The concept of the nation state is easy enough to follow and understand. However, the consequences involved are not. In fact the wider responsibilities and accountability of the nation state raises many questions. Individuals have individual responsibilities and are answerable, as individuals, for their decisions, actions and behaviour. However, a nation is made up of multiple individuals – some of whom, as leaders, are responsible for national policy, decisions and direction. When we speak of national responsibility and accountability – who, in the final analysis, is the individual or group of individuals who are accountable for the behaviour of the state? Or is each individual of a nation state vicariously responsible for the actions of the state by dint of the fact they belong to it?
Of course all of this is very pertinent at the moment when we see the leader of a nation immersing his people in a war involving the killing of many many people. He himself does not raise a hand against a single person but individual members of his armed forces kill thousands – many of them innocent civilians. In the nation of Russia, a large part of the population, including the Russian Orthodox Church, apparently support this war while others do not. Who then holds ultimate responsibility for the killing of innocent people, including children, in this war? Is it the leader of the nation – president Putin, his officers of state, the individual soldier who pulls the trigger or fires the missile – or each individual who is Russian?
Ultimately, if we believe that beyond the Courts of men there is a higher Court – a judgement if you like, which will occur at another time and in another realm before the Court of The Creator – who will bear the responsibility for the death of someone like Valeria Glodan and her 3 month old baby killed by a Russian missile attack in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa a few weeks ago – and hundreds of others like them? Of course the same question might be asked regarding the actions of the UK or USA in their wars in the Middle East in recent years – with the resultant and disastrous death toll of innocents. Am I, as a citizen of the United Kingdom, responsible for the actions taken on my behalf by the government and armed forces of Great Britain?
A further complication arises in relation to this question from an eternal perspective when we read, in the Biblical record, of ‘The Nations’ and their place, role and purpose in God’s plan. What I mean is this. If God deals with ‘Nations’ as a group, whether in judgement or in mercy, who exactly is involved and in what timeframe?
This train of thought was triggered by the wonderfully enigmatic statement I quoted in my last post from the book of Revelation where John, speaking of his vision of the future, says –
‘Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the centre of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.’
The immediate questions that arise, for me anyway, are – who are the nations referred to, is every individual in the nation included, and what is the timeframe – in other words, does this healing include every nation in every time and in every place – or only the nations in existence at the end of time? Furthermore what is it the nations need to be healed from – with what illness have they been infected?
The whole concept of ‘Nations’ begins very early in the biblical record (Genesis 10) and is mentioned over 500 times thereafter. (1) Of course the main focus of the Torah is the Jewish nation of Israel. Israel, through Abraham, was set apart by God, chosen or elect, if you will, not because of anything special or virtuous in him or them – but for a purpose – to live in a right relationship with Jehovah and to show, to the other nations, the love, mercy and grace of their God. They were called to be an example – but also, as the prophet Jeremiah (2:2-4) states, they were the ‘First-fruits’ of God’s work and purpose for humanity. By implication then I would suggest Israel was chosen to be a prototype of what God will one day be and do for all nations. We see a hint of this in the heart of the Torah –
‘Look, I now teach you these decrees and regulations just as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may obey them in the land you are about to enter and occupy. Obey them completely, and you will display your wisdom and intelligence among the surrounding nations. When they hear all these decrees, they will exclaim, ‘How wise and prudent are the people of this great nation!’ For what great nation has a god as near to them as the Lord our God is near to us whenever we call on him?’
Deuteronomy 4 (NLT)
The Apostle Paul picks up this concept (from Genesis 12:3/18:18/22:18) in the NT –
‘The Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would make the Gentiles right in his sight because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, “All nations will be blessed through you.”‘
The big problem was that Israel failed, again and again, in their mandate to be a light to the nations. So God, in the person of Jesus, came himself –
‘Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.’
John 8 (NLT)
This mandate was then passed on, through the disciple of Jesus, to the Church. Peter, addressing the early Church states –
‘You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.’
1 Peter (NLT)
How much the church as a ‘Holy Nation‘, as we know it and have read of it, has, down through the ages and in to our own generation, fulfilled this mandate is debatable. Have the nations in general yet come out of ‘darkness into his wonderful light’ as a result of the witness and testimony of the church? Sadly we must reply in the negative. That is not to say however that the light does not still shine – it does – but there is no denying that it has not had the universal impact many have hoped it might by this stage in history.
