In the second in our series on the Lord’s Prayer, Geoffrey Kirk considers the Kingdom of God and the Kingship of Jesus
THY KINGDOM come; thy will be done.’
That the ancient Hebrews were ambivalent about kingship as an institution is apparent from the two accounts of the origins of the monarchy in the First Book of Samuel. There we hear conflicting voices: one a shrill Yahwistic purism, which portrays the adoption of kingship as a form of apostasy (thus echoing the response of Gideon to the attempt to make him king after the defeat of the Midianites [Judg. 8: 22, 23]); the other a bland acceptance of the monarchy as a gracious gift from God, an extension of his sovereignty, and part of his will for his people.
Monarchy was, as even the account favourable to its establishment frankly admits [I Sam 8:5], a pagan borrowing.
It did not immediately or completely replace the charismatic patterns of leadership which had obtained in the time of the Judges. (Saul, too, was ‘among the prophets’ and was capable of ecstatic utterance and ecstatic excess). The prophetic tradition undergirded and outlived the monarchy.
Saul’s tragedy, and conversely David’s triumph, derived from the attempt at running two opposing world-views in tandem. One pictured the divine in terms of sudden and often violent intervention; it was the religion of a charismatic leadership and an informal and peripatetic priesthood. The other depended on institutional sanctions – an hereditary leadership and an established cultus. If David somehow managed to balance the prophetic and the priestly, the charismatic and the institutional (and so became the once and future king), Saul, Solomon and every other monarch, north and south, more or less failed.
The slogan of the prophets – ‘Yahweh alone!’ – which was not dulled or diminished by the passing centuries, was a demand for absolute obedience and allegiance. It embodied a radical unreasonableness of which monarchy, with its inevitable political concessions and moral compromises, was the natural enemy. One of the most merciless of the critics of the monarchy, the northern prophet Hosea, saw clearly that, from a purely religious point of view, internal tensions had marred it from the start. ‘All their wickedness is in Gilgal’, he writes, ‘for there I hated them’.
Gilgal was where Saul was proclaimed [I Sam. 11:15]; and where he was definitively rejected [I Sam. 15: 23]. God had made the monarchy a scourge of his wrath: ‘I gave you kings in my anger, and snatched away princes in my wrath’ [Hos. 13: 11]
The Judaean prophets of a later age condemn the monarchy in a similar way. The king had come to be associated with an arrogance and self-reliance which was incompatible with the ancient Israelite demand for humility before the supreme Disposer of history. [see Jer. 23: 5ff; Ezek. 37: 24ff; etc.]
And yet the monarchy, even when it had come to an end, left a deep impression on the Jewish religious imagination. (The frequency with which the Old Testament uses ‘King’ as a term for Yahweh contrasts with the infrequency with which it uses ‘Father’.) There continued a lively sense of the monarchy – a reformed and ideal monarchy – as the ideal solution to Israel’s political and spiritual problems. Haggai and Zechariah seem to have looked upon Zerubbabel as that hoped-for successor of David who would bring in the golden age of peace [Zech. 9: 9, one of Matthew’s messianic proof texts [Mtt. 23: 4]].
The Messiah (‘anointed one’) was still envisaged as a mortal, earthly monarch. But in the period immediately before Jesus what had begun as extravagant court rhetoric transformed itself into a spiritual longing, and took on the colour of apocalyptic expectation: the expected one was now the ‘Priestly Messiah’, who opens Paradise through the forgiveness of sins (Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs); and the pre-existent ‘Son of Man’ (Similitudes of Enoch).
It is a remarkable fact that Jesus never refers to God as ‘King’. Though the Gospels (especially the parables of Jesus) are full of references to ‘the kingdom of God’ or ‘the kingdom of heaven’, Jesus never uses the title ‘king’ applied to his Father – and this despite the frequency with which the term was used in the prayer-life of contemporary Jews (‘Blessed are you, Lord, King of the Universe’ ), and the virtual absence of the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ from the Old Testament (where malkhut and melukhah occur no more than half a dozen times).
