Kings.

So I wrote about how human government in the bible started with patriarchy. So where’d kings come from? Simple: One powerful patriarch got all the other families in the area to acknowledge his rule and his family’s rule. Maybe by bullying and conquering them. Maybe by doing them massive favors, like rescuing them from raiders, helping them survive famine, Ge 47.13-26 building a walled city and letting ’em live in it, being the priest of the local god; stuff like that. Hence we see kings all over the bible.

Properly defined, a king is simply a hereditary ruler. Nothing more. ’Cause every so often I hear some preacher claim the Hebrew word מֶ֑לֶךְ/melékh, “king,” means something more different or profound than Eurasian or African or Pacific kings. Sometimes ’cause they notice it’s a similar word to מַלְאָךְ/malákh, “angel,” and think there’s a connection there. There’s not. There is no deeper meaning to melékh; it means “king” whether it’s describing Israeli kings, Canaanite city-state kings, Moabite and Edomite client kings or puppet kings, Egyptian pharaohs, Babylonian empire-builders, or even the LORD himself. It’s a hereditary ruler. The only differences between one king or another are any constitutions which limit their power, the size of their kingdoms, and their own character and attitude about governance.

Other than the first king in the family, kings didn’t earn their position, didn’t merit it… or, bluntly, steal it through conquest or coups. They inherited it, ’cause their dads were the previous kings, designated them as successor, and the kingdom became their birthright. They could be utterly unfit to govern others… as is usually true throughout human history. Designated successors (or as we nowadays call them, crown princes) had the awful habit of not thinking of the kingdom and its people as their duty, and their leadership as service, but as possessions and slaves. It’s 180 degrees different from God’s attitude in his kingdom.

How Israel got its kings.

Ancient Israel began as a patriarchy, with Israel himself as the head of his family. Then he died and Joseph became patriarch; then Joseph died and arguably Manasseh became patriarch; and of course by that point the family was too huge for any one patriarch to govern all, and by Moses’s day it was 13 tribes with multiple patriarchs per tribe.

The position Moses ben Amram took was that of שּׁוֹפֵט/šofét, “judge,” a word which really means “leader” but comes from the verb שָׁפַט/šafát, “to judge.” Judging was most of a leader’s job: Two or more Hebrews came with a disagreement and the leader had to rule who was right, or whether any was right, based on the Law. (In other nations the king decreed the law. In Israel the LORD did, ’cause he’s the real king, remember?) But Moses didn’t have the title of melékh ’cause he wasn’t a hereditary ruler: His job passed to Joshua ben Nun, and from Joshua to other judges hand-picked or otherwise recognized by the LORD.

Since there were judges, Israel didn’t need any kings. Ordinarily the Hebrews would govern themselves (or their patriarchs, i.e. their elders, would). You need judgment; you go to the city gate, where the old guys who knew the Law sat, and they’d tell you what the LORD taught. Problem was, Israel sucked at following the LORD and his Law, and kept triggering the Cycle: Break the Law which they’d sworn to uphold, and there were consequences and conquest. Repent and return to God, and he’ll send ’em a judge to supernaturally overthrow their enemies and restore freedom. Read the book of Judges; it kept happening over and over again for centuries.

Until the Hebrews grew tired of the Cycle, and decided the solution… was not to follow the Law, nor invent a Pharisee-style system of schools which made certain everybody knew and follow it. Nope; they figured the real problem was Israel lacked a king. Other nations had kings. Why not they?

Duh; ’cause God’s their king, as the judge Gideon Jerubbaal ben Joash pointed out:

Judges 6.22-23 KWL
22 The men of Israel told Gideon, “Reign over us—both you, your son, and your grandson—
for you saved us from from Midian’s hand.”
23 Gideon told them, “Neither I nor my son will reign over you:
The LORD reigns over you!”

Not that Gideon’s son Abimelech didn’t give it a try. But Gideon was right: The LORD’s their king—if only they’d follow him.

Jump forward about 200 years and Samuel ben Elkanah’s the judge. This time, the Hebrews didn’t come to Samuel to ask him to be king. They wanted him to pick some other guy to be king.

