God is King!

Perhaps, the most significant question I have ever asked about the Bible, a study that changed how I viewed scripture, was when about 2 years ago I asked what Jesus meant by ‘gospel?’ When you read the synoptic gospels the basic message Jesus preached, what he considered good news, was that the kingdom of God was at hand. Upon deep prolonged reflection, I realised it meant that God was king and he was establishing his rule on earth as it is in heaven. What was so significant about that was that it changed the way I read the Bible and how I fundamentally understood God.

Jesus’ said the kingdom was at hand. He was saying something that had been anticipated for a long time had finally arrived. This meant that this divine kingdom initiative did not begin with him. That meant going back to the Old Testament and reading it through the lens of God’s kingdom.  Through it I recognised right from Genesis 1 God is portrayed as king which in turn means all of scripture, both Old and New Testaments, is united by the overarching motif of God’s rule. All of the disparate pieces of scripture I knew fell into place in this kingdom paradigm. ‘God is king’ was not just another appellation or honorific we bestowed on him because of his greatness, it is who he was, is and always will be. This insight happened before I had encountered New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, who had developed the idea much more thoroughly than I had, as well as other scholars who were proponents of the royal metaphor. In fact trying to learn more about this revelation that led me to go deeper into biblical scholarship and not just apologetics.

In my article on ontotheology I said that though it is helpful to use the tools of philosophy in bettering our understanding of God, they are still no substitute for what scripture itself means by ‘God.’ Biblical God-talk does not use metaphysical abstractions. Now on the other hand the concept of God as king, as I have already said, can be found throughout scripture. Its ubiquity is the strongest argument for it being foundational. Another thing in its favour is where the concept is seen in scripture. It being found in Genesis and chapter 1 no less is very significant because the creation story is the foundation of all scripture. There is a reason why it is the first thing in the canon. It offers you the primary way to see God which is as king. So instead of trying to do the impossible task of outlining everyplace it appears, I will outline how it appears in Genesis 1. Also this is part of a series where I re-examine key concepts of God, especially philosophical ones, in the light of scripture.

There are two main royal features of Genesis 1 but before I get into them I have to make this preliminary point. Genesis the rest of scripture does not gives us a modern scientific materialistic cosmology. It gives us ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cosmology. I have made this point time and time again throughout this blog. Instead of an account of material origins, Genesis does not tell us where the matter came from but tells us how it was ordered and arranged for life according to God’s plan. A modern worldview is not the right lens for understanding Genesis or the rest of scripture. We have to enter the cognitive environment of the ANE. Which leads to my first point.

  1. Deities were considered as royalty, royalty was considered as deity.

In the ANE the gods were considered to be kings. They weren’t impersonal metaphysical realities but rulers over different aspects of the natural world. The sky god was sovereign over the sky, the earth goddess over the earth, sea god over the sea, so on and so forth.

The most obvious reason for depicting the gods as royalty was because the most powerful beings in the human world were the kings. [1]Either kings were thought of as divine or at least just below the gods occupying some mediatory role. The rest of the human population was not thought highly of in the cosmic order. People were the slaves of the gods and in the ancient world the ultimate image of weakness was the slave. Royalty was above the populace and in some contexts in the ANE they were said to bear the image of the Gods. The idea of God making man in his own image is a royal metaphor. The gods were kings so humans who bore their image were also kings. [2]This way of ordering existence is also known as ANE royal ideology (Königsideologie.) What was unique about the ancient Jewish worldview was that image was democratized. All people were made in the image of the God, according every person the highest dignity (Psalm 8.) More importantly it meant every person had a royal mandate to bring order and flourishing to the world.

This relationship between gods and royalty is not unique to ANE cosmologies. Greek, Roman, Teutonic, Akan pantheons etc. do so too. There is also an internal hierarchy among the gods where there is a chief god presiding over all other divinities. This is hinted at in Genesis 1 where God says “let us” because it evokes the image of the divine council. He presides over the royal heavenly court similar to a chief deity ruling over the hierarchy of a pantheon. Jewish people recognised the presence of other ‘gods’ but did not think they were true gods and refused to honour them. Genesis 1 is also a polemic against pagan polytheism. Either way the dominant concept of a deity in the world is a ruler of some kind.

  1. The word of a king.

If God is a king his kingdom is his creation. It is brought into being by him ordering and giving function to lifeless primordial matter through his word. That image of speaking the world into being mirrored the authority of kings. Absolute monarchs in the ancient world were so powerful that they only needed to make an utterance and what they wanted happened. Their words brought things into being. Ecclesiastes says,

For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” – Ecclesiastes 8:4 ESV.

[3]Words are not just units of symbolic language that convey information but performative speech-acts that causes change in the world. This royal function of the word is the basis for understanding the full concept of the ‘word of God.’ The word of God is more than what he says. It is his creative, wise, ruling power which is an extension of his identity and is representative of his imminent activity in the world

This motif of royal power is further enhanced coming from deity since gods were already thought of as rulers. [4]Preeminent Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann in expounding another Psalm 33: 6 says,

[5]The imagery is of a powerful sovereign who utters a decree from the throne, issues a fiat, and in the very utterance the thing is done.

When we read other passages in the Bible it becomes much clearer.

Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendour of holiness.

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over many waters.

The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty – Psalm 29:1-4 ESV.

David is alluding to Genesis 1:2 where God’s wind covers the primordial waters and he speaks creational order into the non-ordered deep. The waters were seen as boisterous and uncontrollable yet God had complete sovereign authority over them, delimiting how far they came (Proverbs 8:27-29.)

He issues commands to creation because he is its ruler. This is particularly evident with humanity to whom he verbally delegates authority over a realm of his creation and from whom he expects full obedience. [6]There is a distinctly “royal flavour” to Genesis 1:1-2:3 which continues in the ensuing passages. For instance, the idyllic conditions of the garden of Eden depict a paradise, which was actually a royal orchard which sometimes annexed the royal palace. Also man does a royal act in naming the animals because he is issuing edicts the same way God decreed creation into being. Even the phrasing of the naming act resembles the formulaic wording of the creation account in Genesis 1.

The consensus position among Old Testament scholars is that the root metaphor for God is king. Again, it is not a title among hundreds but his core identity and the paradigm through which his people understood him. As Jason Hood points out in his important article for Christianity Today, it affects how we relate to God. He isn’t out buddy or homie but our imperial friend, meaning he is our patron and benefactor and he in turn expects total obedience from us. God’s sovereign majesty is not diminished by a personal relationship with him and we do well not to minimize it. Also, Jesus did not come to make God our bestie. The good news he proclaimed directly connects to Isaiah who prophesied not only the return of YHWH as Israel’s tribal deity ending their exile, but that God was bringing his rule over all creation. [7]God was king over all peoples, nations and lands which was excellent news because he was going to defeat evil and injustice in the world and restore his creation. The gospel message of Jesus centred on himself because in and through him as the Messiah, YHWH the King had finally come back. Glory to God!

[1] J. Richard Middleton, Liberating the Image? The Imago Dei in Context, p. 11, Christian Scholars Review 24.1, 1994.

[2] Ibid. p. 19.

[3] N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to read the Bible today, p. 20, Harper Collins e-books, 2011

[4] Ibid. p. 20.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 146, Eerdmans, 1997.

[6] J. Richard Middleton, Liberating the Image? The Imago Dei in Context, p. 12, Christian Scholars Review 24.1, 1994.

[7] N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to read the Bible today, p. 19, Harper Collins e-books, 2011.

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