A Kingdom Without a King

Day Twenty-One of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

One of the most striking things about the transition from First Isaiah to Second Isaiah is the shift in interest in the Davidic monarchy. In First Isaiah the prophet begins in 1.1 and 2.1 by placing himself temporally in the reign of kings. He interacts with King Ahaz in chapters 7 and 8, and King Hezekiah in 36-39. The child Immanuel in chapter 7 is thought by some scholars to be King Hezekiah himself. In chapter 9 there is a king who breaks the rod of the oppressor:

6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.     – Isaiah 9.6-7

This king is identified by Christians as Jesus, of course, but Isaiah scholars believe that in its original context it referred to Hezekiah, or perhaps Josiah.  Chapter 11 identifies a Davidic king as a the one who will gather the scattered people of Israel (and/or Judah) back to Jerusalem:

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

11 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.    – Isaiah 11.1-3, 10-11

Chapters 40-55 and thereafter shows no interest in any of this. Cyrus is the one anointed by God, and the returned exiles seem to be quite happy to acknowledge him as the ruler, provided they were free to do as they believed God wanted them to act. While there is discussion of the servant of God (the identity of which there is no scholarly consensus), there is no obvious connection between this servant and the House of David.


Not this Queen, nor these three potential future kings.

There is, in fact, a real ambivalence in the Tanach around royalty. In 1 Samuel we read:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’

10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’ 21When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them.’ Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home.’    – 1 Samuel 8.4-22

The rest of the books of Samuel and Kings tells of the anointing of Saul as king, and then David. David is described as an excellent king until he sexually exploits or rapes Bathsheeba, and kills her husband Uriah to cover it up. Solomon is widse and builds the Temple in Jerusalem, but he also exploits the people and lives a lavish lifestyle at their expense. Problematic as they were, the Judah kings afterwards, until Hezekiah and Josiah, never reach the heights of David and Solomon.

Scholars speculate that the Deuteronomic History (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings) was compiled from a variety of sources from Judah and Israel and perhaps reached its first edition in the reign of Josiah. The passages calling into question the monarchy would not have been part of that earlier version. Josiah met an untimely end in a battle with Egypt, but the size and importance of the History was so significant that a later hand finished it up to the end of the monarch just two short decades after the great king it was supposed to celebrate. This later hand, perhaps in the Exile but more likely in the returned community, incorporated the same bias that Second Isaiah had against monarchy – it was an experiment that was shown to be deeply problematic. Neither Second Isaiah or the second edition of the Deuteronomic History seems to advocate the reestablishment of the House of David.

Instead, Yahweh is the king. He is identified as such in 41.21:

21 Set forth your case, says the Lord;
bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.  – Isaiah 41.21

Klaus Baltzer in his Heremaneia commentary (2001) on Deutero-Isaiah sees the servant as Moses. For him, Second Isaiah regards the pre-monarchial system in Israel as a golden era. Second Isaiah describes Yahweh as the only God and sovereign over every land and nation, even if they do not know him. However, Yahweh is known in Jerusalem, where his Temple is, and he is the one who redeems the city:

7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.
8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
   the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.     – Isaiah 52.7-10

This desire to go back to the old days without kings sits uneasily with the monarchial system extolled elsewhere in the Tanach. It is there in the Deuteronomic History, and it is present in the Book of Isaiah taken as a whole. As well, there is a downside to being a province of an empire. A benevolent despot can be succeeded by a terrible one. One still has to pay tribute, and that may or may not be adjusted according to the quality of the crops or the economy. Empires can be conquered, and new rulers may have an agenda to destroy the liberal policies of the old rulers. This happened when Alexander the Great destroyed the Persians and his successors attempted to introduce Hellenistic culture to the Judeans. Revolts have to be led by someone, and in the case of the revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes it was the Hasmoneans – a non-David family – who set themselves up as kings of Judea. Despite a great beginning, they fell into party intrigues and civil war, which prompted the attention of Pompey the Great of Rome. After they were conquered by the Roman Empire puppet kings and governors ruled, until the Jewish Revolt of 66 CE-70CE, which ended when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.

In the context of imperialism and colonization it is only natural to have the desire to be Maîtres chez nous. The desire for a just ruler became idealized as the longing for the Messiah, the anointed one of the House of David who would expel the foreign rulers. As this developed in the post-exilic era, older texts began to be read for indications of what the messiah might be like. Thus, ironically, passages in Second Isaiah began to be read messianically. It is probably this which led to the authors of the New Testament to read the servant songs as references to the Messiah, to Jesus. Indeed, it is quite probable that Jesus read these passages this way himself. This would appear to be reading the passages against the grain, but already in Jesus’s time this was pretty normal.



About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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1 Response to A Kingdom Without a King

  1. Pingback: Resources for the Sunday Next Before Advent: Christ the King | The Island Parson

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