Even though the 2004 U.S. presidential election was not even two years ago, the media is already looking ahead to the 2008 campaign cycle. This reporting can be exasperating, but it is not surprising. In biblical terms, the attention paid to presidential politics seems to reflect our desire, even in a republic, to have one, sovereign ruler. This wish, revealing an innate need for submission to the One whose image we bear, may be unconscious, but it is present nonetheless. The story of Israel’s king is the emphasis of the historical books of the Bible, and this story is told most explicitly in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. While space prohibits us from covering each event in these inspired works, I hope to stress how these books, and David’s line in particular, anticipate the perfect king who fulfills God’s purpose for mankind and reclaims for us what Adam lost.
Foundations of Kingship
Kingship has always been God’s intent for His people. Mankind was created to exercise dominion and manifest God’s reign on the earth (Gen. 1:26–28), but the fall into sin corrupted this ideal. In redeeming a people for Himself, God promised to restore righteous dominion. Kings would come from Abraham’s line, (Gen. 17:5–6), and they were required to rule justly according to God’s law (Deut. 17:14–20). Moreover, even though this kingship is fully realized in the God of Israel, and one righteous servant par excellence, all believers will one day share in His reign (Isa. 60; Dan. 7:9–27; 2 Tim. 2:12a).
We must remember these truths lest we think that Israel’s monarchy was not originally in God’s plan. First Samuel 8 records the Lord’s displeasure at Israel’s request for a king, but this is not because kingship is in itself evil. The author of Judges laments that chaos marked the period between Joshua and Saul because there was no king in Israel (Judg. 21:25). In describing the wickedness of Samuel’s sons even under his righteous judgeship (1 Sam. 8:1–3), the author of Samuel indicates that to have a strong, holy king in Israel is the ideal.
No, the desire for a monarch is displeasing because of its motivation. Israel wants someone not to represent but to replace God’s rule (8:4–9). They seek a king like the other nations have who will rely on his own strength instead of the Lord’s to crush their enemies (8:10–22). But instead of rejecting their wish, the Lord gives them this exact kind of king in Saul.
The Davidic Covenant and Beyond
Outwardly, the man God chooses to be the first king of His people seems to be a good selection. Tall and handsome (9:1–2), Saul delivers Israel from the Ammonites (11:1–11). However, when the people fear the Philistines at Gilgal, Saul, instead of relying upon of the word of the Lord through Samuel, does not wait for the prophet to offer the appointed sacrifices. Because of his disobedience, Saul’s dynasty will not rule forever (13:1–14a). Instead, the Lord will appoint a man who will possess a heart to serve Him (13:14b; 16:7). King David will rely upon the Lord and not himself to save Israel (chap. 17).
Upon ascending the throne in 1004 bc, David conquers Jerusalem and brings the ark into the city (2 Sam. 5:1–6:15). At this point the historical books reach their climax when God makes an everlasting covenant with David.
David desires to build a house for God, but the prophet Nathan informs the king he will not be the one to build the Lord’s temple (7:1–17; 1 Chron. 17:1–15). This interchange confirms that the offices of king and prophet are closely connected. Israel’s king must obey the law of Moses, the Lord’s first prophet (Deut. 17:18–20), and later prophets like Nathan repeat this demand to the king (see 2 Sam. 12:1–15). Yet the monarchy’s later decline into idolatry shows that he who merely hears God’s word will not be the true shepherd of Israel. The perfect ruler will have to be like David — a prophet (in the Psalms he gives us God’s Word) and a king. However, David’s own sins preclude him from being the perfect prophet-king; only He who is the exact imprint and final revelation of God can rightly exercise both offices at all times (Heb. 1:1–3a).
The Davidic covenant is recorded in 2 Samuel 7 (see 1 Chron. 17; Pss. 89; 110). Three aspects of this covenant in particular serve as the framework for the history of God’s people after David.
First, we read that David’s son will build the Lord’s house (2 Sam. 7:12–13). Initially, it seems Solomon will fulfill this promise because he builds the first temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5–8). However, Solomon’s later idolatry (chap. 11) reveals his inability to erect God’s final dwelling place. It will be David’s greater Son, the Temple of God Himself (Rev. 21:22), who builds His people into a living, spiritual house of true worship (1 Peter 2:4–10).
God punishes Solomon for the worship of false gods (Deut. 17:17; 1 Kings 11:1–8) by dividing the kingdom after his death (vv. 9–13) and by raising up adversaries against Solomon (vv. 14–43), just as He did after David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:11). This illustrates a second aspect of the Davidic covenant — conditionality.
Though His steadfast love will never depart from David’s house, God pledges to bring “the rod of men” against the king for his iniquity (2 Sam. 7:14–16). David will surely have a throne forever (v. 13), but not all of his sons will reign — only the righteous can inherit the promise.
This is clear from Israel’s later history. After Solomon dies, God hands ten tribes over to Jeroboam, leaving Solomon’s son Rehoboam with only Judah (1 Kings 11:26–12:20). Benjamin, the twelfth tribe, is not forgotten but is incorporated into Judah at this time (v. 21). Even though Jeroboam is not a descendant of David, his northern kingdom of Israel is still required to keep the covenant. However, Jeroboam is unfaithful and leads his people into sin (14:16). Subsequent regents in the north all follow his example; none of them serves the Lord. Some are notoriously wicked; Ahab and Jezebel, for example, persecute the prophet Elijah (19:1–3). Flagrant covenant violation moves God to bring final discipline against Israel when Assyria takes the ten northern tribes into exile in 722 BC (2 Kings 17:6–41).
The southern kingdom of Judah lasts nearly 150 years longer, and the Davidic line sustains its authority there. Yet Judah is also disciplined for serving false gods. Her first king, Rehoboam, and her people practice every abomination “of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel” resulting in an Egyptian siege of Jerusalem (1 Kings 14:21–31).
The king represents the people before God, and thus his fate is shared by his subjects. Manasseh’s reign as recorded in Chronicles links the destiny of the king with the destiny of his people. As one of Judah’s last kings, Manasseh’s wickedness brings the curse of exile even upon David’s line. While he is carried into Babylon before the rest of Judah, he is restored to the throne upon his repentance (2 Chron. 33:1–20). God’s people will later face the same punishment for their sins, but they will also receive the same restoration.
This inseparable connection between the king and his people points toward the final aspect of the Davidic covenant — unconditionality. The Lord swore to establish David’s throne (Ps. 89:3–4), and He always fulfills His oaths. His steadfast love will never depart from David’s line (2 Sam. 7:16); thus, He must establish His king and His people securely in their land forever (vv. 10–11). He must provide a king who will keep covenant and provide righteousness for His people. The promise is unconditional because God Himself ensures its final fulfillment — not because He has no requirement for His kings. Righteousness is the obligation of king and subject (Deut. 28). God’s covenant love will make sure this righteousness, and thus the promise to David, is achieved. However, He does not set His love on all of David’s sons.
God keeps His promise to David by combining the office of priest and king (who is to be a prophet as well). The Son that keeps the covenant and therefore effectively intercedes for the people will have His throne established forever. This is anticipated in David who plans the temple (1 Chron. 22–26) and sacrifices to the Lord (2 Sam. 6:17b). Righteous kings such as Hezekiah and Josiah also embrace the priestly vocation by renewing the covenant during their tenures as Judah’s king (2 Kings 18:1–8; 22:1–23:25).
Yet even these men cannot be the perfect priest we require. David and Hezekiah sin against the Lord (2 Sam. 11; 2 Kings 20:12–21), and Josiah’s reforms do not effect the transformation of the nation (2 Kings 23:26–27). Though these men try to be faithful, even they cannot obey God perfectly. So it is that their descendants and the nation continue violating the covenant. In 586 BC, God allows King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to conquer Jerusalem and capture Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before the exile. The temple is destroyed, and the people of God lose their control of Palestine (2 Kings 24:18–25:26).
Despite this apparent failure of God to keep His promise to David, the pre-exilic history ends with an inkling of hope. Jehoiachin, Zedekiah’s immediate predecessor, is freed from prison and given a seat higher than any other king exiled into Babylon (2 Kings 25:27–30). God is preserving the royal line so His Son can enter into history and fulfill His promises to David. Jesus of Nazareth became the perfect priest, and, as the Davidic king (Matt. 1:1–17), His destiny is inseparable from the destiny of His people. Like Manasseh and Jehoiachin before Him, He receives the penalty due sin, yet not for His own but for that of His people (Isa. 53). He too is restored after death in exile, but His restoration is permanent. His resurrection is the first fruits of a cosmic restoration (Rom. 8:19–23), and all those in Him will dwell securely in a good land — a new earth — forever (Rev. 21:1–8).