The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament: Kingship and Creation

from Apr 18, 2015 Category: Articles

In a previous post I mentioned that the exact phrase “kingdom of God” does not show up in the Old Testament (although “kingdom of the Lord” does appear in 2 Chronicles 13:8; see also the talk of God’s kingdom in Daniel [for example, Dan 6:26]). Despite this fact, the concept of God’s kingship is present throughout the Old Testament and is vital if we are going to make sense of Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God. Remember: Jesus simply announces that the kingdom is “at hand” (Matt 3:2), assuming that His hearers had some grasp of what He meant, even if He knew that they did not fully understand Him.

What, then, does the Old Testament have to say about the kingdom of God? In this post we will examine the kingdom of God at creation, namely in the commission God gives to Adam to rule over the earth. The most important teaching on the kingdom in the Old Testament, however, is that God is king, so we must turn to this idea first. The Old Testament spells this out in two main ways.

First, God is king over all of creation. As Psalm 10:16 says: “The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land.” Or as King Jehoshaphat confesses in 2 Chronicles 20:6: “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you.” Or consider King Hezekiah’s exultation in Isaiah 37:16: “O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.” See also Psalms 93:1-2; 95:3-6; 96:10; 104; 136:1-9. Simply put, God is the sovereign ruler of the universe.

Second, the Old Testament portrays God as king over Israel in a special way. In 1 Samuel 12 the prophet Samuel rebukes Israel for desiring a king that would be just like the greedy, self-serving kings of the nations surrounding Israel. While it was not wrong for Israel to desire a king (more on this below), the reason driving Israel’s request was indeed sinful. As Samuel says in 1 Sam 12:12-13: “The Lord sent Jerubbaal and Barak and Jephthah and Samuel and delivered you out of the hand of your enemies on every side, and you lived in safety. And when you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the Lord your God was your king.” Israel’s desire for a powerful earthly king was driven by fear and earthly-mindedness (see 1 Sam 8:4-9). God’s people failed to rest in the fact that God was their king, and that He would protect His covenant people.

While it is true that God alone is the ultimate king of Israel and over all of creation, human kings have a key role to play in God’s kingdom. In fact, God built human kingship into creation itself. In Genesis 1-2 Adam is clearly portrayed as a king. This is seen most clearly in the commission that God gives to Adam in Genesis 1:26-30 (and repeated in Gen 2:15-17):

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Kingship is at the heart of the commission that God gives to Adam: he is granted dominion over all animal life on the earth (1:26); he is told to have many children in order to subdue the earth and take dominion over it (1:28). He is given control over all plant life (1:29) and again over every animal on the earth (1:30). In short, Adam is to rule over the whole world as a subordinate king underneath God, the true king over all. He is to spread God’s own dominion outside the boundaries of the ordered garden of Eden so that it branches out to the farthest reaches of creation. In this sense, God reigns over His creation in and through Adam. Adam, of course, fails to take dominion over the earth. Instead, he rebels against his own sovereign, the Lord God almighty. Nonetheless, God does not abandon His intention to rule over the earth through a human king. In the next post we will look at how God’s kingdom develops in the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham, moving on to kingship in Israel, and ending with the exile of the northern and southern kingdoms.

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Dr. Ben C. Dunson is professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College.