“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mind; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Exodus 19.5, 6
A growing sense
By the time Israel descended into Egypt, the idea of a kingdom, involving them as a people specially chosen by God, had begun to gain some traction in the thinking of at least some of their leaders.
Adam and Even had passed down the notion of “dominion” so that all those who heard their story and regarded themselves as a continuation of that story must have pondered their own lives in something of that light. As human beings, more specifically, as those descended from Adam and Eve through Abraham, they understood they had a duty to learn as much as they could, to work at ordering, managing, and developing their places and possessions, and to guard these against corruption or loss. It should not surprise us that those who received this story – from Seth, Noah, and the patriarchs – became fruitful and wealthy in all their endeavors.
Moreover, from Abraham the idea of a rule characterized by righteousness and peace – like the rule of Melchizedek? – and a heritage of kings and nations in which God’s blessings would be known, began to inform and shape the story of God’s covenant people. It thus seems perfectly in line with this growing trajectory that Jacob should prophesy of his son, Judah, that a King would descend from him, One for whom dominion and rule had been prepared, and He would exercise that dominion and rule not only over the covenant people but all the nations of the earth as well (Gen. 49.8-11).
Israel’s growing prosperity during those early years in Egypt must have fueled the thoughts and hopes of those who clung to these ideas. But their hopes would be eroded by the cruelty of a king who cared not a whit for their history or aspirations, and who saw them only as a means to his own selfish ambitions.
A vision recovered
By the time Moses appeared to lead Israel out of captivity in Egypt, the people of God understood well the kind of power an earthly king could wield. It would fall to Moses to help them put away their fears of such human rulers and begin to recover their vision of the Kingdom God was preparing for them.
By codifying the Torah into a preserved body of literature, and instructing the fathers of Israel to teach this Law to their children, Moses helped to restore in the minds of God’s covenant people what years of slavery and oppression had obscured: They were to be a kingdom, a kingdom belonging to God. Their future hopes and the promises of God’s covenant would be bound up in Moses’ vision of their relationship with God and the way He intended to bring them into the fullness of His precious and very great promises.
A kingdom of priests
First, however, God would have to deliver His people from the fear of earthly kings, and to reorient their thinking about kings within a different framework. What He intended for them, what He was preparing them to be, would require of them a measure of trust, courage, and hope that Israel, in captivity to Pharaoh, had long since abandoned.
The destruction of Pharaoh and his army, and the later defeat of the Canannite kings encountered en route to the plains of Moab must have persuaded Moses, Joshua, and the people of Israel that no earthly king could stand in the way of what God intended for His people. He had taken Israel as His kingdom, and He would rule them for righteousness, peace, and abundant blessing, as long as they dwelled within the safe parameters of His covenant and Law. Every Israelite would be a priest unto God, observing His rule and honoring Him with sacrifices and daily lives of justice, righteousness, and love.
Thus the early ideas of dominion and rule became bound up in the covenant struck at Sinai and in the idea of Israel’s being a kingdom ruled by God Himself: “Thus the LORD became king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people were gathered, all the tribes of Israel together” (Deut. 33.5).
A dynasty of kings
God instructed His people to embrace the notion of kingdom and kingship, and He promised to give them a king when they came into the land (Dt. 17.14-20). The kings who would rule in Israel, however, would not be anything like the pagan kings Israel had known. They would not be motivated by selfish ambition or the desire for wealth. They would not take advantage of the people for their own aggrandizement. And they would live and rule according the just and holy statutes and precepts of the Law of God. The Law of God would keep their hearts humble, so that they would serve the people well.
The kings Israel was to know in the land of promise would thus be regents of God, obedient to His Law, and devoted to serving His people for the fullness of covenant blessings.
When the report was brought to Moses of the prophecy of the false prophet, Balaam, he must have been encouraged to see how God had impressed on even this pagan the certainty of these regal and covenantal matters. Balaam acknowledged, quite against his will, that God was King in the midst of His people, and that He would lead and sustain them against every attempt to frustrate His purposes (Num. 23.22-24: note how Balaam’s words echo those of Jacob in Gen. 49.8-11). In language pointedly reminiscent of God’s promise to Abraham, Balaam declared that God’s stated purpose for His people is sure, and all nations would be wise, therefore, to seek His blessing from the kingdom of God’s people (Num. 24.8, 9).
Fortified with the recovered stories of their forebears, observers of destroyed kings and realms, and recipients of promises directly related to a kingdom and kings where blessing and prosperity were to be known by all, Israel was much encouraged to follow Joshua in the work of conquest.
The kingdom vision Moses received reached back to Israel’s beginnings and forward to the land of promise. It situated the people of Israel as citizens in a nation ruled by God, but overseen by earthly kings, submitted to God’s Law. It saw the nations as seeking the favor of God by blessing His people, and knowing the curse of God in opposing them. And, throughout their journey through the wilderness, God gave His people ample evidence that what He had promised, He was well able to provide. Those fathers who turned away from God’s promises at Kadesh-Barnea perished in the desert. It would fall to their children to embrace the vision of Moses and bring it incipient reality under the leadership of Joshua.
- What does it mean to be a kingdom of priests? Compare God’s words in Exodus 19.6 with 1 Peter 2.91, 10. Is Peter deliberately tapping into Moses’ vision to encourage his readers – and us? Explain.
- Meditate on Deuteronomy 17.14-20. Now read Romans 13.1-4. What is God’s purpose for government, and how were the kings of Israel to embody this?
- Summarize what we have “seen” of the kingdom vision God imparted to His people from Adam to Moses. How should this vision instruct us in carrying out the requirements of Matthew 6.33?
T. M. Moore