How the Biblical Theme of Kingship in the Old Testament is totally reframed in Christ
It is human nature to compare ourselves to others and want what they have. We learn by imitation and as we grow, we want desperately to fit in and not stand out from the crowd. It fulfils our need for acceptance and belonging. God’s people are not immune from this despite the knowledge and experience of God’s love and provision. In 1 Samuel 8, verse 5 the Israelites come to Samuel, the prophet, and say, “appoint for us…a king to govern us, like other nations.” But, as he reminds them, they are not like the other nations. They already have a king, one who is Lord over heaven and earth. What is God’s response to their request? “They have not rejected you (Samuel), but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods.” So Samuel warns them of the consequences, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you; he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen…He will take your daughters to perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” The people are adamant, “No! But we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” Samuel does what they ask and with their first king Saul and, more successfully, with his successor, David, Israel does become a stronger and more unified force that is able to defeat its enemies.
However, they soon paid the price and when David’s son Solomon acceded the throne he extended David’s modest system of taxation of the twelve different districts of his territory supporting his court with the provisions for one month each year, to include the raising of revenue for the administration of the collection of such taxes. “The very idea of a privileged elite being served and paid for by the ordinary citizens was a fundamental denial of the traditions of their people.” (Drane, p.93) However, worse was to come as the income generated was still not enough to fund Solomon’s lavish lifestyle and ambitious building projects. He introduced ‘forced labour’ and so was guilty of enslaving his own people. Thus, “human monarchy stands under suspicion because it became in Israel, as elsewhere, an engine for preference, privilege, monopoly and self indulgence.” (Brueggemann, p.604) Further criticism is levelled at Solomon and subsequent monarchs for the taking of foreign wives who introduce idolatry into the royal household (Deut 7:1-4). Even the king is subject like all other Israelites to live in reverence to God and obedience to His law (Deut. 17:18-20). And the promise of an everlasting dynasty made to David, is conditional upon him and his descendants keeping God’s commands (1 Ki. 9:4-5).
The other major critique of kingship in the Old Testament comes with the Exile of God’s people and the destruction of Jerusalem, the administrative and spiritual heart of the nation, at the hands of the Babylonians in 587BC. Both prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel put the blame squarely at the door of the kings for this calamity. “…thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.” (Jer. 23:2) “Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and hardship you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd…” (Ez. 34:2-5) This is because they not only did not heed the warnings attached to covenantal disobedience (1 Ki. 9:6-9) but they had failed in, “the establishment and maintenance of justice as (their) primary obligation to Yahweh and to Israelite society.” (Brueggemann, p.611)
Despite the obvious failure of kingship to inaugurate wise and just leadership, the people of God persisted in their hope for a new king in the model of David (Brueggemann, p.617) to free them from oppression, reinstate their ownership of the land and crush their enemies (Psalm 2:7-9). This idea is vitally important to get our heads around if we are to understand why Jesus came to be so hated by the Jews. “In the first scenes of the gospel, Luke dramatically portrays the families of John the Baptist and of Jesus as Jews who expect a prophet and a king who will conduct a holy war on Israel’s enemies. In his 4th chapter, then, Luke introduces the awaited leader. He is wholly different to what has been expected. He is the anointed of God who will announce a year of favour for both Jews and their opponents.” (Bosch, p.111) In a reflection of my earlier quote from Ezekiel on the failure of Israel’s kings, Jesus says of himself, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me (kings were always anointed with oil in a religious ceremony to recognise the position they had been given by God and for that to be acknowledged before the people) to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” However, in this direct quote from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus stops short of proclaiming “the day of vengeance of our God.” He had not come to crush their enemies but to love them (Luke 6:27), not come to overthrow the Romans but to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s (Matt 22:21), not come to restore Jerusalem to its former glory but put right worship back at its heart (Matt 12:6), not come to punish those outside the law but fulfil it so that all may enter into the holy of holies (Matt 27:51). This is indeed good news for you and I, but is not what the majority of Jews wanted to hear!
The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem ahead of the Passover with the crowd shouting, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ (Luke 19:38) and his condemnation to death by this same crowd just days later, is the climax of this conflict between Israelite expectation and God-given reality. “At the heart of Luke’s picture of the cross is the mocking of Jesus as ‘King of the Jews’…Here comes his royal cup-bearer, only it’s a Roman soldier offering him the sour wine poor people drank. Here is his royal placard, announcing his kingship to the world, but it is in fact his criminal charge which explains his cruel death (Luke 23:36-38).” (Wright, p.284) Seeing Jesus then is truly like viewing the kings of the Old Testament through the looking glass. He took their vision of kingship and totally redefined it. All that God’s people longed for that was a good and true reflection of Yahweh such as His compassion, justice and mercy can be seen all the more clearly. Yet the distorted image magnified by human pride, greed and lust for revenge is dispelled. Finally the ultimate good shepherd (John 10:14) is revealed. It is He who inherits the throne of David, fulfilling God’s promise that his lineage would reign forever (2 Sam 7:16). He models leadership that not only prefers others (John 13:14-15) but is humble and sacrificial even to death (Phil 2:7-8). “In the paradoxical power of the lamb who was slain, omnipotence is not to be understood as the power of unlimited coercion but as the power of infinite persuasion, the invincible power of self negating, self sacrificing love.” (Dark, p22) And we too now look forward in hope and expectation for our perfect king to take His rightful place of honour and glory. Then we shall enjoy the fullness of His Kingdom come (Matt 6:10) and know the rule of God without mediation. “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev. 21:3) It is a glorious hope indeed and one which will not be disappointed!
Photo is of the King’s Stone, Kingston-upon-Thames