A theocratic system

In the history of Israel, kingly leadership was something that developed over time. In early biblical history, the Israelites were a scattering of nomadic tribes led by humans appointed by God. One early leader was Moses, who was succeeded by Joshua. Later, whenever any Israelite tribe was under attack, all the tribes would unite together under a special leader called a ‘judge’. Usually military leaders, judges’ duties were martial (such as Gideon) and judicial (e.g. Samuel), not kingly. 
However, the Israelites had been taught that God had chosen them and he was their King Isaiah 43:15. Much Old Testament imagery portrayed Yahweh as the God above all gods and King over all kings (Psalms 47:1-9).

A human king over Israel

While Samuel was exercising authority as God’s appointed judge and prophet, the tribes of Israel became weary of the growing number of enemy attacks and asked him to appoint a king like other nations had. Despite warnings that they might later regret it 1 Samuel 8:10-22, their request was granted and God directed Samuel to anoint Israel’s first king, Saul.

Good and bad kings

Saul was strong and seemed to have all the qualities necessary, but soon forgot his God-appointed role and his kingship ended badly (see 1 Samuel 15:26). Next a shepherd boy, David, was anointed. He became a great king, governing the people wisely. God rewarded him by promising that someone from his family would always rule Israel 2 Samuel 7:16. (It was into the ‘house of David’ that Jesus was later born). The most splendid king of Israel was David’s son, Solomon, who built a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem and was famed for his wealth and wisdom.
After David, some kings, such as Ahab and his descendants, refused to follow God’s Laws 1 Kings 18:17-18. Others, like Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:5-7) and Josiah 2 Kings 22:2, did their best follow God and lead his people well – they were rewarded with long life. 

A Jewish Messiah

However, after about four hundred years, the monarchy of Israel ceased, when Judah and Israel were conquered by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Instead, Jews looked forward to a new sort of king, a Messiah sent from God who would rescue them from oppression:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness               Isaiah 9:6-7 ESVUK     

Jesus: the King of the Jews

Christians believe that prophecies about the Messiah were fulfilled by Jesus. But far from being a military hero or wielding political power, Jesus described his kingdom as being ‘not of this world’ (John 18:36) and promoted humility, peace, love for enemies and the need to commit to the kingdom of heaven, rather than worldly resistance and aggrandisement. 
Crown of thornsAt his crucifixion Jesus’ kingship was ironically asserted by the Roman governor Pilate, who had a sign saying ‘King of the Jews’ (John 19:19) fixed to his cross. Jesus was also mockingly dressed in purple and given a crown of thorns to wear. 
However, Christians believe that the eternal kingship of Christ was not defeated by death. Jesus told his followers that that his heavenly throne is ‘at the right hand of the power of God’ (Luke 22:69). After his ascension back to heaven, Jesus was referred to as sharing the attributes of God’s kingship and the vision of Revelation depicts Jesus as ‘Lord of lords and King of kings’ Revelation 17:14).

Other cultural references

  • Texts: The works of Shakespeare depict many kings, both good and bad (for example, Macbeth, King Lear, Richard II, Richard III), earliest existing Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf
  • Paintings: Crucified Christ by Fra Angelico. English kings commissioned paintings that emphasised their power and other kingly qualities. One such painting is Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger.

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