Theology is discourse concerning God: God in his being, attributes, persons, and works; God and all things in relation to God, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things (Rom 11:36). The principal subject matter of Christian theology has a proper name, “Yhwh,” which is the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). The fundamental claim of Christian theology regarding its principal subject matter is “Yhwh reigns.” This fundamental claim at once identifies God as king and describes the nature of his relation to all that is not God. Christian theology in its breadth and length and height and depth is one long commentary on the claim that the Lord reigns, a commentary designed to aid the church’s own varied expressions of this claim in prayer, proclamation, and praise.
Christian theology in the 20th century was not always eager to affirm God’s regal status. In many instances, in fact, Christian theology sought to deconstruct the claim that the Lord reigns. The deconstruction of the “royal metaphor” (what its critics called it) was central to the revision of “classical theism” (a label also invented by critics of traditional Christian teaching concerning God). Critics of this teaching offered a number of reasons for rejecting or redefining the royal metaphor. It was, they claimed, rooted in antiquated pre-modern approaches to biblical interpretation. It contradicted modern scientific understanding of the nature of the universe. It provided warrant for numerous forms of tyranny and oppression. This picture of the God-world relation, its critics argued, had held the church captive far too long. A Christian theology come of age and alert to the requisites of human flourishing needed to abandon the royal metaphor in favor of a more wholesome and humane conception of God. As a result of this critical judgment, the story of 20th century theology was, in large measure, the story of more or less revisionist proposals regarding the doctrine of God.
The purpose of the present article is not to address modern criticisms of traditional Christian teaching, at least not directly. I mention these criticisms only to observe that the critics were right about one thing: traditional Christian teaching about God is tied intrinsically to the royal metaphor, the claim that Yhwh, the triune God, reigns. Accordingly, any attempt to retrieve classical Christian teaching about God must not only retrieve the scriptural foundations of such teaching. It must also retrieve the form that scriptural teaching takes, i.e., the glad tidings of the Lord’s reign (Isa 52:7).
The central theme of Book Four of the Psalms (Psalms 90-106) is the kingship of Yhwh. These psalms are therefore an instructive place to begin in considering the scriptural portrayal of divine kingship. Psalm 93, the first instance of the claim, Yhwh mlk, “the Lord is king/the Lord reigns,” in Psalms 90-106, provides a helpful entryway into this portion of Scripture and this article of Christian teaching.
Psalm 93:1 opens with the announcement, “The Lord is king,” “The Lord reigns.” The psalm expounds the significance of this announcement in three phases. First, Psalm 93:1-2 grounds the enduring stability of the world in the divine king’s eternal being and transcendent power. Second, Psalm 93:3-4 considers creational sources of opposition to the Lord’s kingship–the mighty floods–only to conclude that creaturely opponents to God’s reign pose no ultimate threat. Third, Psalm 93:5 acclaims the enduring stability of God’s “testimonies” and God’s “house,” two central privileges enjoyed by the divine king’s covenant people.
(1) Ps 93:1-2. The first section of Psalm 93 begins with praise of the divine king’s transcendent power, drawing on the imagery of an Ancient Near Eastern king’s royal attire: the Lord “is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt” (Ps 93:1). The section concludes with praise of the divine king’s eternal being: “you are from everlasting” (Ps 93:2; cf. Pss 90:2, 4; 102:24-26). According to the middle frame of this section, the divine king’s eternal being and transcendent power are the source of the world’s enduring stability. Because God the eternal, almighty king reigns, “The world is established; it shall never be moved” (Ps 93:1). Moreover, the psalmist expresses further confidence that the world will stand secure in the future because God’s reign stands uncontested since the beginning of creation, when God established his throne in the heavens: “Your throne is established from of old” (Ps 93:2; cf. Pss 103:19; 104:3).
(2) Ps 93:3-4. The second section of Psalm 93 alerts us to the presence of would-be challengers to the Lord’s reign and, by implication, to the security of his creatures: “The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their roaring.” With what seems to be an allusion to the events of the exodus, when the Lord delivered his people through the Red Sea (see Exod 15:5, 8, 10), the psalmist raises the real possibility of chaotic opposition to God’s sovereign reign only to guarantee the certainty of that oppositions’ failure in the face of the Lord’s transcendent power: “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty” (Ps 93:4). Though not unopposed, the Lord’s reign remains uncontested because of his transcendent might.
