With the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, the Duke of York, father of beloved daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, was thrust unexpectedly onto the throne, becoming King George VI. By God’s grace he guided Britain and its Empire through World War II, perhaps the greatest threat Britain, Europe, and much of the world had ever faced. Following his untimely death in 1952, a second Elizabethan age began as Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II at the tender age of just twenty-seven, with a public commitment to serve Britain and all the lands of her influence with the help of Almighty God. In 1953 the Queen’s Coronation was televised around the world. The Coronation was a profound Christian service of deep religious significance with origins going right back to the time of King Solomon. Here, a young woman who had expected to live a quiet life as a minor member of the royal family and enjoy her love of horses and country life was crowned Queen, beginning what would become the longest reign in the history of the British monarchy, surpassing in longevity even the remarkable reign of Queen Victoria her great-great-grandmother. Reaching her Platinum Jubilee this year, Elizabeth reigned for seventy years, covering the premierships of fifteen Prime Ministers from Winston Churchill to Elizabeth Truss, whom she welcomed into office just days before her death at the age of ninety-six.
Much has been said and will be written in coming days and months about Elizabeth II’s era as Queen. In many respects her death marks the end of our direct contact with the old world, of old Christendom. In turbulent times globally she led the transition of the British Empire into a voluntary association of 54 nations comprising 2.4 billion people, over which she was initially Head of State. Despite her steadily diminishing role as Head of State in the Commonwealth, until her death she remained Head of State over fifteen nations around the world. The London Declaration of 1949 had marked the birth of the modern Commonwealth bound by friendship, shared values, interests and history, recognising King George VI as head. Following his death, the Commonwealth leaders recognised the late Queen Elizabeth II in the same role. The nations over which King Charles III now becomes King and Head of State include Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as several island nations in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean. These include Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Lucia, Solomon Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, and St Vincent and the Grenadines. There are also several overseas territories linked to the UK that are not in the Commonwealth itself but still have the Queen as Head of State, including the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Cook Islands, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and Turks and Caicos, to name just a few of them.
Most of us living today have only ever known one monarch, and when a person referred to “The Queen” in conversation it was always Elizabeth II they had in mind. Her seventy-year reign provided a sense of continuity, constancy and security – a feeling of permanence in ever-shifting cultural waters. A masterful diplomat, she was loved, admired and respected in many places around the world. It was not only the projection of immense ‘soft power’ and global influence that made her so remarkable. She has been widely praised for her wisdom, faithfulness, self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, kindness and sense of humour, all undergirded by her deep faith in Christ – a facet largely minimized or overlooked by much of the media.
Amidst the massive outpouring of sorrow and palpable grief, especially in Britain – with lines up to ten miles long of people waiting to pay respects to the Queen as she lies in state at Westminster Hall – many do not fully understand what motivated her remarkable life and why she faithfully served and modelled the values the people so admire and will miss now with her passing. There is no understanding Elizabeth II without getting to the religious root of her service as Queen – her oath to serve Christ and submit to His Word and universal Empire. She recognized her reign as being that of an office-bearer under God, with a delegated sphere of sovereignty as Head of State that allowed freedom, peace and justice to flourish for much of her regency. As ‘sovereign’ Elizabeth rightly saw that sovereignty as limited, delegated and a service of trust under Christ. You cannot have the fruit of such a life without the root and as such many mourners do not yet fully grasp the true ground of their grief.
From the scriptural standpoint, the issue of sovereignty is a critical one determining the destiny of nations. In Proverbs 8:15-16 Christ is personified as wisdom itself and there we read:
It is by me that kings reign
and rulers enact just law;
by me, princes lead,
as do nobles and all righteous judges
In Deuteronomy 17, God places His stamp of approval upon monarchy as a legitimate form of human government. But there He also places strict limits on the power of monarchy. The Head of State does not possess total power or ‘absolute sovereignty’ as claimed in the pagan nations from ancient times till the present. As made clear in 1 Samuel 8, for a king to serve God meant turning away from the pagan concept of sovereignty to service of the living God. Israel’s sin in the time of Samuel was that they demanded a king ‘like all the other nations’ who would fight their battles for them and project Israelite power, rather than seeking a king committed to the service of God, the enactment of his righteous law and the freeing of the people to serve the living God in all areas of life:
You are to appoint over you the king the Lord your God chooses. Appoint a king from your brothers. You are not to set a foreigner over you, or one who is not of your people. However, he must not acquire many horses for himself or send the people back to Egypt to acquire many horses, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are never to go back that way again.’ He must not acquire many wives for himself so that his heart won’t go astray. He must not acquire very large amounts of silver and gold for himself. When he is seated on his royal throne, he is to write a copy of this instruction for himself on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. It is to remain with him, and he is to read from it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to observe all the words of this instruction, and to do these statutes. Then his heart will not be exalted above his countrymen, he will not turn from this command to the right or the left, and he and his sons will continue ruling many years over Israel. (Deut. 17:15-20)
Ruling Over while Living Under
As a pale image of Christ Jesus the King, monarchy is meant to serve God and promote justice, truth and righteousness. Kingship began in Eden when king Adam and queen Eve were made royal priests, vice-gerents of the living God. They were to reflect the will and purpose of God to all creation with a delegated sovereignty in various aspects or spheres of life. With creation then, the principle of sphere sovereignty is made manifest – the triune God alone has absolute sovereignty. We are told in Scripture that this total sovereignty, power and authority has been vested in God the Son, manifest in history as our Lord Jesus Christ. Psalm 110 makes plain that God has appointed Christ as the ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev. 1:5):
This is the declaration of the Lord
to my Lord:
“Sit at My right hand
until I make Your enemies Your footstool.”
