By Greg Forster: part seven of a series.
The image of God as king is very familiar in other contexts – especially as the importance of “the kingdom of God” in the teachings of Jesus is being rediscovered. But what we may not always realize is that a king is a worker! As with the image of God as a counselor, we must overcome the pagan dualism that separates the human race into a worker class and a leisure class. As we consider biblical images of God as a worker, we mustn’t neglect the image of God as king.
To start with, the biblical king is really a warrior-king. His first and most important job is to win battles. This is deeply important, for example, to the significance of the David and Goliath story. God’s royal anointing passes (privately) from Saul to David in I Samuel 16. Then in I Samuel 17 we see Goliath demanding that if Israel thinks its God will save it, it should send forth a champion to fight him. Saul hides in his palace while David, who has just been privately anointed the rightful king, does the king’s job by serving as Israel’s champion in combat.
It is in this light that the New Testament imagery of a holy war must be understood. Like David, Jesus is not just our king but our warrior-king. In the present age he leads us in waging spiritual warfare; at the end of all things, he will ride at the front of the heavenly host in the last battle and defeat Satan and his armies once and for all.
Even if we leave aside the military aspect of ruling, our thinking will be too narrow if we bring to the biblical image of God as king our modern, constitutional, bureaucratic notions of monarchy. Limited and rationalized government is a precious accomplishment that has greatly advanced justice, but it has only been made possible by historical developments that occurred subsequent to the giving of scripture. (“Liberty…is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization” – Lord Acton) The scriptural witness helped produce these developments, but we do not find the fruit of these developments represented in scripture itself.
This should remind us of the this-worldly, present-age character of constitutional democracy and the vast difference between the kind of rule we allow this kind of government to exercise and the kind of government King Jesus exercises. This doesn’t undermine the legitimacy of constitutional democracy, since we do want a this-worldly government for this-worldly things. But we constantly read the egalitarian nature of constitutional democracy back into the kingdom of God, where it doesn’t belong.
Here is where the worker nature of the image comes in. Christianity helped produce constitutional democracy in the modern world by debunking the mystical pretensions of kings and aristocrats. Part of the reason it did this is because it taught us to think of ruling as work, as a job, not as some kind of metaphysical status magically possessed by some people through no doing of their own. If ruling is a job, it follows that rulers have to earn their keep. They have to meet the job requirements and perform the duties assigned, or they’re liable to be removed.
(Okay, using the word “job” may overstate the point here; the early modern Christians who either abolished or constitutionalized their monarchies never quite reduced ruling to just another line of economic work. But Locke, for example, worked extensively to reconstruct our concept of political authority in a way that dissocated it from parental authority, calling it instead a “trust” recieved from the community on certain terms that had to be kept under the “compact” that created the community.)
Biblical scholars tell us that in the ancient near east, the king was called an “image of god.” Genesis was thus sowing the seeds of political revolution when it said that the human race at large was made in God’s image. The emergence of constitutional democracy is a powerful testimony to how the scriptural imagery of God as a worker transforms our lives.
Today, a fresh vision of “the kingdom of God” is turning our theology upside down. How would that revolution itself be revolutionized if we considered God’s kingdom as his work?
I think it would, at minimum, put spiritual formation back at the center of this concept in a way that I don’t think has been adequately mantained. Dallas Willard, one of the original champions of a new emphasis on kingdom theology, put spiritual formation – the work of God inside us as our king – at the foundation of the kingdom. That’s where it belongs.
In retrospect, I’m rethinking how I framed things last time. I said this series was moving from biblical images of God as a worker who works on physical things to biblical images of God as a worker who works on the mind and soul. My thought was that “God as counselor” represented God working on the individual mind and soul, whereas the final two images I’ll consider – God as warrior-king and a surprise finale next time – represented God working on the social mind and soul.
That doesn’t work, though, because the warrior-king is as concerned with physical things as a doctor or farmer – often with the same things, considered politically.
It would be better to group the workers we’ve looked at this way:
Work with the nonhuman creation
Work with the individual human
Work with human communities
- God as a warrior-king: Human public community
- God as a . . .
See you next time for the final installment!