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KING. A male ruler, usually hereditary, of a city, tribe, or nation. Hebrew melekh may mean “possessor,” stressing physical strength, or “counselor, decider,” stressing intellectual superiority. Some combination of the two ideas probably was in the minds of most people, the latter predominating in better governed societies. Greek basileus is of obscure origin, but always denoted a ruler and leader of a people, city, or state. Kings often had priestly functions in the maintenance of the religion of the group, though most of these were separated from the kingly office in the Hebrew monarchy: the king was expected to further religion but not to act as its priest. In the Orient kings came to be regarded as divine beings. This was true of Egypt from the beginning. The idea was taken over by the Greek empire of Alexander and his successors, later by the Romans, after their empire came to include most of the East.

The Western Wall or Wailing Wall, the lower part of which dates back to Herod the Great. Here orthodox Jews pray for the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom.

KING, KINGSHIP. The Heb. word for “king” is מֶ֫לֶכְ, H4889. It appears over two thousand times in the OT. The Gr. equivalent, βασιλεύς, G995, occurs for melek in the LXX and some fifty times in the NT.


Kingship and the gods.

In the system of the ancient religious-state patriotism and religious piety were synonymous. To oust or overthrow the legitimate king was to commit iconoclasm and treason against the state cult. Unless a new administration could gain the ritual approval of the hierarchy of the cult and the necessary legitimization of the city gods it would be the victim of a counter revolution which often degenerated into fratricidal feuds and harem intrigues. Throughout the long centuries of Egypt’s history, and sporadically in Mesopotamia, the gods were considered royalty and the rulers as divine. In Syria-Pal. and other border areas of the great river valley civilizations the kings served as the high priests of the cult. Even in imperial Rome, the grandest of the Caesar’s honorific titles was Pontifex Maximus. The approval of the town deities was of such importance that conquerors often listed the gods of captive regions in mock reverence in the place of geographic names. In fact it was the obeisance of the conqueror to these deities that could establish his right to the local authority even though the gods along with their towns had been captured. The supercilious prayers of these rulers contain their imprecations against their enemies and their implorations for victory, addressed to a vertiable menagerie of deities. Undoubtedly this common kingly practice furthered the collection of elaborate pantheons containing deities of diverse origins. Such pantheons like the king’s courts which they served consisted of regular ordered hierarchies of superhuman beings, in effect they were divine prisoners of war. On the other hand, the Pharaoh of Egypt was the mundane and fleshly embodiment of the deity Horus, and every Pharaoh possessed a long title or throne name including some mention of the deity. Just as an earthly monarch would have his circle and entourage of courtiers and servants, so the myths and epics picture the gods as bound to a feudal if not manorial scale of importance. In this divine state each is waited on by his heavenly vassals and company of retainers. The epithets of many of the Mesopotamian deities are synonymous with those of human sovereigns. Some gods are characterized by this great feat of arms, or that sublime innovation while the names of others indicate their vocation in the supernal palaces. Some are addressed as “shepherds,” others as “cup or throne bearers,” others as “gardeners,” “porters” and even “canal inspectors.” From such myths and the popular folktales many insights can be gained concerning the inner workings of an ancient oriental palace and its inhabitants. The life of the kingly gods was viewed monistically as a rectilinear extension of endless time. The life unending sought by both Akkad. and Egyp. alike was a quantitative continuation of the life known on earth. In the Ugaritic Legend of Aqht, the goddess Anath promises immortality to Aqht and says, “Ask for life and I shall give it to you, I shall cause you to count years like Ba’al, and you shall number months with the son of El” (I D vi). It was prob. this end to which the Pharaoh designed in building the Pyramid or the Lú-gal of Ur, in constructing the great “death pit.” However, although the people of Egypt may have considered the Pharaoh divine, worshiping and reverencing him, his contemporaries who ruled the neighboring kingdoms certainly did not. They were addressed by their vassals in anything but reverential terms. As Egypt’s asiatic empire began to dissolve the rulers of the petty states beyond its control treated the divine Pharaoh with common contempt. Perhaps it was the aloofness of the Pharaohs or perhaps the insularity of Egyp. culture and the enigma of their script but the Pharaonic institutions seem to have little influenced the developme nt of the idea of kingship outside of Egypt and its vassals.

