1. Etymology and Definition

2. Earliest Kings

3. Biblical Signification of the Title


1. Israel's Theocracy

2. Period of Judges

3. Establishment of the Monarchy

4. Appointment of King

5. Authority of the King

6. Duties of the King

7. The Symbols of Royal Dignity

8. Maintenance and Establishment

(1) Income

(2) The Royal Court

9. Short Character Sketch of Israel's Kingdom


I. King.

1. Etymology and Definition:

The Hebrew word for king is melekh; its denominative malakh, "to reign" "to be king." The word is apparently derived from the mlkh which denotes: (1) in the Arabic (the verb and the noun) it means "to possess," "to reign," inasmuch as the possessor is also "lord" and "ruler"; (2) in the Aramaic melekh), and Assyrian "counsel," and in the Syrian "to consult"; compare Latin, consul.

If, as has been suggested, the root idea of "king" is "counsellor" and not "ruler," then the rise of the kingly office and power would be due to intellectual superiority rather than to physical prowess. And since the first form of monarchy known was that of a "city-state," the office of king may have evolved from that of the chief "elder" or intellectual head of the clan.

2. Earliest Kings:

The first king of whom we read in the Bible was Nimrod (Ge 10:8-10), who was supposedly the founder of the Babylonian empire. Historical research regarding the kings of Babylonia and Egypt corroborates this Biblical statement in so far as the ancestry of these kings is traced back to the earliest times of antiquity. According to Isa 19:11, it was the pride of the Egyptian princes that they could trace their lineage to most ancient kings. The Canaanites and Philistines had kings as early as the times of Abraham (Ge 14:2; 20:2). Thus also the Edomites, who were related to Israel (Ge 36:31), the Moabites, and the Midianites had kings (Nu 22:4; 31:8) earlier than the Israelites.

In Ge 14:18 we read of Melchizedek, who was a priest, and king of Salem. At first the extent of the dominion of kings was often very limited, as appears from 70 of them being conquered by Adonibezek (Jud 1:7), 31 by Joshua (Jos 12:7 ), and 32 being subject to Ben-hadad (1Ki 20:1).

3. Biblical Signification of the Title:

The earliest Biblical usage of this title "king," in consonance with the general oriental practice, denotes an absolute monarch who exercises unchecked control over his subjects. In this sense the title is applied to Yahweh, and to human rulers. No constitutional obligations were laid upon the ruler nor were any restrictions put upon his arbitrary authority. His good or bad conduct depended upon his own free will.

The title "king" was applied also to dependent kings. In the New Testament it is used even for the head of a province (Re 17:12). To distinguish him from the smaller and dependent kings, the king of Assyria bore the title "king of kings."

II. Kingdom.

The notable fact that Israel attained to the degree of a kingdom rather late, as compared with the other Semitic nations, does not imply that Israel, before the establishment of the monarchy, had not arrived at the stage of constitutional government, or that the idea of a kingdom had no room in the original plan of the founder of the Hebrew nation. For a satisfactory explanation we must take cognizance of the unique place that Israel held among the Semitic peoples.

1. Israel's Theocracy:

It is universally recognized that Israel was a singular community. From the beginning of its existence as a nation it bore the character of a religious and moral community, a theocratic commonwealth, having Yahweh Himself as the Head and Ruler. The theocracy is not to be mistaken for a hierarchy, nor can it strictly be identified with any existent form of political organization. It was rather something over and above, and therefore independent of the political organization. It did not supersede the tribal organization of Israel, but it supplied the centralizing power, constituting Israel a nation. In lieu of a strong political center, the unifying bond of a common allegiance to Yahweh, i.e. the common faith in Him, the God of Israel, kept the tribes together. The consciousness that Yahweh was Israel's king was deeply rooted, was a national feeling, and the inspiration of a true patriotism (Ex 15:18; 19:6; Jud 5). Yahweh's kingship is evinced by the laws He gave to Israel, by the fact that justice was administered in His name (Ex 22:28), and by His leading and siding Israel in its wars (Ex 14:14; 15:3; Nu 21:14; 1Sa 18:17; 25:28). This decentralized system which characterized the early government of Israel politically, in spite of some great disadvantages, proved advantageous for Israel on the whole and served a great providential purpose. It safeguarded the individual liberties and rights of the Israelites. When later the monarchy was established, they enjoyed a degree of local freedom and self-control that was unknown in the rest of the Semitic world; there was home rule for every community, which admitted the untrammeled cultivation of their inherited religious and social institutions.

