In the broad and general sense, a nation is made up of people who are more or less related to one another by blood and who have a common language. Such a national group usually occupies a defined geographic territory and is subject to some form of central governmental control. According to the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, “Hebrew evidences a tendency for goy to describe a people in terms of its political and territorial affiliation, and so to approximate much more closely to our modern term ‘nation.’ ʽam [people], conversely, always retains a strong emphasis on the element of consanguinity as the basis of union into a people.” (Edited by G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, Vol. 2, 1975, p. 427) The Greek terms eʹthnos (nation) and la·osʹ (people) are used similarly. In the Scriptures the plural forms of gohy and eʹthnos usually refer to Gentile nations.
Origin. The first notice of the forming of separate nations appears in the post-Flood period, in connection with the building of the Tower of Babel. Those sharing in this project were united in their opposition to God’s purpose. The principal factor facilitating united action was that “all the earth continued to be of one language and of one set of words.” (Ge 11:1-4) Jehovah took notice of this and, by confusing their language, “scattered them from there over all the surface of the earth.”—Ge 11:5-9; MAP Vol. 1, p. 329.
Separated now by communication barriers, each linguistic group developed its own culture, art, customs, traits, and religion—each its own ways of doing things. (Le 18:3) Alienated from God, the various peoples contrived many idols of their mythical deities.—De 12:30; 2Ki 17:29, 33.
There were three great branches of these nations stemming from the sons and grandsons of Noah’s sons Japheth, Ham, and Shem, and these were reckoned as the founding fathers of the respective nations called by their names. The listing in Genesis, chapter 10, therefore might be termed the oldest tabulation of nations, 70 in number. Fourteen were Japhetic, 30 Hamitic, and 26 Shemitic in origin. (Ge 10:1-8, 13-32; 1Ch 1:4-25) For more information regarding these national groups, see CHART, Vol. 1, p. 329, as well as articles on each of the 70 descendants of Noah.
Many changes, of course, came with the passing of time. Some nations were absorbed by their neighbors or disappeared altogether, because of weakness, disease, or war; others came into existence through new migrations and population increases. The spirit of nationalism at times became very strong among certain groups, and this, coupled with great military exploits, gave ambitious men the necessary thrust to build world empires at the expense of weaker nations.
A Father of Nations. God told Abram to leave Ur and move to a land He would show him, for as He said, “I shall make a great nation out of you.” (Ge 12:1-4) Later, God enlarged on his promise, saying, “You will certainly become a father of a crowd of nations. . . . And I will make you very, very fruitful and will make you become nations, and kings will come out of you.” (Ge 17:1-6) This promise was fulfilled. Abraham’s son Ishmael fathered “twelve chieftains according to their clans” (Ge 25:13-16; 17:20; 21:13, 18), and through the six sons of Keturah, other nations traced their ancestry back to Abraham. (Ge 25:1-4; 1Ch 1:28-33; Ro 4:16-18) From Abraham’s son Isaac sprang the Israelites and Edomites. (Ge 25:21-26) In a much larger, spiritual sense Abraham became “a father of many nations,” for persons of many national groups, including those of the Christian congregation in Rome, by reason of their faith and obedience could call Abraham their father, “the father of all those having faith.”—Ro 4:11, 16-18; see ISRAEL No. 2.
How God Views the Nations. As the Creator and Universal Sovereign, God is within his absolute rights in setting the nations’ territorial boundaries (if he chooses to do so), as he did with Ammon, Edom, and Israel. (De 2:17-22; 32:8; 2Ch 20:6, 7; Ac 17:26) The Most High and Lofty One over all the earth is not to be compared in greatness with nations of mankind. (Jer 10:6, 7) Actually the nations are as but a drop from the bucket in his sight. (Isa 40:15, 17) So when such nations rage and mutter against Jehovah, as when they put Jesus to death on a torture stake, He only laughs at them in derision and confounds and destroys their presumptuous counsel against Him.—Ps 2:1, 2, 4, 5; 33:10; 59:8; Da 4:32b, 34, 35; Ac 4:24-28.
Yet for all of Jehovah’s superlative greatness and power, no one can rightly charge him with being unjust in his treatment of national groups. It makes no difference whether God is dealing with a single man or a whole nation, he never compromises his righteous principles. (Job 34:29) If a nation is repentant, as were the people of Nineveh, he blesses them. (Jon 3:5-10) But if they turn to doing bad, even though in a covenant with him, he destroys them. (Jer 18:7-10) When an issue arises, Jehovah sends his prophets with a message of warning. (Jer 1:5, 10; Eze 2:3; 33:7) God is not partial toward any, great or small.—De 10:17; 2Ch 19:7; Ac 10:34, 35.
Therefore, when whole nations refuse to recognize and obey Jehovah, or they cast him out of their minds and hearts, Jehovah executes his judgments upon them. (Ps 79:6; 110:6; 149:7-9) He devotes them to destruction and turns them back to Sheol. (Ps 9:17; Isa 34:1, 2; Jer 10:25) In descriptive language God says that the wicked nations will be turned over to his Son, the one called “Faithful and True . . . The Word of God,” to be dashed to pieces.—Ps 2:7-9; Re 19:11-15; compare Re 12:5.
The New Nation of Spiritual Israel. For centuries Jehovah God dealt exclusively with natural Israel, time and again sending his prophets to the nation so that the people might turn from their wayward course. Finally he sent his Son, Christ Jesus, but the majority rejected him. Therefore, Jesus said to the unbelieving chief priests and Pharisees: “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and be given to a nation producing its fruits.”—Mt 21:33-43.
The apostle Peter clearly identified that “nation” as one composed of persons who had accepted Christ Jesus. (1Pe 2:4-10) In fact, Peter applied to fellow Christians the very words that had been directed to natural Israel: “You are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for special possession.’” (1Pe 2:9; compare Ex 19:5, 6.) All of them recognized God as Ruler and his Son as Lord and Christ. (Ac 2:34, 35; 5:32) They possessed heavenly citizenship (Php 3:20) and were sealed with the holy spirit, which was an advance token of their heavenly inheritance. (2Co 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:13, 14) Whereas natural Israel was constituted a nation under the Law covenant, the “holy nation” of spirit-begotten Christians became such under the new covenant. (Ex 19:5; Heb 8:6-13) For these reasons it was most appropriate that they be called “a holy nation.”
When God’s spirit was first poured out upon about 120 disciples of Jesus (all natural Jews) on the day of Pentecost in the year 33 C.E., it became evident that God was dealing with a new spiritual nation. (Ac 1:4, 5, 15; 2:1-4; compare Eph 1:13, 14.) Later, beginning in the year 36 C.E., membership in the new nation was extended to uncircumcised Gentiles, who likewise received God’s spirit.—Ac 10:24-48; Eph 2:11-20.
Regarding the preaching of the good news to all nations, see GOOD NEWS.
Gog and Magog. The Bible book of Revelation (20:7, 8) states that, after Christ’s Thousand Year Reign, Satan “will go out to mislead those nations in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog.” Evidently such nations are the product of rebellion against Christ’s administration.—See GOG No. 3.