I’ve been reading through Scripture chronologically. When I read Isaiah 49:23 I was struck by how entirely out of place it is to interpret that text as teaching the civil government’s duty to use the sword to enforce both tables of the law, or even to say anything at all about the nature of civil government. The whole point of the prophecy is about Israel’s enemies becoming their slaves. It’s rather amazing that the Westminster Larger Catechism cites the text to prove that obedience to rulers is required under the 5th commandment.
Q. 124. Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment?
A. By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.
 Isaiah 49:23. And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.
The passage is about how “my servant Israel” (Christ) will bring the remnant back from exile among the nations who conquered them and took them away as captives.
49:22 This is what the sovereign Lord says:
“Look I will raise my hand to the nations;
I will raise my signal flag to the peoples.
They will bring your sons in their arms
and carry your daughters on their shoulders.
49:23 Kings will be your children’s guardians;
their princesses will nurse your children.
With their faces to the ground they will bow down to you
and they will lick the dirt on your feet.
Then you will recognize that I am the Lord;
those who wait patiently for me are not put to shame.
49:24 Can spoils be taken from a warrior,
or captives be rescued from a conqueror?
49:25 Indeed,” says the Lord,
“captives will be taken from a warrior;
spoils will be rescued from a conqueror.
I will oppose your adversary
and I will rescue your children.
49:26 I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh;
they will get drunk on their own blood, as if it were wine.
Then all humankind will recognize that
I am the Lord, your deliverer,
your protector, the powerful ruler of Jacob.”
Israel’s adversaries who oppressed them and took them captive will turn and lick the dirt on their feet. Their conquerors will become their slaves. This is in line with the Old Covenant’s blessing for obedience:
Deut 28:13 And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, 14 and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them.
The word “nurse” (for “fathers” is not to be found in the original text) does not imply supremacy, but is indicative of the labors of a servant. The nurse of a royal child—this being applicable to the church—is less than the child who is being nursed… Thus, the idea of dominion is not implied in the word “nurse,” but is expressly excluded.
It is truly bizarre the way the reformed tradition has historically interpreted and employed this passage – influenced in no small part by Aristotle’s political philosophy. The text is not a statement about “civil magistrates.” It is a statement about the enemies of Israel.
Israel was to be the greatest, most prominent nation in the world, if they obeyed the Old Covenant.
Deut 28:7 “The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before your face; they shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways… 9 The Lord will establish you as a holy people to Himself, just as He has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His ways. 10 Then all peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you…13 And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath, if you heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and are careful to observe them.
We see this happen in Solomon’s day, where they possessed all the land God promised them, and then some. Foreign rulers beyond Israel came and brought tribute to Solomon because of his mighty wisdom and the richness of Israel (think Queen of Sheba).
But what happend? Israel broke the Old Covenant, so God poured out the covenant curses upon Israel, which included being destroyed and taken captive by their enemies.
However, the prophets began to speak of a time when Israel would be restored because of their obedience. Moses himself prophesied the same thing in Deut 30:1
Now it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God drives you, 2 and you return to the Lord your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 that the Lord your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you. 5 Then the Lord your God will bring you to the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it. He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers. 6 And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
Note v7 “Also the Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on those who hate you, who persecuted you. 8 And you will again obey the voice of the Lord and do all His commandments which I command you today.”
In chapter 49, Isaiah is speaking of this time and he explains that it will happen because of the obedience of the Redeemer of Israel. They will be blessed. Their fortunes will be restored. Their children will return from captivity. Not only will Israel’s enemies be destroyed, but Israel’s enemies will actually come as servants of Israel, caring for its children and bowing down at their feet. Thus the roles are reversed.
22 Thus says the Lord God:
“Behold, I will lift My hand in an oath to the nations,
And set up My standard for the peoples;
They shall bring your sons in their arms,
And your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders;
Kings shall be your foster fathers,
And their queens your nursing mothers;
They shall bow down to you with their faces to the earth,
And lick up the dust of your feet.
Then you will know that I am the Lord,
For they shall not be ashamed who wait for Me.”
Shall the prey be taken from the mighty,
Or the captives of the righteous be delivered?
25 But thus says the Lord:
“Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away,
And the prey of the terrible be delivered;
For I will contend with him who contends with you,
And I will save your children.”
Thus the highest rulers of God’s enemies will lose their dominion and will become servants of Israel and will return Israel to the land from which they took them.
This verse says absolutely nothing about the institution of civil government. It speaks of the blessings for obedience that Israel would receive in the latter days – which we are to interpret typologically as referring to our eschatological inheritance earned by the only obedient Israelite: Jesus the Christ.
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth!
May desert tribes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust!
May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!
One thought on “Are Civil Rulers Our Nurse Fathers?”
Good stuff Brandon! The men who wrote that in the Catechism wrongly used the text for sure. I appreciate your diligent work. Ernie.