In some cultures of the ancient Near E annual agricultural festivals were held which were intended to insure the continuation of the regime and the bounty of the harvest for the ensuing year. The best evidence for such celebrations comes from Babylon, and it is possible that a similar ritual was enacted in Ugarit. Both traditions can be traced back to the old zag-mukku festivals of early Sumeria. Part of the action consisted of a symbolic humiliation and reenthronement of the king as well as the presentation of offerings and sacrifices. In Babylon this involved also a long procession of the idols, their priests and devotees up from the festive boats on the river and into the temple of Marduk, the magnificent E-sag-ila.

The layout and architecture of the city was arranged in accord with the needs of the cultic calendar. The high holiday was the rēsh shatti, New Year’s Festival, and had as its center the activity the akîtu(m) ceremony. In the ritual of the akîtu(m) the epic of cosmogeny Enūma elish was chanted as an accompaniment to an elaborate ritual of sympathetic magic. A ritual combat with chaos was produced followed by a sacred marriage ceremony, in which the parts of the god and his consort were taken by the king and a temple prostitute. However, there were great divergencies in the style, actions and interpretation of the ritual drama over the centuries.

The sum and substance of the festival in all ages was the recoronation of the king for another year. It is not clear whether the king actually was considered a deity during the rites or whether he only took the part of the god. He must have taken and answered to the divine titles during and after the ceremony, and so gained legitimacy to continue his reign.

Some scholars, such as I. Engnell and S. Mowinckel, have attempted to interpret certain passages in the OT as evidence of an Israelite enthronement festival or “thronbest-eigungfest.” Their contention is that an annual “Enthronement Festival of Yahweh” was held and in time became the motive for OT eschatology. Initially this type of construction of the Biblical data is highly speculative and many necessary components of it are simply undemonstrable from the text. At heart there is the fact that no Jewish monarch at any time ever received the titles or reverence which belonged to Jehovah. Nor did any Jewish ruler act as lawgiver or legislator. All, whether good or bad, were subject to the Mosaic law and claimed to be nothing more than men. There is the added difficulty that the divine pronouncements of the OT come neither through the king or the priests but through a special non-ritualistic office, the prophet. It is this spokesman of Jehovah who introduces and explains the OT eschatology and draws the prefigurement of the Messiah. The Scandinavian hypothesis of the enthronement ritual character of much of the OT is based on assumptions concerning the composition of the text and speculations on its humanistic development, all of which are suspect.

Kingship in Israel.

The historic establishment of kingship in Israel was a contradiction of the principle that the nation was peculiarly under Jehovah’s providence. The judge Samuel acting in the prophetic office clearly declared the extent of the liability that such an earthly monarch would prove to be. After listing the avaricious requirements of a royal establishment Samuel adds (1 Sam 8:18), “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” The kingship of Jehovah was expressly stated in Moses’ first discourse from Sinai (Exod 19:5, 6), “Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (JPS). It was this aspect of God’s sovereignty over Israel which was rejected as stated in 1 Samuel 8:7: “Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee; for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them” (JPS). This statement has in view the revealed precepts of God in regard to the Mosaic law and its authority, it does not denote the decrees of God’s sovereign providence in and over history. For this reason even the perverse desire for kingship in Israel was constructed in terms of the law of God, although it manifested itself as a rejection of His law. The period of the Judges was one of conflict between the migrant and tribal people of Israel and the loose knit confederacy of Canaanite citystates. In the period preceeding the Exodus from Egypt the Israelite patriarchite had confronted the monolithic façade of the Egypt. religious state. As Egypt lost its Asiatic provinces, the Philistines pushed southw ard and Israel settled the land. In time the small states and trading villages of Syria-Pal. coalesced into petty monarchies and ultimately into dynasties. The achievement of Saul, David and Solomon was not de novo nor in vacuuo, but was paralleled by centralization of authority elsewhere at that time and in that area of the Near E. The problem of synthesizing the archeological material from the period of the conquest of Canaan is difficult and tedious but it is clear that the first king, Saul, came to the newly established throne at about 1030-1020 b.c.

