In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim ... and one called to another and said ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of the armies. Isaiah 6, 1-3
The books of the Old Testament were written by and for people whose world was very different from our own. Politically, their world was dominated by the empires of
, Egypt Assyria, , and later Babylon , ruled by emperors whose extravagant honorifics adorn their monuments. This political experience profoundly influenced not only how they expressed their religious views but also what those views were. At first, Hebrew prophets harked back to the old nomadic times and rejected kingship as a new-fangled idea hostile to traditional religion. But as the reality of imperial rule became everyone’s assumed background, it was not long before the Hebrews first accepted the idea of being ruled by a king and then began to see their own god as a kind of imperial potentate. It seemed natural to speak of their god as ‘King’ and ‘Lord’, seated on a throne high and lifted up, with angelic courtiers waiting to do his bidding, as described in our text. Notice incidentally how we usually disguise the warrior-king-god ‘Lord of the Armies’ as the ‘Lord of Hosts’ or, transliterating, of Sabaoth. A major element in Jesus’s mission was to replace this description of God as king with his re-description of God as father. Yet our hymn-books are full of references to such divine Kingship, even in hymns written well into the modern period; we ought to be careful about the ideas we are plugging into when we sing them. Rome
These early large-scale societies used law as their principal means of dealing with the difficulties of the new way-of-life. There had to be a source of the law and an authority to enforce it. This was the role of the potentate, which, because military force underpinned it, was always seen as a male role. And there was no discretion or sense of equity: laws once promulgated had to be rigidly enforced, like the law of the Medes and Persians in the story of Daniel. When the idea of the king and the idea of God became conflated, God was naturally seen as the ultimate law-giver and law-enforcer. Secondly, as so many ancient monuments bear witness, the purpose of these empires was the glorification of the Ruler, not the individual fulfilment of the masses: they existed only to pay tribute to the Ruler, to fight for him, to obey his arbitrary decisions, to be subject to his whims, to extend his control. This relationship was fixed; to rebel was unthinkable or futile. The only real offence was disobedience. Moreover, the subjects of such potentates were not individual in the sense that their individuality counted for anything; looked down upon from the imperial throne, one foot-soldier or labourer was no different from any other. Their significance is wholly described by their role description. Hence the differentiation and flourishing of individual human beings is not a concern for God-as-King theologies. To be fair, there isn’t much concern for the potentate’s individuality either; he too is defined by the role he plays. And when he dies, his successor will always be chosen from within the closed ruling circle; subjects have no part in this and certainly the vast majority of them have no possibility however remote of being his successor. The features of the God-as-King theology of the Old Testament that Jesus challenged are clearly derived from this political reality: the reliance on rigidly enforced law, the horror of disobedience, the downgrading of individual significance.
Even apart from Jesus’s rejection of this approach to the idea of God, our hymn-books’ continuing references to divine kingship are odd because today’s assumptions about kings are about merely titular authority, the appearance rather than the reality of power, the foolish pursuit of showiness. Genuine authority, real power and effective action we now associate with prime ministers and presidents, yet there is no sign of these titles being applied to divinity. Perhaps this is because we assume that such office-holders are elected, and that the source of their power and authority lies in the whole people, in whose interests they are meant to govern. But if ancient imperialism created images that informed ancient religion, presumably our modern democratic reality will come to inform modern religious ideas and transform our approach to religion. Of course we begin to see religion, like government, as a means to help individual people reach fulfilment. Of course we are coming to feel that divinity, like political authority, flows out from deep within ourselves. Of course we gather around altars and stand to pray; the days of grovelling before a divine King on his throne have passed away with the old political imagery. Of course we can begin to think once again about the feminine aspect of divinity. Of course we allow and even encourage different people to think for themselves and in different ways about life and faith. Jesus believed that, ‘The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath’; I think he would have approved an amendment that maintained that government was made to serve the people, not the people to serve the government. It is not by chance that his God-as-Father view fits so well with the version of divinity that I believe modern democratic government is helping to shape; it was after all in societies that were brought up on the Jesus tradition that modern democratic government emerged.
It is nevertheless easy to see how it came about that the entrenched Christian churches, still singing the ancient divine kingship Psalms and hymns that echoed them, found it natural not only to participate in European imperialism but also to side with worldly monarchs faced with democratising revolutions. If worldly kingship disappeared, where would that have left the view of God that it had anciently spawned and to which the churches were attached? Liberal democracy thus came to be seen as the enemy and would-be usurper of the Christian religion rather than as its offspring and heir. Monarchy in our world has become a decorative optional extra, and sometimes one that seems to get in the way of progress; we need to ask ourselves whether our speaking and singing of God in monarchical terms may be having a similar effect on spiritual development.