Philip Greenslade reads between the lines of the Historical Books.
Kingship was anticipated in the Torah as integral to God’s long-term purposes.
Abraham and Sarah were promised that kings would be among their descendants (Genesis 17:6,16) and provision was made for how kings should govern (Deuteronomy 17:14–20) – though the text here seems to be coloured by a wistful sense of what might have been!
The eventual emergence of kingship in Israel was however deeply problematic.
1 Samuel 8 records that Israel, desperate for relief from the chaos at the end of the time of the Judges (cf.
Judges 21:25, 1 Sam 8:3), clamoured for a king for the wrong reason and then chose the wrong man! The reason was wrong in that Israel ‘wanted to be like any other nation’ – a direct repudiation of her unique vocation to be unlike any other nation! Their preferred king was wrong because in choosing Saul they opted for someone who was not God’s choice.
Given Samuel’s dire warnings about the perversion of the office by exploitative and self-interested kings, the history of the monarchy in Israel may be seen as going downhill from this moment on!
Israel’s embrace of monarchy coincides with a change in the role of the prophets.
As the fascinating parenthesis in 1 Samuel 9:9 suggests, the arrival of kingship in Israel led to the prophets becoming, in effect, ‘guardians of the theocracy’, continually reminding the kings that they ruled only as stewards of God’s own Kingship and remained under the authority and scrutiny of God’s Word.
The significance of kingship must not be underestimated.
Ancient kings not only represented the kingship of their god (sacral kingship) but in a real sense represented their people.
As G.B.Caird put it: ‘A king is one whose actions are such that his subjects are included in the doing of them, and whose calamities are such that his subjects are included in the suffering of them.’ So in Israel, ‘The king did not merely rule Israel: he was Israel.’ (Caird.) Because the king embodied the destiny of his people, when he failed to walk covenantally with God, the people were brought under judgment with him.
The representational role of the king is illustrated by two points, one general, the other specific.
The fact that in a general way the future of the nation is bound up with the person of the king explains why, after 1 Samuel 8, the story of the Israelites becomes the story of the Israelite kings (1 Samuel 10 to 2 Chronicles 36).
More specific is an interesting point of detail.
When Absalom’s rebellion is suppressed, a dispute breaks out between the Northern and Southern tribes as to who will have the privilege of escorting the king back to Jerusalem.
This right is claimed by Judah on the basis of kinship but Israel replies: ‘We have ten shares in the king; and besides we have a greater claim on [‘in’] David than you’ (2 Samuel 19:40–20:2).
To be part of Israel is to have shares in the king – an incorporative concept which, via a very long route, will eventually illuminate what it means for us to be ‘in Christ’.
This incorporative function built into the notion of kingship was reinforced by the covenant God made with David set out in 2 Samuel 7 – by any reckoning one of the most important chapters in the whole Bible.
Israel as a nation had been termed God’s ‘son’ (Exodus 4:22–23) – now that special bond was focused in the Davidic king, promised in a special ‘Father-son’ relationship.
It is vital – not least for our understanding of the New Testament – to grasp that ‘son of God’ language did not in itself, carry connotations of divinity but was particularly the language of kingship – especially suggesting the unique unity between king and people.
This commitment to the Davidic kings – termed a ‘covenant’ in Psalm 89 for example – channelled from here on the redemptive purposes of God for both Israel and through her the world.
Psalm 2 encapsulates this divine determination to make His anointed King (Messiah) Lord of the whole world!
Kingship found its most famous expression in David himself.
Unfortunately David is trivialised by being romanticised by lazy preachers looking for quick spiritual lessons who forget that he built his power base by running a protection racket! The Chronicler also can’t resist this tendency to airbrush David’s story! But the reality of David’s struggles is in fact the point we need to hear.
David is an anti-hero, an unlikely underdog, just like Israel, a fugitive who gathers around him a band of desperados; distressed, in debt and discontented! He is the very embodiment of a tough, resourceful survivor who knows his way around a people who, like him, are refugees and marginalised.
Only when his heirs forget this did kingship degenerate into playing the power game like every other tin-pot ancient monarch (cf. Rehoboam 1 Kings 12:1–17).
The demise of Judah’s last king in the Babylonian exile was marked by a reassertion of the kingship of Yahweh as the composition of the Book of Psalms indicates in the shift from the end of Psalm 89 to Psalm 90 and the subsequent collection of songs celebrating ‘The Lord reigns’.
Yet 2 Samuel 7 anchored the promises to David in an unconditional commitment by Yahweh so that, amazingly, the persistent failure of the occupants of the office did not put it beyond redemption as a vehicle for Yahweh’s saving plans.
The unqualified nature of the Davidic covenant of 2 Samuel 7 shows that ‘divine grace will surpass, survive and overcome even the sins of the royal ideology and its wielders …’ so that David became a ‘powerful sign of God’s promise in the ongoing story of God’s grace to Israel’ (Bruce Birch).
So despite the almost total failure of kingship – or perhaps because of it – hopes arose of an ‘ideal king’, a new ‘David’, hopes articulated by the prophets (Isaiah 9) especially at the Exile (Jeremiah 23; Ezekiel 34–36).
This was supplemented by Isaiah’s strong insistence on the ‘return of God as king in Zion’ (Isaiah 40:7–9; 52:7ff) who would bring His kingdom of justice, peace and salvation.
This is the seedbed of what Jesus understood as ‘the gospel’.
Added to this is Isaiah’s vision of a mysterious servant of God who, at once, is Israel and ministers to Israel: and who in this dual capacity – as some scholars suggest – can only be some kind of royal personage, though one who, in an unprecedented way, reigns through suffering (52:13–53:12).
It remained the focus for hope and expectation even when the Exile forced a heart-searching reassessment of the history of the people and its kings.
1 and 2 Kings, evaluating the long history at the time of the Exile, asks the question: ‘How did things come to this? Why have we ended up in exile?’ – and found the reason in the royal shepherds who had led God’s flock in paths of covenantal unrighteousness.
The Chronicler, at the end of Exile, reviews the same historical time-frame but more with an eye to the future, asking: ‘Is there any hope? Especially can any good yet come out of the Davidic dynasty?’ His final chapter – 2 Chronicles 36 – is open-ended: so the story will go on.
As a category of hope kingship persisted but more as a kind of ‘watch this space’ until it began to be ‘coloured in’ beside the Jordan.
The heavens parted and the Voice (the Psalmist had heard from the throne in Psalm 2) singled out a man, who had emerged from the river with the words ‘You are my Son’.
So whatever else we know about Jesus of Nazareth, we now know He is anointed and designated as Israel’s King.
Furthermore, ‘Just as David represented God to the people of Israel, so Jesus represents God to those who see in His face the glory of the Lord.
Just as David was the people of Israel and represents them before God, so Jesus incorporates the people He has come to save.’ (Caird.) That He would be a suffering, servant King was His great enigma, resolved only by His resurrection, which was – as Paul argued in a creative conflation of 2 Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2 — the occasion when God publicly affirmed His Son’s Kingship: “Today I have become your Father!” (Acts 13:33).
In such a way, Israel’s King, as Psalm 2 had insisted, became Lord of the whole world (Acts 2:36) – but that’s another story!
Kingship ‘filled-full’, and redefined by Easter and Pentecost, crystallises the challenge we face.
The measure of our free and joyful submission to the Lordship of this Servant-Son-King Jesus, will be the measure of whether as God’s people we retain our distinctiveness as a ‘holy nation’ or succumb to the temptation to serve lesser lords and become ‘just like any other people’!