Kingship in the OT.

Kings and kingship are first mentioned in the OT in the narrative of the battle fought by Abram with a number of rulers (Gen 14). Even the pharaohs of Egypt during the time of Israel’s sojourn are called by the West Sem. term, melek. After the conquest, settlement and solidification of the tribal organization of Israel in Canaan the judges became the legal and executive authorities of the twelve tribes. Even though a number of judges were also prophets the judgeship was not an anointed office (1 Sam 15:10), it served no direct Messianic function in the Israelite theocracy. Samuel acted as a prophet in selecting and anointing Saul as the first king of Israel (11:15). It is basic to the OT concept of kingship to recognize the necessity of the prophetic office. The prophet as spokesman for Jehovah assented to the people’s request for a king, determined who should be king, and then marked the pretender to the throne as a person of Messianic character by anointing him. Therefore no king could claim legitimacy without the prophetic approval and its divine investiture. The impossibility of the royal line being infiltrated by foreigners or compromised from outside the community of Israel was assured. The later history of the Heb. monarchy demonstrates the frequency with which the prophets rejected the iniquitous infatuation of the kings with Gentile and pagan royalty. For this reason both Persia and Greece found it necessary to unseat the monarchy totally, and to replace it with an authority based on their own culture, whereas in other civilizations they conquered they were able to gain the legitimization of the ancient cult.

The royal establishment in Israel and the OT.

The later history of the Jewish kingdom.

In the full perspective of the thousands of years of Jewish history, the monarchy actually involved a brief duration. Under the early rulers, Saul, David and Solomon, the conquesting spirit was still lively enough to advance the kingdom territorially and materially to its greatest extent. Even this period of ascendency above the neighboring petty states of the Eastern Mediterranean coast lasted a scant cent. After the division of the kingdom under Rehoboam and Jeroboam the political power of the Jewish monarchy declined until in about two hundred years time Israel, the northern regency, had not the resources to forestall its destruction before Assyria in 722 b.c. Judah, the more stable principality, lingered on until 587 b.c. when Jerusalem fell to Assyria. Without ever being freed the Jewish people passed under the domination of Persia and finally into the kingdom of Seleucus in the Age of Hellenism. At last a respite came during the revolution of the Maccabees and the leadership of Judah Maccabee and his brothers, 165-142 b.c. The dynasty of rulers they established ruled as the Hasmoneans until the last of their number was made a puppet of Pompey. The Idumean chieftain Antipater was now actually ruling the country in the name of his Rom. masters. His dynasty, the Herodian, brought about some of the blackest moments in the history of the Jewish people. The final collapse came after generations of alien puppet rule when a series of abortive revolutions brought the invasion of Titus and the destruction of Jerusaem in a.d. 70. The last remnants of the free and sovereign dominion of David fled to the fortress of Masada in the Dead Sea region where they were exterminated after a long siege by the Tenth Legion under Flavius Silva in a.d. 73. The immediate results of this final and irremediable disaster was the dispersion of the Jewish people throughout the Mediterranean world. This process of dispossession which had been started by the Assyrian empire was now complete (1 Pet 1).

Kingship in the DSS.

Many of the Hebraic documents written by the Jews of the Diaspora have apocalyptic subjects and indeed these points of view are found in both the Apoc. and the Pseudep. In the DSS, the image of a restored kingship to Judaism is a recurrent theme. In the scroll 1QM the deeds of the past hero kings of Israel are quite prominent, but there is little said about the restoration of the monarchy.

The Messianic kingdom of Christ.

In the light of the prophecies of the coming of the King-Messiah of the OT, it is clear what is meant by the ascription of this fulfillment to the life of Christ. The kingship of Christ over His spiritual people of Israel was initiated with His accomplishment of Atonement. By the one great act of redemption, the death on the cross and the resurrection, the theocratic kingdom was forever established, and the centuries of OT prefigurement were fulfilled and completed. However, in the NT one further as yet unforseen aspect is still maintained, the final culmination of history and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven wherein Jehovah will be absolutely and ideally represented before His subjects by the Messianic King Jesus Christ.


I. Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship in the Ancient Near East (1943); H. Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (1948); G. Vos, Biblical Theology (1954); W. Hallo, Early Mesopotamian Royal Titles (1957); G. E. Wright, The Bible and the Ancient Near East (1961).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)



1. Etymology and Definition

2. Earliest Kings

3. Biblical Signification of the Title


1. Israel’s Theocracy

2. Period of Judges

3. Establishment of the Monarchy

4. Appointment of King

5. Authority of the King

6. Duties of the King

7. The Symbols of Royal Dignity

8. Maintenance and Establishment

(1) Income

(2) The Royal Court

9. Short Character Sketch of Israel’s Kingdom


I. King.

1. Etymology and Definition:

The Hebrew word for king is melekh; its denominative malakh, "to reign" "to be king." The word is apparently derived from the mlkh which denotes: (1) in the Arabic (the verb and the noun) it means "to possess," "to reign," inasmuch as the possessor is also "lord" and "ruler"; (2) in the Aramaic melekh), and Assyrian "counsel," and in the Syrian "to consult"; compare Latin, consul.

If, as has been suggested, the root idea of "king" is "counsellor" and not "ruler," then the rise of the kingly office and power would be due to intellectual superiority rather than to physical prowess. And since the first form of monarchy known was that of a "city-state," the office of king may have evolved from that of the chief "elder" or intellectual head of the clan.

2. Earliest Kings:

The first king of whom we read in the Bible was Nimrod (Ge 10:8-10), who was supposedly the founder of the Babylonian empire. Historical research regarding the kings of Babylonia and Egypt corroborates this Biblical statement in so far as the ancestry of these kings is traced back to the earliest times of antiquity. According to Isa 19:11, it was the pride of the Egyptian princes that they could trace their lineage to most ancient kings. The Canaanites and Philistines had kings as early as the times of Abraham (Ge 14:2; 20:2). Thus also the Edomites, who were related to Israel (Ge 36:31), the Moabites, and the Midianites had kings (Nu 22:4; 31:8) earlier than the Israelites.

In Ge 14:18 we read of Melchizedek, who was a priest, and king of Salem. At first the extent of the dominion of kings was often very limited, as appears from 70 of them being conquered by Adonibezek (Jud 1:7), 31 by Joshua (Jos 12:7 ), and 32 being subject to Ben-hadad (1Ki 20:1).

3. Biblical Signification of the Title:

The earliest Biblical usage of this title "king," in consonance with the general oriental practice, denotes an absolute monarch who exercises unchecked control over his subjects. In this sense the title is applied to Yahweh, and to human rulers. No constitutional obligations were laid upon the ruler nor were any restrictions put upon his arbitrary authority. His good or bad conduct depended upon his own free will.

The title "king" was applied also to dependent kings. In the New Testament it is used even for the head of a province (Re 17:12). To distinguish him from the smaller and dependent kings, the king of Assyria bore the title "king of kings."

II. Kingdom.

The notable fact that Israel attained to the degree of a kingdom rather late, as compared with the other Semitic nations, does not imply that Israel, before the establishment of the monarchy, had not arrived at the stage of constitutional government, or that the idea of a kingdom had no room in the original plan of the founder of the Hebrew nation. For a satisfactory explanation we must take cognizance of the unique place that Israel held among the Semitic peoples.

1. Israel’s Theocracy:

From the political point of view Israel, through the absence of a strong central government, was at a great disadvantage, making almost impossible its development into a world-empire. But this barrier to a policy of self-aggrandizement was a decided blessing from the viewpoint of Israel’s providential mission to the world. It made possible the transmission of the pure religion entrusted to it, to later generations of men without destructive contamination from the ungodly forces with which Israel would inevitably have come into closer contact, had it not been for its self-contained character, resulting from the fashion of a state it was providentially molded into. Only as the small and insignificant nation that it was, could Israel perform its mission as "the depository and perpetuating agency of truths vital to the welfare of humanity." Thus its religion was the central authority of this nation, supplying the lack of a centralized government. Herein lay Israel’s uniqueness and greatness, and also the secret of its strength as a nation, as long as the loyalty and devotion to Yahweh lasted. Under the leadership of Moses and Joshua who, though they exercised a royal authority, acted merely as representatives of Yahweh, the influence of religion of which these leaders were a personal embodiment was still so strong as to keep the tribes united for common action. But when, after the removal of these strong leaders, Israel no longer had a standing representative of Yahweh, those changes took place which eventually necessitated the establishment of the monarchy.

