More than one prophecy in the Old Testament points to the response of kings to the word of the Lord. For example:
“All the kings of the earth will give thanks to You, O LORD,
when they have heard the words of Your mouth.
And they will sing of the ways of the LORD,
for great is the glory of the LORD” (Psalm 138:4-5).
“Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and its Holy One,
to the despised One, to the One abhorred by the nation, to the Servant of rulers,
‘Kings will see and arise, princes will also bow down,
because of the LORD who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen You’” (Isaiah 49:7).
“Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him;
for what had not been told them they will see,
and what they had not heard they will understand” (Isaiah 52:15).
In our political climate, it seems nearly impossible that today’s world rulers will voluntarily honor and even sing of the Lord. They resemble the rebels of Psalm 2 more than those giving homage in Psalm 72.
How then will these prophecies be fulfilled?
At first glance, such prophecies would seem to demand a Millennium, when the Lord Jesus reigns on earth as King of Kings (cf. Revelation 20:1-4). This interpretation would push the fulfillment of these prophecies into even our future, whether we understand them in a postmillennial way, after the gospel has overcome and transformed the world’s cultures, or in a premillennial way, when Jesus forcibly subdued the nations and they give feigned obedience to Him out of fear (cf. Psalm 66:3-4). Certainly there is a day coming when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11; cf. Isaiah 45:23). Are we to understand these prophecies in this futuristic way?
In neither passage does it appear that the kings are forced to confess the Lord. They seem to respond sincerely. Moreover, they respond not to a show of force, but to a message. They have “heard” a message from God about His suffering Servant. Going farther, it is very significant that these prophecies describe their initial response to the word. In both passages, there is an explicit temporal element, marking the time of the kings’ actions. In other words, whenever the kings of the earth first hear the word of God, they will respond with stunned silence—as Job did to God’s barrage of data (Job 40:4)—and then give thanks, confessing the Lord as God and singing of His ways, just as the bards of old sung of heroic men. In the poetry of Isaiah, the living and abiding word of God will be the breath of the Lord that wilts these princely regimes away (Isaiah 40:6-8, 23-24; cf. 1 Peter 1:24-25).
If this is the correct understanding, we can look to the past for the partial fulfillment of these prophecies. For example, it is very common for the leaders of a tribal people to accept the gospel, whenever the word is first presented to them. We see hints of this phenomenon in the book of Acts, for example, when Paul preaches to Sergius Paulus on Cyprus or heals Publius on the island of Malta—or even conversely, when Herod Antipas is put to death for his pride after persecuting the church. Moreover, we see this conquest occur eventually in the history of Rome, when the emperors finally embraced and confessed the Christian religion, even though they may not have been born again. Later in Europe, the tribes also embraced Christianity, whether we look at Alfred the Great among the Anglo-Saxons or the father of Leif the Lucky among the Vikings. According to Acts, this political conquest is part of the word prevailing (to use Luke’s term). The messenger may perish, but the word continues to spread—just as Paul the prison preached the gospel “unhindered” in the very capital of the empire, which is Luke’s final word (Acts 28:31).
This view of the prophecies as marking the initial wave of the gospel is also supported by Paul’s understanding of Isaiah 52:15 as a reference to frontier missions (see Romans 15:21). Accordingly, no guarantee is given that the kings of the earth will continue to confess Christ indefinitely. In fact, the career of Jesus Himself would indicate that the arc of popularity in a culture wanes as time goes on—a pattern that has been repeated in culture after culture since the beginning of the church. Just as idolatry is removed through the initial conquest of the gospel—a fact in which Athanasius loved to boast—so also the religion of antichrist follows in its wake. In other words, while the gospel causes the nations to forsake their gods for the one true and living God and for His Son Jesus Christ, eventually this worship of the Trinity is rejected and replaced by a secularized religion of the state, in accordance with the prophecies about the coming antichrist (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2; 1 John 2:18ff). At that point, it is not the power of the word, but the rod of iron that will subdue these rebellious kings (Psalm 2:9). (As a side note, remember that the kings in Psalm 2 are already aware of the Lord’s Anointed and are chafing under His reign, just as the Pharaohs of Egypt eventually forgot about Joseph and began to oppress his people. That Acts 4 attributes the fulfillment of Psalm 2 to Pilate and Herod does not limit the fulfillment to just those kings, especially since Christ is still being persecuted in His church all over the world.)
What a neat concept to consider—an historical display of the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, right there in our history books and in our current missionary endeavors in the Lord! Surely these tales of conquest need to be retold and relished—may the Lord grant it! As part of His reward, Jesus gains the strong of the earth as spoil to divide out as He pleases (Isaiah 53:12). No one is exempt from the sovereign sway of Jesus. May His name be great from the rising of the sun and to the going down of the same, and may all the kings of the earth bow down before Him (Psalm 72:11)! Amen.