The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament: The Prophetic Hope
When the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel went into exile the hope for God’s rule over the earth to be manifested in an Israelite king seemed to have come to nothing. The prophets (before, during, and after the exile), however, make it clear that even with the exile God would not, and did not, abandon His intention to rule over His people and His world through a Davidic king.
Many important prophetic passages reveal that the only hope for the establishment of an enduring and faithful kingdom in Israel lies in a future work of God’s redemption. The human heart is too corrupt for God’s purposes for the world to be accomplished through Israel’s fallen and sinful kings. Periodic revivals and times of faithfulness (such as Josiah’s reforms [2 Kings 23]) are not enough to usher in God’s worldwide dominion. Despite Israel’s earthly failure God still does not abandon His plan to reign over the whole world through His appointed human king.
How will this reign manifest itself? What is necessary for God to reverse the failure of Israel to be a light to the nations and extend the kingdom across the earth? First, God will being about a new exodus. This exodus, however, will not be a mere deliverance from Israel’s earthly enemies. Instead, God will come in power to deliver His people as He ushers in the new creation itself and renews His reign over His people. As Isa 35:1-4, 8-10 puts it:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” … And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
The prophets speak of God’s deliverance of His people in this way as the reestablishment of God’s kingdom:
Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isa 40:9-11)
It is not as if God somehow ceased to be king simply because of the failure of Israel’s earthly kings. Instead, speaking of a return of God in the power of His kingdom is meant to highlight the necessity of God performing a dramatic act of salvation and rescue for His wayward people in the future. If the kingdom of God is to be manifest over the earth, and if Israel is to be a light to the nations (which will be brought about through a messianic king: Isa 9:1-7; 42:1-9), then it will only come about when YHWH returns to Zion to deliver His sinful people and equip them to extend His saving reign to the furthest points of the earth:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Isa 52:7-10)
Jeremiah expresses this with the imagery of God placing shepherds (a symbol of kingship) over His people in the context of bringing them (in a new exodus) out from the nations to which they have been driven (Jer 23:3-4):
Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.
Daniel speaks of this reality in this way (Dan 2:44):
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever …
Through the end-time kingdom that God will set up “the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one” (Zech 14:9). God, through a future, godly Davidic king will reign over the whole world forever (see Psalm 89). Adam’s dominion mandate will be fulfilled through the dramatic saving work of God. In that day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14).
While the prophets consistently speak of God as the one who will sovereignly usher in His end time kingdom, they also speak of this as being accomplished through a kingly messiah figure. This messiah is described in many ways in the prophets, but two passages stand out as particularly significant for understanding the ministry of Jesus Christ, namely Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and Daniel 7.
In Isaiah 52:13-53:12 the prophet speaks of a coming servant of the Lord who “shall be high and lifted up and shall be exalted” (Isa 52:13). This is the language of kingly exaltation, as is reinforced two verses later where we read that “kings shall shut their mouths because of him” (52:15). The exaltation of God’s servant, however, will paradoxically come about through his own suffering (53:3-5):
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
Israel’s sinful failure requires atonement: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6). The suffering and death of God’s kingly servant is necessary for the end-time kingdom to be established. In fact, it is the very means by which the kingdom will be established.
In Daniel 7 the coming kingly deliverer of God’s people seems strikingly unlike the suffering servant of Isaiah 52-53. Consider Dan 7:13-14:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
These two verses nicely encapsulate Daniel’s vision of an end-time “son of man” who will defeat all the enemies of God and of His people. Through this son of man, God will establish his dominion over all nations, a dominion that will never pass away or be destroyed. The dominion mandate of Adam will be fulfilled. Israel (see Dan 7:22), through the kingly son of man, will establish God’s kingdom over all peoples.
How is it, then, that the final, saving reign of God can be said to ushered in through a suffering servant (Isa 52-53) and a triumphant heavenly deliverer (Dan 7)? Which is it? The answer is that it is both: victory will come about through the suffering of God’s king. This was difficult for many Jews to accept, because they simply expected a triumphant king, without understanding how he would triumph (see John 6:15, for example). This is, however, precisely how Jesus understands His own kingly calling: He is the heavenly son of man who will come on the clouds to judge the world, but only after He has died on the cross for the sins of His people. This seemingly paradoxical reality is a vital theme that we must return to in future posts.
While Israel does eventually return from its earthly exile in Babylon (which has since come to be ruled by the Persians), the reports in Ezra and Nehemiah of their return fall short of the prophetic hope of a renewed Israel ruled over by a righteous Davidic king. The Persian king Cyrus sends the Israelites back to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple (2 Chron 36:22-23), which they indeed do (Ezra 1-6), but Israel never attains anything near the glories of the monarchy under King David. This is perhaps seen most clearly in the weeping of the elders of the people at the dedication of the new temple, since it falls significantly short of the glory of the previous temple (Ezra 3:12-13). This new temple probably did not even contain the ark of the covenant (the centerpiece of God’s saving presence with his people) which was most likely lost or destroyed when Judah was defeated by Babylon. The prophetic hope looks to a future day when God will come in power to once-and-for-all set up his end-time kingdom. It is with this sense of anticipation that the Gospels open, which is captured so memorably in Simeon’s words in Luke 2:29-23:
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.
Simeon, like Anna, and “all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38), knew that a king would one day come who would save and deliver God’s people.
The Old Testament teaching on God’s kingdom is the necessary context for making sense of Jesus’ teaching and preaching, especially His announcement that the kingdom of God was “at hand” (Matt 3:2). The Jews Jesus preached to knew that God was king. They knew that He had always been king. What they did not know (apart from those who were given special revelation) was that the final, end-time, saving reign of God announced by Israel’s prophets was already breaking into the world in Jesus’ own person and ministry. We must therefore turn to the Gospels to see what Jesus has to say about the nature of the kingdom of God.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
- Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Philipsburg: P & R, 1962), pp. 3-17.
- Jeremy Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), pp. 53-86.
- Christopher M. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson eds., The Kingdom of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), pp. 49-94.
- What is the Kingdom of God?
- The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament: Kingship and Creation
- The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament: From Abraham to Israel
- The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament: The Prophetic Hope
Dr. Ben C. Dunson is professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College.