The kingdom in the Old Testament

The core of the OT narrative is the story of God’s reign.

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There’s a plotline that integrates all the little narratives of the Bible into a purposeful story. With all the twists and turns of a suspense thriller, the Bible’s narrative has a single focus: the unfolding story of the kingdom of God.

Over the last five months we’ve traced the meta-narrative of the kingdom through the first half of Genesis. In the previous two years, I’ve personally pursued that journey through the rest of Genesis and Exodus. The integrated picture of God’s kingship and kingdom is absolutely stunning. Want a taste?

Genesis concludes with the promises to Abraham partially fulfilled. The most powerful king of the region recognized the divine ruler’s wisdom in Joseph. As a result, many people were saved, including the Abrahamic family.

But earthly rulers don’t have a good track record of submission to the heavenly sovereign. In the end, they always use power abusively, so a later Pharaoh enslaves Abraham’s descendants (Exodus). He refuses to release YHWH’s people, so a strange kind of conflict breaks out to show who really rules. The recalcitrant Pharaoh is publicly humiliated as powerless before his own people, and renounces his claim over YHWH’s people. The question of how YHWH’s claim to kingship can withstand the might of human armies is answered at the Red Sea. YHWH then leads his people to Sinai, where he establishes them as his nation. As their sovereign, he gives them the laws for their nation, entering into a covenant that says he will be their ruler and they will be his people. They build a tent for their ruler according to his specifications, and he moves in to live among them. The tabernacle is as much a palace as it is a temple, since Israel’s God is also their sovereign.

But Israel really struggles with her calling to be nation that shows the other nations what it’s like to be ruled by God:

  • Judges: Israel keeps being oppressed by the nations. Without a human leader, she spirals down into anarchy, just as the rest of the world did before God authorized human government. By the end of Judges, Israel is tearing herself apart with unrestrained violence. Just like the world before the flood, they can’t cope without human leaders.
  • 1 Samuel: Samuel warns it’s a really bad idea to appoint a human king as the nations do, but God concedes human government for Israel as he did for the nations in Genesis 9–10. Saul receives a prophetic anointing to speak and to act on behalf of the heavenly sovereign and gives them some victories. But it’s not long before power corrupts Saul. Instead of submitting to Israel’s real king, Saul spends his life trying to kill David.
  • 2 Samuel: David starts out well and subdues Israel’s enemies. He wants to build a house for Israel’s true king. But gradually, David too is corrupted by power and struggles to manage even his own family.
  • 1 & 2 Kings: Solomon starts out well. He builds a house for the heavenly king, but then builds a grander one for himself. He is corrupted by power, collecting women and wealth, taxing his people so heavily that it splits the kingdom. Israel and Judah disintegrate because human kings are not able to lead them. With the exile, the Abraham project has died on the vine.
  • Prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel promise that the heavenly sovereign will bring them back from exile. Sometimes they say that God himself will rule over them; other times they say that God will give them his anointed ruler, a “David” over them.

Into this broken story, Jesus was born. No wonder he thought the restoration of God’s reign over humanity was the main thing. All the New Testament writers—in the Gospels, Acts, the letters and Revelation—they’re all focused on how Jesus fulfilled this story.

Was Jesus right about this? Should we, like him, make the story of the restoration of God’s reign over the earth the main thing?

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What others are saying

John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth for Everyone, (London: SPCK, 2011), 5:

Its dilemma [the Book of Judges] is that leadership is both the problem and the solution. On one hand, it knows that God is supposed to be Israel’s king; thus a hero such as Gideon refuses to be turned into a king. On the other hand, the increasing social and moral collapse that accelerates towards the end of Judges happens in a context in which people are doing “what is right in their own eyes” because “there was no king in Israel.” In this respect it prepares the way for the introduction of the monarchy, which comes in 1 Samuel.

Steven M. Sheeley, “Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 767:

The Hebrew idea of God’s reign seems also to have been influenced by their recognition that Yahweh’s power extended far beyond the boundaries of Canaan. Yahweh was able to reach down into Egypt, deliver them from Pharaoh’s slavery, and provide for them in the desert of Sinai.

The OT also records some conflict concerning the kingdom of God. With the establishment of a royal line, first Saul and then David and his heirs, came a strong challenge to the idea that Yahweh was to be king over Israel. The books of the Former Prophets record the nation’s fitful progress from judge to king, and suggest that God was not altogether pleased with the national outcry for a human king. The glory days of the Davidic line were short, but God’s revision and renewal of the covenant with both David (2 Sam. 7) and Solomon (1 Kgs. 9) laid the foundation for a return to the idea of God’s kingdom and reign.

 

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Discipleship Trainer • Riverview Church

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