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DALL E 2024 01 16 12 50 40 Create an image symbolizing the historical theme of nations rise and fall The central figure is a majestic time worn statue of a robed figure half
Magazine Article

The Death of Nations

Men do not see nature as fallen. If they did, they wouldn’t be so fast to label national decay as a natural process, as such deaths would point to breach of God’s covenant as the motive force, with man as morally culpable in the nation’s death.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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In a recent Chalcedon podcast we referred to different models describing the trajectory of nations over time, from their beginning to their usually ignominious ends. The popular models compare a nation’s history to different processes found in nature. The ballistic model compares a nation to the trajectory of something thrown into the sky, reflected in book titles concerning the rise and fall of a nation. 

Another nature analogy led to the biological model of a nation’s path through time. Like a living thing, the nation undergoes a birth, youth, adolescence, adulthood, senescence and decrepitude, and finally death. So men reach for images from nature, whether inorganic (rise and fall) or organic (life and death). Either way, the path of the nation is regarded as natural. Nature is conceived without reference to God or His covenant: natural laws govern the trajectory of the nation.

Attempts to divert the course of events when a nation is falling or dying have proliferated through history. The U.S.S.R. delivered life support to communist regimes that would otherwise collapse without it, and the United States has long been busy inflating its own share of corpses to keep favored regimes from collapsing (with mixed results), while attempting to accelerate the collapse of disfavored regimes. These efforts constitute attempts to cheat death by almost any means – because the one means that is universally rejected is to keep covenant with the Creator. That is also the only means that is actually effective, but for man, it is any way but God’s way.

By depicting these processes as natural, the collapse of nations is removed from God’s wheelhouse. Natural processes move forward inexorably, and only by manipulating nature can man extend his personal life or the life of his nation. That manipulation requires that man control man, meaning that one man must control other men. Tyranny is always the main ingredient in man’s recipes for national longevity. Man starts by rejecting God’s rule, which is deemed a dead letter by the unregenerate.

Men do not see nature as fallen. If they did, they wouldn’t be so fast to label national decay as a natural process, as such deaths would point to breach of God’s covenant as the motive force, with man as morally culpable in the nation’s death. (I will not enter into a debate about nations, nation-states, people groups, and their definitions, as that dispute would distract from the points being made here.)

The Witness of Deuteronomy 30

Moses certainly has no confusion about the conditions for national longevity. He lays them out in Deut. 30:15, and then appeals to heaven and earth as witnesses (verse 19) that he had laid them out. The prior verses (11 through 14) speak of the proximity of God’s law, leaving man without any excuse that guidance was inaccessible to him. Men pretend ignorance either to avoid the law, to concoct their own law, or both. 

See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil (Deut. 30:15)

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live (Deut. 30:19)

Moses makes clear how theocentric the nation’s destiny is: “for He is thy life, and the length of thy days” (Deut. 30:20), which is why the people are to love, obey, and cleave to Him (same verse!). To remove God from consideration means loving, obeying, and cleaving to someone or something else, imagining that one’s life is in one’s own hands, and the nation’s life in the hands of those steering the ship of state. Solomon sets forth the futility of such a vision:

There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war; neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it. (Eccl. 8:8)

Wicked men may exert great temporal power, but it will avail nothing in the war to achieve any kind of longevity, as Hengstenberg points out in discussing that last clause:

Wickedness delivereth not him that hath it, notwithstanding that it puts powerful and apparently irresistible means at man’s disposal. They only have importance until God’s time and judgment draw nigh. The Berleburger Bible remarks, “he will not succeed in freeing himself in this matter, as he succeeded in freeing himself from God’s law.”1

Dr. Rushdoony’s insights into Deuteronomy 30 are of value in this connection, tying together the key elements and illustrating the twist imposed on statecraft by a rejection of God’s Law in this passage.

The law is life because it is an aspect of life, God’s creation. It is the condition of life: the good air we breathe, so that to forsake the law is to forsake life. … Mankind was made to serve and obey God. When man the creature attempts to play God, he plays the fool and moves under judgment and death… 

If man’s problem is ignorance, not sin, then there is no moral guilt in ignorance. The state and its educators are not regenerative but therapeutic. They provide healing by education. Because of our departure from Christianity, we now have a therapeutic state and therapeutic schools. In this perspective, man is not a sinner but a patient. This view only aggravates man’s predicament because his problem is a moral perversity, not a question of ignorance. As a result, this failure to face up to the human problem is aggravating the problem.2

Rushdoony concludes by noting that “the fact of moral dereliction is death for man and society. The solution is a very simple one: believe and obey God.” 

