The terms "king" and "kingship" are common biblical words, occurringover 2, 500 times in the Old Testament and 275 times in the New Testament. The terms areapplied not only to human rulers but also to God. The concept of the kingship of God isregarded by many scholars as so basic to biblical revelation that it is viewed as anorganizing theme for all of Scripture.
In general, the words melek [
Much of 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles describes matters pertaining to thelives and reigns of these kings. This, however, does not mean that reference to kingshipis limited to narrative sections of the Old Testament. In fact, significant sections ofthe writings of the prophets and poets also involve the actions of the various kings ofIsrael and Judah.
The use of "king" and "kingship" however, is not limited to theoccupants of the thrones in Samaria and Jerusalem. Reference is also found to numerousforeign kings whose activities affected Israel in some way. But more important, there is astrong and conspicuous emphasis on the kingship of God, the "Great King" whorules over his people ( Exod 15:18 ; Deut 33:5 ; 1 Sam 8:7 ; 12:12 ; 1 Chron 17:14 ; 28:5 ; Psalm 114:2 ). God'skingship, however, contrasts with that of Israel's rulers in that God's rule is notlimited to the nation of Israel. While he is king over his people in a specialsense, by virtue of his covenantal relationship to them, his kingship is at the same timeuniversal, extending to all nations and peoples and even the natural environment.
This juxtaposition of divine and human kingship in the Old Testament period presentedancient Israel with a duality of sovereigns. God was the great King who ruled the universeas well as his people, Israel. He had not only delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt andtaken them to himself to be a "kingdom of priests" ( Exod 19:6 ), but hewas sovereign beyond Israel's borders as the ruler over all of nature and history. Yet inthe course of time Israel also had her own human kings, the rulers in Jerusalem or Samariawho exercised their royal power to govern the nation. This duality of sovereigns was thesource of one of the major theological problems in the Old Testament period. How wasIsrael 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 ofthe human king in ancient Israel, and to what extent was this role realized? Whatconditions gave rise to the idea of the coming of a future messianic king who wouldsomeday establish peace and justice in all the earth?
It is important to understand the way in which the Old Testament presents therelationship 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 thekingship of Yahweh was a projection derived from the human institution. It is notwarranted to assert, as some have, that the title of king was not ascribed to Yahweh priorto the time of the Israelite monarchy. To do this requires the late dating of explicitstatements of Yahweh's kingship in texts such as Exodus 15:18; Numbers 23:21; Deuteronomy33:5; Judges 8:23; and 1 Samuel 8:7; 10:19; 12:12. To do this also denies the closerelationship that exists between the establishment of the Sinai covenant and theacknowledgment of Yahweh's kingship over Israel. Parallels in literary structure betweenthe Sinai covenant and certain international treaties drawn up by the kings of the HittiteEmpire in the fourteenth century b.c. show that in the Sinai covenant Yahweh assumes therole of the Great King, and Israel, that of his vassal. All of this suggests, veryclearly, that Israel recognized Yahweh as her Great King long before kingship wasestablished in Jerusalem.
This recognition has caused other contemporary scholars (Mendenhall, McKenzie) tosuggest that the establishment of human kingship in Israel was a rebellion against divinerule and represented an alien paganizing development in the social structure of ancientIsrael. For these scholars the establishment of the monarchy represented a return to thesocial model of the old Bronze Age paganism of the Canaanites, and a rejection ofreligious foundations derived from the Mosaic formulations of the Sinai covenant.
This approach, however, does violence to the many positive biblical statementsconcerning God's design for the institution of kingship in the context of this sovereignplan for the redemption of his people, and ultimately for the uNIVersal triumph of peaceand justice on the earth. Kingship in Israel was not unanticipated. God had even providedfor it in antecedent revelation. Abraham was told that "kings" would arise amonghis descendants ( Gen17:6 ). Jacob said that royalty would arise from the tribe of Judah ( Gen 49:10 ). Mosesprovided for the eventual rise of kingship in Israel when he gave the "law of theking" ( Deut17:14-20 ) as part of the renewal of the covenant in the Plains of Moab just beforeIsrael's entrance in the promised land. So it is clear that in God's purpose it was rightand proper for Israel to have a king. To question this erodes the institutional basis ofthe messianic hope that arose in connection with the failure of Israel's kings to functionas God had instructed.
