The theme of YHWH’s kingship (1 Samuel 8:7)

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

When the people of Israel requested a king to rule over them like all other nations, Samuel sought YHWH’s counsel. Interestingly, YHWH remarked that by making this request the people were not rejecting Samuel’s leadership (although in one sense they were). They were ultimately rejecting God’s kingly rule over them (8:7). And this rejection was paradigmatic of Israel’s previous behavior as far back as the Exodus (8:8). But what exactly does it mean for God to be king over Israel? And when did he become king in this sense? This intriguing comment about YHWH’s kingship, both implying and indicating the nature of God’s relationship to His people, requires further investigation.[1]

Although in the Old Testament kingship often refers to human kings, whether of Israel or other nearby nations, YHWH is also frequently designated as king and sovereign (e.g., 1 Chron 17:14; 28:5; Psalm 114:2). Significantly, in Judges 8, when the people of Israel previously sought to establish Gideon as king, Gideon responding negatively that neither he nor his sons would rule over Israel as kings because God was to rule over Israel as king” (v.23).[2] Similarly, in 1 Samuel 12:12, when Samuel recalls Israel requesting a king be appointed over them, Samuel states, “YHWH, your God, was your king.” One contextual clue of what it meant practically to reject YHWH’s rule (besides making a request with improper motives for a king) is provided in 1 Samuel 8:8—serving other gods; idolatry. The Song of Moses, reflecting upon the exodus from Egypt, states, “YHWH will reign forever and ever,” apparently assumes the kingship of God. In Moses’ final blessing upon Israel, he states that YHWH became Israel’s king in Jeshurun, referring to the covenant renewal at Moab. In other words, YHWH’s kingship over Israel is seen as bound up with the Exodus and the subsequent covenant made at Sinai. Potentially somewhat similar to contemporaneous Ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaties, YHWH, having delivered Israel from bondage, claimed the right of lordship over her. And, in making His covenant with her, He established the “constitution” of His reign over her, demarcating her obligations as vassal and his position as suzerain.

“Parallels in literary structure between the Sinai covenant and certain international treaties drawn up by the kings of the Hittite Empire in the fourteenth century b.c. show that in the Sinai covenant Yahweh assumes the role of the Great King, and Israel, that of his vassal.” (EDBT, 449-450)

The goal of this covenant, significantly, is that Israel might be God’s kingdom of priests (Ex 19:6). It’s also worth noting the suggestion of many that the tabernacle functioned in some sense as YHWH’s throne in Israel’s midst.

In summary, as sovereign, YHWH founded His particular kingly relationship over Israel by redeeming her from the clutches of the competing sovereign nation and gods of Egypt. This relationship was formally established in the covenant made at Sinai. And this particular sovereign rule of God over Israel did not conflict with His purpose to appoint a human king over Israel. On the contrary, as the “Son of God” (Ps 2:7; cf. 2 Sam 7), this ruler was to imitate God’s rule, be the agent through whom God’s rule was mediated to Israel. This individual is ultimately realized in Christ—the person in whom the rule of God and the mediation of that rule through a human agent is perfectly realized.

[1] Interestingly, although checking several commentaries, none make any interpretive comment on this theme.

[2] Nevertheless, the repeated refrain in the book of Judges, “in those days there was no king in Israel” (18:1; 19:1), beats a drum that calls for the stability anticipated in the eventual kingship.