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Politics of Scripture

Is God’s Kingship a Progressive Idea?

Kingship is an irredeemably hierarchical, patriarchal form of rule, right? Maybe not, says Psalm 146—if the king is God.

1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
   I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
   on that very day their plans perish.
5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
   whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
   the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
7   who executes justice for the oppressed;
   who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8   the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
   the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the strangers;
   he upholds the orphan and the widow,
   but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The Lord will reign for ever,
   your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

Psalm 146

The Sumerian King List, an ancient Mesopotamian document dating from at least the late third millennium BCE, opens by declaring that kingship—i.e., the idea and institution itself—“descended from heaven.” Such a schema might naturally recall Psalm 146, one of this week’s Old Testament lections (and a daily reading for traditional Jews). “The LORD will reign forever,” the psalmist declares, “your God, O Zion, for all generations” (Psalms 146:10). God is the ultimate king, the very paradigm for that mode of rule. The set of biblical texts invested in the human kingship of the Davidic line ground themselves in the divine model.

It turns out, however, that, taken as a whole, the biblical attitude to kingship—whether divine or human—is considerably more complex. Kingship begins in Israel due to the people’s own demand for a king “like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5), which God interprets as nothing less than a rebellion against divine rule (1 Samuel 8:7). In direct contrast to the Sumerian King List, here kingship is thrust up from earth. Moreover, the Pentateuch is surprisingly cagey about kingship, describing God as king only three times (Exodus 15:18; Numbers 23:21; Deuteronomy 33:5—all ancient poetic material) and severely curtailing the human king’s power (Deuteronomy 17:14–20).

Contemporary Jewish and Christian readers of the Bible might well feel comforted by this complexity. While I have no hard data on this, my anecdotal experience has been that nowadays, many people experience the biblical notion of God’s kingship as something of an embarrassment. It’s no mystery why. For one, kingship is fundamentally imbalanced and hierarchical, running afoul of our ideals of democracy and egalitarianism. Moreover, it’s fundamentally patriarchal, weaving male dominance into its overall power dynamic. Divine kingship seems to fly in the face of core progressive values.

Some might shrug, saying that it’s just a metaphor, one that reflects a different culture and era. The latter caveat is certainly true. The thing with metaphors, however, is that they shape life as much as they draw on it—and this means that political metaphors never really stop being political. It’s one thing to acknowledge that kingship was an ancient image for God. It’s quite another to maintain that image as an active feature of contemporary religious life, for doing so inevitably means maintaining problematic ideas of power and gender. This is why, in her watershed work, Standing Again at Sinai, Judith Plaskow argued that a truly feminist Jewish theology must question all hierarchical metaphors for God—not just kingship but also others that might seem relatively innocuous, like parenthood. Because feminism (in its third wave, at least) is an intersectional project of undoing all power imbalances between human beings, it is counterproductive, Plaskow says, to continue understanding God in the image of such imbalances.

If the notion of God’s kingship seems to risk bolstering problematic human power dynamics, we might well be surprised by what Psalm 146 actually does with it. The poem doesn’t open by arrogating the power of divine kingship to a human representative. Instead, it relativizes human power altogether: “Do not put your trust in princes (nedivim), in mortals, in whom there is no help (teshu‘ah). When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (Psalms 146:3–4).

This might sound like a general warning about human unreliability, which, indeed, is a motif in the Psalter. However, it in fact carries a more pointed political significance. To an extent, we can see this from the fact that it mentions not just any people but rather “princes” (nedivim) specifically. The real key, however, is teshu‘ah, which the NRSV wisely renders “help” as opposed to the more affected and pious “salvation” (a reasonable reading in some other contexts). This is a service, a form of social and military protection, that the human king was expected to render his subjects. As one psalmist bids, “May [the king] defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance (yoshi‘a) to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (Psalms 72:4). The claim in Psalm 146 is that the ruling class cannot, in fact, be trusted to provide in this way. Human beings are powerless, yes, but more importantly: human kings are powerless.

The upshot and stakes of this claim become crystal clear in the following verse: “Happy are those whose help (‘ezer) is the God of Jacob, whose hope (sever) is in the LORD their God” (Psalms 146:5). Human kings are useless—but Israel is in luck, for their king is no human. They look to God for the same things for which one usually looks to the ruling class; “help” (‘ezer) and “hope” (sever) are, in this context at least, basically synonymous with teshu‘ah. It’s not simply that God is Israel’s king. It’s that God is the only one who can actually execute the office of king in the first place.

Over the course of the next few verses, the psalm unpacks this idea. It grounds God’s claim to kingship in cosmogony (Psalms 146:6), a typical move both in the Bible and elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Yet this isn’t a power play, a brute assertion of ownership, like a parent reminding an allegedly ungrateful child, “I brought you into this world!” Instead, the point is that God’s creation of the cosmos is continually realized in God’s maintenance of the cosmic order. God doesn’t just create the world but “keeps faith forever” (Psalms 146:6).

We might reasonably assume that this cosmic order is primarily ecological. God upholds the boundaries between earth and heaven, dry land and sea, etc.—the sorts of natural divisions that structure the Priestly creation narrative with which the Bible opens (Genesis 1:1–2:3). According to Psalm 146, however, this order is in fact social. God “keeps faith forever” in creation by doing such things as ensuring justice for the oppressed, feeding the hungry, liberating the imprisoned, and carrying for the vulnerable (Psalms 146:7–9). These are precisely the sorts of activities that appear in many biblical and extrabiblical idealizations of human kingship (see, e.g., Psalm 72 and the epilogue to the Laws of Hammurabi). Yet in our psalm, it’s God alone who can truly do these things because, as creator, God alone is truly king.

Psalm 146 subverts many (reasonable) concerns about divine kingship. God’s rule doesn’t bolster the powerful. Instead, it utterly relativizes them. Neither does God’s rule exploit the powerless. Instead, it makes them the orienting focus of royal obligation. The strong implication of the psalm is that on a societal level, acknowledging God’s kingship means dedication to the service in which that kingship consists. Put differently, the definition of a society that affirms God as king is a society that aids all those whom the divine king is said to aid. In this way, Psalm 146 configures divine kingship as the framework and basis for a strikingly progressive account of what politics is: not the quest to dominate others but the task of ensuring their wellbeing.

Now, I want to be clear that in offering this reading of divine kingship, I’m not being naïve about its potential misuse. Plaskow and other critics of hierarchical and patriarchal metaphors for God are certainly correct that reflexively employing such metaphors risks reinscribing these dynamics and serving as cover for reinforcing insidious forms of domination. However, it’s worth noting that non-hierarchical construals of God are not immune to this risk either. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we’ve seen numerous examples of religious leaders—in both mainstream and alternative settings—using pantheistic, panentheistic, and other such theologies to justify exploitative or predatory behavior. The fact of the matter is that there’s probably no single failsafe way of thinking about God so as to prevent abuse of power. The question, rather, is what good our various metaphors may do for us in various contexts. My point is that the idea that God is king—as presented in Psalm 146, at least—can do surprisingly progressive work toward checking the powerful and aiding the powerless.

What about the objection that affirming God’s kingship is politically incompatible with our democratic ideals? We’re America, after all—the country that said, “No more kings,” in the immortal words of Schoolhouse Rock. To this, I would respond that, paradoxically, there is perhaps no political setting in which affirming God’s kingship makes more sense than in a democracy. The whole point of democratic governance is that no human being is fit to be king. What better way to underscore this than to maintain that kingship is the province of God alone—to undo the opening line of the Sumerian King List and insist that kingship never did descend from heaven? Kingship characterizes God’s rule over human beings, not human beings’ rule over each other. The task of recognizing God as king while living in a democracy, then, is democratically to build a society that manifests God’s rule: executing justice for the oppressed, feeding the hungry, and all the other kingly duties.

Metaphors for the divine are by necessity imperfect and messy. Political metaphors are no exception. The notion of God’s kingship can be destructive and regressive in some manifestations, constructive and progressive in others. Psalm 146 offers a vision for the latter: an account of politics as the imperative to yield power to God and instead assume the divine task of service to those fellow human beings who need it most. If this is indeed what God’s kingship entails, then I, for what it’s worth, will gladly declare along with our psalmist, “The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.”

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