From the political point of view Israel, through the absence of a strong central government, was at a great disadvantage, making almost impossible its development into a world-empire. But this barrier to a policy of self-aggrandizement was a decided blessing from the viewpoint of Israel's providential mission to the world. It made possible the transmission of the pure religion entrusted to it, to later generations of men without destructive contamination from the ungodly forces with which Israel would inevitably have come into closer contact, had it not been for its self-contained character, resulting from the fashion of a state it was providentially molded into. Only as the small and insignificant nation that it was, could Israel perform its mission as "the depository and perpetuating agency of truths vital to the welfare of humanity." Thus its religion was the central authority of this nation, supplying the lack of a centralized government. Herein lay Israel's uniqueness and greatness, and also the secret of its strength as a nation, as long as the loyalty and devotion to Yahweh lasted. Under the leadership of Moses and Joshua who, though they exercised a royal authority, acted merely as representatives of Yahweh, the influence of religion of which these leaders were a personal embodiment was still so strong as to keep the tribes united for common action. But when, after the removal of these strong leaders, Israel no longer had a standing representative of Yahweh, those changes took place which eventually necessitated the establishment of the monarchy.

2. Period of Judges:

In the absence of a special representative of Yahweh, His will as Israel's King was divined by the use of the holy lot in the hand of the highest priest. But the lot would not supply the place of a strong personal leader. Besides, many of the Israelites came under the deteriorating influence of the Canaanite worship and began to adopt heathenish customs. The sense of religious unity weakened, the tribes became disunited and ceased to act in common, and as a result they were conquered by their foes. Yahweh came to their assistance by sending them leaders, who released the regions where they lived from foreign attacks. But these leaders were not the strong religious personalities that Moses and Joshua had been; besides, they had no official authority, and their rule was only temporary and local. It was now that the need of a centralized political government was felt, and the only type of permanent organization of which the age was cognizant was the kingship. The crown was offered to Gideon, but he declined it, saying: "Yahweh shall rule over you" (Jud 8:22,23). The attempt of his son, Abimelech, to establish a kingship over Shechem and the adjacent country, after the Canaanitic fashion, was abortive.

The general political condition of this period is briefly and pertinently described by the oft-recurring statement in Judges: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes."

3. Establishment of the Monarchy:

Not until the time of Samuel was a formal kingdom established over Israel. An attempt to ameliorate conditions by a union of civil and religious functions in the hands of Eli, the priest, had failed through the degeneracy of his sons. Similarly the hopes of Israel in a hereditary judgeship had been disappointed through the corruption of the sons of Samuel. The Philistines were threatening the independence and hope of Israel. Its very existence as a distinct race, and consequently the future of Yahweh's religion, imperatively demanded a king. Considering that it was the moral decline of the nation that had created the necessity for a monarchy, and moreover that the people's desire for a king originated from a purely national and not from a religious motive, the unwillingness of Samuel, at first, to comply with the demand for a king is not surprising. Even Yahweh declared: "They have not rejected thee but they have rejected me," etc. Instead of recognizing that they themselves were responsible for the failures of the past, they blamed the form of government they had, and put all their hopes upon a king. That it was not the monarchy as such that was objectionable to Yahweh and His prophet is evidenced by the fact that to the patriarchs the promise had been given: "Kings shall come out of thy loins" (Ge 17:6; 35:11). In view of this Moses had made provision for a kingship (De 17:14-20). According to the Mosaic charter for the kingship, the monarchy when established must be brought into consonance with the fact that Yahweh was Israel's king. Of this fact Israel had lost sight when it requested a kingship like that of the neighboring peoples. Samuel's gloomy prognostications were perfectly justified in view of such a kingship as they desired, which would inevitably tend to selfish despotism (1Sa 8:11 f). therefore God directs Samuel to give them a king--since the introduction of a kingship typifying the kingship of Christ lay within the plan of His economy--not according to their desire, but in accordance with the instructions of the law concerning kings (De 17:14-20), in order to safeguard their liberties and prevent the forfeiture of their mission.