Man’s way sends him drowning in a sea of futility, but there is firm ground upon which a nation, and a resolute people, can stand.

National Death from External Causes

Men lay many plans to protect against attack from without. Security is what men seek, and God has something to say about it, as Rushdoony notes:

What men yearn for is security. What men try to gain age after age is cradle-to-grave security, and it’s an impossibility. It is an impossibility because God is dedicated to this one proposition where man’s security is concerned—that he cannot have it.3

One arena of instability is the sea of nations itself, which is as turbulent as ever. 

But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked. (Isa. 57:20-21)

What one nation develops for its own posterity is seized by invaders from all points of the compass. The destiny of the conquered is usually grim: death, enslavement, exile, and worse. The presence of external enemies often induces man to adopt tactics of appeasement, or to form biblically forbidden alliances (see Isaiah 8:6-8 for the definitive model of this form of apostasy, where the clever partnership takes a massive turn for the worse). 

Ronald Reagan envisioned his “Star Wars” initiative as a solution: antiballistic missiles and associated technologies to intercept incoming missiles. Such shields don’t offer perfect interdiction: there are always holes in the shield, which is more like a sieve than a barrier against attack. And creative enemies work on ways around such barriers. Moreover, Isaiah had already pointed out that “there is no peace to the wicked.” Your nation can be as fully wrapped in defensive measures as Ahab was in his armor, yet there was a chink in his armor through which the fatal arrow, shot at random by a fleeing soldier, penetrated.

Chapter 9 of Zechariah is a passage I call “A Tale of Two Kings.” The first section describes the actions of Alexander the Great, the second section (Zech. 9:9ff) the prerogatives of Jesus Christ. Alexander, angered by the refusal of insular Tyre (separated from the shore by quite a stretch of ocean) to submit, became more determined to subdue it. Tyre’s massive walls looked impregnable, considering the ocean blocked siege engines from being rolled up to them. This was a problem Alexander solved by building a massive bridge or causeway into the sea (a featured called a mole) up to the walled island. The impossible-to-defeat Tyre fell, just like the unsinkable Titanic sank. 

Dr. Rushdoony’s recently-published commentaries on Zephaniah, Haggai, and Zechariah offers two consecutive chapter titles (for Zechariah 1:18-21 and 2:1-13) that chart a course of hope through this turbulent mire. “For Every Oppressor, a Destroyer” and “The Surest Defense” introduce expositions that establish that far more is in play than the elements the human eye can see. God is in the picture, and to be blind to His activity is to be truly blind indeed. George Adam Smith’s comments on Isaiah 33 lay out the reality underneath the surface of world events:

Isaiah saw that with Assyrian and Jew another Power was present—the real reason of every change in politics, collapse or crash in either of the empires—the active righteousness of God. Assyrian and Jew had not only to contend with each other. They were at strife with Him … God’s justice is everywhere, pervasive and pitiless, affecting the combatants far more than they have power to affect each other.4

That last statement is key: that God’s justice affects the earth’s nations far more than those nations have power to affect each other. Man refuses to believe this, which is why man is continually being blindsided. Only, his blindness is self-inflected, so he has no one but himself to blame. 

For over fifteen years I have repeatedly delivered a Chalcedon lecture entitled “Liberty from the Sword” which laid out the biblical basis for national security. One key principle laid out is that keeping God’s law faithfully is precisely what blocks war from crossing over a nation’s borders. The promise is set forth in Leviticus. “And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: and I will rid evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land” (Lev. 26:6). 

If you don’t want the sword to go through your land, there is only one way to achieve that goal: the way laid out in God’s law. God Himself blocks the sword from going through your land, and He is more effective than Reagan’s MX Peacekeeper missiles and/or Star Wars initiative would ever be. 