The Lord will extend Your mighty scepter from Zion.
Rule[a] over Your surroundingenemies…
The Lord has sworn an oath and will not take it back:
“Forever, You are a priest
like Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:2-4)
In Psalm 2 we see what God requires of every earthy monarch and ruler to pay homage to the Son and to recognise his absolute sovereignty over all of life, all peoples and nations:
I have consecrated My King
on Zion, My holy mountain.”
I will declare the Lord’s decree:
He said to Me, “You are My Son;
today I have become YourFather.
Ask of Me,
and I will make the nations Your inheritance
and the ends of the earth Yourpossession.
You will break them with a rod of iron;
You will shatter them like pottery.”
So now, kings, be wise;
receive instruction, you judges of the earth.
Serve the Lord with reverential awe
and rejoice with trembling.
Pay homage to the Son or Hewill be angry
and you will perish in your rebellion,
for Hisanger may ignite at any moment.
All those who take refuge in Himare happy. (Psalm 2:6-12)
God’s sovereign authority is thus expressed and exercised through offices held by human beings even now in a fallen world. The man Christ Jesus is the ultimate sovereign and the only Priest- King with universal empire and kingdom rule – as creator and redeemer His authority is total: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus declares his own kingship plainly:
Therefore, Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this purpose I have been born, and for this I have come into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice.” (John 18:37)
This king delegates rule to human beings to occupy an office under himself. This limitation on kings and heads of state, expressed so powerfully in the late Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation oath, provides for freedom in all spheres of life to serve God:
Archbishop: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?
Queen: All this I promise to do.
The whole coronation ritual is worth reading in full, as the Queen submits to Christ in committing to maintain the law and gospel as an office-bearer under God. We also see here the delimited authority of the state and the church in their distinct spheres even with a structural interlacement of a soft establishment. In the principle of sphere sovereignty, then, is the ground of liberty and the basis of our constitutional freedoms in the English-speaking world. Abraham Kuyper, reflecting on the ancient pagan view of the state in his inauguration address of the Free University in 1880 pointed out the great danger that:
Without Sphere Sovereignty, the state’s unlimited rule; disposing of persons, their life, their rights, their conscience, and even their faith … because of this, the State, embodied in Caesar, itself became God. The god-state could not tolerate any other gods beside itself.
The ‘state sovereign’ is not permitted to use their own will and choice as a criterion for government. In every sphere of life, the family, church, state, school, and so forth, we are bound by a higher will. As Kuyper explained, the one grounded in the Word of God “confesses as a matter of course that all sovereignty rests in God, and therefore can proceed only from him; that this sovereignty of God has been conferred upon the man-Messiah in the absolute sense and undivided; and that therefore man’s freedom is safe in the hands of this Son of Man.” The ancient pagan concept of sovereignty currently being revived in the West is wholly different. Those who do not recognize the authority of Christ and His revelation – where the kingdom of Christ is the only totalizing sovereign authority:
…insist that there must be absolute separation between the problem of Sovereignty and the problem of faith; they consequently assert that any sovereignty, other than that of the State, is unthinkable; they therefore zealously promote the embodiment of the sovereignty idea, in its purest sense, in the Supreme State; and accordingly, they cannot grant to other life spheres a more generous freedom than that which is permitted or granted by the state.
Not to acknowledge Christ as King of kings and supreme sovereign is therefore to contest it and to steadily permit the capture all other life spheres under the absolute sovereignty of the state. That is why history has been and remains a conflict between Sphere Sovereignty under Christ and State Sovereignty under the prince of this world, “Deus Christus or Divus Augustus will be the shibboleth that will determine the fate of the world.”
The finished work of Christ the King at the cross, indeed the Basileus on his cross, acknowledged by our late Queen and before which she bowed in reverence and submission, was the great triumph of the King Jesus over the prince of this world, Satan. It marked the beginning of freedom and liberty in every area of life in terms of the Word of God, the royal law for the government of all princes.
Like all human monarchs, no matter how great, Elizabeth II was fallible and fallen and by no means perfect as she sought to fulfill her duty and biblical job description. Perhaps she could or should have faced a constitutional crisis head-on by refusing to sign certain godless bills brought from the legislature at Westminster into law. Tragically, had she done so, she would not have had the support of the Church of England hierarchy and its bishops in the House of Lords – an infamous failure in the Church of England to stand faithfully upon the Word of God and support the monarch in doing so by reading and reminding them of the book of the law. There were great kings in Israel like David, Solomon, Josiah and Hezekiah, but all were fallible, fallen and prone to sin and error. This is why only those Heads of State who kiss the Son and obey His Word can hope to stand and not encounter the anger of the Lord of all lords.
We do not know what lies ahead for Britain and the other nations where the British monarch is Head of State, and so our sense of grief and loss at the passing of Elizabeth II is legitimate and right – a queen who by God’s grace was permitted to reign and blessed by the Lord for seventy long years. But this we do know, the man Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, sits upon the everlasting throne at the right hand of all majesty, power and authority, and to Him every knee shall bow, in heaven and in earth.