In the Gospels, it is the Son who is King; a fact which the Matthean genealogy and birth narratives establish from the start. Jesus is the culmination of a history in which David, the great king, is the shaping and determining factor. (The genealogy is divided into three times fourteen generations, where David (DVD) = 4+6+4). To him, and not to Herod (the architect of the third Temple: 1 = Solomon; 2 = Zerubbabel), come the kings of the Gentiles to pay homage, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah in the gifts they bring [Is.60.6].
John, for whom Jesus’s naming of himself as God is the hinge of the plot, nevertheless allows the kingship of Jesus a notable place as subplot. In John’s account of Jesus’s trial the double accusations of blasphemy and sedition are ironically interwoven. The Jewish priesthood, zealous to preserve the faith and to punish blasphemy [‘We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself Son of God’ Jn. 19: 7], is forced in the process, and by the logic of circumstances, to deny the Kingship of God [‘We have no king but Caesar’ Jn. 19: 16]. The Jewish leaders uphold the principle of monarchy (always, at its heart a foreign concept [‘like the other nations’ I Sam. 8: 5]), and reject the radical demands of the prophetic tradition: ‘Yahweh alone’.
John illuminates this irony by the dialogue on the nature of kingship between Jesus, the impotent prisoner, and Pilate, the officer of an absolute power. Real power (and therefore real kingship) is given, not achieved; it consists in an absolute obedience to God. [‘I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth’ Jn. 18; 37]. Paradoxically, and yet inevitably, the wielder of absolute power proves to be a relativist [‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer’ Bacon, Essays, Of Truth. cf Jn. 18: 38]. His prisoner is ‘the way, the truth and the life’.
So the kingship of Jesus is shown to subsist in radical obedience. The New Testament, in various places, makes play of the dual meaning of pais, so that Son of God, a late Messianic title derived from the enthronement Psalms esp. II and CX [see Heb. 1: 5ff] is rendered an equivalent of the ‘suffering servant’ (ebed Yahweh) of Deutero-Isaiah.
In the ‘Our Father’, Jesus does the same, directly relating kingship and obedience ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done’. The Son of the (Our) Father prays that he (and we) may bring in the kingdom of heaven by obedience to the divine will.
(The rich nuptial imagery of the gospels, the centrality of submission to the divine will, and the idea of the ‘kingdom of heaven’, all come pleasingly together in the beautiful story told of the contemporary Rabbi Gamaliel, who, ignoring the exemption given to bridegrooms on their wedding night, recited the Shema before retiring to the nuptial couch. When his disciples asked him why he had ignored his own teaching, he replied: ‘I will not cast off from myself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven even for a moment’ [Mishnah, Ber 2.5].)
But ‘Thy will be done’, of course, has a Gospel, as well as Rabbinic dimension. It alludes to the obedience which brought about the Incarnation [‘Let it be done to me as you have said’ Lk. 1; 38] and the Atonement [‘Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine’ Lk. 22: 43]. Like mother, like son: one petition brings together the whole history of salvation, and unites both sexes in the necessary and saving act of submission of the Father.
This image of Jesus as the perfect expression of the will of the Father is at the heart of the whole Johannine tradition. It is neatly unfolded in the extended use of the word ‘Amen’. ‘Amen’ is a title of Jesus (Apoc. 3: 14); it is a dominical catch-phrase [‘Amen, Amen, I say to you’ Jn. 5: 19, 24, 25; 6: 26,32, 47, 53; 8: 24, 51, 58 etc.,etc.]; and it relates directly to the enigmatic ‘alethia’ in the interview with Pilate.
‘Truth’ is expressed and realized through obedience. Those who do the will of the Father are ‘consecrated in the Truth;’ because ‘your word is Truth’. [Jn 17: 17] The final witness to Truth is the sacrifice of the Cross, the ultimate act of obedience. ‘The witness [martyrion] says this: yes, I am coming quickly. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!’ [Apoc. 22: 20].
The Amen-to-the-Father is the agent and guarantor of the in-coming of the kingdom.
So in the deceptively simple phrase ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’, the story has come full circle. The elements of a tradition deeply divided about kings and kingship are finally reconciled by the God-man Jesus, who lives out the liturgy of sacral kingship with all the charismatic fervour of the prophets, and gives the glory to Yahweh alone.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark. This piece is a revision of one delivered to members of the Catholic League at the Convent of Our Lady of the Vineyard (the Beguinage) in Bruges, September 1998