On the first day of school I give my Form I (7th grade) students a 1-inch binder full of the course materials they will need for the first month or so. One of the first pages of that first packet, right behind the syllabus and class procedures, is the final exam essay question they will have to answer at the end of the year:
What makes a good king of Israel?
Everything we read throughout the year, from Judges 1:1 to II Kings 25:30, plus whatever we can squeeze out of Isaiah, answers this question. This is one of the ultimate set-up questions for reading the New Testament and really understanding what is going on throughout all four gospels (especially St. Luke’s).
So what’s the answer?
I. You Already Have A King, Stupid!
Superficially we can just look at the reigns of all the kings of Israel and compare them: proto-king Abimelech in Judges, Saul, David and his royal line, and the Northern kings in Samaria. It’s a story of spectacular failures interrupted by all-too-brief successes, and in the end you can line up some pretty iconic Good Guys on one side (David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah) and eternally memorable Bad Guys on the other (Saul, Ahab, Manasseh). God and Devil both lurking in the details, naturally.
But the overwhelmingly most important point to this question–and admittedly a tough one for little kids–is the profound contradiction in the setup. Israel isn’t supposed to have a king, and they need one really badly.
Say it with me: God is the King of Israel. God is the King of Israel. God is the King of Israel. Unfortunately, the Israelites don’t seem to know that.
The Book of Judges introduces this wonderful ambivalence to the question of kings. From the moment the Israelites enter their Happily Ever After (the Promised Land), they begin to suffer from not having a Head Honcho to follow as they did in the days of Moses. Only when the Israelites recognize (reluctantly!) their dependence on God does He send them a savior in the form of a Judge: a one-off superhero who breaks the oppressor’s rod and allows the Israelites to return to serving their One True King.
And yet throughout the book the people are torn between ignoring their Judges and trying to make them into something they can never be: Kings. Gideon, for all his faults, resists this temptation…and upon his death his bastard son promptly kills all the heirs of Gideon and declares himself king over Shechem. That tale ends so delightfully-horribly that the lesson could not be clearer: Israel should not have kings.
The ambivalence becomes more pronounced in the final, degenerate days of the Judges, where the narrator repeatedly tells us “there was no king in Israel, every man did as he saw fit.” On the one hand, we seem to be reconciling to the fact that Israel just isn’t going to get this done right without a Head Honcho bossing them around. On the other, we have a subversive indictment of Israelites: “God was not King in Israel, and so every man did as he saw fit and screwed it all up.”
The self-destructing Israelites increasingly demand a king like the other nations, overlooking the fact that they are not like the other nations! They are a kingdom of priests to serve God, created not by blood, nor by the will of man, but by Divine Covenant. They just never seem to realize this, just like the most famous and representative of all the Judges, the one who never seemed to understand–until the end–that he was a Judge at all, much less what Judging should entail: Samson.
We see the No True King problem most clearly in I Samuel 8, where God relents/punishes the Israelites by agreeing to their demands for a king “just like the other nations.” The very demand itself is the problem, for it signals that the Israelites reject God as their king. And the “victory” of the will of the people just gives them a new form of slavery: now the Israelites and their king must be good in order to receive the blessings of God and the support of the Promised Land. The “solution” to the wicked and stupid ways of the Israelites just ensnares them in more opportunities for sin and failure.
II. (Not) Like David His Father
God is the king of Israel, and His servant David is the gold standard by which all other kings of Israel are measured. No matter how many generations we go down the royal line, David is always that king’s father. Not grandfather, not great (x?) grandfather, but father. Each of them is a son standing in and trying to emerge from his father’s shadow. A few come close. Most fail, some dismally.
David is, from the beginning of his tale, a “man after God’s own heart.” In contrast to Saul, who needed to be given a new spirit in order to be king, David trusts in divine assistance for his victories, places God first in the priorities of the kingdom, and governs Israel as a shepherd, not a king. This culminates in David’s iconic covenant mediator scene, in which God promises to establish David’s son on the throne eternally and David in return promises that God’s name will be magnified forever.
Dozens of details throughout I and II Samuel show David to be heroically selfless, just in rule, and wise in keeping peace among his men. All of these may legitimately be considered essential attributes for the king. Yet when later kings are judged against David, it is none of these, nor even his spectacular military successes, that serve as the standard. Instead, it is the keeping of the Law both personally and for the kingdom, and the uprooting of idolatry among the people. Future kings are sorted according to how diligently they fought against the Canaanite and Phoenician proclivities of Israel, either with great success (most famously Hezekiah and Josiah) or the opposite (Ahaz and Manasseh).
