There is sometimes a tendency to equate the kingdom of God with a particular nation or religious institution, as if any such society could embody the reign of God completely. While it is true that we are called to participate in building the kingdom of God in this world, and to reflect God’s sovereignty in our lives, no nation, synagogue or church is equivalent to God’s kingdom.
And yet, from various passages of Scripture, sometimes taken out of context, we might understand the confusion. One such example can be found in how Israel came to understand (and sometimes misunderstand) itself and its relationship to God.
God’s words to the Hebrews after being liberated from Egyptian slavery must have sounded too good to be true: “If you obey me completely and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession among all peoples, though all the earth is mine. You will be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).
A ragged group of hungry people wandering in the desert does not sound like the basis of a nation, holy or otherwise. And yet, they soon settled in Canaan, set up shrines to God and divided the land among their tribes.
It was not long before the tribal federation became a monarchy, a point of dismay for those who felt they were abandoning their reliance on God (Judges 8; 1 Samuel 7:3–8:22; 10:17-27; 12), and a fulfilled hope for those who believed Israel’s monarchy exemplified God’s rule (1 Samuel 9:15?10:8; 11; 2 Samuel 7:8-16).
King David (1000-962 B.C.) embodied for Israel the very reign of God in their midst, not because of his own moral perfection — he was far from sinless — but because of God’s promise to him, and through him, to his people (See I Chronicles 17 and 2 Samuel 7). Psalm 89 captures this intimacy beautifully: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: I will make your dynasty to stand forever and establish your throne through all ages.”
However, a united Israel lasted less than a century, and as superpowers of the region conquered the northern kingdom, and then the southern kingdom, God’s people surely struggled. How were they to understand God’s promise when the Davidic dynasty was in ruins and the kingdom that was Israel, and then Judah, had all but collapsed?
Far from abandoning his promise, God was fine tuning what the people understood.
The Hebrew prophets ministered to God’s people during the monarchy, after its demise when Israel and Judah were in exile, and upon the return of a remnant from exile. Their role was to speak for God — to offer an honest assessment and condemnation of the people’s sinfulness and their leaders’ corruption, and to issue a call to return to God’s covenant love. Their words are as meaningful today as they were centuries ago.
The prophets dared to speak about justice for the oppressed; they described worship that was singularly focused on the God who creates and liberates. The prophets made it clear that God would not be confined by preconceived ideas of who is in and who is out, and could not be expected to prop up their corrupt political system.
When Jesus appeared on the scene, many in Judah assumed if he was God’s anointed he would restore the throne of David in a literal way. He would clear the land of Roman armies and political figureheads or rebuild the temple in all its grandeur, or both. None of this happened, but the kingdom of God was, and is, nonetheless real.
God’s kingdom grows with each act of mercy, every attempt to obliterate poverty and hatred, and in all efforts to recognize human dignity.
Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith.
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