For the ancient Israelites, referring to God as “king” was a relatively late development in their literature.  What sorts of circumstances led them to view God as a king, and not simply a creator?

There is a strange phenomenon in the Bible regarding the “kingship” of God.  The term “The kingdom of God” (Greek: basilea tou theou) was a favorite of Jesus’ – in fact it was the defining symbol of his entire life and teaching.  But the precise term “kingdom of God” does not appear in the Old Testament, not once, and in the entire corpus of Second Temple literature (consisting of Jewish writings dating from the end of the Old Testament to the late first century CE), the term appears just once outside of the New Testament.  That reference is found in Wisdom of Solomon 10:10, written sometime between the 2nd and 1st century BCE.  It states:

When the righteous fled from his brother’s wrath she (wisdom) guided him in right paths, showed him the kingdom of God, and gave him knowledge of holy things, made him rich in his travels, and multiplied the fruit of his labors.

In this passage, a person given the name “wisdom” reveals the kingdom of God to a person named “the righteous,” after he resists a person named “the ungodly.”  The meaning of this passage bears little resemblance to Jesus’ usage.  Although the direct term “the kingdom of God” is not frequent prior to Jesus’ usage, similar terms do appear, and the concept is everywhere.  An analysis of the use and development of kingdom terminology in relation to God reveals some fascinating and surprising results.

Research into kingdom terminology shows that the language was not original to the Israelites.  It was adopted from surrounding cultures, and folded into already existing Israelite traditions about God.  Old Testament scholars have highlighted the phenomenon that, in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), there is a striking absence of “king-type” language in reference to God.  The word “king” is all over those writings, but the language is usually in reference to Canaanite or Egyptian kings; human kings.

The fact that the Israelites believed that God was in control was never in doubt.  From the very first chapter of Genesis, they crafted beautiful creation language to demonstrate that God has created all things, and therefore has dominion over all things.  God then passes his rights of dominion on to his first human creations, and the implication is that the act of exercising dominion is the primary way in which humans are created in God’s image.  Although Genesis is replete with “creator” language, and God’s ownership of all things is well established, these themes are never clothed in specifically “royal” terminology.  In the flow of the narrative, the first slight hint of such language occurs in Exodus 15, when Yahweh is said to “reign forever and ever.”  The dating of this reference is in question, and in its uniqueness the phenomenon remains – although Yahweh’s people believed that he owned the earth, they did not necessarily view him as “king.”  He acted in history in many of the same ways that a king might.  He established covenants, created laws, and made judgments.  But the royal language was largely missing.

Precisely at what point the Israelites started using king-type language of God is difficult to determine.  As late in the narrative as 1 Samuel 8, we have God referring to himself as king (8:7), and even by then there is no evidence that the Israelites viewed God on such terms.  In fact, in that very chapter, we see that the Israelites viewed kingship under the same terms as the surrounding nations (8:5).  God was a creator God, and kings were humans that ruled on God’s behalf (2:10).

One important way that the Israelites did refer to God from a very early stage was in relation to his actions on behalf of his people in history.  This phenomenon was specific to the Israelites; no other group in the surrounding region spoke about God’s interventions in history in quite the way that the Israelites did.  Gerhard von Rad was a prominent scholar who established what he called a “credo,” which was a confessional summary of God’s activities on behalf of his people.  Deuteronomy 26:5-9 is an important example of such a credo – it is a passage that demonstrates the conflicts had by God’s people, extols God’s efforts to save his people from their conflicts, and looks to the land God has given them as a symbol of his favor and their security.  The credos look backwards to celebrate what scholars call “salvation history,” moments in the past when God was a savior to his people, and they look forward to the coming fulfillment of even further blessings.

At some point, the Israelites began actively referring to God as king.  We see, for example, the often-called “enthronement” Psalms (47, 93, 96, 97, 98, 99) extolling that “Yahweh reigns.”  In these Psalms, Norman Perrin has even argued that a better translation of that phrase would be “Yahweh had become king.”  These Psalms are littered with royal language, including references to God’s throne, where he reigns justly over the whole earth.

An important phenomenon in the tradition sees not only the addition of king-type language used in reference to God, but the combination of that language with credo language.  In other words, at some point, the Israelites began viewing God as the one who intervenes in history on their behalf precisely because he was their king.  As Perrin points out, one of the best examples of this is the book of Isaiah, where the references interplay in profound ways:

Isaiah 33:22 – “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us.”

Isaiah 52:7-11 –How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God.

11 Depart, depart, go out from there!
Touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of it, purify yourselves,
you who carry the vessels of the Lord.
12 For you shall not go out in haste,
and you shall not go in flight;
for the Lord will go before you,
    and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.

In the book of Isaiah, as well as in many of the Psalms, we see creator language, royal language, and salvation language interplaying in significant ways.  Many people in faith communities take the shifts for granted, as God’s role as creator, king, and savior are all well established in modern times.  But scholars are interested in the movement of the traditions where the interplay of these themes was not always apparent.  This leads to two important questions: when did the Israelites begin using royal language to refer to God, and why did they begin to do so?

First, when?  This is a difficult (maybe impossible) question, because so much of it depends on the dates we apply to the writing of the Old Testament texts.  There are three basic options:

  • Some scholars hold to the more traditional dating of the texts. In this case, the Pentateuch would have been written the earliest, and largely as a unit.  In this case, the use of royal language would simply be a late development.
  • Some scholars believe that there were various editors and writers over different periods of time that came to the established texts with various theological agendas, and that they would have added aspects of the text at points after those texts had been established, so that seemingly foreign features can be easily explained. The traditional dating of the texts is largely helpful, but does not account for every passage in every text, as additions were not exceptional.
  • Many scholars believe that the traditional dating of various texts is in question, and that deciding exactly when a text, or feature of a text, was written, is largely impossible. We know that, at extremely late dates, the texts were established, but there is a belief among many scholars that the texts were in a state of flux until quite late, and there would have been edits to the texts by members of the community.

This last option is interesting, because rather than seeing king-type language as an addition to the tradition at some point, these scholars would simply regard various traditions all being juggled simultaneously, from within different parts of the community, and they would have been grafted into the texts at various points.  Scribes emphasizing kingly language would have made additions to texts featuring salvation language, and vice versa, and this would explain why the language seems to feature more interplay in some texts than others.

Now, why?  This question is easier to answer.  Scholars have fairly well established that king-type language was introduced into the tradition specifically when conflict arose against the community, and as time went on, and the conflicts grew more intense, the language became more apparent.  Consider Zephaniah 3:15b: “The king of Israel, Yahweh, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more.”  This is a text depicting events in the seventh century BCE after a series of disastrous Israelite kings, promising that the kingship of Yahweh is among them, and they need not fear.

This emphasis only grows stronger in the Second Temple period.  In the two centuries before the time of Jesus, the Jews move in and out of various stages of independence, until ultimately falling under the rule of the Roman Empire in 63 BCE.  The Testament of Moses declares that “Satan shall be no more,” that God will “arise from his royal throne,” and “punish the Gentiles,” (T.Mos 10:1-9).  Although in many New Testament passages, Satan is viewed as a spiritual figure and enemy of God, the word also often refers to any adversary of God and his people.  God, as king, is viewed as a victor over oppressors.  In the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the famous “War Scroll,” God is referred to not only as a “King of Glory,” but also a “Hero of War” who will fight for his oppressed people in their time of need (1QM 12).  There are many other references along these lines.

This all, in many ways, offers a bit of background to Jesus’ prolific use of “kingdom of God” language.  Early in Israel’s history, the language was virtually absent.  As time went on, and the conflicts Israel had to endure grew larger and longer, the Israelites appealed to God as king for what scholars refer to as “apocalyptic” reasons.  They saw God as their rescue in a time of need, as the great victorious king who would not only save them from oppression, but would rewrite the course of history in their favor.  Salvation history would culminate in their vindication through God’s royal intervention on their behalf.

Largely drawing on the all-important kingly language of Daniel 7, Jesus proclaimed that this culmination of salvation history was beginning in and through him.  However, he did not use the language as his predecessors had used it – Jesus was a royal innovator.  For example, in Luke 17:20-21, Jesus proclaims “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say ‘Lo, here it is!’ Or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”  As Perrin points out, Jesus took kingdom language beyond the concern of Israel as a whole and placed in the realm of individual experience.  To be sure, the whole was still in his purview, but there was now a sense where the kingdom went beyond the concerns of the social-state and national conflict and Jesus offered the kingdom to individuals based on their allegiance to Yahweh.  Despite this shift, the apocalyptic was still ever-present.  In fact, maybe more so than ever.  As important scholars like Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer proved more than a century ago, the overwhelming majority of Jesus’ kingdom references look forward to a still-future culmination of the kingdom.  The kingdom broke in with Jesus, but there was still a sense where he and his contemporaries were living in the tension of a future guaranteed but not yet realized.  There was still reason to invoke king-type language in reference to Yahweh, because there was still something not right, and still something to look forward to.  Yahweh was king, and as king he was still moving towards the culmination of salvation history.

I’ll leave with one thought, less on scholarship, more as a matter of personal reflection.  We live in troubled times.  Last week I was sitting with my wife in church, and an older Spanish woman was speaking, and she said something simple and profound, “There was a man once who died on a cross, but is now alive, and full of love, and he reigns as king – remember that the next time you watch the news.”


A few places for further study:

  • Parable and Gospel by Norman Perrin
  • When God Became King by N.T. Wright
  • The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight