The word ‘decree’ appears many times throughout the Bible, especially in relation to the commands and pronouncements of kings. If you’re looking for a quick answer, a decree in the biblical sense refers to an official order or proclamation made by a person in authority.
Decrees in the Bible were often made by kings to establish laws and regulations for their kingdoms. But decrees also came directly from God, representing divine declarations of His will and intent.
In this comprehensive article, we will examine the meaning and usage of the word ‘decree’ across both the Old and New Testaments. We’ll look at various examples of royal decrees made by kings like Nebuchadnezzar and Darius, as well as decrees of Persian kings like Cyrus and Artaxerxes.
We’ll also explore the decrees of God, which often determined the fate of nations and peoples. By the end, you’ll have a thorough understanding of what the biblical writers meant when they spoke of decrees.
Decrees Issued by Kings in the Old Testament
Nebuchadnezzar’s Golden Statue Decree
As described in Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar constructed a massive golden statue in Babylon and decreed that all people must fall down and worship it when certain music played. Those who refused would be thrown into a fiery furnace.
This was a test of faith for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three Jewish men who served in the king’s court. Despite the threat, they refused to worship any god but Yahweh. Miraculously, the Lord protected them in the furnace.
Eventually, Nebuchadnezzar praised the God of Israel and decreed that no one should speak against Him (Daniel 3:28-29).
Darius’ Decree Against Prayer
After Daniel was appointed as one of three chief administrators over the kingdom by King Darius, the other administrators became jealous and tried to find grounds to accuse him (Daniel 6:1-5). Since Daniel was faithful, they convinced Darius to sign a 30-day decree forbidding prayer to any god or man except the king.
But Daniel continued praying three times a day towards Jerusalem, so he was arrested. When Darius realized what had happened, he was distressed because he respected Daniel. Despite his decree, he was unable to intervene as Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den.
But God shut the lions’ mouths, protecting His faithful servant (Daniel 6:16-23).
Cyrus’ Decree to Rebuild the Temple
In fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy over 150 years earlier (Isaiah 44:24-45:7), King Cyrus of Persia decreed that the Jewish exiles could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple which had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.
This supportive decree gave permissions and provisions for the project and returning of articles taken from the former Temple (Ezra 1:1-11). It represented a major shift in policy towards the Jews. Later Persian kings Artaxerxes and Darius reconfirmed Cyrus’ decree, allowing the Temple to be completed around 515 BC.
Artaxerxes’ Decree to Rebuild Jerusalem
In Nehemiah 1-2, King Artaxerxes permitted his Jewish cupbearer Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls and gates which had been destroyed for nearly a century. He even provided letters ensuring safe passage and authorizing timber for construction.
This decreee reversed a long prohibition against restoring Jerusalem’s defenses. Despite opposition, Nehemiah led the huge 52-day rebuilding project to success with the people’s support, while guarding against attack.
Gods’ divine favor, strategic leadership and the king’s decree powerfully intertwined, allowing a weakened Jerusalem to be revitalized.
Divine Decrees in the Old Testament
God’s Covenant with Abraham
One of the most significant divine decrees in the Old Testament is when God makes an everlasting covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17. God promises to make Abraham the father of many nations, give his descendants the land of Canaan, and that through his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
This covenantal decree establishes Israel as God’s chosen people and sets in motion the redemptive plan that will culminate in Jesus Christ. The unconditional nature of the covenant reveals the sovereignty of God in decreeing blessings upon Abraham and his descendants.
Decrees of Blessing and Cursing
Another example of divine decrees is when God promises to bless Israel if they obey his commandments but curse them if they turn away (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). This establishes the conditional nature of some of God’s decrees – Israel’s disobedience would trigger curses, while their faithfulness would yield abundant blessings.
These blessing and curses come to fruition at various points in Israel’s history showing God’s immutable authority to decree such outcomes for obedience or defiance towards His word.
For instance, God decrees disasters upon the nation when they persistently break the covenant despite warnings from the prophets. But when they repent, God also decrees to restore them from exile (Jeremiah 29:10), showing his compassion and grace within his righteous judgments.
Decrees of Judgment Against Nations
The Old Testament records several examples where God decrees judgment against nations who have set themselves against Him and His plans. God decrees the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their extreme wickedness (Genesis 19:13).
Through the prophet Isaiah, God decrees the coming demise of Babylon because of its idolatry and cruelty (Isaiah 13:19). God also frequently decrees judgment against nations like the Amalekites, Canaanites, Moabites who oppose and attack Israel.
These divine decrees emphasize God’s sovereign authority over the nations and his commitment to dispense justice. Even powerful empires are subject to the Creator’s decrees and their judgment reveals that no nation, no matter how mighty, can thwart the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plans for human history.
Decrees in the New Testament
The Decree of Caesar Augustus
One of the most famous decrees in the New Testament is the decree of Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world (Luke 2:1). This decree set in motion the events that led Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.
The decree of Augustus highlights how God uses the decisions of secular rulers to accomplish His purposes. Though Augustus did not realize it, his decree played a key role in fulfilling Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah’s birthplace.
References to Divine Decrees
The New Testament also refers to decrees made by God Himself. For example, Paul states that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began” (2 Timothy 1:9).
This speaks of God’s decree to extend grace and salvation, made even before time began. Jesus also refers to God’s decrees when He thanks the Father for revealing spiritual truths “to babes” rather than the wise, stating this was well-pleasing in God’s sight (Luke 10:21).
God had decreed that redemption would be revealed most clearly to the humble, not the arrogant.
Council Decrees in Acts
The book of Acts records several decrees made by early church councils under the guidance of the apostles. For example, Acts 15 describes the Jerusalem Council, where the apostles decreed that Gentile converts did not need to follow the entire Mosaic Law, but only abstain from idolatry and sexual immorality (Acts 15:19-20).
The apostles made this authoritative pronouncement to settle a dispute in the early church. Later, Acts 16 describes a decree made by Paul and Silas that established regulations for the churches in Syria and Cilicia.
Overall, these council decrees provided doctrinal and practical guidance for believers and served to unify the early church.
In summary, the biblical concept of a decree refers to an authoritative and often binding proclamation, command or decision. While royal decrees feature heavily in the Old Testament as the edicts of kings, the New Testament usage broadens to include imperial decrees like that of Caesar Augustus, as well as the decrees of God Himself.
Whether issued by prophets, kings or councils, decrees in Scripture determine the fate of individuals and nations alike. They represent how the divine will intervenes in human affairs. Understanding decrees provides deeper insight into how God manifests His sovereignty over mankind across the entire biblical narrative.