4. Appointment of King:

According to the Law of Moses Yahweh was to choose the king of israel, who was to be His representative. The choice of Yahweh in the case of Saul is implied by the anointing of Saul by Samuel and through the confirmation of this choice by the holy lot (1Sa 10:1-20). This method of choosing the king did not exclude the people altogether, since Saul was publicly presented to them, and acknowledged as king (1Sa 10:24). The participation of the people in the choice of their king is more pronounced in the case of David, who, having been designated as Yahweh's choice by being anointed by Samuel, was anointed again by the elders of Israel before he actually became king (2Sa 2:4).

The anointing itself signified the consecration to an office in theocracy. The custom of anointing kings was an old one, and by no means peculiar to Israel (Jud 9:8,15). The hereditary kingship began with David. Usually the firstborn succeeded to the throne, but not necessarily. The king might choose as his successor from among his sons the one whom he thought best qualified.

5. Authority of the King:

The king of Israel was not a constitutional monarch in the modern sense, nor was he an autocrat in the oriental sense. He was responsible to Yahweh, who had chosen him and whose vicegerent and servant he was. Furthermore, his authority was more or less limited on the religious side by the prophets, the representatives of Yahweh, and in the political sphere by the "elders," the representatives of the people, though as king he stood above all. Rightly conceived, his kingship in relation to Yahweh, who was Israel's true king, implied that he was Yahweh's servant and His earthly substitute. In relation to his subjects his kingship demanded of him, according to the Law, "that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren" (De 17:20).

6. Duties of the King:

In a summary way the king was held responsible for all Israel as the Lord's people. His main duty was to defend it against its enemies, and for this reason it devolved upon him to raise and maintain a standing army; and it was expected of him that he be its leader in case of war (1Sa 8:20). In respect to the judiciary the king was a kind of supreme court, or court of final appeal, and as such, as in the days of Solomon, might be approached by his most humble subjects (2Sa 15:2; 1Ki 3:16 ). Legislative functions he had none and was himself under the law (1Ki 21:4; De 17:19). The king was also in a way the summus episcopus in Israel. His very kingship was of an entirely religious character and implied a unity of the heavenly and earthly rule over Israel through him who as Yahweh's substitute sat "upon the throne of the kingdom of Yahweh over Israel" (1Ch 17:14; 28:5; 29:23), who was "Yahweh's anointed" (1Sa 24:10; 26:9; 2Sa 1:14), and also bore the title of "son of Yahweh" and "the first-born," the same as Israel did (Ex 4:22; Ho 11:1; 2Sa 7:14; Ps 89:27; 2:7). Thus a place of honor was assigned to the king in the temple (2Ki 11:4; 23:3; Eze 46:1,2); besides, he officiated at the national sacrifices (especially mentioned of David and Solomon). He prayed for his people and blessed them in the name of Yahweh (2Sa 6:18; 24:25; 1Ki 3:4,8; 8:14,55,62; 9:25). Apparently it was the king's right to appoint and dismiss the chief priests at the sanctuaries, though in his choice he was doubtless restricted to the Aaronites (1Ch 16:37,39; 2Sa 8:17; 1Ki 2:27,35). The priesthood was under the king's supervision to such an extent that he might concern himself about its organization and duties (1Ch 15:16,23,24; 16:4-6), and that he was responsible for the purity of the cult and the maintenance of the order of worship. In general he was to watch over the religious life and conduct of his people, to eradicate the high places and every form of idolatry in the land (2Ki 18:4). Eze 45:22 demands of the prince that he shall provide at the Passover a bullock for a sin offering for all the people.

7. The Symbols of Royal Dignity:

The marks of royal dignity, besides the beautiful robes in which the king was attired (1Ki 22:10), were:

(1) the diadem nezer) and the crown (aTarah, 2Sa 1:10; 2Ki 11:12; 2Sa 12:30), the headtire;

(2) the scepter (shebheT), originally a long, straight staff, the primitive sign of dominion and authority (Ge 49:10; Nu 24:17; Isa 14:5; Jer 48:17; Ps 2:9; 45:7). Saul had a spear (1Sa 18:10; 22:6);

(3) the throne (kicce', 1Ki 10:18-20), the symbol of majesty. Israel's kings also had a palace (1Ki 7:1-12; 22:39; Jer 22:14), a royal harem (2Sa 16:21), and a bodyguard (2Sa 8:18; 15:18).