(3) Ps 93:5. Having described the enduring stability of creation, and having foredoomed all would-be opponents in view of the divine king’s eternal being and transcendent power, the third and final section of Psalm 93 considers the enduring stability of the Lord’s “testimonies” and the Lord’s “house.” The Lord’s testimonies (or “covenant stipulations,” according to Daniel Block) and the Lord’s house are two central privileges that the Lord’s people enjoy by virtue of his covenant (cf. Pss 114:2; 147:19-20). The testimonies of the Lord are “exceedingly trustworthy.” The Lord’s house is bedecked with holiness, literally, “lovely with holiness,” for all times (cf. Ps 84:1). Like the enduring stability of creation (Ps 93:1), the law’s trustworthiness is an expression of the Lord’s eternal and unchanging character (cf. Ps 89:37, which places “trustworthiness” in parallel with “being established”). In similar fashion, the abiding beauty of the Lord’s house reflects the eternal majesty and beauty of the divine king who dwells therein, a cause for joy and trembling (cf. Pss 2:11; 99:1-3).
The preceding observations provide an instructive foundation for thinking more fully through the biblical claim that God is king. They are also suggestive for how one might address recent criticisms of the royal metaphor. Four brief thoughts follow.
First, the claim, Yhwh mlk, identifies God in terms of his relation to that which is not God. In Psalm 93 alone, this relation offers a perspective capacious enough for thinking about topics as diverse as God’s being and attributes, creation and providence, redemption (exodus), and sanctification (law and temple). Divine kingship provides a framework broad enough for thinking about God’s relation to creation as a whole (as universal suzerain) and intimate enough for thinking about God’s relation to his people (as covenant Lord).
Second, the royal metaphor is also suggestive for thinking about the distinction between God and all that is not God. While God’s throne symbolizes the nature of God’s sovereign relation to creation in its entirety, Psalm 93 teaches us to distinguish God himself from God’s throne. The eternal and almighty Lord is the source of creation and its stability (Ps 93:1). He is also the source of his stable, sovereign relation to creation, a relation represented by his throne (Ps 93:2). But God himself has no source, no origin story. He is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Pss 90:2; 93:2). According to Psalms 90-106, Yhwh is eternal, without beginning or end, the self-same Lord (Pss 90:2; 93:2; 102:24-26). Which leads to our next observation.
Third, and furthermore, while Psalm 93 celebrates the correspondence that obtains between the divine king and his creaturely kingdom (i.e., he is eternal and almighty; creation is abiding and secure), this correspondence manifests the even greater, categorical dissimilarity of the eternal God and temporal creatures. The abiding stability that characterizes the Lord’s throne in heaven, the world below, and God’s house in Zion is not intrinsic to those created realities. As Psalms 102 and 104 proclaim at more extensive length, the being, activity, and fullness of all creatures depend wholly on God’s creative and providential agency. The abiding stability of creatures is a wholly derived, a wholly received stability. Book Four of the Psalms promotes Israel’s confidence and hope in the divine king and his covenant commitments by emphasizing the radical ontological dissimilarity of God and creatures at precisely this point: though creation is intrinsically unstable, the Lord who rules creation, and who remembers his covenant promises (cf. Pss 98:3; 103:17-19; 105:8; 106:45), is wholly underived, eternal, and unchanging. “The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him” (Ps 103:17); and it is so because it is the steadfast love of the Lord. The underived, eternal, and unchanging being of God is the ontological foundation of kingdom and covenant amid the vicissitudes of all creaturely frailty and change.
Fourth, contrary to the worries of many modern critics of the royal metaphor, the divine king’s power is not a threat to creatures. Not only is divine power the source of the creature’s being and flourishing (Pss 93:1-2; 104). The same divine power that causes creatures to be and that blesses them in their various endeavors is also what empowers creaturely agents to work with God under God for the common good and for God’s glory (see Ps 104:1, 14-15, 31, 34). God’s transcendent power is not inherently contrastive or competitive with creaturely power. As Psalm 93:4 indicates, and as Psalms 90-106 more fully attest, divine power is only a threat to creatures that rebel against God’s reign and that represent a threat to God’s people (Pss 90:3-11; 97:7; 105:12-15, 28-37; 106:6ff). But, according to Book Four of the Psalms, it is precisely in addressing the perils brought upon his people due to their sins and the sins of others, that the divine king reveals his transcendent, saving power and righteousness judgments in the sight of the nations, causing them to despair of their idols and to rejoice, like fruitful, well-watered trees, under the Lord’s universal reign of righteousness and equity (see Pss 92; 96; 97; 98; 99). The revelation of the Lord’s righteous, saving power and his enthronement over all things (cf. Rom 1:16-17), far from being a threat to creatures, even sinful creatures, is the sole cause for universal praise: “The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. Let them praise your great and awesome name! Holy is he!” (Ps 99:2-3).