1 Samuel 8.4-18 KWL
4 All the gathered elders of Israel came to Samuel at Ramoth,
5 and told Samuel, “Look, you’re old. Your sons don’t walk in your ways.
Now put a king over us to judge us, like all the other nations.”
6 To Samuel’s eyes, the word they said—“Put a king over us to judge us”—was evil.
Samuel prayed to the LORD.
7 The LORD told Samuel, “Hear the people’s voice? All they tell you?
It’s not you they rejected; they rejected me from reigning over them.
8 All the works they’ve done, from the day I brought them from Egypt to this day:
They abandoned me. They served other gods. They’re doing it to you too.
9 Now hear their voice. But when you do, warn, warn them.
Tell them the nature of a king’s judgment, which’ll be king over them.”
 
10 So Samuel spoke all the LORD’s words to them, to the people who asked him for a king.
11 Samuel said, “This is how a king judges when he’s king over you.
He takes your sons. He sets them in his chariots, on his horses, and as runners before his chariots.
12 He sets up chiefs over armies, chiefs over companies.
Some are to plow his plowing and reap his reaping.
Others are to make his war-weapons and chariot-weapons.
13 He takes your daughters to make perfume, cook, and bake.
14 He takes your fields. Your vineyards. Your olives.
He gives the good stuff to his slaves.
15 He tithes your seed and vineyards, and gives it to his eunuchs and slaves.
16 He takes your slaves, maids, the good young men, the donkeys, and makes them do his work.
17 He tithes your flocks. You’re slaves to him.
18 On that day, you’ll cry out from the presence of your king whom you chose for yourselves.
On that day, the LORD won’t answer you.”
 
19 The people refused to hear Samuel’s voice. They said, “No—
because if we have a king over us, 20 we can also be like other nations!
Our king can judge us. He can go out before us, and fight our wars!”
21 Samuel heard all the people’s words and spoke them in the LORD’s ears.
22 The LORD told Samuel, “Hear their voice? Set up a king for them.”
Samuel told the men of Israel, “Every man, go to your city.”

Why on earth did the ancient Hebrews ignore Samuel’s warnings and demand a king anyway? Bluntly, ’cause Samuel sucked as a judge.

Yeah, the Sunday-school stories tend to make Samuel sound like a good guy, ’cause he was a boy prophet, and ’cause he anointed David ben Jesse. They tend to skip the 50 years in between. Samuel appointed his sons to succeed him as judges, but they were easily bought off. That’s why the Israeli elders demanded a king instead. 1Sa 8.1-5 Despite his job as Israel’s moral leader, he’d blown it when it comes to raising his own kids.

And the other reason, as the LORD stated in verse 7, was the Hebrews weren’t following God. Hadn’t been since he rescued them from Egypt. Because Samuel hadn’t taught them to. No more than he’d taught his own sons to follow God.

The elders figured kings would provide the nation stability. 1Sa 8.19-20 They didn’t understand the real reason their nation had no stability—as we see in Judges—was ’cause the Hebrews kept breaking the Law. They missed the whole point of God raising up supernaturally-empowered judges to defend them. They figured if they had a permanent king, he’d defend them.

They didn’t realize if they had a permanent king, they’d wind up needing someone to save them from him. Kings are worse than any foreign invader. They plunder and destroy from within. And if you dare stand up to kings, as many of the LORD’s prophets eventually had to, they call it treason and kill you. Sometimes in nasty ways.

Anyway Samuel got ’em a king, Saul ben Kish, who made kind of a good start and won some battles, but eventually blew it because he’d rather be popular than follow the LORD. Saul’s dynasty was short: After he died in battle, his son Eshbaal became king, but was assassinated two years later by people who thought they were doing a favor to Eshbaal’s competitor, the king of the single Hebrew tribe of Judah, David ben Jesse.

