Modern Christians typically resist the idea that Christ is an “earthly” king like other “earthly” kings—a king like David, Ahab, or Jehu. Instead, the Christ of popular Christian conception is a “heavenly” or “spiritual” king, a king who reigns over the hearts of his (voluntary) subjects and over creation as a kind of cosmic sustainer. As might be expected, this Christ rebuffs political pretensions, repudiating the integration of church and state as a devilish betrayal of his true mission, the self-sacrificial salvation of souls (Matthew 4:8-10, cf. John 6:14-15).
The kind of king exemplified in this Christ, therefore, is uninterested in the institutions of nation, law, cult, and war. He is not a man of “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12) who commands tribute, determines cultic devotions, and insures justice at the gate. Rather, his reign is preoccupied with the private lives of his followers, with their spiritual maturation as they conform to their cruciform savior on the path to Heaven. Fittingly, Christ’s loyalists—citizens of a celestial and not an earthly polis—must, with Christ, resist the temptation to harness earthly power so as to impose their theological vision upon the nations. God’s kingdom, after all, is not of this world.
Clay pots and iron rods
The king described above, of course, is not a king at all, or at least not a king in any biblical sense. Within the Israelite framework—or within any ancient framework for that matter—there is no such thing as a king who refuses to manage the political sphere, whether this king is located in Heaven or on earth. A king by definition “governs” (δικάζω) his people and “fights” (πολεμέω) their battles (1 Samuel 8:19-22, cf. Isaiah 11:1-9). To be rightly called a king, in other words, a man must possess the iron rod with which to subdue rebellious peoples and quell unjust countrymen, to dash them to pieces like clay pots (Psalm 2:9, cf. Genesis 49:10, Numbers 24:8, 1 Samuel 2:10). To claim otherwise, to insist that Christ is a king but not in an earthly sense, is to argue that the early Christians emptied their favored epithets of their essential and primordial meanings (i.e. “king” & “lord”).
If we examine the case of the biblical God himself, the same conclusion about kingship can be drawn. Divine kingship rests upon Yahweh’s past (and hoped-for future) actions within the geopolitical realm. While God’s rule is eternal, transcendent, and even cosmic in secondary ways, Yahweh is the almighty sovereign of the world precisely because he long ago proved to be such when he crippled the Egyptian empire and exterminated the strong peoples of the land of Canaan. By remembering these “works of old,” powerful deeds witnessed by the ancestors, Israel sustained their loyalty to God in the midst of theologically-unintelligible political crises (e.g. subjugation under the yoke of pagan occupation) (cf. Psalms 22, 77, 80, etc.). During these times of hardship, God remained king despite his sometimes deafening silence. Rescue would soon arrive as it had in the days of Moses, Joshua, Samson, and Saul.
Many second temple Jews, therefore, believed that God would again publicly demonstrate his kingly dominion when he assembled the princes of the gentile nations to receive their fealty and enforce their submission beneath Israel’s feet (Psalm 47). Yahweh would then “become king over all the earth” when the armies opposing Jerusalem were decidedly vanquished (Zechariah 14:9) and the “kingdom [would] be the Lord’s” when Israel’s rowdy neighbors were definitively restrained (Obadiah 1:21). If the kingship of God is to mean anything in biblical context then, it must mean this—that God is able to govern his people and fight their battles in the course of dramatic, historical, and yes, earthly, events. In the words of one pious Israelite, in order to truly be king God must “judge the ends of the earth, give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his Messiah” (1 Samuel 2:10).
In earliest Christian thought Christ’s kingship—being an extension and manifestation of God’s own kingship (cf. 1 Timothy 6:13-15)—had these kinds of earthly outcomes in view. Having been made Lord by God, Christ would return from his heavenly stronghold with apocalyptic urgency to defeat the persecutors of his church, topple their idolatrous temples, vindicate his longsuffering witnesses, and establish his own cult as the sole source of political legitimacy among the nations. When he at last arrived in power, with the authority he attained through obedience unto death, death even as a slave, he would become king over the pagan world to the glory of his God and Father.
6 thoughts on “God’s king is a king: The politics of divine kingship”
It’s nice to see someone else who rightly understands Messiah’s kingship, who disavows the idea that Jesus is now reigning as some kind of cosmic king, even now sitting on the throne of David which is now, supposedly, in heaven. Nice work!
Would this bloodless “Christian” version of Kingship ever have even existed if the Pauline authors of the Gospels had referred to the Messiah by his real name–Joshua (Y’shua or Yehoshua)–instead of by the invented Greekish name “Jesus?” Wouldn’t Judean followers of a “Joshua” see him as the quintessential war leader able to call on God for miracles on behalf opf his People? Might not the Roman occupiers have been somewhat alarmed at the prospective rise of such a messiah (whether his name be Jokkanaan or Y’shua)?
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Yes, and there were at least a few Jewish prophets during this period that attempted to re-enact Exodus-style miracles that would set the stage for the overthrow of the pagans. They were, of course, squashed by the Romans prematurely:
The names given to Jesus, his siblings, and some of his disciples, suggest that his family and community longed for the days of successful Jewish revolution and rule against hostile gentiles.
I’ll note lastly that in the Matthean Gethsemane narrative Jesus claims that he has command of legions of angels, surely for use against Israel’s enemies when the time proved right.
I think crucial in understanding this difference is that Christianity developed, and the gospels were written after the crucifixion when it became clear that Christ did not rule this world. On the other hand, the resurrection made people believe he had great power in an unseen realm. And so, Christians came to see him as a heavenly ruler.
A bigger theological impact was the destruction of Jerusalem. After the crucifixion and resurrection, Christians expected Jesus to return to earth and set up a kingdom, as is evident in the letters of Paul. After Jerusalem was destroyed and Christians scattered, and the original believers died out, that no longer seemed like a plan and different beliefs such as gnosticism and the reign in heaven developed,