At his second inauguration, Abraham Lincoln stood before a nation in civil war, deeply divided over great moral and political issues.
Citizens of both North and South feared God and thought they were in the right, but God had not yet given victory to either side. Rather, the war raged on at great cost to both.
What would Lincoln say to this polarized nation in the midst of such sorrow, anger, and confusion?
At the Outset of Lincoln’s Second
Rather than use his address to muster nationalistic pride, commend himself, or boast in his plans for the future, Lincoln turned his mind, and those of his hearers, to the will of God.
“The Almighty has His own purposes,” Lincoln said. Then, quoting Matthew 18:7, he considered the sovereignty of God over the long-time offense of American slavery and the present woe of the Civil War:
“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln saw no contradiction between the goodness of God and the terrors of the American Civil War. Rather, he surmised that the Civil War was a direct expression of God’s goodness, the carrying out of his justice upon a nation that had long denied justice to a great number of her people.
The sovereign and good judgments of God were a guide to Lincoln, a “true and righteous” rock in the midst of a tragic and turbulent time. And as president of the United States, he offered this same comfort and hope to his fellow citizens.
At the Outset of Obama’s Second
As President Barack Obama has just undergone his second inauguration, America stands at a similar place as in Lincoln’s day. We are a nation deeply divided over great moral and political issues, and, though not in civil war, a variety of other crises surround us: economic instability, political gridlock, the social evils of abortion and widespread sexual immorality, the dangers of terrorism, and more. What is your soul’s response to this situation? Are you afraid, indignant, angry, confused, despairing, or doubting?
The greatness of Lincoln’s speech is that, in pointing to God, it is timelessly applicable. Just as the providence and goodness of our Maker were a comfort and a surety to Lincoln, so too can we be comforted, encouraged, and controlled by the truths of God today, whether our politicians or fellow citizens acknowledge them or not.
President Obama and everyone who is in power, whether in the U.S. or abroad, have been instituted by God as the agents through whom he will do his good and perfect will (Romans 13:1). It is for us to rest in this knowledge and to pray for these leaders, that through them God would enable peace so that the gospel may spread and many more come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1–4).
And as appreciative as we are to be citizens of such a great nation as the United States, it is ours to celebrate even more that we are citizens of God’s heavenly Kingdom, that Jesus is our eternal King, reigning in love and righteousness, and that his Kingdom is forever.
Listen to John Piper talk about Lincoln’s second inaugural address for the first ten minutes of his seminar message “God’s Word Has Not Fallen, Session 1.” For more from John Piper on Lincoln's second inaugural address, see Abraham Lincoln's Path to Divine Providence.