KINGS OF ISRAELLENGTHWHENGOOD?
Saul ben Kish
Eshbaal ben Saul
Not sure
2 years
Late 1000s BC
"
Went nuts
Doesn’t say
David ben Jesse
Solomon ben David
Rehoboam ben Solomon
40 years
40 years
17 years
Early 900s BC
Mid-900s
Late 900s
Best ever
Went wrong
Nope

David thereafter became Israel’s third king. Samuel had anointed David as Saul’s successor, and the scriptures basically treat David as an exemplary king. Even though David made some spectacular errors in judgment; particularly stealing the wife of one of his greatest, most loyal soldiers, and then murdering the soldier. Pretty heinous—and that’s the act of Israel’s greatest king. But what made David great was he loved the LORD harder than probably every other Hebrew, and despite his screwups God appreciated that about him. David’s dynasty continues to the present day… ’cause Jesus is in it.

David was succeeded by his son Solomon, who’s known for building the LORD’s temple, for his wealth, for his wisdom, and for the fact that despite his wisdom his wives got him to dabble in idolatry. Solomon was succeeded by his son Rehoboam, whose utter lack of wisdom split Israel into two kingdoms: “Ephraim” in the north, and “Judah” in the south.

Y’notice I include charts which list the kings. Why don’t I use exact dates? Because we don’t have exact dates till the events of the bible start syncing up with neo-Babylonian history. All the “exact dates” you find in encyclopedias and bible handbooks are educated guesses. Me, I figured I’d leave it inexact so you’d know how inexact it actually is.

Two nations, multiple dynasties.

KINGS OF SAMARIALENGTHWHENGOOD?
Jeroboam ben Nebat
Nadab ben Jeroboam
22 years
2 years
Late 900s BC
"
Nope
Nope
Baasha ben Ahijah
Elah ben Baasha
24 years
2 years
Early 800s BC
"
Nope
Nope
Zimri7 days"No
Omri
Ahab ben Omri
Ahaziah ben Ahab
Jehoram ben Ahab
12 years
22 years
2 years
12 years
"
Mid 800s BC
"
"
Nope
The worst
Nope
Nope
Jehu ben Jehoshafat
Jehoahaz ben Jehu
Jehoash ben Jehoahaz
Jeroboam ben Jehoash
Zechariah ben Jeroboam
28 years
17 years
16 years
41 years
6 months
"
Late 800s BC
Early 700s BC
"
"
Not enough
Nope
Nope
Nope
Nope
Shallum ben Jabesh1 monthMid 700s BCNope
Menachem ben Gadi
Pekahiah ben Menachem
10 years
2 years
"
"
Nope
Nope
Pekah ben Remaliah9 years"Nope
Hoshea ben Elah20 years"Nope

Properly “Ephraim,” which the Deuteronomistic Historian tends to call “Israel,” was the kingdom of Samaria. It was supported by nine northern tribes, plus those members of the tribe of Levi who lived in northern Israel. A number of dynasties ruled it, ’cause they kept overthrowing one another.

The first Samarian king, Jeroboam ben Nabat, worried his people might defect to Jerusalem when they went to temple, created two northern temples of the LORD… with golden calves in them. 1Ki 12.26-30 This obvious heresy is too much for the Historian, who considered none of the Samarian kings good, and all of them idolaters. Even the relatively good ones, like Jehu ben Jehoshafat: He simply didn’t follow the Law closely enough. 2Ki 10.31

Samaria was finally conquered by the Assyrian Empire in 721BC.

KINGS OF JERUSALEMLENGTHWHENGOOD?
Abijah ben Rehoboam
Asa ben Abijah
Jehoshafat ben Asa
Jehoram ben Jehoshafat
Ahaziah ben Jehoram
3 years
41 years
25 years
8 years
A few months
Late 900s BC
"
Mid 800s BC
"
"
Nope
Nope
Yes
Yes
Nope
Athaliah bat Ahab6 years"Bad
Jehoash ben Ahaziah
Amaziah ben Jehoash
Uzziah ben Amaziah
Jotham ben Uzziah
Jehoahaz ben Jotham
Hezekiah ben Jehoahaz
Manasseh ben Hezekiah
Amon ben Manasseh
Josiah ben Amon
Jehoahaz ben Josiah
Jehoiakim ben Josiah
Jeconiah ben Jehoiakim
Zedekiah ben Josiah
40 years
29 years
52 years
16 years
16 years
29 years
15 years
2 years
31 years
3 months
11 years
3 months
11 years
Late 800s BC
Early 700s BC
Mid 700s BC
"
"
Late 700s BC
"
Early 600s BC
Mid 600s BC
Late 600s BC
Early 500s BC
598–597BC
597–586BC
Okay
Yes
Okay
Yes
Nope
Yes
No but repented
Nope
Really good
Nope
Nope
Nope
Nope

