Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament

There are a lot of misunderstandings regarding the Kingdom of God entrenched in Christian, and some non-Christian, thought today - as was demonstrated in the last post. Such misunderstandings rise, in part, from the wide ranging nature of the Kingdom itself: the Kingdom is not something that can be pinned down in order for us say, “The Kingdom of God is Salvation,” or “ The Kingdom is peace.” It is these things, but it is a great deal more as well. To gain a better understanding of the Kingdom we need to examine it’s history as it is described in the Old and New Testaments.

God Initiates the Kingdom

Before the Exodus, the people of God had very little information about Him, who He was, or even what he desired of them on a day to day basis. They knew that He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they knew some of the things He had done for their fathers. That all changed when the Jews were freed from captivity and slavery in Egypt and God met them at Mount Sinai.

In Exodus 19:4-6, God speaks to the refugees from Egypt through Moses:

“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptian, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

The Children of Israel responded twice, in Exodus 19:8 and 24:3 “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do,” thus accepting God’s proposed covenant and the conditions He placed upon it.

The modern reader loses some of the power of God’s statement and Israel’s response, because he lives in a world entirely devoid of powerful monarchs. This message was given to the Jews at a time when every nation on earth was a monarchy. In that context, God approaches these people gathered at Sinai and says, “I will be your King.” This isn’t just a metaphor, or a word picture for something else – God meant it literally.

Judges 8 records the defeat of the Midianites by God through his judge, Gideon. After the victory the men of Israel, quickly forgetting that God did all the fighting while they stood by and watched, desired to make Gideon their King and establish his line as a dynasty.

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.”

Gideon understood God’s rightful place as king over this people. Unfortunately, some 200 years later, the people would forget God again in their desire for a king that they could see and touch, a human king just like everyone else had.

2 Samuel 8:4-7
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations. But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.

Stop for a second and reflect on that statement – They have rejected Me! This was treason perpetrated directly against the God of the Universe. They took God off the throne and placed a man there, no different than when other nations violently revolt and replace their old king with a new one. Not surprisingly, God did not take kindly to this usurpation of His proper place by the Jews.

Hosea 13:9-11
He destroys you, O Israel,
for you are against me, against your helper.
Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities?
Where are all your rulers—
those of whom you said,
“Give me a king and princes”?
I gave you a king in my anger,
and I took him away in my wrath.

Despite this statement, God does not stay angry with his people for long, He sets His sights on restoring His rule, this time through a new king; one who will do His will and obey His commands. God finds just such a man in the shepherd David.

During his reign, David expresses interest in building a house for God. At first the prophet Nathan approves, but a few hours later God appears to Nathan in a dream and gives him different directions. God says to David:

2 Samuel 7:5-6,8-9, 11-13
Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. … I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. … And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.

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.

God makes a promise to David that a descendents of his will sit on the throne forever. He promises an everlasting dynasty, what the Bible often refers to as “The House of David,” and God will rule his people through this house forever.

Unfortunately, Israel continues to be a “stiff necked people,” they leave God again and again. First, ten of the tribes of Israel split from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin when the ten refuse to accept Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, as their King. The nation breaks in two, the Kingdom of Judah in the south, made up of Judah and Benjamin, and the Kingdom of Israel in the north, made up of the other ten tribes.

While Judah has a small number of good kings who seek after God Israel has none, and proceeds to prostitute herself with other nations and other gods until God wipes them out around 720 BC. The northern kingdom of Israel was so bad that later, when God is warning Judah to return to Him, He says of Israel:

Jeremiah 3:6-8
“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.

Israel had broken the conditions of covenant given by God at Sinai and the covenant curses, laid out in Deuteronomy 28, all come to pass against that nation.

Because of their few good Kings, Judah lasts a little longer than her sister, but eventually God must punish her as well. In 586 BC God sends the Empire of Babylon, under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar, to lay waste to Jerusalem and the entire nation of Judah. And most of the people are carried off into captivity in a foreign land.

While the Kingdom of Israel was utterly destroyed, Judah and Benjamin survive their captivity under the Babylonians and after 70 years God opens the way for the Jews to return to the land of Israel and to Jerusalem; although only a relatively small number actually return. The Jews manage to rebuild their city and the Temple, but for the next 500 years they are continuously under the dominion of foreign nations: the Medes and Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans. They never restore their free nation, nor re-establish the throne of David.

It seems as though God's kingdom has hit a brick wall, David's throne is left vacant for centuries, and God's promises are frustrated by disobedience and captivity. Fortunately, the history of the Kingdom doesn't end there. More than 500 years after the captivity in Babylon ends, God sets about restoring His Kingdom and remaking it in the form it was always intended to take.