2. Period of Judges:

In the absence of a special representative of Yahweh, His will as Israel’s King was divined by the use of the holy lot in the hand of the highest priest. But the lot would not supply the place of a strong personal leader. Besides, many of the Israelites came under the deteriorating influence of the Canaanite worship and began to adopt heathenish customs. The sense of religious unity weakened, the tribes became disunited and ceased to act in common, and as a result they were conquered by their foes. Yahweh came to their assistance by sending them leaders, who released the regions where they lived from foreign attacks. But these leaders were not the strong religious personalities that Moses and Joshua had been; besides, they had no official authority, and their rule was only temporary and local. It was now that the need of a centralized political government was felt, and the only type of permanent organization of which the age was cognizant was the kingship. The crown was offered to Gideon, but he declined it, saying: "Yahweh shall rule over you" (Jud 8:22,23). The attempt of his son, Abimelech, to establish a kingship over Shechem and the adjacent country, after the Canaanitic fashion, was abortive.

The general political condition of this period is briefly and pertinently described by the oft-recurring statement in Judges: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes."

3. Establishment of the Monarchy:

Not until the time of Samuel was a formal kingdom established over Israel. An attempt to ameliorate conditions by a union of civil and religious functions in the hands of Eli, the priest, had failed through the degeneracy of his sons. Similarly the hopes of Israel in a hereditary judgeship had been disappointed through the corruption of the sons of Samuel. The Philistines were threatening the independence and hope of Israel. Its very existence as a distinct race, and consequently the future of Yahweh’s religion, imperatively demanded a king. Considering that it was the moral decline of the nation that had created the necessity for a monarchy, and moreover that the people’s desire for a king originated from a purely national and not from a religious motive, the unwillingness of Samuel, at first, to comply with the demand for a king is not surprising. Even Yahweh declared: "They have not rejected thee but they have rejected me," etc. Instead of recognizing that they themselves were responsible for the failures of the past, they blamed the form of government they had, and put all their hopes upon a king. That it was not the monarchy as such that was objectionable to Yahweh and His prophet is evidenced by the fact that to the patriarchs the promise had been given: "Kings shall come out of thy loins" (Ge 17:6; 35:11). In view of this Moses had made provision for a kingship (De 17:14-20). According to the Mosaic charter for the kingship, the monarchy when established must be brought into consonance with the fact that Yahweh was Israel’s king. Of this fact Israel had lost sight when it requested a kingship like that of the neighboring peoples. Samuel’s gloomy prognostications were perfectly justified in view of such a kingship as they desired, which would inevitably tend to selfish despotism (1Sa 8:11 f). therefore God directs Samuel to give them a king--since the introduction of a kingship typifying the kingship of Christ lay within the plan of His economy--not according to their desire, but in accordance with the instructions of the law concerning kings (De 17:14-20), in order to safeguard their liberties and prevent the forfeiture of their mission.

4. Appointment of King:

According to the Law of Moses Yahweh was to choose the king of israel, who was to be His representative. The choice of Yahweh in the case of Saul is implied by the anointing of Saul by Samuel and through the confirmation of this choice by the holy lot (1Sa 10:1-20). This method of choosing the king did not exclude the people altogether, since Saul was publicly presented to them, and acknowledged as king (1Sa 10:24). The participation of the people in the choice of their king is more pronounced in the case of David, who, having been designated as Yahweh’s choice by being anointed by Samuel, was anointed again by the elders of Israel before he actually became king (2Sa 2:4).

The anointing itself signified the consecration to an office in theocracy. The custom of anointing kings was an old one, and by no means peculiar to Israel (Jud 9:8,15). The hereditary kingship began with David. Usually the firstborn succeeded to the throne, but not necessarily. The king might choose as his successor from among his sons the one whom he thought best qualified.