It is for this reason that one of the most important sermons ever preached must become common coin for the serious Christian. It is John Owen’s sermon on Isaiah 4:5, which the reader can read in full in the endnote provided here.5 Owen provides an exceptionally strong Biblical footing for each of the key propositions embedded in this passage of Isaiah. As he says, “Here lies the preservation of any nation from ruin,” – “not only preservation, but prosperity.” Owen here is explaining what Isaiah means when asserting that “upon all the glory shall be a defence,” and how this relates to the promises in earlier verses of Isaiah 4.6

Just as the pillar of smoke and fire in Exodus defended God’s people from enemies, coming between Pharaoh’s deadly chariots and the people, we shall see the same pillar of smoke and fire become a multitude of pillars, each one hovering over the homes of the faithful in the nation. And this protection is asserted to be the direct creation of God: these are not shields forged in a nation’s factories working to match sword to sword with enemies beyond number. This defence (to use Owen’s spelling) is a shield that cannot be penetrated by the enemy. The only thing that can bring down this invisible shield is the apostasy of the people.

But as Dr. Rushdoony has observed, external enemies are an occasional threat to a nation. Wars of expansion and exploitation come and go, and hotspots flare up from time to time, in century after century. The leaders of a nation rarely have to conduct nonstop war with external enemies world without end. What concerns these leaders is not external enemies who occasionally cross the line, but rather their own citizenry, who constitute a perpetual, ever-present threat. The citizens are always there within the nation, unlike active enemies on the border, and so the most severe defenses raised up to allegedly “protect” a nation tend to target the civilian population of the nation itself. 

National Death from Internal Causes

There are certainly explicit statements among the Old Testament prophets that assert how the decline of a nation is due to internal policies being imposed or inflicted upon the people. In some cases, the people even approve of the policies since they benefit from them. Micah 6:8-16 articulates the effects of monetary inflation upon a nation, where the currency is being debauched. The people prefer their money to be always devaluing so that they can pay off their debts in cheaper dollars (the key point in Dr. Rushdoony’s important volume, Larceny in the Heart). 

The problem is that God doesn’t wink at economic sin among the people. The people approve the use of the inflated currency and the Almighty calls them out on it:

Are there yet the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is abominable? Shall I count them pure with the wicked balances, and with the bag of deceitful weights? (Mic. 6:10-11)

Those who possess deceitful weights are not innocent, and God acts accordingly in Micah 6:13-16, with the key point being made in verse 14: “and thy casting down shall be in the midst of thee.” The nation will collapse from the middle. As God is no longer the center, and His Law no longer binding on the people’s conscience, the nation erodes from the center out. Verse 14 goes on to say that many measures will be taken to evade the effects of national economic policy, but God presses harder on the nation by adding the sword back into the mix (verse 14) to further compound the desolation that the policies have guaranteed (verse 16).7

You can still have a nation erode from the inside out even if you have a stable, non-inflated currency. A just shekel, a just ephah, etc., are necessary for national stability but not sufficient.8 In a fully Biblical economic culture, a harmony of interests prevails. Christianity, in fact, is the only basis upon which a harmony of interests can prevail in a nation. Without it, man defaults to a conflict of interests. This notion of intrinsic conflict, promoted by Darwinists both biological and social, is put forward for a reason: if there’s a harmony of interests, there’s nothing to fix. But if there’s a conflict of interests, the government must rush in and apply heavy-handed measures to mitigate the conflict. The informed reader will instantly recognize how important to Marxism this conflict of interests is: Marxism functions therapeutically to alleviate the conflict and create a humanistically controlled harmony. Where Marxism prevails, the infected nation is condemned to walk down the path to desolation from within.

The Scriptures speak to the caustic effects of envy upon individuals and peoples. With envy, the crime is someone else possessing something that you do not have. The solution is the confiscation of the possession to reduce everyone to the same level of economic equality. Such man-made utopias have certainly made it impossible for the citizens to envy one another, as nobody has anything more than his neighbor possesses. The leveling of society doesn’t address man’s moral proclivity to envy his fellow man, it simply pushes envy as far as it can possibly go: envy has completed its work, and continues to enforce its goals. Equality is achieved by subtraction, by negation, and man becomes less than man to build his cities upon envy.

