of statism was even more brutal than contemporary variants. Western tyrants today claim authority from some abstract source they call "the people" or "the country," which puts them at least on the human plane. Ancient rule always claimed to be the incarnation, or at least the anointed voice of deity. Their message was, "We are the divine power on earth; individuals are irrelevant." To challenge such claims was at once both treason and blasphemy.
A Biblical worldview sees the course of history in the hands of a just God. We will not understand its twists and turns but we will see it as governed by eternal Providence. We will not expect it to focus around our needs, expectations, or lifespans, but will rather see in it our accountability to God for our sins and our dependence on His grace and mercy in every area of our being.