5. Authority of the King:

The king of Israel was not a constitutional monarch in the modern sense, nor was he an autocrat in the oriental sense. He was responsible to Yahweh, who had chosen him and whose vicegerent and servant he was. Furthermore, his authority was more or less limited on the religious side by the prophets, the representatives of Yahweh, and in the political sphere by the "elders," the representatives of the people, though as king he stood above all. Rightly conceived, his kingship in relation to Yahweh, who was Israel’s true king, implied that he was Yahweh’s servant and His earthly substitute. In relation to his subjects his kingship demanded of him, according to the Law, "that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren" (De 17:20).

6. Duties of the King:

7. The Symbols of Royal Dignity:

The marks of royal dignity, besides the beautiful robes in which the king was attired (1Ki 22:10), were:

(1) the diadem nezer) and the crown (aTarah, 2Sa 1:10; 2Ki 11:12; 2Sa 12:30), the headtire;

(2) the scepter (shebheT), originally a long, straight staff, the primitive sign of dominion and authority (Ge 49:10; Nu 24:17; Isa 14:5; Jer 48:17; Ps 2:9; 45:7). Saul had a spear (1Sa 18:10; 22:6);

(3) the throne (kicce’, 1Ki 10:18-20), the symbol of majesty. Israel’s kings also had a palace (1Ki 7:1-12; 22:39; Jer 22:14), a royal harem (2Sa 16:21), and a bodyguard (2Sa 8:18; 15:18).

8. Maintenance and Establishment:

(1) Income.

(a) According to the custom of the times presents were expected of the subjects (1Sa 10:27; 16:20) and of foreigners (2Sa 8:2; 1Ki 5:1 ff; 10:25; 2Ch 32:23), and these often took the form of an annual tribute.

(b) In time of war the king would lay claim to his share of the booty (2Sa 8:11; 12:30; 1Ch 26:27).

(d) Subdued nations had to pay a heavy tribute (2Ki 3:4).

(e) The royal domain often comprised extensive possessions (1Ch 27:25-31).

(2) The Royal Court.

The highest office was that of the princes (1Ki 4:2), who were the king’s advisers or counselors. In 2Ki 25:19 and Jer 52:25 they are called "they that saw the king’s face" (compare also 1Ki 12:6, "stood before Solomon"). The following officers of King David are mentioned: the captain of the host (commander-in-chief), the captain of the Cherethites and the Pelethites (bodyguard), the recorder (chronicler and reminder), the scribe (secretary of state), the overseer of the forced labor, the chief ministers or priests (confidants of the king, usually selected from the royal family) (2Sa 8:16-18; 20:23-26).

9. Short Character Sketch of Israel’s Kingdom:

No higher conceptions of a good king have ever been given to the world than those which are presented in the representations of kingship in the Old Testament, both actual and ideal. Though Samuel’s characterization of the kingship was borne out in the example of a great number of kings of Israel, the Divine ideal of a true king came as near to its realization in the case of one king of Israel, at least, as possibly nowhere else, namely, in the case of David. Therefore King David appears as the type of that king in whom the Divine ideal of a Yahweh-king was to find its perfect realization; toward whose reign the kingship in Israel tended. The history of the kingship in Israel after David is, indeed, characterized by that desire for political aggrandizement which had prompted the establishment of the monarchy, which was contrary to Israel’s Divine mission as the peculiar people of the Yahweh-king. When Israel’s kingdom terminated in the Bah exile, it became evident that the continued existence of the nation was possible even without a monarchical form of government. Though a kingdom was established again under the Maccabees, as a result of the attempt of Antiochus to extinguish Israel’s religion, this kingdom was neither as perfectly national nor as truly religious in its character as the Davidic. It soon became dependent on Rome. The kingship of Herod was entirely alien to the true Israelite conception.

It remains to be said only that the final attempt of Israel in its revolt against the Roman Empire, to establish the old monarchy, resulted in its downfall as a nation, because it would not learn the lesson that the future of a nation does not depend upon political greatness, but upon the fulfillment of its Divine mission.


J.P. McCurdy, History, Prophecy and the Monuments; Riehm, Handwiirterbuch des bibl. Alterrums; Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes); Kinzler, Bibl. Altes Testament.