David being the standard for fidelity to God’s law is ironic considering his catastrophic fall from grace in II Samuel. But the compounding of sin upon sin opens up a new dimension to David that Saul famously never displays: a willingness to repent. While Saul plays out the hard-heartedness of Pharaoh and Israel at each of his (many!) sins, David recognizes his guilt and seeks forgiveness; he accomplishes the one thing that would have saved Israel many times over. Israel wouldn’t even need a human king if they could bring themselves to repent on their own initiative.
But more than merely model the correct behavior of Israel before God, David also does something that my students all underestimate: he teaches Israel to pray. He composes, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the liturgical handbook of Israel that gives expression to every emotion, need, and movement of the will before God. He serves as the high priest of the people, offering sacrifices before God and ultimately offering himself as sacrifice in the climactic scene of II Samuel.
Plus, he’s killed his tens of thousands!
III. Good, Bad, I’m The Guy With The Crown
God is the King of Israel and the Israelites are stuck with the consequences of human replacements. The story subsequent to David bears out again and again what a burden the king is to Israel when he tries his hand at being king after the fashion of the nations of the earth. Each of them contributes something to the theme of king as punishment or what it means to be a good king.
Reheboam, son of Solomon, shows us the first of Israel’s crass tyrants, a young king eager to put his new power to use for himself and his enrichment. Reheboam joins prototypes like Abimelech and Saul in ruling with a ruthless disregard for the people, famously threatening to beat the Israelites with scorpions to show himself mightier than his father Solomon (terrific threat, by the way, and one I try to remember for my classroom management skills).
Reheboam’s reckless tyranny causes Israel’s civil war that results in two kingdoms, North and South, Samaria and Judah. The dividing of the kingdom has been both cause and symptom of divine punishment many times going back to the Judges, most famously in Saul’s robe-tearing scene with Samuel. Kings of Israel are not supposed to tear the people apart, but unify them as one family! And when Reheboam sets forth to reconquer those stubborn northerners, God stops him. Israel’s unity cannot be imposed by human will or force of arms!
Solomon, despite a superheroic beginning, is the first of many kings who rely on foreign powers to bring peace to Israel rather than fidelity to God. Each of his many wives represents, not merely an unchaste heart or an enticement to idolatry (bad enough!), but also a political alliance and the growth of worldly power. Later sons of David will call upon Syrians to defeat their brethren in Samaria, Assyrians to save them from the Syrians, Babylonians to save them from the Assyrians, and on and on. Does this ever end well? They do eventually call upon some friendly chaps living in Italy to save them from those nasty Greeks…how’d that turn out?
Numerous overtly wicked kings, both northern and southern, disrupt the God-land-people relationship and saddle the Israelites with punishment for corporate guilt. Samuel told them so! Saul’s betrayal of the Gibeonites leads to famine; Ahab, the crown jewel of wicked kings of the north, brings about drought and the cultic collapse of Israel; Jehoram of the north oversees a siege and famine so severe that the people of Samaria have to resort to cannibalism.
Most dramatically, the wickedness of kings leads to the total destruction of both kingdoms. The time of the Judges had seen foreign oppressors sent by God to punish the moral and cultic laxity of the people, but nothing that ever approached the scale of what the Assyrians did to the northern kingdom under Hoshea or the Babylonians to Jerusalem under Zedekiah. The worst of the kings revive the worst times of the Judges and magnify the consequences to a level that brings Israel to the brink of annihilation. The wages of sin, something, something.
This gives rise to a new player in the drama: the prophet as adversary of the king who tries to save the people from him. Those fire-and-brimstone prophets are God’s mercy to the people oppressed by their own king: a voice to call him back and a dispenser of miracles to succor and defend the weak. The role begins to emerge with Nathan’s mission against David, but reaches its apogee in the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Prophets, not kings, are the heroes of the dark days of Israel in I and II Kings.
A truly good king of Israel would either obey the prophets or not need one in the first place. Yet the failures of the kings, even the greatest of them all, David, shows that the necessity of the prophets is inescapable. You put humans in charge, you get bad results: succession wars, assassinations, abuse of power, crushing taxation, the works. This is what the Israelites were agreeing to when they demanded a king in I Samuel 8. Somehow the good king must transcend the corporate guilt dynamic as well as the need for a prophet, and not be the anchor around his people’s neck.
With David, the “king as punishment” model nearly breaks–they have some darn good days in his reign–but David’s human limitations prevent him from ever transcending the curse. No other king will come so close, and this is part of the lesson: no human could ever be king in the way necessary for the system to work. God grants Israel nearly five centuries of experimentation to prove the point.
IV. Isaiah: Child, Messiah, Servant
As foreign powers pulled down the mountains and the sky on the heads of the battered Israelites, as The End drew nigh, the children of the promise had to confront a new reality: did God lie when He promised David that his descendant would sit on the throne forever?
All of the prophets address this problem in one way or another, but none more clearly or directly for our purposes than Isaiah. Everything that early Isaiah says about the messiah, the anointed one who will restore Israel, is the most directly supernatural answer to the question we’ve been grappling with through the narrative.
