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The Theme of Kingship in Isaiah

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KINGSHIP IN THE BOOK OF ISAIAH

The concept of kingship is well elaborate in the Book of Isaiah. In the beginning chapters of the book the prophet sees Yahweh seated on his throne as king of all creation. In the rest of the book, this supreme and kind king of all creation is contrasted with false gods who are venerated as kings and feeble earthly kings. We can say the Book of Isaiah is full of various types of kings that the prophet presents us with. Perhaps that is why J. Alec Motyer calls the first 37 chapters of Isaiah as the Book of the King.

A single theme binds the first thirty-seven chapters of Isaiah: the king who reigns in Zion. It is a complex theme, full of tensions. Sometimes the king is the Lord himself (6:1,5), sometimes he is the current king of the house of David (7:1–2) and sometimes he is the king who is yet to come (9:6–7).[1] 

The relationship between Yahweh and the nation Israel/Judah is similar to the political alliance practiced by a suzerain king and his vassal, as was the custom in Ancient Near East (ANE). The suzerain and his vassal king sign a pact or covenant in which the terms of agreement is clearly stipulated. The suzerain agrees to protect his vassal and his subjects from external threats. The vassal is obliged to acknowledge the sovereignty of the suzerain upon himself and his subjects. As a sign of his surrender he pays an annual levy or tribute to his sovereign.  Any violation of the stated covenant by the vassal king is severely dealt with by the suzerain.  The suzerain and his vassals are often referred as ‘father’ and ‘son’ or ‘lord’ and ‘servant’ or ‘greater king’ and ‘lesser king’. The covenant documents between Yahweh and Israel in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy are clearly drafted along this line – a treaty between a suzerain and a vassal. The covenant carefully defined the earthly king's limitation and demanded obedience to the will of God, the Suzerain (Deut 17:14-20). God governs and rules the nation with his laws. He defeats the vassal king’s enemies and sets up the standards for justice. Another peculiar feature of ANE culture is that the borderline between divinity and kingship is blurred. As was the case with Pharaohs of Egypt ANE kings are gods and gods are kings.

First, Yahweh is presented as supreme king. Second, we have four kings of Judah; namely, Uzziah (Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Third, we have Canaanite, Assyrian and Babylonian gods who introduce themselves as kings to their respective subjects. Fourth, there are evil human kings: Sennacherib king/commander of Assyria and Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon who is also referred to as Lucifer. Fifth, there is a benevolent king of Persia, Cyrus, whom Yahweh used as his right hand man. Sixth, there are the kings of Egypt and Ethiopia whom the king of Judah sought help from. Seventh, there is a futuristic Davidic king who is Yahweh’s ideal king and reputed to reign in justice and righteousness. We shall see hereunder how the theme of kingship is presented in Isaiah in relation to these contrasting spiritual and human kings.

Yahweh is King

In Isaiah 6:1-5 the prophet saw God seated on his throne high and lifted up as supreme king of all creation. This revelation comes as a surprise and contrast to the dead Judean king Uzziah. Uzziah was presented as a faithful servant of Yahweh until he stubbornly pushed his limits to unlawfully take up a priestly role and invoked Gods judgment upon himself. It is in the light of this depressive event that Isaiah saw a contrasted image of Yahweh seated on his throne and the train of his robe filling the huge temple.

In the rest of the book the attributes of God’s kingship are presented in contrast to that of other deities and human kings. His infinite wisdom and surpassing power is presented in contrast to weak Judean kings and Babylonian idols such as Bel and Nebo. His kindness is contrasted with evil kings of Assyria and Babylon. He is the suzerain king and all other earthly kings are his vassals be it by will or by might. The lofty and high status of Yahweh that Isaiah saw in chapter six continues unchallenged in the rest of the book (Isaiah 44:6).

Judean kings

Isaiah was God’s oracle in the reigns of four Judean kings; namely, Uzziah (Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Uzziah died at the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry. The people were lukewarm to Yahweh during Uzziah’s time. He was succeeded by his son Jotham who did good in the sight of the Lord except that he didn’t get rid of the high places, so many people continued in their idolatrous practices during his reign. Unlike God’s ideal king David, he did too little too late. Jotham was also succeeded by his son Ahaz.

There were tremendous pressures on Ahaz at this time. The kings of Israel and Syria were forming an alliance to attack Judea.  Their plan was not to conquer the land but rather to supplant King Ahaz with a Syrian king of their choice by the name of Tabeel.  King Ahaz didn’t trust the Lord’s promise to King David and Solomon that they would never lack a descendant upon the throne. He was afraid that Judea would be conquered by this Israeli/Syrian alliance and sought help from the king of Egypt against them and Assyria. In chapters 7 and 8, Isaiah tries to get Ahaz and the people of Judea to simply trust whole-heartedly in the Lord for deliverance and to avoid forming any alliance with the kings of the earth. Isaiah tells Ahaz and Judea that judgment from the Lord will occur if he places his trust in any nation rather than upon the Lord.

Against the backdrop of this confluence of earthly kings (The King of Judea, the kings of Israel and Syria, the King of Assyria, the King of Egypt and Yahweh as Supreme King) the outstanding power and suzerainty of Yahweh is displayed in using his vassal kingdoms to accomplish his will. Yahweh, through his oracle Isaiah declares that the kings of Israel and Syria will not conquer Judea but instead they will be conquered by the King of Assyria, and the King of Egypt is nothing but a “splintered reed of a staff, which pierces the hand of anyone who leans on it! Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who depend on him” (Isaiah 36:6). Isaiah prophesied that the King of Assyria will not wage war against Judea but will return back to his homeland without throwing a single arrow. Help comes to the King of Judea not from earthly kingdoms that he puts his trust on but from the Supreme King who uses all earthly kings as his vassals to accomplish his will be it in acknowledging him as their suzerain or not.

After Israel fell to the Assyrians, the city of Jerusalem and the entire Judea were vulnerable. The Assyrian military commander Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem. Hezekiah king of Judah was distressed and sought the help of Isaiah the prophet. God responded positively to the humility of Hezekiah and of righteousness Isaiah. God, therefore saved the small and weak kingdom against the might of Sennacherib’s army. Sennacherib demonstrated that he was a master of warfare but made a serious mistake of boasting against Yahweh. So Yahweh intervened to declare that He alone, not the King of Assyria, is the Supreme.

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