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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Divine Kingship—Psalm 113:1-9 (Brad Littlejohn)

The biblical images of God as divine king are often handled with embarrassment in a more egalitarian age. However, although it may appear little more than accommodation to ancient despotic assumptions, throughout the Scriptures the kingship of God is presented as a great force for liberation against all human tyrants.

1 Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD; praise the name of the LORD.
2 Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time on and forevermore.
3 From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised.
4 The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens.
5 Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high,
6 who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?
7 He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
8 to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.
9 He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!

For this week’s reflection, I want to put no less than five of our lectionary readings in conversation with one another: the Old Testament (Isaiah 6:1-8) and Psalter (Psalm 29) readings for Trinity Sunday, and the Old Testament (1 Sam. 2:1-10), Psalter (Psalm 113), and Gospel (Lk. 1:39-57) readings for the Feast of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, which falls this year on Trinity Sunday. A common theme of these five passages is the kingship of Yahweh, a theme which is decidedly unpopular in many pulpits nowadays. At best, we may think, the image of God as King is a bit out-of-date, perhaps a compelling metaphor in monarchical societies, but one that falls flat for us in modern democracies. The Lord as Shepherd, as Deliverer, as Comforter, as Father (or even Mother) are all metaphors that speak to us still, but King—not so much; a king is distant and inaccessible, and we would prefer to speak of the God who draws near and lives amongst us in Jesus. At worst, many may complain that the metaphor is a violent and oppressive one, the product of authoritarian societies, and intended, perhaps, as a way of legitimating the authority of absolutist monarchs in every era. It may, then, be no surprise that much modern trinitarian theology has, in place of a model of God that emphasized the divine monarchy, substituted a transcendent egalitarian community, which might serve as an aspirational model for our own societies.

Our first text, Isaiah 6:1-8, might be liable to reinforce the first worry: that the kingly image is sterile and obsolete. Here Isaiah comes into the presence of “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple”; he is surrounded by angels crying, “Holy, holy, holy.” This is God as inaccessible monarch, surrounded by adoring courtiers, so far above petty creatures like us that we dare not speak in his presence. In fact, the passage might remind us of Xerxes the Persian despot, in whose throne room his own wife Esther risked death for daring to approach. And yet the passage itself goes on to subvert the image of God as distant despot; Isaiah fears that he will be cursed for having dared to behold the King, the Lord of Hosts, being a “man of unclean lips,” and yet his lips are cleansed with coals from the altar and he is made fit to stand before the King—just as Christ would later cleanse his people, tear the veil in the temple, and make us fit to enter into the presence of God. Still, even if we are invited into the presence of the King, many of us moderns might still chafe at the idea that there is such a barrier to begin with; we would prefer a God who walks reassuringly alongside us, rather than towering above us.

Our second text, Ps. 29, might be liable to reinforce the second worry: that talk of divine kingship legitimates violence and absolutism. Here Yahweh sits enthroned over the whole created order, and manifests his authority through his power to destroy and remake it as he sees fit. His voice “breaks the cedars of Lebanon,” one of the greatest symbols of strength in the ancient Israelite world. Indeed, it “makes Lebanon skip like a calf,” “flashes forth flames of fire,” “shakes the wilderness,” and “strips the forest bare.” And what is the response? “In his temple, all say ‘Glory!’” Is this not Yahweh as Middle Eastern despot, demonstrating his power by brute force, by his ability to do whatever he wills to those under his authority, and for this, receive the praise of his subjects?

Our second set of readings suggests otherwise. Consider Psalm 113, which likewise opens with an exhortation to Yahweh’s servants to praise him, and speaks of him, in terms reminiscent of both of the previous passages, as “seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth.” But what are his mighty deeds that merit praise in this psalm? He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.” Far from the divine kingship legitimating the rule of earthly oppressors, it inverts it; Yahweh is the king of the poor, the needy, and the barren, who raises them up to be as princes.

This theme is of course expressed more vividly and famously in the Magnificat, and the Old Testament passage that it echoes, the song of Hannah. In both songs, Yahweh, the Mighty One, displays his royal authority and power by casting down the mighty from their thrones, and giving strength to the weak and outcasts. In both songs, the One who is high and lifted up brings low the rich and lifts up the poor. He shakes the unjust political order the way that he shook the wilderness and the forests in Psalm 29; he “shatters” his adversaries, the oppressors of the poor, and “breaks their bows” as he shattered the cedars of Lebanon, and in their place, “the feeble gird on strength.”

Thus, far from legitimating the rule and power of an earthly hierarchy that enriches itself at the expense of its subjects and then demands their sycophantic adoration, the kingship of Yahweh serves to upend any such unjust order, establishing the poor, the neglected, the hungry, the barren, the scorned among society as the focal point of his loving rule. Indeed, in this context we can see that the very transcendent terms within which the divine rule is described, which seemed at first to underwrite an image of arbitrary despotism, serve rather to deny the possibility of any creaturely imitation. The divine kingship is not the model for human kingship, nor are his awesome displays of power the legitimation for human displays of power; rather, they are that which affirms the utter uniqueness of Yahweh’s kingship. Because Yahweh is king, there can be no other.

At the same time, there is one sense in which the Hebrew Scriptures present the divine kingship as a model for human kingship. It is not in Yahweh’s despotic power over creation, or his rule over the nations, as arbiter of war and peace, but precisely in those kingly functions that Hannah and Mary identify: doing justice for the oppressed. Psalm 72 is one that makes the equation explicit:

“Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor!”

As we approach Trinity Sunday it is worth recalling, against the fashionable preoccupation with an eternal egalitarian community as the supreme power in the universe, that for the biblical writers, the affirmation that “Our God reigns!” is the only guarantee for a just and liberating society in a world of powerful oppressors.

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