Cross & Kingdom : The Prequel
When Jesus came talking about the kingdom of God, this wasn’t a term he’d made up or pulled out of the air. He was a Jew and anticipation of the kingdom was the bread and butter of first century Jewish hope. By this time, they had been under foreign occupation for centuries. It started with the Assyrians in the north, who gave way to Babylon, who gave way to Persia, who gave way to Greece and the Syrians and the Eqyptians. For a short period of time, Judah experienced the freedom of the Hasmonean dynasty, which quickly gave way to a brutal Roman occupation.
Generations before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Old Testament prophets began speaking out of this context of occupation, telling stories about how God will someday do a new thing. Isaiah, for instance, has this motif that shows up several times in his prophecies. It begins with a concoction of evil, inept and deeply flawed kings running things their way. For instance, look at Isaiah 36–40.
In 36, Isaiah starts to tell a story that involves two kings. One is the emperor of Assyria. He has swept through Judah with a massive army and is now camped out around the walls of Jerusalem. This guy is a bad dude. The second king is Hezekiah. By all counts, Hezekiah is a good king who sincerely wants to do what pleases God.
So, Isaiah says the Assyrian king is laying seige to Jerusalem and he sends a letter to Hezekiah. It says, “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD by saying, ‘The LORD will surely deliver us. This city will not be delivered into the hands of the king of Assyria.’ Do not listen to Hezekiah … Beware lest Hezekiah misleads you by saying, ‘The LORD will deliver us.’ Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? … Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” (Isaiah 36)
That’s the king of Assyria.
By all counts, Hezekiah was a good king and he has some shining moments in Isaiah’s story. When threatened by the king of Assyria, he goes to God in prayer and faith and God delivers Jerusalem from the invaders. Yet, as good a guy as Hezekiah was, the narrative ends on a dark note. Toward the end of his life, Hezekiah strikes up an alliance with the up and coming Babylonian power. Isaiah tells Hezekiah his failure to trust God here opened a path to Judah that would only lead to destruction and exile. His response? “Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days’” (Isaiah 39:8).
This is how the major turning point in Isaiah ends. On the one hand, you have the wickedness of the Assyrian king. On the other, you have Hezekiah who, even though he was a faithful king, still managed to open the door to one of the darkest periods in Judah’s history. We might also add the Babylonians, who only get brief mention but foreshadow grief and violence for God’s people. The story told between these three kingdoms are indactive of the way things go in our world. Even in our best efforts at doing things right, we often get it horribly wrong.
Beginning with the very next verse, with Isaiah 40:1, Isaiah begins to paint a startling contrast to the narrative of chapters 36–39. Where the former ends with death, destruction, and exile, Isaiah begins, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sin.”
Death, destruction, pain, suffering, and exile are replaced with comfort. Isaiah says Israel’s “warfare has ended.” How? Why? In the face of powers like Assyria and Babylon, in light of the inept administrations of kings like Hezekiah, how could one ever hope for this?
Isaiah continues: “A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken … Go up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength. O Jerusalem, herald of good news, lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah: ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him … He will tend his flock like a shepherd …” (40:3–11).
Against the evil, failures, and faithlessness of the administrations of humankind, Isaiah speaks comfort because God is coming! And when he comes, he will come to reign himself as king. Where even good kings like Hezekiah got it wrong, Isaiah says God is coming to get it right. In fact, this is the central theme of the remaining 26 chapters of Isaiah.
God is coming as king!
When God came to establish his rule, the prophets continued, he would set the world to rights. In some passages, God would restore Israel, but in others, he would overcome all evil and restore all of creation to himself.
In one of my favorite Old Testament texts, Isaiah writes, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor …” (Isaiah 61:1–2a). From there, he goes on to describe in powerful imagery how God would restore his people, healing them from all the hurts they had suffered.
In another, Isaiah talks about a coming time when even Israel’s enemies will come to the LORD. He says, “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day, Israel will be a third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt, my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance’” (Isaiah 19:23–24).
By the time Isaiah is done, he paints a stunning vision of “new heavens and a new earth” (cf. Isaiah 65).
In various ways, this is the story the Old Testament prophets began telling out of the brokenness of empire. As we’ve already noted, by the time Jesus comes, the Jews had been victim to the broken and evil and faithless empires of their day for centuries. Everything that remains from that time period suggests these prophetic stories loomed large in the Jewish consciousness. They longed for God to come do what he promised to do through the prophets, for him to set the world aright, for him to come as king. When Jesus began his ministry, announcing the arriving of the “kingdom of God,” many Jews had taken up a refrain rooted in a hope driven by the prophetic vision of Isaiah and the others. Their cry was, “No king but God!”
But, what do we mean by that term “the kingdom of God”? More, what would it have meant when Jesus used it? I’m trying to keep all this in manageable chunks, so let’s leave off here and we’ll address that question in the next installment of this series.