The question of the Old Testament's apparently ambivalent attitude toward theinstitution of the monarchy is rooted in the description of the rise of kingship in Israel(1 Sam. 8-12). The tension in these chapters is evident. On the one hand Samuel said thatIsrael had sinned in asking for a king ( 1 Sam 12:17-20 ).On the other hand the Lord told Samuel to give the people a king ( 1 Samuel 8:7 1 Samuel 8:2 1 Samuel 8:22 ).Later, after Saul was chosen by lot, Samuel said, "Do you see the man the Lord haschosen?" The issue here is not whether kingship in itself was right or wrong forIsrael. At issue was the kind of kingship Israel desired, and her reasons for wanting aking. The elders of Israel asked Samuel to give them a "king like the nations"around them ( 1 Sam8:20a ). They wanted a king to fight their battles and give them a symbol of nationalunity. This request betrayed their rejection of the kingship of Yahweh ( 1 Sam 8:7 ; 10:19 ; 12:12 ) and denialof 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 ( 1 Sam 8:11-18 )Samuel defined how kingship was to function in Israel ( 1 Sam 10:25 ). Thisdescription was a supplement to the "law of the king" given by Moses ( Deut 17:14-20 ).Samuel then inaugurated the reign of Saul, Israel's first king, in the context of arenewal of the covenant with Yahweh ( 1 Sam11:14-12:25 ). 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 obligatedto submit to the law of Israel's (and his) Great King, Yahweh ( Deut 17:18-20 ; 1 Sam 12:14 ) aswell as to the word of the prophet ( 1 Sam 12:23 ; 13:13 ; 1 Samuel 15:11 1 Samuel 15:23 ; 2 Sam 12:7-13 ).
Unfortunately Saul fell far short of living up to the requirements of his office. Hedisobeyed the word of the Lord and rebelled against the Lord (1 Sam. 13, 15). Because ofthis the Lord rejected him from being king ( 1 Sam 15:23 ), andsent Samuel to annoint David in his place (1 Sam. 16). David was an imperfect but truerepresentative of the ideal of the covenantal king. David grievously sinned in the matterof Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11, 12), but in contrast to Saul when Nathan, the prophet, confrontedhim, he repented and sought the Lord's forgiveness ( 2 Sam 12:13 ; Psalm 51 ). Late in hisreign he sinned again in taking the census of his fighting men, but again he sought theLord's forgiveness ( 2Sam 24 ). David is thus termed a "man after God's own heart" ( 1 Sam 13:14 ; Acts 13:22 ), andthe writer of Kings makes his reign the standard by which to assess the reigns ofsubsequent kings.
For the most part the history of the kings of Israel and Judah is a history of failureto 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 thegolden calves in Bethel and Dan that had been begun by the northern kingdom's first king,Jeroboam 1 ( 1Kings 12:26-33 ). Even among the kings of Judah, only Hezekiah and Josiah receiveunqualified approval ( 2 Kings 18:3-7 ; 22:2 ).
This failure of the kings of both Israel and Judah to live up to the covenantal idealprovided the backdrop as Israel's prophets began to speak of a future king who would be aworthy occupant of the throne of David. As the profile of this king slowly develops it isclear that he will come as the fulfillment of the promise of an eternal dynasty to David ( 2 Sam 7 ; 23:1-7 ; Psalm 89 ; 132:11-12 ; Isa 55:3-5 ). Hewill not only be a descendant of David, but is also identified with deity ( Isa 7:14 ; 9:6-7 ; Jer 23:5-6 ; Ezek 36:24-28 ).During his reign wars will cease and peace and justice will be established in the earth ( Isa 2:1-5 ; 11:1-10 ; Amos 9:11-15 ).This future king came to be known as the "Messiah" (in Hebrew, "theanointed one") and longing for his appearance came to be known as messianicexpectation.
In the New Testament the kingship theme is carried forward and its ambiguitiesresolved. Jesus is the one who fulfilled the royal messianic promises of the OldTestament. The Greek word translated "Christ" in our English versions of theBible is a translation of the Hebrew term for Messiah (the anointed one). In the words ofthe angel who spoke to Mary: "He will be great and will be called the Son of the MostHigh. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign overthe 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 athis 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 ofthe Mighty One and coming with the clouds of heaven" ( Mark 14:62 ). InJesus Christ, the God-man, human and divine kingship are united in one person. In Jesusthe duality of sovereigns present in the Old Testament period is eliminated.
J. Robert Vannoy
Bibliography F. F. Bruce, New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes;G. Van Groningen, Messianic Revelation in the Old Testament; D. M. Howard, Jr., TrinityJ9NS (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 FrankMoor Cross, pp. 377-96.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'King, Kingship
'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".