The cultures surrounding Israel valued kings. Thus, monarchy worked its way into Israel’s government, but only with God’s permission. This post provides background material for the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.
Let’s begin with God as king, and then proceed to Israel’s new monarchy.
God the King
He is the ultimate king both over the entire universe, and particularly over Israel, a small nation, his chosen people. This theme is not as prominent was it will be in Jesus’s teaching, but the seeds are in the Old Testament. These Psalms, for example, proclaim God king over Israel: Ps. 24 and over the universe (Ps. 93, 95-98).
In Exod. 19:6, God was about to make a covenant with Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and he announced that they shall be a kingdom of priests.
In Num. 23:21 Balaam, the prophet-for-hire, said he saw no flaw in Israel, Jacob, but instead the shout of the King was among them. It is amazing that God the King shouts among his people—the shout of victory and support.
The covenant made or remade between God and Israel in Josh. 24 as a royal covenant between king and people. This means that God would be their king and take care of them, on the condition that they remain his subjects and serve him.
Gideon just scored a miraculous victory over the Midianites, and the people acclaimed that he should rule over them. He replied that he would not, nor would his son, for the LORD would rule over them (Judg. 8:22-23).
The people were not yet willing to submit to kings. However, one refrain in the Book of Judges is that people did what was right in their own eyes because they had no king (17:6; 21:25).
Kings Are Predicted for Israel
In the Abrahamic times, ten kings appear (Gen. 14:2-9), one being Melchizedek, king of Salem. These Canaanite kings gradually led Israel to wanting an earthly king for themselves.
Kingship was predicted for Israel.
In Gen. 17:6 God himself spoke that kings would come from Abraham’s descendants.
In Gen. 35:11, God tells Jacob to return to his people in Canaan and predicts that kings will be among their descendants.
In Gen. 49:10 Jacob was in the process of blessing his sons and predicted that the royal scepter would not depart from Judah. Jesus was the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, so this prophecy is fulfilled in him (Rev. 5:5).
In Num. 24:17 Balaam prophesied that a star and scepter would arise out of Jacob and crush his enemies. These prophecies show that God was not completely opposed to kingship over Israel.
Israel clamored for a king, like the other nations had (1 Sam. 12:12). Samuel the prophet took their request to God, who said they were not rejecting Samuel, but God himself. God allowed them to have a king, but he told Samuel to warn them what this really would mean (1 Sam. 8:5-8). See below for the sections The King’s Court and the King’s Revenue, for a fulfillment of Samuel’s warnings.
Saul and David are the transitional figures. Saul was not obedient to the prophet’s command, which shows how powerful prophets were, particularly Samuel. The king was going to be ripped from Saul’s hands and given to a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14; 15). Saul committed suicide in his backslidden and lost state (1 Sam. 31). David took over and was the psalmist of Israel and was a good and righteous (not perfect) king over Israel. He will set the gold standard against which all kings would be measured after him. Most failed. When Solomon appoints his son Rehoboam, then the hereditary dynasty is complete (1 Kings 11:43) and will govern Israel.
The King’s Powers and Functions
Israelite kings drew their authority from God, implying he was the ultimate king. Samuel anointed David and called him the Lord’s anointed (1 Sam. 16:6). David executed the man who killed Saul, the Lord’s anointed (2 Sam. 1:16). God anointed these kings.
The king was called the Lord’s captain or prince, implying a military ruler. Samuel was called to anoint Saul ruler or prince or captain over Israel, so he could deliver them from the hands of the Philistines (1 Sam. 9:16; 10:1). In a sad moment in Saul’s life, Samuel announced to him that the LORD had rejected him and found a man after God’s very heart and appointed him ruler of his people (1 Sam. 13:14). Saul later found out it was David.
The king had no absolute power over life and death, though David took Uriah’s life (2 Sam. 11), and Jezebel, Ahab’s queen, murdered Naboth for a vineyard (1 Kings 21:14). The king was not exempt from obeying civil law, and prophets denounced them when they disobeyed the law. Elijah condemned Ahaz for his complicity in the plot (1 Kings 21:17-24). Nathan denounced David for plotting to kill Uriah (2 Sam. 12:1-15). Elisha rebuked Jehoshaphat when he panicked because Naaman sought for healing from his leprosy. Why panic? A prophet is here (1 Kings 21:17-24).
