Samuel had judged Israel all the days of his life, doing the circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah to Ramah. In his old age he appointed his two sons as judges over Israel, but as is sometimes the case with public officials, they turned out to be corrupt: “They took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam. 7:15-8:3). So the elders of Israel came to Samuel and demanded that he appoint a king in place of his worthless sons. Samuel was reluctant to do so, but God made it very clear that he was to give them what they wanted.
This is the point at which the story about the kingdom of God begins in scripture. The episode gives us two of the three main components of the concept. It also teaches us that the kingdom of God is not a spiritual or theological or, for that matter, cosmic abstraction—it belongs to the narrated historical experience of the biblical community.
The popular demand for a new system of government was very much a case of “be careful what you wish for!” Because Israel had rejected God as their king, he would give them over to a human king who would oppress and exploit the people for his own ends. Their sons would serve in his armies, plough his ground, reap his harvests, manufacture his weapons. Their daughters would work in his palaces. He would expropriate the best of their fields and vineyards, he would impose taxes, he would take their servants and livestock. They would live to regret their decision: “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 Sam. 8:18).
Undeterred by this gloomy socio-political prognosis, the people nevertheless insisted on having a king, so that they might be like all the other nations. Here we get to the point of the story. They expected their king to do two things: he would judge Israel and he would go out before the people and fight their battles (1 Sam. 8:19-20).
This gives us, I think, a simple but precise paradigm for understanding the kingdom of God. The task of the king was to safeguard both the internal integrity of the people (by judging them) and the external security of the people (by defending them against their enemies). Since much is made of the fact that in pursuing this political innovation the people had rejected God as king over them, it’s clear that the kingship of God with respect to Israel consisted, in the first place, in the same two basic functions.
At a later stage a third element was added to the paradigm. Out of the experience of domination by foreign powers there emerged the conviction that God would not merely defeat Israel’s enemies in order to preserve his people; at some point he would establish his own rule over the nations, either through Israel’s king (e.g., Ps. 2; 110) or through a faithful, persecuted minority (Dan. 7:13-27).
It seems to me that this simple narrative paradigm makes excellent sense of the New Testament data. The “kingdom of God” in the New Testament is what happens when, at a moment of great crisis, the God of Israel acts to do what a king must do: he judges his people, he defeats their enemies, and he establishes his own rule over the nations.
He scatters the proud, he brings down the mighty from their thrones, he exalts those of humble estate, he fills the hungry with good things, he sends the rich away empty (Lk. 1:51-53). He saves his people from their enemies, “from the hand of all who hate us” (Lk. 2:7). In Paul this becomes wrath against the Jew followed by wrath against the Greek (Rom. 2:8-9). The man of lawless, who proclaims himself to be a god, will be brought to nothing at the appearance of Jesus’ parousia (2 Thess. 2:3-8). In Revelation—so I argue in The Coming of the Son of Man—judgment against Israel is followed by judgment against Rome: “he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants” (Rev. 19:2).
The New Testament does not offer us a vision of kingdom disengaged from the Old Testament narrative. Rather it tells us how that narrative is fulfilled: in the first place, through the faithful suffering and death of the one who is then put in a position—at the right hand of God—to rule as Israel’s king throughout the coming ages; but also through the suffering of the churches that would faithfully bear witness to his name until the tipping point was reached, when the nations rejected their idols and publicly confessed Jesus as Lord, to the glory of Israel’s God.
In John’s fiercely apocalyptic vision, following the overthrow of pagan Rome, Jesus is seen on a white horse. His robe is “dipped in blood” to signify that he has attained his authority through suffering. From his mouth issues a sharp sword—presumably the Word of God—with which he will strike down the nations and rule them with a rod of iron (cf. Ps. 2:9; Is. 11:4). On his robe and on his thigh is written the name “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:11-16).
This is a vision of political-religious conquest—a quite extraordinary vision given not only John’s personal circumstances but also the spiritual condition of the churches to which he wrote. Against the dull soundtrack of modern secular political discourse (that reminds me, I still have to go out and vote) the apocalyptic dénouement may sound outlandish, outmoded, intolerant and imperialistic. But it is fully in keeping with a coherent and core biblical narrative that goes all the way back to Israel’s demand for a king, and if we claim to be a kingdom people, then we have to accept it as part of our story. The kingdom of God is not just how things are. It is how things have become what they are, which is unavoidably a story about ancient Israel and the nations.