In both the Old Testament and New Testament God is frequently labeled as ‘King.’ But what does that phrase mean? The dictionary defines a king as “a male monarch of a territorial unit.” Merriam-Webster states, “one whose position is hereditary and who rules for life.” The ancient role of a king differs from modern day leadership positions, such as a president or premier. A kingship was rooted in history and family ties while leaders in modern cultures today are generally elected by a majority vote. Though they differ in how they are established and how they rule, the role of any supreme leader in a group of people is to govern and guide their followers through just and wise rulings. Leaders also exist to protect the interests and lives of their subjects. This begins to sound very similar to how God related to the Israelites.
Examining the covenant that was made at Mount Sinai is helpful to understand the relationship that God was establishing with Israel. This type of covenant was very common at the time amongst Israel’s neighbors. It is sometimes called a King-Vassal treaty. Vassals would recognize the king as their king and swear allegiance for life. In the agreement, there would be stipulations about how to remain loyal to their king and that they would never serve another king. God is establishing himself as the sovereign of the people of Israel for all eternity. This is one of the reasons that God becomes upset with the Israelites in the book of 1st Samuel, when they turn to ask for a king. At Sinai, they agreed to make God their king, but now they want another king. They had already lowered God’s authority in their culture and made it level with the kings of the nations around them.
Why did God want to be King?
Is there something about being King that is important to who God is and our relationship with him?
Throughout history and especially in the Old Testament, kings are either remembered as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ They either led their people into prosperity and wealth or they were disconnected from the needs of their people and led them toward destruction. God spoke with Moses, revealing that He knew the people would reject Him as their king (Deuteronomy 17). He knew His people would soon ask for an earthly king, someone who would lead them with a physical human presence. Just as we still struggle to ‘fit in’ with those around us, the Israelite’s wanted a king to rule over them who would be a representation of them to the other nations. God subjected them to their desire for a king and the Israelite nation proceeded to decline, just as God foretold (1 Samuel 8). Even with the Israelite Kings being secondary to the covenant between God and his people, they still fell short of successfully leading the Israelite people as God desired.
Saul, chosen by God for His people, was anointed by the prophet Samuel as Israel’s first king. We can imagine he was the perfect physical representation of a king to the people when Samuel says, “there is none like him among all the people!” (1 Samuel 10:24). Yet even though Saul led the Israelites in many victories, fulfilling the role of the king of Israel was an impossible task handed to him. The true king of Israel was a position that was never intended for a human to fill. Saul rejected the Lord and his position as king was taken from him and given to David, a shepherd boy. Though David also fell short of the perfection a king should possess, he’s remembered as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). Unlike Saul, David when confronted with his sins, repents and moves into relationship with God rather than rejecting God. It’s a starch contrast to the character flaws many leaders possess that include arrogance and conceit. It requires humility and submissiveness to God; an understanding that with the responsibility of leading comes the necessity to rule under the Creator. It’s a foreshadowing of how Jesus represents God’s kingship.
Why is David considered ‘a man after God’s own heart?’
When we sin, what kind of response does God want from us?
What makes a good leader?
When defining king from a biblical aspect, we must also include the term Messiah. Messiah means ‘anointed one’ the promised true king of Israel. During the time of Jesus, the Messiah was expected to be a king greater than David, who would restore Israel’s former glory. Just as their ancestors desired, the people living during the time of the Messiah wanted a physical human king to lead them into a conquering and thriving nation once again. Humanity struggles to define anything that doesn’t offer a physical validity and the concept of a heavenly king to come was absent before Jesus’ teaching. The kingdom Jesus came to establish and rule is not limited to Israel but expands over all nations. These important features, the deity ruling and expansion of the kingdom, are crucial to understanding the message of the Messiah. And yet it was so foreign to what the people were expecting. Their definition of a king was the same then as it still is today, a male monarch of a territorial unit. But as followers of the Messiah, of Christ, our definition of God as our king takes on new meaning. Jesus did not come and establish his political authority as the people were wanting and expecting, he ruled in a completely different manner. He came as the ultimate representation of love in service to others. God is the ruler for more than a lifetime, for eternity. He does rule the world, but we do not have to be ruled by Him in our lifetime, instead we are allowed to choose commitment to Him. We’re invited and requested to be a part of a kingdom that has no boundaries and has been in place since the beginning, where love is the authority.