Most importantly, Deut. 17:14-20, list the rules a king must follow: he must be among their brothers, not a foreigner; he must not acquire many horses to make the people go back to Egypt to acquire many horses; he shall not acquire many wives; nor is he permitted to acquire excessive gold or silver; he must copy out the book of this law and read it all the days of his life, so he may learn to fear the Lord, and so that his heart not rise above his brothers or turn aside from the commandment, and so that he may continue long in his kingdom, and his children.
The King’s Court
The king had a bodyguard. In 2 King 11:4, Jehoida, a priest who protected the royal prince Joash from the usurping Athaliah, established a bodyguard for the young prince when Athaliah’s reign ended.
The king had a captain or general of the army. In 1 Sam. 14:50 the captain of Saul’s army was Abner. Joab was the general over David’s army (2 Sam. 8:16).
The king employed a recorder. In 2 Sam. 8:16, Jehoshaphat was the recorder, whose duties were to record official decrees and legal documents.
The king employed a secretary or scribe, who wrote out the official decrees and other legal documents for public consumption and viewing. In 2 Sam. 8:17, Seraiah was the secretary under David. Under the much-later rule of King Hezekiah, Shebna was the secretary (2 Kings 18:18).
The king had an overseer over the twelve district governors. During Solomon’s reign Azariah was this official (1 Kings 4:5).
King Solomon also had twelve governors over the twelve districts, to supervise the resources coming from the districts or provinces or tribes to the palace (1 Kings 4:7-19).
The king had a palace steward or administrator; in Solomon’s reign he was named Ahishar (1 Kings 4:6). Under King Ahab he was Obadiah (1 Kings 18:3). Under Hezekiah he was Eliakim (2 Kings 18:18).
The king employed overseers of forced laborers, which means poor Israelites who lost their land sold themselves as temporary indentured servants (Exod. 21:1-7) and permanent foreign slaves (Lev. 25:44-46). Or these were simply conscripted 30,000 men who worked in Lebanon in shifts of 10,000 men per month, working one month in Lebanon two months at home. They were cutting out stones. Under David and Solomon, he was Adoniram (2 Sam. 20:24; 1 Kings 4:6; 5:13). Jeroboam was put in charge of the whole labor force of the tribes of Joseph, because he had shown himself to be a hard worker (1 Kings 11:28).
A so-called “friend of the king” was also known. Hushai was David’s confidant, who frustrated the plans of Absalom’s conspiracy against his own father (2 Sam. 15:32-37). Zabud was Solomon’s adviser and priest (1 Kings 4:5). Ahithophel was David’s adviser, until Absalom’s revolt (1 Chron. 27:33; 2 Sam. 15:12).
The king employed a keeper of the wardrobe (2 Kings 22:14).
The king also maintained priests (2 Sam. 8:17; 20:25; 1 Kings 4:4).
The king maintained prophets (1 Sam. 22:5; 2 Sam. 7:2; 12:25; 24:10-25).
The King’s Revenue
Saul’s kingdom was simple and did not require extensive taxes. David depended on the spoils of war and tribute (2 Sam. 8:1-14). Solomon’s rulership was luxurious and massive, so he developed an extensive tax farming system. He divided up the nation into twelve districts or tribes, who were responsible to supply the palace with their resources one month out of the year (1 Kings 4:7-19, 27-28).
The king also had royal property (1 Chron. 27:25-31; 2 Chron. 26:10; 32:27-29) and forced labor (2 Sam. 20:24; 1 Kings 4:6; 11:28). Solomon also took a road toll in Israel (1 Kings 10:15), trade in horses and chariots (1 Kings 10:28-29), and a merchant fleet (1 Kings 9:26-28). Archaeology says he may have had copper mines.
How does this post help me know God better?
It is widely believed that if a sermon does not help people have a better marriage or raise their kids, then the sermon is second-class. On the other hand, we are told to read our Bibles every day. But do we even understand the Scriptures we’re reading? Probably not major portions. Therefore, there is nothing second-class about an old-fashioned Bible study that explains the background to the very important theme (and reality) in Jesus’s ministry: the kingdom of God. Jesus lifts the kingdom of God beyond the borders of tiny Israel and takes it around the globe after his resurrection and outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
This post gives us the background of the limited kingdom over Israel. The Old Testament seeds are growing up into Jesus’s universal kingdom (Matt. 13:31-33), but with him as the sole, all-powerful ruler (Rev. 17:14; 19:16), and we as his subjects (Col. 1:13; 1 Pet. 2:9-10).
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES
2 Kingdom and Kingship in the Old Testament
At that link, look for Ladd’s little book published in 1959. It’s still wonderful. Also see Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary.