Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently addressed the United States Congress live via satellite from a Kyiv bunker. His speech was both poignant and moving as he called on our nation’s leaders to do more in support of Ukrainian efforts to repel Russian aggression. Aiming to pay no respect to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zelenskyy mentioned him by name only once during his entire speech. The news commentators that followed, however, referred to Putin quite a bit. They called him a maniacal killer, a legacy-obsessed fool and the like. This seems fitting because, beyond his unjust military invasion of another country, Putin has ordered the arrest (and possibly worse) of more than 13,000 Russian protesters since the war began. Putin’s power hold on his country is unmatched and cannot be questioned. For that reason, the name one commentator gave to Putin fit the best: power-driven despot.
A “despot” is a ruler who holds absolute power in his/her realm, often exercising it with cruelty and oppression. The terms “dictator,” “tyrant” and “autocrat” would be fair synonyms. Most of us are familiar with the despotic regimes that nearly brought the world to its knees in the 20th century and we look around and see more areas of despotism popping up today. And so we have some familiarity with despotic and dictatorial leaders. But, did you also know the term is in the Bible?
Our word “despot” or “dictator” comes from the Greek word δεσπότης (despotase, pronounced des-PŌ-tās). As used in ancient eastern literature, it describes a king or ruler with unchecked control over the lives of others. The word appears six times in the New Testament. In three of those cases, the word is used in reference to a slave-master (see 1 Timothy 6:1, Titus 2:9 and 1 Peter 2:18). This shouldn’t be surprising given what leaps into our minds when we think of the brutal practice of slavery throughout history. The other three uses may surprise you. In each of those cases, despotase refers to God. Yes, you read that right. How in the world can a term so closely connected with evil and abuse possibly describe our Heavenly Father? Let’s take a look at the Bible:
- “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.” (Luke 2:29)
- And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them …” (Acts 4:24)
- They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10)
The words bolded in each verse are the translation of despotase. And, in each verse, the word’s purpose is the same: The Lord God is completely sovereign. He grants blessings. He answers prayer. He intervenes in the world and he accomplishes his will. He is both in control of everything and outside of the control of anything. He answers to no one and he does all he pleases (Psalm 115:3). At the same time, the Bible says the Lord is completely good and never does evil (Psalm 34:8, 1 Peter 2:22). God’s character is perfect holiness and so he cannot sin. This means he is worthy of our trust and as his people we receive his lovingkindness and are protected by his constant care.
God’s character is perfect holiness and so he cannot sin. This means he is worthy of our trust and as his people we receive his lovingkindness and are protected by his constant care.
As Lord Acton famously wrote in the 19th century, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Humans have been sinners by nature and choice since the Garden of Eden, and even those who have received the grace of God will struggle with sin until entering eternal glory. Theologians call this the doctrine of total depravity—sin and evil affecting every part of who we are—every motive and every impulse. Because of this, unchecked power in mere mortals always results in atrocities being done to our fellow man. This undeniable truth is the foundation of democratic and republican governmental structures, an effort to keep a society governed y sinful humans in check. Humans inherently crave power, abuse it when they have it, seek to expand it, and fight hard to keep it. We see this in Ukraine right now. Does this mean humanity is out of hope? Quite the opposite.
We should be filled with hope even when it seems like despots abound. Why? Because we serve the true despotase who is the only One who wields absolute, unchecked power for our good. This sovereign God employed his power by sending his Son to save us. He is, after all, the Holy One. This means we should pray for an end to war, evil and oppression of all kinds—especially this terrible invasion of Ukraine—knowing that our God is in control. It also means we can be confident that by the Lord’s chosen means and in the Lord’s chosen timing, all things will be made right and true justice will be done. We can take a spiritual and physical deep breath because no matter how many despots seem to dominate world affairs, the true and good despotase does not waiver or shrink back. That is why we call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).
Come Lord Jesus,