But Seriously (5)… The Divine Right – or Wrong – of Kings


I’m not sure how these things are taught in schools now, but I recall that when we were learning about the English Civil War, King Charles’ idea of his ‘divine right’ as king was presented as having been a key issue.  And in various forms this has been an issue ever since there began to be ‘Christian’ rulers of ‘Christian nations’, from Constantine through Charlemagne and down to modern kings and queens including Elizabeth II of the UK now, ‘supreme governor’ of a state-established church.  OK, the modern queen would not assert quite the same right against her subjects as Charles I, but she does still get crowned in a church ceremony.

BUT – does this idea of Christian kings in Christian states ‘stack up’ in New Testament terms? 

For insight into the kind of thinking involved, I’d like to quote from Martin Down’s 2008 book ‘The New Jerusalem’; Martin is not quite Anabaptist but still heavily critical of ‘Christendom’.  Here he discusses the start of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ circa 800CE….

…it was now possible for the Popes to reinvent the Christian Nation, not on the Emperor’s but on their own terms.

On Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne was crowned as Emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III.  From this time, the subjects of Charlemagne, who had been referred to as “the Frankish people” were called “the people of God”.  Two other ideas had now been fused; the Christian state, empire or nation, and the nation of Israel as it had existed in the Old Testament.  It was not just that the nation of Israel might be a type of the Church.  Charlemagne’s empire had replaced the nation of Israel in the purposes of God, and the Church was now God’s nation in the same way that Israel had been God’s nation.  This opened the way for a whole world of Old Testament ideas and precedents to be applied to the Christian monarch and his people.  It was not just the Church but the Franks who had now become “the holy nation”.

Charlemagne was not anointed at his coronation in Rome, but his son and successor, Louis, was both crowned and anointed by the Pope in Rheims Cathedral in 816.  The Pope declared; “Blessed be our Lord who has granted us to see the second David”.  The kings of Christian Europe came to see themselves as the successors of the kings of Israel.  To this day, the kings and queens of England have been crowned to the strains of Handel’s anthem, Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.

Anointing with oil was the symbol of the conferring of kingship in Israel, whence references to the kings as ‘the Lord’s anointed’; David described Saul thus, and even when Saul was trying to kill him David would not harm the anointed king.  The Hebrew word for anointed is ‘Messiah’; the Greek word is ‘Christ’- you may already be getting a clue why it might be inappropriate to anoint a modern monarch as a successor to the kings of Israel….

Let’s take a step back to when Israel first had kings; I Samuel is very open about what happened.  The Israelites came to Samuel and said look, you’re getting older, your sons are not worthy successors to you; “…appoint a king over us to be our judge like all the nations”.   Samuel wasn’t happy; in his eyes, God himself was Israel’s king, and to ask for an earthly king was to reject God’s own kingship.  God agreed with this assessment, but nevertheless told Samuel to do as the people asked – ‘but solemnly warn them’ what it would be like to have such a king

So Samuel warned them

This will be the procedure of the king who shall reign over you; he will take your sons and employ them for his chariots and as his horsemen; they shall run in front of his chariots.  He will appoint some for himself in command of thousands and of hundreds; others to cultivate his acres and to harvest his crops; also to construct his weapons and chariot equipment.  Your daughters he will require for perfumers, for cooks, and for bakers.  Besides he will take your choicest fields, your vineyards and your olive yards and give them to his attendants.  He will besides take a tenth of your grain crops and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.  Your male and female servants he will take from you and your choicest young men; also your donkeys and employ them for his business.  He will appropriate a tenth of your flocks too, and you yourselves will become his servants.  By that time you will cry out about the king you chose; but that day the Lord will not answer you”

But the people wouldn’t listen, so Samuel had to appoint a king.  God first led Samuel to Saul, but in due course Saul ‘blew it’ by disobedience to God.  Then God led Samuel to anoint David, and there followed an uneasy period till Saul was killed in battle and David could take over.  David was far from perfect, particularly of course in his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah; he was nevertheless so much a man ‘after God’s heart’ that God promised to establish his ‘house’ in the kingship for ever.  Solomon succeeded David and was a fairly good king, but he too went astray in various ways.  On Solomon’s death it became clear that he had exploited his people a bit too much, as Samuel had prophesied, and when his son arrogantly threatened the people with even harder service, the northern tribes revolted and set up a separate kingdom under a non-Davidic king, while the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin stayed with the Davidic line. 

