The terms "king" and "kingship" are common biblical words, occurring over 2,500 times in the Old Testament and 275 times in the New Testament. The terms are applied not only to human rulers but also to God. The concept of the kingship of God is regarded by many scholars as so basic to biblical revelation that it is viewed as an organizing theme for all of Scripture.
In general, the words melek
(Heb. king) and basileus
(Gk. king) designate the person who holds supreme authority over a nation or city. In the Old Testament the most numerous references to "king" and "kingship" occur in the narratives dealing with the periods of the united and divided kingdoms of ancient Israel. Saul, David, and Solomon were kings who ruled over a united Israelite kingdom. After Solomon's death the kingdom divided into northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) segments. Then a long succession of kings in both Israel (nineteen kings) and Judah (nineteen kings, one queen) ran from 931 b.c. until 721 b.c. in the north and 586 b.c. in the south.
Much of 1-2Samuel, 1-2Kings, and 1-2Chronicles describes matters pertaining to the lives and reigns of these kings. This, however, does not mean that reference to kingship is limited to narrative sections of the Old Testament. In fact, significant sections of the writings of the prophets and poets also involve the actions of the various kings of Israel and Judah.
The use of "king" and "kingship" however, is not limited to the occupants of the thrones in Samaria and Jerusalem. Reference is also found to numerous foreign kings whose activities affected Israel in some way. But more important, there is a strong and conspicuous emphasis on the kingship of God, the "Great King" who rules over his people (Exodus 15:18
; Deuteronomy 33:5
; 1 Samuel 8:7
; 12:12 ; 1 Chronicles 17:14
; 28:5 ; Psalm 114:2
). God's kingship, however, contrasts with that of Israel's rulers in that God's rule is not limited to the nation of Israel. While he is king over his people in a special sense, by virtue of his covenantal relationship to them, his kingship is at the same time universal, extending to all nations and peoples and even the natural environment.
This juxtaposition of divine and human kingship in the Old Testament period presented ancient Israel with a duality of sovereigns. God was the great King who ruled the universe as well as his people, Israel. He had not only delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt and taken them to himself to be a "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6
), but he was sovereign beyond Israel's borders as the ruler over all of nature and history. Yet in the course of time Israel also had her own human kings, the rulers in Jerusalem or Samaria who exercised their royal power to govern the nation. This duality of sovereigns was the source of one of the major theological problems in the Old Testament period. How was Israel to understand the relationship between their obligation to Yahweh, the divine King, on the one hand, and their obligation to the human king on the other? What was the role of the human king in ancient Israel, and to what extent was this role realized? What conditions gave rise to the idea of the coming of a future messianic king who would someday establish peace and justice in all the earth?
It is important to understand the way in which the Old Testament presents the relationship between divine and human kingship. Contrary to the idea of certain scholars (e.g., Vatke, Gressmann, von Rad), the Old Testament does not suggest that the idea of the kingship of Yahweh was a projection derived from the human institution. It is not warranted to assert, as some have, that the title of king was not ascribed to Yahweh prior to the time of the Israelite monarchy. To do this requires the late dating of explicit statements of Yahweh's kingship in texts such as 1 Samuel 8:11-18
6 ; Numbers 23:21
; Deuteronomy 33:5
; Judges 8:23
; and 1 Samuel 8:7
; 10:19 ; 12:12 . To do this also denies the close relationship that exists between the establishment of the Sinai covenant and the acknowledgment of Yahweh's kingship over Israel. Parallels in literary structure between the Sinai covenant and certain international treaties drawn up by the kings of the Hittite Empire in the fourteenth century b.c. show that in the Sinai covenant Yahweh assumes the role of the Great King, and Israel, that of his vassal. All of this suggests, very clearly, that Israel recognized Yahweh as her Great King long before kingship was established in Jerusalem.
This recognition has caused other contemporary scholars (Mendenhall, McKenzie) to suggest that the establishment of human kingship in Israel was a rebellion against divine rule and represented an alien paganizing development in the social structure of ancient Israel. For these scholars the establishment of the monarchy represented a return to the social model of the old Bronze Age paganism of the Canaanites, and a rejection of religious foundations derived from the Mosaic formulations of the Sinai covenant.
This approach, however, does violence to the many positive biblical statements concerning God's design for the institution of kingship in the context of this sovereign plan for the redemption of his people, and ultimately for the uNIVersal triumph of peace and justice on the earth. Kingship in Israel was not unanticipated. God had even provided for it in antecedent revelation. Abraham was told that "kings" would arise among his descendants (Genesis 17:6
). Jacob said that royalty would arise from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10
). Moses provided for the eventual rise of kingship in Israel when he gave the "law of the king" (Deuteronomy 17:14-20
) as part of the renewal of the covenant in the Plains of Moab just before Israel's entrance in the promised land. So it is clear that in God's purpose it was right and proper for Israel to have a king. To question this erodes the institutional basis of the messianic hope that arose in connection with the failure of Israel's kings to function as God had instructed.
The question of the Old Testament's apparently ambivalent attitude toward the institution of the monarchy is rooted in the description of the rise of kingship in Israel (1 Samuel 8-12 ). The tension in these chapters is evident. On the one hand Samuel said that Israel had sinned in asking for a king (1 Samuel 12:17-20
). On the other hand the Lord told Samuel to give the people a king (1 Samuel 8:7,2,22
). Later, after Saul was chosen by lot, Samuel said, "Do you see the man the Lord has chosen?" The issue here is not whether kingship in itself was right or wrong for Israel. At issue was the kind of kingship Israel desired, and her reasons for wanting a king. The elders of Israel asked Samuel to give them a "king like the nations" around them (Deuteronomy 17:14-20
a). They wanted a king to fight their battles and give them a symbol of national unity. This request betrayed their rejection of the kingship of Yahweh (1 Samuel 8:7
; 10:19 ; 12:12 ) and denial of the covenant. The Lord, however, told Samuel to give them a different sort of king. After warning them about what it would be like to have a king like the nations (1618648338_74 ) Samuel defined how kingship was to function in Israel (1 Samuel 10:25
). This description was a supplement to the "law of the king" given by Moses (1 Samuel 8:20
). Samuel then inaugurated the reign of Saul, Israel's first king, in the context of a renewal of the covenant with Yahweh (1 Samuel 11:14-12
:25 ). This had enormous significance. Kingship was subordinated to covenant. Israel's king was to be a covenantal king. He was not autonomous. He was always obligated to submit to the law of Israel's (and his ) Great King, Yahweh (Deuteronomy 17:18-20
; 1 Samuel 12:14
) as well as to the word of the prophet (1 Samuel 12:23
; 13:13 ; 15:11,23 ; 2 Samuel 12:7-13
Unfortunately Saul fell far short of living up to the requirements of his office. He disobeyed the word of the Lord and rebelled against the Lord (1 Samuel 13,15 ). Because of this the Lord rejected him from being king (1 Samuel 15:23
), and sent Samuel to annoint David in his place (1 Samuel 16 ). David was an imperfect but true representative of the ideal of the covenantal king. David grievously sinned in the matter of Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11,12 ), but in contrast to Saul when Nathan, the prophet, confronted him, he repented and sought the Lord's forgiveness (2 Samuel 12:13
; Psalm 51 ). Late in his reign he sinned again in taking the census of his fighting men, but again he sought the Lord's forgiveness (2 Samuel 24 ). David is thus termed a "man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14
; Acts 13:22
), and the writer of Kings makes his reign the standard by which to assess the reigns of subsequent kings.
For the most part the history of the kings of Israel and Judah is a history of failure to live up to the covenantal ideal. All of the kings of the north are said to have "done evil in the eyes of the Lord" because they continued the worship of the golden calves in Bethel and Dan that had been begun by the northern kingdom's first king, Jeroboam 1 (1 Kings 12:26-33
). Even among the kings of Judah, only Hezekiah and Josiah receive unqualified approval (2 Kings 18:3-7
; 22:2 ).
This failure of the kings of both Israel and Judah to live up to the covenantal ideal provided the backdrop as Israel's prophets began to speak of a future king who would be a worthy occupant of the throne of David. As the profile of this king slowly develops it is clear that he will come as the fulfillment of the promise of an eternal dynasty to David (2 Samuel 7 ; 23:1-7 ; Psalm 89 ; 132:11-12
; Isaiah 55:3-5
). He will not only be a descendant of David, but is also identified with deity (Isaiah 7:14
; 9:6-7 ; Jeremiah 23:5-6
; Ezekiel 36:24-28
). During his reign wars will cease and peace and justice will be established in the earth (Isaiah 2:1-5
; 11:1-10 ; Amos 9:11-15
). This future king came to be known as the "Messiah" (in Hebrew, "the anointed one") and longing for his appearance came to be known as messianic expectation.
In the New Testament the kingship theme is carried forward and its ambiguities resolved. Jesus is the one who fulfilled the royal messianic promises of the Old Testament. The Greek word translated "Christ" in our English versions of the Bible is a translation of the Hebrew term for Messiah (the anointed one). In the words of the angel who spoke to Mary: "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:32-33
). Jesus laid claim to fulfillment of the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament when at his trial before the Sanhedrin he was asked by the high priest whether he was the Messiah. Jesus replied, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the rights hand of the Mighty One and coming with the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14:62
). In Jesus Christ, the God-man, human and divine kingship are united in one person. In Jesus the duality of sovereigns present in the Old Testament period is eliminated.
J. Robert Vannoy
See also Israel ; Leadership
Bibliography F. F. Bruce, New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes ; G. Van Groningen, Messianic Revelation in the Old Testament ; D. M. Howard, Jr., TrinityJ 9 NS (1988): 19-35; idem, WTJ 52 (1990):101-15; G. E. Mendenhall, Int 29/2 (1975):155-70; J. J. M. Roberts, Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moor Cross, pp. 377-96.