Isaiah 49:23, which is cited in the Westminster Confession 23:3, reads “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.” It is a passage that indicates the care of rulers and their submission to the church. This position is asserted by the original Westminster Confession. In chapter 23, section 3 we read:
The civil magistrate…hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed…
Today many modern Reformed denominations have subscribed to a revised form of the Westminster Confession, effectively rejecting what is known as the establishment principle or the understanding that civil rulers as civil rulers are bound to honor and serve the Lord Jesus Christ and his kingdom. While this is certainly the position of classical Reformed orthodoxy, we need not simply cite historical works to contend for this teaching. There are many good reasons from the bible to embrace the teaching of Reformed orthodoxy. Simply focusing on the meaning of Isaiah 49:23 provides a good starting point. While a thorough exposition is impossible, consider a few highlights.
What is meant? To nurse is to provide, nourish, and care for another. Here it is said that kings and queens in their governing capacity will provide for the church. No firm adherent to the classic doctrine of the Westminster Standards, even Albert Barnes provides commentary upon the passage that supports the view of the original Westminster Confession. He explains that by being nursing fathers and nursing mothers:
…they would patronize the church of God; they would protect it by their laws, and foster it by their influence and become the personal advocates of the cause of Zion. The idea is properly that of guarding, educating, and providing for children; and the sense is that kings and princes would evince the same tender care for the interests of the people of God which a parent or a nurse does for a child. It is needless to say that this has been already to a considerable extent fulfilled, and that many princes and monarchs have been the patrons of the church, though doubtless it is destined to a more ample fulfillment still in the brighter days of this world’s history, when the gospel shall spread everywhere.
Who is meant? Both Matthew Poole and Matthew Henry note that this passage was in part fulfilled by kings of Persia: Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes; as well as with Constantine in the history of the Church. However, as Henry declares, “Whenever the scepter of government is put into the hands of religious princes, then this promise is fulfilled.” Thus, Isaiah prophesied of all future rulers who, as rulers, would serve the church. The context clearly indicates a focus upon the church of God, not religion in general. Thus, Isaiah foresaw a time when civil rulers would serve the church of Jesus Christ.
When shall this be? It must be noticed that it would not make sense to this passage as a reference to the new heavens and new earth, for why would the church need “nursing fathers” and “nursing mothers” in such a state? Thus, Isaiah speaks of a future, yet pre-consummation, time. The rulers of this earth at this time are here considered as servants to the interest of the church. They are under Christ’s authority today; they are to serve Christ today.
While Isaiah 49 provides a prophecy of this relationship between civil rulers and the church of Jesus Christ, Ephesians 1:22 provides us the biblical rationale for rulers submitting themselves and their governments to Christ. The verse states that God the Father, “hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church.” In other words, Christ was given dominion over all things for the church’s sake. This blends well with Isaiah 49. Christ is head over all the rulers of the earth. As he is head over them, he calls them to serve his kingdom. Symington draws out the force of this passage:
Mark the language. It is not only ‘Head over all things;’ but ‘Head over all things to the Church.’ It is for the sake of the church that he is invested with universal regal authority: in other words, the end of Christ’s universal Mediatorial dominion is the good of the Church. Thus far, all is clear and undeniable. But the nations are among the ‘all things,’ over which Christ is appointed ‘Head.” It follows, then, that Christ is appointed Head over the nations for the good of the Church.
The fact that the civil government falls under Christ’s him means that it is under his authority. One who is under authority has the duty of obedience. Since the civil state is under the authority of Jesus, who directs “by his word and Spirit,” the state has the obligation to submit to him as he has revealed his will in his word. As William Cunningham wrote,
The word of God is the supreme and only standard by which all men, publicly and privately, collectively and individually, in a civil or in an ecclesiastical capacity, are bound to regulate their opinions and actions in all matters of religion, and in all matters to which its statements may apply.
It does not make any sense to think that Christ as king of kings, would allow any under his authority to decide, without reference to his revealed will, issues of morality. Doubtlessly this raises questions to be asked and answered later. However, what is clear is that the bible teaches that rulers as rulers are under the authority of Christ and are to serve his church. Since the nations and their rulers have been given to Christ for him to rule, they ought to submit to his will. It is when they do so that they will become nursing fathers and nursing mothers to the church.