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King, Kingship

KING, KINGSHIP. The Heb. word for “king” is מֶ֫לֶכְ֒, 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.


1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

5. 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).

6. 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.

7. 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.

Bibliography 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).