The kingdom among Jews
I previously made the case that the kingdom of God as understood by the first Christians was not fundamentally a place, a polity, or a period of time; it was rather a process by which God’s will became manifest on the earth in history. This process would at first be sudden and dramatic: the Lord’s anointed would appear in flames, topple the idolatrous imperial authorities, and appoint just rulers in their place. Afterwards, the nations would be gradually judged, instructed, and healed through God’s righteous reign (cf. Revelation 22:2, Genesis 12:2-3, Matthew 8:11). The early Christians called this process of divinely-orchestrated judgement and restoration “the kingdom of God.”
Among the handful of second temple Jewish texts that mention God’s coming kingdom, three particular passages lend credence to the above definition of the kingdom. These three texts are worth examining because the divine kingdoms they exhibit bear a close resemblance to their Synoptic counterpart.
- The author of Psalms of Solomon awaited divine relief from Roman occupation. He believed this relief would come from God’s eternal kingdom made manifest on the earth.
We hope in God our savior, for the strength of our God is forever with mercy, and the kingdom of our God is forever over the nations in judgment. Lord, you chose David as the king over Israel, and you swore to him regarding his descendants forever so that his kingdom would not fail before you… See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over Israel, your servant, in the time which you chose, o God, gird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to cleanse Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction… Blessed are those born in those days to see the good things for Israel which God will cause to happen in the assembly of the tribes. May God hurry up his mercy over Israel; may he deliver us from the impurity of unhallowed enemies. The Lord Himself is our king forever hereafter.
17:3-4, 21-22, 44-46
While the divine kingdom anticipated in this passage is eternal rather than future, it is inextricably linked with impending acts of judgement and restoration. This kingdom is “forever” (εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα) not in the sense that it is static or wholly spiritual, but in the sense that its forthcoming establishment cannot be thwarted. God’s promise to one day reign “in judgement over the nations,” to purify Jerusalem and subjugate hostile pagan nations, rests securely upon the Davidic covenant. Accordingly, the divine kingdom in this passage is God’s plan to disrupt and realign the current political order through the future Davidic king. This kingdom of judgement and restoration, less a polity and more a process, threatens every hour to break out upon the earth like fire. What matters here is not what the kingdom is, but what kingdom will mean for Israel and her enemies.
2. The first century author of the Assumption of Moses chapter 10 offers an apocalyptic tract featuring God’s kingdom.
And then [God’s] kingdom shall appear throughout all his creation, and then Satan shall be no more, and sorrow shall depart with him. Then the hands of the angel shall be filled who has been appointed chief, and he shall avenge them of their enemies… For the Most High will arise, the Eternal God alone, and he will appear to punish the Gentiles, and he will destroy all their idols. Then you, O Israel, shall be happy.
As in the psalm, God’s eternal kingdom stands ready to overshadow the earth in judgement. Unlike the psalm, however, this kingdom will come in the form of an avenging angel, a punisher of evildoers and healer of Israel. The divine kingdom is here less a thing in and of itself, and more an unleashing of divine wrath and restoration upon the nations. Wherever, whenever, and however God’s judgements are, there also is his kingdom.
3. Tobit exalts in God’s kingdom in a prayer of national repentance.
Blessed be God who lives forever, because his kingdom lasts throughout all ages. For he afflicts, and he shows mercy; he leads down to Hades in the lowest regions of the earth, and he brings up from the great abyss, and there is nothing that can escape his hand… Cursed are all who speak a harsh word against you; cursed are all who conquer you and pull down your walls, all who overthrow your towers and set your homes on fire. But blessed forever will be all who revere you… Happy are those who love you, and happy are those who rejoice in your prosperity. Happy also are all people who grieve with you because of your afflictions; for they will rejoice with you and witness all your glory forever.
Tobit 13:1-2, 12-14
God’s kingdom is once again equated with God’s judgement, his indelible will to afflict sinners and show mercy to his repentant people. From exile in Nineveh Tobit anticipates the outworking of this kingdom in Israel’s repossession of the Promised Land (14:5-7). Once Israel is mercifully restored, the peoples of the earth will be blessed or cursed in accordance with their deeds. God’s judgements will issue forth from a rebuilt Jerusalem.
Thus in sum, the kingdom of God as it was understood by second temple Jews can be broadly outlined as follows:
- God’s kingdom is the divine will worked out on the stage of earthly politics through judgement of evildoers (usually pagans) and exaltation of the righteous (usually Israel).
- Although always established in God’s will, God’s kingdom threatens to disrupt the inhabited world (οἰκουμένη) at a still future time.
At root then, second temple Jews believed that God would at some point in the future arrange the conditions by which his will might be enacted upon the earth. They called this process “God’s kingdom.”
The kingdom among Christians
Jesus and the early Christians then were not the first to await God’s kingdom. The term had a rough and ready definition already in the first century. When Jesus began preaching about the kingdom of God he was building upon the conceptual foundation laid by previous writers and prophets. Naturally then, Jesus’ Jewish vision of the kingdom was a vision of impending judgement and realignment. Jesus therefore did not repudiate what were the concept’s essential elements, he assumed them.
And yet he did not hesitate to innovate in a few key ways.
- The kingdom as conceptualized by Christians emphasized the Abrahamic covenant. As a result, righteous gentiles would benefit from the kingdom. In the course of Israel’s exaltation, pagans who turned from their idols would be blessed.
- The kingdom as conceptualized by Christians did not grant Jews membership by virtue of their birth. Jesus was convinced that those Israelites who failed to uphold justice and righteousness would find themselves outsiders when the kingdom came.
Except on these points, Jesus’ kingdom conforms to the standards set by second temple Jews. At the coming of Christ’s kingdom the long process by which God judged, saved, and reconstituted his people would begin.