As we have already said the Bible has a lot to say about ‘the nations’ – much of it negative. This all comes to a climax in the book of Revelations where we see the ‘nations’ as deceived, controlled and motivated by evil and heading towards destruction. We also see pictured here the kings and leaders of the nations as they cower in terror under divine judgement – calling on the rocks to hide them from the wrath of God. For many this is the ultimate and satisfactory end of the story – retribution poured out – final judgement accomplished.
However great a TV ending this may appear to be – it is in fact not the end of the story at all. The nations will appear again in the story as do their kings and leaders. The last word does not end with a final judgement and punishment – but restorative hope and salvation. The ‘Leaves’ of the ‘Trees of Life’ , we are told, will one, yet future day, be used as ‘medicine to heal the nations’ .
Of course this brings in to focus the question we raised a few moments ago – what is meant here by ‘the nations’. Are they the nations in existence at the end of the age, or does this refer to all nations, in every time and in every place? Because of the universal scope of the context I would tend to the latter conclusion. But in addition to this other questions arise. What exactly are the trees that grow beside the ‘water of life’ river and what properties do the leaves contain that have such extraordinary healing powers?
Of course we are dealing here with metaphor – but these are not metaphors that are exclusive to the book of Revelation. In fact I find them to be very similar in tone to those used by another prophet who was called to speak to the nations – in particular his own, which was running headlong into disaster.
One of the things we also need to keep in mind when speaking of the ‘healing of the nations’ or indeed the healing of an individual is that this is much much deeper than simply the physical healing with which a large part of the church has been preoccupied in my generation (that is not to say it is unimportant). The prophet Jeremiah, in his day, calls out to God in his distress –
Have You abandoned Judah completely?
Do You now hate Zion?
Why have You wounded us beyond healing?
We longed for peace, but nothing good ever came.
We hoped for healing, but only terror came our way.
God replies –
Your wound is incurable;
your shattered pieces are beyond repair.
There is no one to plead your case—
no healing for your injury,
no relief for your affliction.
Jeremiah 14 & 30
And, in the middle of this malaise – this illness, this pandemic of failing hope, war and destruction, the Prophet cries out –
Is there no healing medicine in Gilead, no balm that could help my people?
Is there no physician who can help?
Why is there no healing for the wounds inflicted on my people?
I find it very interesting to note that the Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah (or God through these Prophet) refers to ‘the nations’ more than any other of the Biblical authors. And although much of the content of their messages concerns judgement – judgement is always trumped by hope!
In this coming age, Jerusalem will be known as the throne of the Eternal. All the nations of the world will be drawn there to her, to honour the name of the Eternal. The days of people insisting on their own stubborn ways dictated by their own evil hearts will be gone.
Jeremiah 3:17 (TV)
Jerusalem here, once again, is not literally identical (at least IMHO) to the physical city as we know it today – but is the ‘New Jerusalem’ which is ‘from above’ (Galatians 4:26) – the heavenly Jerusalem of which John is painting a picture in the book of Revelation.
What then of the trees and their healing leaves? Might these not, in their deepest metaphorical understanding, be identical with the trees and leaves that produced the healing Balm from Gilead spoken of by Jeremiah? It is well known that balms were used in the ancient world medicinally to heal the sick and wounded. Might I suggest the possibility that it is this balm, extracted from the leaves of the ‘Trees of Life‘ on either side of the bank of the ‘River of Life’ in John’s vision in the book of Revelation, that is the true ‘Balm of Gilead’ – that beautifully perfumed balm crushed and created through the suffering of The Lamb who is so prominent within this book? Might I further suggest that it is from from the nail scarred hands of the Jesus who died on a tree at Calvary, pictured in metaphor as the Divine Physician (Luke 5:31) – and the Lamb of God, (John 1:29) that will ultimately bring healing to every nation?
Such healing then is, I would suggest, at its deepest level, nothing other than salvation, restoration and universal reconciliation. As Isaiah saw the healing of the people through the afflicted Messiah – the one who was ‘wounded for our transgressions’ and ‘bruised for our iniquities’ – so too John, with Isaiah, sees the efficacy of that sacrifice at the very end of the age – ‘He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied.’ . (Isaiah 53 – KJV)
‘And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there.’
Revelation 21 (NLT)
1 – The word ‘nations’ in Hebrew stems from the Hebrew term goy, which means a ‘nation,’ and was applied both to the Hebrews and to any other nation. The plural, goyim, especially with the definite article, ha-goyim, ‘the nations,’ meant nations of the world that were not Hebrew.