The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament: From Abraham to Israel
In my last post on the kingdom of God in the Old Testament I laid out how God chose to rule His world through an earthly king. Adam was that king, but he failed in his kingly task of taking dominion over the earth. As I mentioned, despite Adam’s sin and failure, God does not abandon His intention to rule over the earth through a human king. In fact, although one can sometimes get the wrong impression reading 1 Samuel that Israel’s desire for a king was purely sinful, already in the book of Deuteronomy God (through Moses) promised Israel that they would one day have a king. However, the true king, God, is the one who sets the terms for Israel’s future king: God Himself will choose Israel’s king, who must be an Israelite (17:15); the king must not rely on the military aid of Egypt (17:16); he must guard his heart against idolatry (specifically by not marrying foreign wives [17:17]); he must not rely on the power that comes with extreme wealth (17:17); and finally he must rule according to God’s law (17:18-20).
Adam’s specific commission from God to take dominion over the earth is also not abandoned because of his sin, although Adam certainly forfeits his role as king. With the call of Abram in Genesis 12 we see a renewed commitment on God’s part to rule over the entire world through His chosen means, this time not simply through a single man (Adam), but through kings (see Gen 17:6) who will rule over “a great nation” (Gen 12:2). God will bless Abram abundantly and make him (through his descendants) into “a great nation” that God will bless so that they in turn can be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3). In Genesis 17:4-6 the “dominion mandate” originally given to Adam is renewed with Abram (now called Abraham):
Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.
There is, however, a very important difference between Adam’s commission and the covenant God makes with Abraham. Whereas Adam was given the responsibility to take dominion over the earth, Abraham is told that God will grant him dominion. God will make Abraham “the father of a multitude of nations”. Adam’s commission was given when there was no sin to get in the way of carrying it out. After Adam’s fall into sin, if dominion over the earth is going to be possible, it must be a gift from God (although God’s people still have an important role to play in its implementation). Furthermore, it must be a gift given in the context of God’s saving redemption of a sinful people, which is why the sacrificial system becomes so central in Israel’s national life.
With the Abrahamic promise the stage is set for Israel’s future role as God’s new son (Hosea 11:1). Israel, through its kings, will be a blessing to all nations as God’s reign extends across the face of the earth. Israel is saved in the Exodus in order to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6) given the task of spreading the glory of God to every corner of the planet (Hab 2:14). As Isaiah puts it, Israel is meant to be a “light to the nations” (Isa 42:6; 49:6; see also Isa 60:3) in the sense of being a bright beacon set on a mountain in order to show the nations the way of salvation, the way to Zion (see Micah 4:2).
Israel certainly needed a godly king to rule over the nation, which can be seen in the downward spiral of national sin and rebellion in the book of Judges (see Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). However, Israel does not actually receive an earthly king until the time of Samuel. Despite their wrong motives in asking for a king, in 1 Samuel 8 God nonetheless grants His people their request, in fulfillment of His promise in Deuteronomy 17. Saul, Israel’s first king, does not rule according to the Lord’s commands (see especially 1 Sam 13:8-15), and eventually is removed from his throne (1 Sam 15). It is at this point that David is anointed king (1 Sam 16), a kingship that he fully enters into beginning in 2 Samuel 2, and that culminates in the covenant God makes with David in 2 Samuel 7 (see also Ps 89:35). In this covenant God promises (through Nathan the prophet) to preserve a kingly line into the future, beginning with King David (2 Sam 7:12-16):
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.
The promise to David that God “will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (7:13) becomes especially significant when we get to the prophets. The reason for this is simple: Israel’s history is primarily a history of a failure of their kings to rule according to God’s requirements as laid out in Deuteronomy 17. While there are some high points (Josiah, etc.), Israel’s kings fail to rule over Israel in righteousness. They certainly fail to make Israel a “holy nation and kingdom of priests” and “a light to the nations.” Just like Adam’s dominion over the world, God’s promise that Israel would be a blessing to the nations (Gen 12:1-3) does not materialize in the Old Testament either. The kingdom of God seems precariously close to disappearing as Israel (the ten northern tribes), and then Judah, are carried off into exile (Israel in 722 BC [2 Kings 17:6-23] and Judah in 586 BC). Jehoiachin (Judah’s second to last king before Judah’s return from exile) is captured and taken to Babylon (2 Kings 24:15; 2 Chron 36:10), where he is eventually released from prison (2 Kings 24:27-30), but not allowed to return to Jerusalem. Zedekiah, his uncle, is placed on the throne by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, but is killed when he rebels 11 years later (2 Kings 24:18-20; 2 Chron 36:11-14). This is as about as inglorious an end to Israel’s and Judah’s kingdoms as is imaginable. Just as with Adam, however, God is not finished with Israel, nor with Israel’s kings. God will still rule over His people and over His world through a Davidic king.
How, then, were God’s people to make sense of the kingly corruption and failure in Israel’s history? How, especially was Israel to understand the seeming abandonment of God’s kingdom that the exile represents? Here is where the prophets come in. We will turn to the Old Testament prophetic teaching about God’s kingdom in our next post.
- 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.