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The Vanity Of Nations

How an ancient text speaks to the world today

Who said the nation-state would become irrelevant in the new century? Clever assumptions about power leeching upwards to supra-national institutions like the EU and the IMF, outwards to powerful corporations and downwards to indigenous peoples - though still relevant - fail to assess the tenacity of the nation-state.

The rise of China and the re-assertion of Russian power tell a different story. Corroded states like Somalia and South Sudan show the risks to the wider world of the loss of national coherence. Meanwhile, different peoples wish to build independent nations: some based on geography and with integrity, like Scotland; others based on religious ideology and with brutality, like Isis.


Today ‘the nations are in uproar’ and will remain so. As a meditation on the challenges that lie around us, Psalm 46 can scarcely be beaten. It calls on people not to fear tumultuous changes but to find in God a ‘refuge and strength’ (verse 1) and contains one of scripture’s best known injunctions: ‘Be still, and know that I am God!’ (verse 10). This command is often wrested from its context and applied to the faithful in the initial moments of public worship. In fact, it is a directive to the nations to cease their warring and submit to God.


The words are an implicit call to people not to prostrate themselves before the nation as the final arbiter of truth, before which all other claims must be subject, but to support a view of the nation which respects peace, the legitimacy of other nations and its own place under God. There are powerful temptations to exalt ethnic nationalism and to succumb to false and romanticised versions of history which elevate one nation over another.

Those who idolise the nation tend to accumulate weapons in abundance to express their bellicosity and threaten their neighbours, a function of not trusting in God or respecting their transience under him. A sign of the judgment of God is the way he ‘breaks the bow, and shatters the spear’ (verse 9). Disarmament indicates his sovereignty; the proliferation of weapons shows that the nations have taken charge, arrogating to themselves the power to determine life and death.


There was supposed to be a lasting peace dividend from the ending of the Cold War over a quarter of a century ago yet armaments multiply and fall into the hands of the least responsible: the warlords, their drug-addled militias and serially abused child soldiers. Psalm 46: 9 promises that God makes wars to cease to the end of the earth’. It is predictive of the future where the kingdoms of the world become the kingdom of our God; where heaven and earth fuse together. It is also a long way from where we are today. Those who intercede for the peace of the world may have their work cut out right now, but the ancient text of Psalm 46 is a treasure that glints with the dawn of the day of God.



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© 2017 Simon Burton-Jones All Rights Reserved