Envy being rottenness of the bones (Prov. 14:30), it contains within itself the death sentence for cultures driven by it. When the bones are rotten, the entire structure is compromised and supports nothing of value. The collapse of a society based on envy is a certainty. The modern fact of walls being designed to keep citizens inside a country, to keep them from fleeing, is certainly a public indictment of how deep the rot goes. The populace is effectively enslaved, and slaves have very little will or motive to protect the nation against external enemies. God then sets about snapping the strings of puppet regimes, for “their foot shall slip in due season” (Deut. 32:35).

Strong Tree or Worthless Chaff?

The first Psalm lays out principles at the personal level that have implications at the national level. The connection between the individual and the national can be established by comparing Psalm 1:4 with Daniel 2:35, which both refer to the same destiny of the wicked: they become chaff carried away by the wind. As pointed out in the last issue of Arise & Build, there are commentators who believe that Daniel was actually expositing Psalm 1:4 to Nebuchadnezzar.9

Trees make suitable images for individuals and for kingdoms. The setting up of Christ’s kingdom in Ezekiel 17:22-24 has affinities with the Parable of the Mustard Seed, wherein both passages speak of a final tree in which “all fowl of every wing” shall dwell. What is noteworthy is how Ezekiel ends his prophecy:

And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish: I the Lord have spoken and have done it. (Ezek. 17:24)

You will note that every natural expectation is exploded here. The high tree doesn’t stay high, the low tree doesn’t stay low, the green tree doesn’t remain green, the dry tree doesn’t stay dry. The verse explains exactly why man’s calculation of destinies here is wrong: because God is acting directly on the destinies of the trees. God’s activity confounds man’s expectations at the personal and national levels.

Yet we need not be confounded since we have received firm counsel on how a tree can enjoy tremendous longevity and fruitfulness: Psalm 1 lays out what amounts to a theory of everything. There are two paths outlined there, and how to walk either path is laid out with moral clarity. The blessings laid out in Psalm 1 are inviolable.10 This is why attempts to sideline or twist these six brief verses are so deadly to Christians and to the nation they may live in. Here is the nerve cord for prospering in a well-watered situation. Neglect or impugn the counsel of Psalm 1, and you take a ride on the wind as flakes of chaff to be blown away. The one that feeds upon God’s Law is a tree with deep roots, and this determines destiny as much as the water supply described, for “because they had no root, they withered away” (Matt. 13:6). The godly tree of Psalm 1 is planted by rivers of water, and suffers no drought or dryness so long as it remains so planted. 

Understanding the Details of Societal Death and Decay

The principles outlined above are sufficient to give us a strong foundational view, and there is little to add at the bird’s-eye-view level to the discussion. However, man has developed countless ways to attempt to sidestep covenantal faithfulness to his Creator, having “sought out many devices” (Eccl. 7:29). God certainly confounds man’s creativity in this regard, for “He disappointeth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise” (Job 5:12; see also Psalm 10:2 and 33:10). But what if the reader needs detailed information, the better to understand and defend against such incursions?

It is precisely here that Dr. Rushdoony’s contributions to Christian scholarship truly shine. Examine the general index to the three-volume Faith and Action series, the three entries covering Rome, society, and statism. Here you would find an almost comprehensive list of mechanisms by which the dissolution of a society comes about. Several dozen dissertations are waiting to be written on each of those index entries, all of which cut a wide swath through historic and contemporary reality.

Let’s just sample a few entries to get a feel for the breadth of Rushdoony’s studies: loneliness and isolation, meaninglessness, socialization through coercion, authority crisis, barbarism and rootlessness, class and social warfare, crisis and changing standards, decapitalization by theft, elitist war on culture, envy as central, flight from responsibility, hopelessness and disillusionment, moral anarchy, radical division between peoples, social collapse and suicide, etc. These appear under “society.”

The index list is even bigger for “statism,” which ominously includes an entry for the state’s “hatred for all things it cannot control.” It is at this point that the modern hostility to homeschooling is manifested, not to mention Imperial Rome’s war against its best citizens, the Christians of the empire. The rest of this index complements the list in the previous paragraph: abandonment of justice, abdication of true authority, abuse of citizenry, drugs and statism, environmentalist doctrine, policies harming children, present-orientation, promotion of sin, and more. You want a resource for your teenaged children to use to understand our times? Have them go through these indexes (newly created by Shelby Shepherd and her team) and read the associated articles. There is no better research tool in your library than these three volumes (and their companion position papers in An Informed Faith) thanks to these extensive indexes, which make the facts accessible to all who are interested in pursuing them.