8. Maintenance and Establishment:

(1) Income.

(a) According to the custom of the times presents were expected of the subjects (1Sa 10:27; 16:20) and of foreigners (2Sa 8:2; 1Ki 5:1 ff; 10:25; 2Ch 32:23), and these often took the form of an annual tribute.

(b) In time of war the king would lay claim to his share of the booty (2Sa 8:11; 12:30; 1Ch 26:27).

(c) Various forms of taxes were in vogue, as a part of the produce of the land (1Ki 9:11; 1Sa 17:25), forced labor of the Canaanites (1Ki 9:20; 2Ch 2:16) and also of the Israelites (1Ki 5:13; 11:28; 12:4), the first growth of the pasture lands (Am 7:1), toll collected from caravans (1Ki 10:15).

(d) Subdued nations had to pay a heavy tribute (2Ki 3:4).

(e) The royal domain often comprised extensive possessions (1Ch 27:25-31).

(2) The Royal Court.

The highest office was that of the princes (1Ki 4:2), who were the king's advisers or counselors. In 2Ki 25:19 and Jer 52:25 they are called "they that saw the king's face" (compare also 1Ki 12:6, "stood before Solomon"). The following officers of King David are mentioned: the captain of the host (commander-in-chief), the captain of the Cherethites and the Pelethites (bodyguard), the recorder (chronicler and reminder), the scribe (secretary of state), the overseer of the forced labor, the chief ministers or priests (confidants of the king, usually selected from the royal family) (2Sa 8:16-18; 20:23-26).

During the reign of Solomon other officers were added as follows: the overseer over the twelve men "who provided victuals for the king and his household" (1Ki 4:5,7), the officer over the household (1Ki 4:6; 18:3) (steward, the head of the palace who had "the key" in his possession, Isa 22:22); the king's friend (1Ki 4:5; 1Ch 27:33) is probably the same as the king's servant mentioned among the high officials in 2Ki 22:12. It is not stated what his duties were. Minor officials are servants, cupbearer (1Ki 10:5), keeper of the wardrobe (2Ki 22:14; 10:22), eunuchs (chamberlains, not mentioned before the division of the kingdom) (1Ki 22:9; 2Ki 8:6).

9. Short Character Sketch of Israel's Kingdom:

No higher conceptions of a good king have ever been given to the world than those which are presented in the representations of kingship in the Old Testament, both actual and ideal. Though Samuel's characterization of the kingship was borne out in the example of a great number of kings of Israel, the Divine ideal of a true king came as near to its realization in the case of one king of Israel, at least, as possibly nowhere else, namely, in the case of David. Therefore King David appears as the type of that king in whom the Divine ideal of a Yahweh-king was to find its perfect realization; toward whose reign the kingship in Israel tended. The history of the kingship in Israel after David is, indeed, characterized by that desire for political aggrandizement which had prompted the establishment of the monarchy, which was contrary to Israel's Divine mission as the peculiar people of the Yahweh-king. When Israel's kingdom terminated in the Bah exile, it became evident that the continued existence of the nation was possible even without a monarchical form of government. Though a kingdom was established again under the Maccabees, as a result of the attempt of Antiochus to extinguish Israel's religion, this kingdom was neither as perfectly national nor as truly religious in its character as the Davidic. It soon became dependent on Rome. The kingship of Herod was entirely alien to the true Israelite conception.

It remains to be said only that the final attempt of Israel in its revolt against the Roman Empire, to establish the old monarchy, resulted in its downfall as a nation, because it would not learn the lesson that the future of a nation does not depend upon political greatness, but upon the fulfillment of its Divine mission.


J.P. McCurdy, History, Prophecy and the Monuments; Riehm, Handwiirterbuch des bibl. Alterrums; Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes); Kinzler, Bibl. Altes Testament.

S. D. Press

© Levend Water