As history developed, the Northern tribes (‘Israel’) set up a rival to the Jerusalem temple and had often less satisfactory kings and a usurpation or two until they were finally overwhelmed by invaders; many were deported into slavery, those who remained intermarried with the invaders and eventually became the ‘Samaritans’ of Jesus’ day.  The southern tribes (‘Judah’, whence eventually the term ‘Jews’) lasted a good while longer but they too were eventually overrun, exiled and enslaved.  Then the invaders were in turn invaded.  The ‘new management’ adopted a policy of letting slaves return to their lands, and the southern tribes returned in some quantity and with a faith strengthened by the experience of exile.  They built a new Temple in Jerusalem and gradually spread back throughout much of the original lands including into Galilee, though there remained a central area still predominantly Samaritan.

After the return from the Exile, the Jews remained a subject people for centuries except for a brief period when the Maccabees turned out Antiochus Epiphanes’ Greeks.  By the time of the New Testament, they had been a client kingdom of Rome for some time and Judaea in the south became a Roman province under a Roman governor, Pilate being the best known.  Even the kings they did have in this period were not of the Davidic line – Herod and his family were not even full Jews but Edomites.  So as they looked for national freedom their hopes focussed on that promise to David of a king of his house to rule forever, a king who would truly be the ‘Lord’s Anointed’ or Messiah/Christ.  Many men before and after Jesus led rebellions claiming to be such a messianic king.

Then came Jesus, the true fulfilment of the messianic promise, but also for many Jews an unexpected fulfilment because he was not a narrowly nationalistic king only for the land and people of Israel.  Instead he is a king for the whole world, Gentiles as well as Jews; and paradoxically, to best carry out that role, he is not a worldly king with the usual military trappings, but has a kingdom ‘not of this world’ whose subjects are those of every nation throughout the world who believe and follow the truth he brought.

Now realise that God achieved something extra here.  As we saw above, since the time of Saul there had been an undesirable division of kingship; God was ultimately king, but there was also a human king of God’s people, a king of variable quality to say the least.  Yet God had promised that the Messiah would be an everlasting king in the human line of David – how could this be worked out?  Would not the coming of the Messiah mean that the division of the kingship continued; that God would not be fully king?

If the Messiah had merely been a descendant of David, establishing a narrow kingdom of Israel, and setting up a normal kingly line through his descendants …. Well yes, a still divided kingship.  But Jesus came not only as descendant of David, but also as Son of God – God himself entering human history, yet also as heir of David.  He wins his kingdom not by brute force conquest, but by dying for his people’s sins; vindicated by resurrection, he is to be personally their eternal king.  In the person of Jesus, God has reunited His kingship with the kingship of the House of David, in a way that makes it truly eternal.

This has unavoidable implications for the claims of human kings, from Constantine and Charlemagne through Henry VIII, Charles I, and the present monarch of England.  Put bluntly, there is simply no vacancy in Christianity for a ‘second David’; the only and eternal second David is Jesus himself.  A human king in the present age who is anointed as a ‘king of God’s people’ is in principle setting up as a ‘rival anointed’ – or as the Greeks would say, an Antichrist!  Hmmm!

Now I am not suggesting that Queen Elizabeth II is personally a demonic monarch, or even that she is personally not a sincere Christian; indeed the evidence seems strongly otherwise.  Nevertheless she has innocently inherited an essentially false position, as has the Anglican Church of which she is nominally the earthly ‘supreme governor’, and it is surely long past time for that false position to be challenged.  As fellow-Christians we should not be encouraging that false situation, surely?

Really this comes down to the doctrine of being ‘born again’, which means that no country can be identified with the church, and of course no monarch can guarantee to be born again ‘ex officio’, to be a ‘second David’ just by being born king.  To try to make it so by laws and edicts really contradicts Christianity, disobeys Jesus, and distorts the Christian message.  The church itself is the only Christian nation, and it isn’t a regular ethnic or geographical nation that can have an earthly king.  Jesus is the Church’s only king.

This does not mean that Christians are to be rebels; as we’ll see from Romans 13, I Peter, and other passages, Christians are supposed to recognise the king or other ruler of their earthly country as God’s providential choice for the nation for the time being, and to be ‘subject to’ that ruler.  But that is far from the kind of ‘divine right of kings’ practiced by Henry, Elizabeth or Charles; indeed these texts assume that neither the ruler nor the country will be ‘Christian’.  We’ll be looking at this in future….


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