Needless to say, Dr. Rushdoony wasn’t interested in merely mapping out the wide path that leads to destruction, although few have done so as well as he has. He was interested in solutions, and so these multi-volume sets of his are not slack in providing the Biblical answers that we so desperately need today. In keeping with his emphasis, we should therefore conclude on a positive note.

Solutions to be Sought

The informed Christian knows full well that unless the Lord build the house, those that build it labor in vain (Psalm 127:1). The Lord builds the house when the builders choose the right stones, unlike those who rejected the stone that God intended for the chief cornerstone. We must build on the Rock, and not on sand, to weather all the storms of life that may strike, knowing our Rock is not like their rock (Deut. 32:31). Since God is in the business of making crooked things straight,11 all must be built according to His revealed will in Scripture.

Further, the nation must bear fruit for God. No fruit, no future (Matt. 21:43). Nations must become an adjunct of the Kingdom of God, for the Kingdom of Man has no future except to become the chaff of the summer threshing floors to be blown away.

We are given a fascinating glimpse, through the eyes of Zechariah, into God’s provision for His Kingdom and the nations that comprise it (Rev. 11:15). In Zechariah 4 we read of the two olive trees that feed their oil continuously to the candlestick, so that the candlestick never runs out of oil (Zech. 4:1-3, 11-14). We have here an image of limitless resources to keep the flame alive (the Holy Spirit in this particular context, with the olive trees representing the priestly and kingly offices through which the Spirit flows). 

We have already noted how the Psalmist describes the godly, as trees planted by rivers of water whose leaf never withers and who continue to bear fruit (Ps. 1:3). This is an extraordinary tree indeed, whose destiny has been shifted from the natural to the supernatural. And the nations of the earth can enjoy parallel blessings in the same way, for the only cities that will stand the test of time are those whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:10). The city started out as an emblem of life outside of God (Gen. 4:17), dedicated to foundations of sand. And this is precisely what must – and ultimately will – change.

The imagery of increasing resources (as opposed to the shrinking pie syndrome of humanism) is particularly vivid in the vision of Ezekiel 47:1-12. Nobody can explain where the water comes from that causes a damp spot on the temple wall to transform over time into an uncrossable river. Fairbairn said it best:

The increase here comes from no extraneous and incidental sources; it is all along the temple waters that form the river, and at last empty themselves into the sea; and yet, from being at first but a small streamlet, these grow, by self-production, in the space of little more than a mile, into an unfordable river!12

On either side of the river are the trees of life, planted by an ever-growing river that defies natural explanation.13 The reason is simply that God, not man nor nature, is guiding history, is determining results. 

And it is for this reason that the models for national growth and decline, using analogies from nature, are deceptive. The destiny of the nation is determined by the people’s covenantal relationship to God: it is covenantally determined. The nations’ leaves will not wither so long as the nations are planted by the rivers of water, meditating on and obeying God’s Law (Psalm 1). When they depart from God’s Law, then the pathologies found in the index of Dr. Rushdoony’s Faith and Action again take center stage, each worse than the last. Because men love death (Prov. 8:36) and hate God, they adopt analogies from nature to describe national decay (absolving them of moral failure) rather than adopting the covenantal explanation that declares, “Thou art the man.” In this way, he frees himself from God’s law, but not from its consequences. Conversely, the nations who keep His commandments will enjoy the consequences of faithful obedience: the blessings of their leaves never withering.

1. Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998 [1860]). p. 198.

2. R. J. Rushdoony, Deuteronomy (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2008), p. 482.

3. Rushdoony, R. J., Sermons in Zephaniah, Haggai & Zechariah (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2020), p. 24.  See also

4. George Adam Smith in The Expositor’s Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books House, [1903] 1982), vol. 3, p. 701.


6. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, Vol. VIII (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 1967 reprint of 1850-53 original), p. 464. See also link above for the online version.


8. The Byzantine Empire endured ten centuries until monetary inflation arose in it.

9. James M. Hamilton, Jr., With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), p. 89.



12. Patrick Fairbairn, An Exposition of Ezekiel (Minneapolis, MN: Klock & Klock, 1979 [T. & T. Clark, 1851]), pp. 492–493.


Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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