The Kingdom and the Old Testament
The first thing to be noticed in Jesus’ utterances on our theme is that they clearly presuppose a consciousness, on His part, of standing with His work on the basis of the revelation of God in the Old Testament. Our Lord occupies historic ground from the outset. From first to last he refers to “the kingdom of God” as a fixed conception with which he takes for granted, his hearers are familiar. In affirming that it is “at hand” he moreover ascribes to it the character of something forming part of that world of prophecy, which moves onward through the ages to its divinely appointed goal of fulfillment. It were utterly out of harmony with this fundamental principle of our Lord’s “kingdom-gospel” to represent him as the founder of a new religion. His work was the realization of what in the ideal form of prophecy had been known and expected ages before. We simply here observe at a peculiarly vital point what underlies as a broad uniform basis his official consciousness everywhere. No array of explicit statements in which he acknowledges his acceptance of the Old Testament Scriptures as the word of God can equal in force this implied subordination of Himself and of His work to the one great scheme of which the ancient revelation given to Israel formed the preparatory stage. Indeed in appropriating for Himself the function of bringing the kingdom, in laying claim to the Messianic Jesus seized upon that in the Old Testament which enabled Him at one stroke to make its whole historic movement converge upon and terminate in Himself. There is in this a unique combination of the most sublime self-consciousness and the most humble submission to the revelation of God in former ages. Jesus knew himself as at once the goal of history and the servant of history.
The Old Testament knows of a kingdom of God as already existing at that time. Apart from the universal reign exercised by God as Creator of all things, Jehovah has his special kingdom in Israel. The classical passage relating to the latter is Exodus 19:4-6, from which it appears, that the making of the covenant at Sinai established this relationship. In virtue of it, Jehovah, besides being Israel’s God, also acted as Israel’s national King. By direct revelation he gave them laws and by his subsequent guidance of their history he made his rule a living reality. Even later, when human kings arose, these had no other rights from the point of view of the legitimate religion than those of the vicegerents of Jehovah. The meaning of this order of things was that in Israel’s life all other interests, both public and private, were subordinated to and made a part of religion. Whilst elsewhere religion was a function of the state, here the state became a function of religion. In itself this idea of a kingship exercised by the deity over the entire range of life was not confined to the sphere of special revelation. Melek מלך (king) was a common name for the godhead among the Semitic tribes, so that to some extent, the principle of what we call “the theocracy “was known to them. But the relation which they imagined to exist between themselves and their gods was in Israel alone a matter of actual experience. A most vivid consciousness of this fact pervades the entire Old Testament.
In view of this it creates some surprise at first sight, that Jesus never speaks of the kingdom of God as previously existing. To him the kingdom is throughout something new, now first to be realized. Even of John the Baptist he speaks as not being in the kingdom, because his whole manner of work identified him with the preceding dispensation. The law and the prophets are until John; from that time the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached (Luke 16:16; Matt. 11:13). There are only two passages in which the old theocratic order of things might seem to be referred to under the name of the kingdom. In Matt. 8:12, Jesus calls the Jews “the sons of the kingdom.” But this is probably meant in the sense, that in virtue of the promises they are heirs of the kingdom, not in the sense of their having had the kingdom in actual possession before the coming of Christ. On the same principle we must probably interpret Matt. 21:43, where Jesus predicts that the kingdom of God shall be taken away from the Jews and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof, the kingdom being used for the title to the kingdom. Or, if the literal meaning of the words be pressed, it should be remembered, that our Lord spoke them during the later stage of his ministry, at a time when through his labors the kingdom of God in its new and highest sense had been at least incipiently realized.
The only indirect recognition of God’s kingship under the Old Testament is found in Matt. 5:35, where Jerusalem is called “the city of the great King.” When the question is put, how must we explain this restriction of the term by Jesus to the new order of things, the answer cannot of course be sought in any lack of appreciation on his part of the reasons which underlie the opposite usage prevailing in the Old Testament. Nor can the reason have lain in a desire to accommodate himself to the contemporary Jewish conception, for, although the Jews at that time expected the kingdom from the future, they also knew it in another sense as already present with them through the reign of God in the law. The true explanation is undoubtedly to be found in the absolute, ideal character our Lord ascribed to the order of things associated with the name of the kingdom. To his mind it involved such altogether new forces and such unparalleled blessings, that all relative and provisional forms previously assumed by the work of God on earth seemed by comparison unworthy of the name. Thus, while he would not have denied that the Old Testament institutions represented a real kingdom of God, the high sense with which he had invested the term made it unnatural for him to apply it to these.