Want a human king to transcend all the problems above? Then he’s going to need to lead not just Israel but the entire world in true worship of God, bringing about the end of all idolatry. He’s going to need to bring peace through justice, not only for Israel but for the whole world. And for this impossible dream to come true, he’s going to need divine attributes. Why, it’s almost as if only God could be king over this people!
The cultic reform of Israel is a point so simple it scarcely requires elaboration. We’ve seen Gideon make an idol after tearing one down, Micah start his own religion in the hill country of Ephraim, sons of the high priest defraud God of his due portion and use their position to pick up chicks outside the tent, high places constantly being built, foreign influences constantly creeping in, sons of kings burned as human sacrifices to gods of death, and even the complete redesign of the Solomonic temple to look more foreign and house an abomination. But it would be simpler to just recall that the Israelites made golden calves…again.
The religious reforms of Israel have always been short-lived. Even the most thorough and dramatic of them, Hezekiah’s and Josiah’s, only temporarily thwart the wayward hearts of the Israelites. Their appetite for idolatry grows, not diminishes, over time, and returns in Lernaean fashion whenever the reformer dies. The escalating consequences of this behavior culminate in the destruction of the kingdom of Israel.
So it’s no surprise that Isaiah’s first emphasis is on the purity of Israelite worship. They need a reformer-king whose reforms will be permanent. If Josiah couldn’t make it happen with his perfect purge of Israel, we need some new kind of king and new kind of reform (look over your left shoulder–that’s Jeremiah nodding and scribbling things down about a new law inscribed on tablets of the heart).
Similarly the Israelites need peace, not of the sword, but of justice. Isaiah prophesies an Edenic harmony brought about in a future where there is no more need for war: the weapons the Israelites once forged to fight the Philistines can be restored to the farming tools they once were. All oppression shall cease, and no one will ever need to know how to wage war again.
For such a future to be even remotely comprehensible, the king of Israel must actually be the king of all nations. It cannot be enough for the Israelites to be perfected in themselves; they were Chosen, not to be The Good Guys, but to be the instrument by which God reunites the entire human family and reconciles it to Himself. And so this future king of the impossible brings true worship and lasting peace not only to Israel, but to the entire world. All the nations of the earth shall flow to Jerusalem to worship God as one.
All of this is, of course, impossible. Not even David, who took the first baby steps toward an empire forged by military peace, could have done such a thing. And that is why the king is a child, not a warrior, and why he must be anointed with God’s own spirit and have God’s own attributes.
The remarkable thing about the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11:1-3 is that we’ve seen them before. Solomon had the wisdom and all its kind; David had the fear of the Lord more than anyone and a healthy dose of Philistine-smashing fortitude. So in some sense this messiah will be a mash-up of all the great kings that came before.
And yet neither Solomon nor David possessed the fullness of those gifts nor did they exercise them all the time. They had glimmers, perhaps even quite a bit more than glimmers, and each of them passed their covenant mediator test. Their eventual failure just emphasizes, again, that no human is ever going to live up to this. And even if he did, he’d eventually die…right?
To recap: we need a king unlike the kings of the nations; a king devoid of human weakness who can somehow transcend the limitations of “king as punishment” while still being a king; someone who can be both priest and prophet, possessing God’s own attributes; someone who can lead the people in true worship and justice; someone who sits on the throne eternally and fulfills, rather than disrupts, the relationship between God and the people.
All manner of different messianic expectations will arise between the time of the prophets and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. The matrix of problems and questions above is suggestive, but there’s a lot of room for surprise in the fulfillment phase. With such a paradoxical, otherworldly set of conditions, why, the fulfillment might even go unnoticed or even argued over!
If it sounds like we’re sub-tweeting here…well, I do teach at a Catholic school, after all.
V. Back To Reality
I’ve never had enough time teaching my Form I boys to get much farther than Isaiah 11; I think one year everything broke my way and I had a week to connect all the Suffering Servant passages to this theme. Even I have my limits, no matter that Daniel and Company await. There’s a lifetime of Old Testament synthesis to work on here.
Of course my students are not capable of getting to this level of synthesis in their studies throughout the year. This is more like the Platonic ideal that guides me as I try to walk them through the text and get them to see the main ideas.
I’m satisfied if they get the basics:
- God is the King of Israel
- David is the Gold Standard
- Mess of Historical Details to Show 3-4 Attributes of a Good King
There are dozens of ways to write the essay from there, and any number of things could be mentioned that I didn’t point out in my arc above. The variety of choices on that third point is vast. And of course the boys forget pretty much everything by the time they start Form II and read about this Jesus fellow in the Gospel of St. Luke. But still, a decent year’s work and extremely rewarding to teach.
Read more Old Testament.