In ancient Near-Eastern civilization, it wasn’t uncommon for a superior power’s king to make a treaty with a lesser power’s king. This treaty offered protection from enemies to the lesser power and demanded their allegiance to the superior power in return. Upon studying these ancient treaties, it has striking resemblance to the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai.
There are key elements in these Hittite Suzerainty-Vassal Treaties that are listed below in these screenshots from Jeremiah Unterman's Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics:
The reason I include some broader historical context is to show God’s heart for Israel. He was providing them a better way to be human and to live in society. He would be their King and they would be a kingdom of priests. By God making His covenant to Israel as a whole and not to any one individual leader in their society (i.e. Moses), God was elevating every person’s status to that of a king. The covenant terms, aka the laws, in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers were expectations of each individual in the society. Israel would have recognized what God was doing. They were familiar with ancient cultures’ practices. They were slaves in Egypt for over 400 years! God was doing something huge for them as a people and a society.
In his book Created Equal, Joshua A. Berman aptly summarizes:
“Thus we may posit that to some degree, the subordinate king with whom God forms a political treaty is, in fact, the common man of Israel; that every man in Israel is to view himself as having the status of a king conferred on him—a subordinate king who serves under the protection of, and in gratitude to, a divine sovereign.”
But like what else we’ve seen in our story so far, good things don’t typically stick. We are generations past Moses now. Israel has rebelled time and time again. Israel’s moral compass swirls downward through the entire book of Judges. The book of Judges closes as thus:
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” - Judges 21:25 ESV
Then we come to a point in Israel’s history in which they reject God’s concept of kingdom of priests, and demand a king.
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Raman 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.” -1 Samuel 8:4
Samuel immediately goes to the Lord in prayer. And this is the Lord’s chilling answer:
“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. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking Me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” -1 Samuel 8:7-9
Samuel does warn the people. He warns them of the power a king will exert over them and demands a king will have on their produce, farm animals and laborers. He concludes:
“[...] and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” -1 Samuel 8:17-18
Yikes. For the generations since Sinai, God had given opportunity for Israel to live out the promises of His covenant. They acknowledge Him as God and King, and they live in peace as people elevated to a level of humanity unheard of in ancient Near Eastern culture. Yet they turned away... sounds familiar, right? Here is a short list of the kings that came from these demands:
Saul was paranoid and envious
David was an adulterer and a murderer
Amnon was a rapist
Absalom killed his brother and was an insurrectionist
Solomon was pompous
Rehoboam listened to foolish counsel and God’s Kingdom divided under his rule
Jeroboam built golden calves
Asa had diseased feet and kept the high places
Nadab was idolatrous
Baasha stole the throne & murdered the house of kings
Elah was a drunk
Zimri burned himself alive
Omri was more evil than all who were before him
Ahab erected an altar to Baal, and “did more to provoke the Lord to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.
Israel needed a better king.
Thankfully, early in this lineage of failures, God made a promise to one of them about a future king:
“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. [...] 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.” -2 Samuel 7:12-16
A promised king from the line of King David! There was hope after a succession of failure. The Psalms are full of these promises:
“As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill [...] You are my Son; today I have begotten You. Ask of Me and I will make the nations Your heritage, and the ends of the earth you possession.” -Psalm 2:6-8
“He asked life of you; you gave it to him, length of days forever and ever. His glory is great through your salvation; splendor and majesty you bestow on him. For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence. For the king trusts in the Lord, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.” -Psalm 21:3-7
“Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son!
In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more! May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!
May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight. Long may he live; may gold of Sheba be given to him! May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all the day!
May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!” -Psalm 72:1, 7-8, 11-15, 17
This is the king they need. Flourishing righteousness and justice. Deliverer of the needy and the poor bringing freedom from oppression and violence. His name enduring for all time. Doesn’t that sound contrary to the list of Israel’s kings? The people traded God’s kingship for kingship of man and with it came violence, destruction, betrayal and oppression. This was a far cry from the society of peace God was trying to build from Mount Sinai.
We do this too though. We elevate pastors or celebrities or influencers or politicians in our hearts and minds. We hope that they will bring us understanding or fortune or peace. But in the end, kings of men fail. They fall short. I believe this ultimately happens because God was meant to be our King. Or we swing to another extreme and attempt to make ourselves king. We lord over others, and rule our kingdoms with heavy hands and selfish hearts. So while we, like Israel, fall short and attempt to establish powers and authorities, God promises Himself.
Whether His presence is a fire by night and cloud by day, residing in a tabernacle or temple, or as His Spirit indwelling those who trust their hearts and lives to Him, God has always wanted to reign with us, beside us, among us.
Our King Jesus bent Himself so low that He became like us. But this is the part of the story that we’re working towards... we’ll get there. Until then, consider the kings you build up for yourself and ponder: how might your life be different if you let a Better King reign?
Murderer, and rapist
These are the kings of men
Envious, and foolish
These are the kings of men
O what it could have been
These are the kings of men
O what it could have been
If God was truly king
We need a better king
Is there a better king?
Who is that better king?