And after all the Old Testament itself had pointed the way to this restricted usage followed by our Lord. Side by side with the kingdom that is we meet in the Old Testament a kingdom yet to come. This is due to three causes:
In the first place, among the Semitic tribes the kingship very often originated by some powerful personality performing great acts of deliverance and obtaining in result of this a position of preeminence, as we see it happen in the case of Saul. Thus, though Jehovah was King, he nevertheless could perform acts in the future, work deliverances for his people, such as would render him King in a new sense, cf. Is. 24:21; 43:15; 52:7; Mic. 2:12; 4:6; Obad. 21; Ps. 97:1; 99:1.
Secondly, the suspension of the visibly exercised rule of Jehovah during the exile naturally led to the representation, that he would in the future become King by resuming his reign. It is especially in the Book of Daniel that the idea of the future kingdom of Jehovah is developed in contrast with the world-monarchies through which his kingdom appeared in abeyance for the present.
Thirdly, the rise of Messianic prophecy had the natural result of projecting the true kingdom of God into the future. If not the present king was the ideal representative of Jehovah, but the future ruler as the prophets depict him, then, as a correlate of this, the thought would suggest itself that with this new ideal instrument the rule of God in its full ideal sense will first be realized. The expectation of the kingdom of God became equivalent to the Messianic hope of Israel. Now, inasmuch as our Lord knew himself to be the promised Messiah and knew that the Messianic King had had his typical predecessors under the Old Testament, we can indirectly show that the conception of the theocracy as a typical kingdom of God cannot have been unfamiliar to him.
In the Gospels both the thing and the name of the kingdom appear familiar to the people among whom Jesus taught, cf. Matt. 3:2; Mark 15:43; Luke 14:15; 17:20. It would be rash, however, to infer from this, that Jesus simply accommodated himself in his mode of speech about the kingdom to the prevailing usage of his time. The way in which he handled the conception in general not only, but the very prominence to which he raised it, bore the marks of great originality and were productive of the most momentous changes from a religious point of view. This can be best apprehended if we place our Lord’s usage by the side of that found in the contemporary Jewish literature. Here, as in the Old Testament, besides the divine kingship over the world, both the present reign of Jehovah over Israel and his future kingdom are referred to. In these references we notice two peculiarities:
The first is that the kingdom itself is not strictly speaking represented as future, but only the enforcement or manifestation of the kingdom. God’s rule is ever existing, only at present it is not recognized. In the future the world will be made to submit to it, thus the kingdom is manifested. This peculiarity is the result of the one-sided manner in which the relation of God to his people and the world appeared to be bound up in the law. Hence the Jewish phrase, “to take up the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” meaning to vow obedience to the law.
The second peculiarity consists in the rareness with which even in this qualified sense the Jewish sources speak of God’s kingdom as a future thing. In comparatively few cases, where the new order of things expected in the Messianic age is referred to, does the name “kingdom of God” appear in connection with it. This cannot be accidental. Probably the reason is as follows; the conception which the average Jewish mind had framed of the new order of things and the interest which in its view attached to it, were not sufficiently God-centered to favor the use of the phrase “kingdom of God.” The emphasis was placed largely on what the expected state would bring for Israel in a national and temporal sense. Hence it was preferably thought of as the kingdom of Israel over the other nations. Or the place of the kingdom-idea was taken by different conceptions, such as that of “the coming age,” which were indefinite enough to leave room for the cherishing of the same self-centered hope.
Now it is from a comparison with these two peculiarities that our Lord’s preference for the name “kingdom of God” receives its proper light. While to the mind of Judaism the divine rule is equivalent to the sovereignty of the law, Jesus, though not excluding this, knew of a much larger sphere in which God would through saving acts exercise His glorious prerogatives of kingship on a scale and in a manner unknown before. In His teaching the kingdom once more becomes a kingdom of grace as well as of law, and thus the balance so beautifully preserved in the Old Testament is restored.
The consequence of this was, of course, that great emphasis had to be thrown upon the newness of the kingdom, upon the fact of its being and bringing something more than the reign of law in which the Jews found their ideal. Thus the Lord’s method of not calling even the Old Testament legal organization the kingdom may have been partly due to a revolt in His mind from the Jewish perversion of the same.
Further, by making the idea as prominent as He did in His teaching and at the same time speaking of it exclusively as the kingdom of God, our Lord protested against the popular misconception of it as a national kingdom intended to bring Israel supremacy and glory.
Finally, through the enlargement which the idea of God’s reign had undergone, so that it stood for a reign of saving grace as well as of law, it became possible for our Lord to subsume under the notion of the kingdom the entire complex of blessing and glory which the coming order of things would involve for the people of God, and yet to keep before men’s minds the thought that this new world of enjoyment was to be enjoyed as a world of God. Thus, by bringing the name of “God’s kingdom” and the whole content of the Messianic hopes of Israel together, he imparted to the latter the highest ideal character, a supreme religious consecration.