“Judah” was the kingdom of Jerusalem, supported by the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, and those Levites who lived in the south. The Historian identified some of ’em as good kings, and the rest not, using David as a baseline: If they followed the LORD more or less like David did, they were good. If they paid lip service to the LORD but tolerated idolatry, not so good. If they were idolaters themselves, they were evil.

The dynasty of David ruled it for about 13 centuries, with one hiccup when Ahaziah ben Jehoram’s queen Athaliah took advantage of his death, killed all his kids but one, and reigned four years. But once she was overthrown, the Davidites reigned till the Babylonian Empire overthrew Jerusalem in 587BC.

HASMONEAN & HERODIAN KINGSWHEN
Simon Maccabee/Thassi
John Hyrcanus 1
Aristobulus 1
Alexander Jannaeus
Salome Alexandra
Hyrcanus 2
Aristobulus 2
Hyrcanus 2 (again)
Antigonus
141–135BC
134–104
104–103
103-76
76–67
67–66
66–63
63–40
40–37
Herod Antipater
Archelaus
Agrippa 1
37BC–4CE
4–6CE
41–44CE

After the Persian Empire allowed Israelis to return to Jerusalem around 538 and establish Judea as one of their provinces, the resettled Jews went without a king for about two centuries. That is, till the Maccabees overthrew the Seleucid Empire, made Simon Maccabee both head priest and king in 142BC, and established the Hasmonean family as the ruling dynasty… till Hyrcanus 2 and Aristobulus 2 started a civil war, got the Romans involved, the Romans took over and set up Hyrcanus (and assassinated Aristobulus), and Judea was no longer independent.

After that is where Herod came in: He married into the royal family, used his influence with the Romans to overthrow Antigonus, and got himself appointed king in 37BC. If you notice big gaps in the Herod dynasty, that’s because the Romans didn’t care for Herod’s descendants and only hired some of them to be governors (sometimes with the official title “king,” sometimes with “ethnarch” or “tetrarch” or other titles which are kinda kings). I only listed the kings which actually ruled Jerusalem.

Of course when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70CE, that was the end of the Hebrew kings of Israel… till Jesus returns.

And for fun I’ll bring up the European kings of Jerusalem. During the first crusade, French generals took the city from the Seljuk Empire in 1099 and declared themselves its kings, starting with Godfrey of Bouillon. Saladin took back the city in 1187, so the French relocated their kingdom to Tyre, then Acre. After the Mamluks conquered Acre in 1291, the kingdom was officially dissolved… although that hasn’t stopped various European nobles from claiming they still held claim to the title “king of Jerusalem.” Currently King Felipe 6 of Spain ceremonially calls himself that… plus king and duke and count and lord of a lot of lands which Spain has no valid claim to. But that’s kings for you; they love to collect titles, even ones with no real meaning.

Kings suck. Except Jesus.

Because of how thoroughly corrupt human kings have been, some Christians are uncomfortable with even describing God as our king. Even though the bible calls him that. Even though Jesus’s titles Christ and Messiah mean “king”—’cause he’s the king of God’s kingdom.

I have no problem with it at all. Because I consider Jesus our only rightful king. Only he deserves to rule. Only he can wield power without it corrupting him. He governs morally, rightly, and fairly. Every other king and queen on earth is usurping his title—and of course botching the job. Even the very best kings, like David ben Jesse, murdered and stole and adultered and broke God’s commands, and in so doing prove the folly of giving humans so much power.

But hey, God did warn the Hebrews—and us—not to do it.

The LORD’s original plan was for he himself to be Israel’s king. His plan hasn’t changed any. You do realize once he became human, got himself adopted into the Davidic royal lineage, conquered death, and is coming back to take possession of his world, he’s still gonna be king. And gonna rule this world properly.